Jitters, butterflies, and nerves, oh my.

Colorado Aerials level 5 gymnasts. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.

The beginning of fall means the beginning of gymnastics compulsory season. Compulsories are the first levels of competitive gymnastics, named such because every gymnast does the same routines, the same skills. For spectators this means you’ll be listening to the same floor music over and over and over again. For the gymnasts it means they’re doing the exact same routine as the girl before and after them, so you have to make it look better than they did if you want to score higher. It can be challenging, especially if you’re brand new to it. Mostly, though, it’s very exciting.

I still remember my first meet with startling detail considering it was 22 years ago. My gym has a policy of training one level ahead of what you’re competing. At the time, I was pre-team (we were called gymstars) and we learned the level 5 routines so that when we moved up to level 5 we were beyond prepared. There were a few of us who were ready to move up a little early, so they had us compete in a couple level 5 meets as gymstars. Now, as the owners’/coach’s kid there was always a little extra pressure on me. Never pressure to win (my parents were the opposite of those gym parents, despite their careers), but pressure to prove I deserved to be at whatever level I was. Truthfully, I think most gymnasts feel this pressure. No one wants to be moved up a level just to bomb a whole season.

My first meet also happened to be Pike’s Peak Cup, which happens to be my club’s host meet. It’s still one of the bigger invitational meets to this day (and a Nastia Cup qualifier) and attracts clubs from all over North America. Needless to say, I was feeling the nerves. And it showed. I vividly remember tripping on my squat-on on bars (a move where you simply put your feet on the low bar to jump to the high bar) and face planting. Uneven bars and I ended up having a very antagonistic relationship throughout my gymnastics career — hilariously ironic if you know anything about my dad. I also forgot an entire pass of my beam routine, which means I pretty much skipped half the elements I was required to do. Needless to say, it was not my best meet (still not my worst, but that’s a story for another day). But it was an excellent introduction to competition. The inevitable butterflies before you mount beam, the crushing disappointment when the entire audience watched you land on your face (they didn’t, only a few people saw it, surely, but it feels like everyone). It was an experience I fell in love with, a love that never diminished in my years in the sport, and one that I still miss today.

Gymnastics is a tough sport to choose to compete in. It requires a level of perfection that very few sports can compare. It’s not like any team sport where even if you have a bad game, your teammates can make it up for you or vice versa. The pressure is all on you because no one can do your beam routine for you. It’s remembering to point your toes and keep your head in and squeeze your legs together and push tall through your shoulders, all at the same time. And that’s just for one skill, three seconds of your minute and a half floor routine.

You, brand new compulsory parent, are in for a roller coaster of emotions and experiences with your daughter. There are going to be meets that make you wonder what the heck she has been doing all this time at practice because surely she knows how to keep her legs straight. There are going meets when she’s so nervous that you’re convinced this level of anxiety can’t be healthy. But then, there will be meets where you see her reach the podium, or finally stick that beam routine, and nothing will beat the smile on her face or the enormous boost of self-confidence that can provide. And in the end, that’s what the sport is really all about.

So if your daughter or granddaughter or friend is feeling extra anxious this compulsory season, don’t try to diminish her worries. Be supportive — wrap that extra tight ponytail into extra tight spiral curls, ply her with enough Gatorade and PowerBars to last a month in the wild (or don’t; to this day I can’t eat a PowerBar without wanting to gag). Be happy for her no matter how she competes — no one is more disappointed than she is that she fell three times on beam, after all she’s the one who has put in the hours at practice. Mostly, just be there (even if it means not actually being at the meet because oh my gosh grandma your presence makes me eight hundred times more nervous). In the end your support, whether physical or emotional, will mean everything to her.

Tell me, how do you help your gymnast prepare for meets? Answer in the comments below.

Listening to the national anthem before the competition begins. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.

Listening to the national anthem before the competition begins. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.

The Elephant in the Room

If you’re wondering what on earth the elephant in the room could possibly be when all you did was sign your child up for recreational gymnastics, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Truthfully, you have no idea there is an elephant. But there is. And your coaches know it. Here’s the thing, your daughter will probably never be a competitive gymnast.

What?!? You gasp. But she loves it and we’ve spent all this money for so many sessions of classes! Yes, you have and she is improving and it is wonderful and we (your coaches) are beyond thrilled to hear that. Now hear this, 4% of children who do recreational gymnastics go on to compete at any level. Any level. Not just the top. 4% is a very small margin. And from that 4% only .0625% go on to be elites (the level of gymnasts you see on TV). That is one sixteenth of a percent. I can’t even do the math to determine the percentage of kids from the original pool of recreational gymnasts who go on to become elite gymnasts. (No really, I’m terrible at math, couldn’t begin to calculate that.)

Why am I telling you this? Well, aside from the fact that these are the truths about our magnificent sport, a lot of times we, as parents, need a bit of a reality check. We all believe our children can grow up to be whatever they want. While this is true, and a lot of kids will become competitive gymnasts, it’s best not to set yourself up with an unrealistic expectation. It’s hard to do, I know. My boys play soccer. Do I dream that they will become the next Cristiano Ronaldo (while maybe wearing a bit more clothing in their endorsement deals)? Yes, I do. But I spend most of my time shouting from the sidelines to “Just kick the ball! No, towards the other goal, son!” Future Beckhams they are not. And that’s okay, because soccer is a wonderful sport for teaching a lot of developmental milestones.

Gymnastics is the same (only better) and keeping your child in gymnastics will start them off with an amazing foundation for athletics in general. Gymnastics, even at the recreational level, teaches spatial awareness, balance, problem solving, self-discipline, overcoming fear…the benefits are endless. Many pro athletes use gymnastics as cross training because the muscle development and skills it requires at the most basic level are unbeatable.

The things your child is doing in her tiny tumbler or shooting stars or gymtyke (we have the greatest class names) class is growing her mind and body in ways you can’t duplicate elsewhere. Ralph R. Barrett even wrote an article (Does Gymnastics Enhance Reading? Yes!) using scientific research that proves gymnastics, even at a preschool level, helps enhance reading. Reading! Recreational gymnastics is making your child a better reader while simultaneously making her stronger and more coordinated. Who could ask for more?

My point is this, your child may not ever be a competitive gymnast, but the skills she develops during her time as a gymnast will stay with her forever. Keep at it. Someday you might have the privilege of spending your too-short weekend in a gym listening to the same floor music over and over and over (compulsory gymnast parents, you feel me), or you may watch your kid excel at something else, knowing you helped them get there on the fateful day you decided to give this gymnastics thing a shot.

So you’ve signed your child up for gymnastics…now what?

Chances are you’ve been dealing with a little ball of energy at home who has turned every piece of furniture into gymnastics equipment. Solution: sign said ball of energy up for gymnastics. Well done, you have immediately set your child up for a successful athletic foundation. Unfortunately, your furniture will not cease to be used as a trampoline/vault/bar/other imaginative repurposing of a couch.

It struck me, when my sister-in-law recently enrolled my two nieces in gymnastics at their insistence, that very few parents know what to do next. What is obvious to those of us involved in the gymnastics world is not obvious to, well, anyone else. Here are a few very, very basic nuggets of wisdom:

What to wear: Do not run out and buy your daughter a leotard if you don’t want to. She will be perfectly fine wearing shorts and a t-shirt or tank top, which is what your son should wear should you (like me) be blessed with a y chromosome to dress. Clothes should not be too baggy, as they will get in the way, and you don’t want anything that will go over your child’s head when they are upside down.

Manage your expectations: Do not expect your child to know what on earth is going on the first day in class. Chances are some of the children in class have been doing gymnastics for a few sessions already; your child is not behind the curve, she will catch up. Gymnastics is unlike any other sport your child may or may not be participating in. Very little about gymnastics is innate, so give them (and yourself) plenty of time to make heads or tails about flipping your body over and around things.

Encourage your child: It’s important to acknowledge that encouraging your child is not the same as coaching your child. Encourage Isabella Wunderkind to have fun; ask her what her favorite part of class was; invite her to show you a new trick she learned; tell her that her cartwheels looked great (at least you think that weird, bent, ball rolling thing was supposed to be a cartwheel). The urge to coach your child (“You should try to straighten your legs when you…”) is strong; ignore it, please.

Do it again: Odds are you’re used to sports with a very specific season. My sons are getting ready to start fall soccer. It’s a very distinct eight weeks of soccer before Colorado is overcome with snow (boo). There are no seasons in gymnastics. When you compete you have competition season (which varies depending on level), and the rest of the year is your training season. It’s a year-round sport. So what do you do when your eight (or however many) week session ends? You sign up for another, because you won’t see the many benefits gymnastics has to offer your child (which I have many posts planned to outline) with just one session. Stick with it, for as long as you and your child are willing. It will pay off, I promise.