How to Coach Your Gymnast at Home

The holidays are coming up, which means more time at home, maybe purchasing that floor beam or mat that your gymnast has been begging you for, and being asked to watch whatever skill they may or may not be learning on your new home equipment. Or maybe you’ve just watched practice a few times and you know their legs are supposed to be straight on that layout on trampoline (which you conveniently have in your backyard). Your daughter always struggles to point her toes on [insert any number of skills here], and it’s an easy fix, right?

Your gymnast does gymnastics at home. All the time. In every room. And you’ve watched enough gymnastics to know that certain things she’s doing are incorrect. So how do you make these corrections at home? You don’t. Let me repeat that. Do. Not. Coach. Your. Child. At. Home. Nothing will make your child’s coach cringe internally more than hearing that you worked on x, y, or z at home. You are not her coach. Don’t do it. Don’t even tell her to point her toes.

The bottom line is that gymnastics is your daughter’s (or son’s) sport. She puts in the work at practice, she feels the pressure at every competition, and all those little mistakes you see that you’re sure you could fix if they’re so obvious even you see them? Yeah, her coach is trying to fix them. I promise. Being a gym mom or dad does not qualify you as a coach at home.

I would know because my own parents were, in fact, elite gymnastics coaches at the same time I was making my way through the optionals program at our gym. In fact, if you followed gymnastics in the 90s, you’ve probably heard of my parents, Tom and Lori Forster. They had gymnasts on World teams, Pan American teams, winning the American Cup, the first alternate to the ’96 Olympic team; they were interviewed on 60 Minutes, had an article about them and one of their gymnasts in Vanity Fair, and those are only the things I remember. What I’m telling you is that my parents were possibly the most qualified parents in the world to coach me at home. We had a trampoline in our backyard. It would have been so easy to have me do a few drills to help with my tumbling.

My dad is currently one of the top uneven bar coaches in the country. Gymnastics clubs and competitive regions fly him all over to give lectures to their coaches about how to coach bars. Do you know whose worst event was bars? Me. Because despite having one of the most excellent coaches on the planet at my disposal (in my home, no less), I could not swing bars. It took me three years to learn a blind change (don’t worry if you have no idea what that is, just know that it should not take three years to learn. It shouldn’t take one, honestly).

Do you know how many times my parents offered to work with me at home? Zero. I didn’t do conditioning at home, I didn’t stretch at home unless I was feeling weirdly motivated all on my own while I watched TV, the trampoline in our yard was used for sleepovers and games of add-on with my friends. My mom and dad never put on their uber-qualified coaches’ hats at home. And I loved them dearly for it.

Me and my longtime coach, Jason. We started our coach/athlete adventure together when I was a nine-year-old level 6. He coached me through level 10 and all those crazy pre-teen/teenage years. I owe him a lot thanks to the trust my parents put in him.

Me and my longtime coach, Jason. We started our coach/athlete adventure together when I was a nine-year-old level 6. He coached me through level 10 and all those crazy pre-teen/teenage years. I owe him a lot thanks to the trust my parents put in him. (Also the same coach who saved my life in that unfortunate vault incident I mentioned in an earlier post.)

Gymnastics, despite being my own family’s very livelihood, was always my own. Every pointed toe, straightened leg, stuck beam routine, hard-fought bar workout was thanks to my own drive and the dedication of some very wonderful coaches (I would nominate Jason for sainthood if I could). Did my parents coach me at the gym? Yes, whenever they were coaching my entire team. I was never given preferential treatment (unless you count being the guinea pig for teaching coaches how to spot, which I don’t because it’s terrifying). As a result, I was able to take full ownership of my gymnastics. And my parents were able to sit back and enjoy my sport as spectators in a way they never could otherwise. They had no claim on my performance because they recognized that it was mine.

It’s hard to do. As parents we want our children to excel and when we feel we can help them, it’s in our nature to offer that help. I’m sure my own parents struggled with it. How could they not have? But I also know that if they had taken me aside and worked on their own agenda with my sport, they would have undermined my coaches and my own drive to be the best I could. I would wonder when my coach gave me a correction if my parents would have given the same correction. I would have worried that I disappointed them if I made a mistake that they had specifically fixed at home. It would have very slowly chipped away at the joy I found in my sport.

My parents loved watching me do gymnastics because I loved it, not because I was the best. Not because I was great at it, but because they loved me enough to let me have it for myself. So, parents, every time you find yourself wanting to make a correction or work on a drill you’ve seen that you could easily do at home, stop yourself and remember that even if you’re the most qualified parent in the world, you cannot love your child’s sport for them.

-Asha Forster Grebenik

Just another gymnastics meet. Or is it?

Compulsory season is well under way. Even if this is your first season on the competitive scene, you’re probably a pro at spending four hours at a gymnastics club to watch your daughter for a total of maybe five minutes of gymnastics. (It’s sounds awful, but it’s weirdly exciting, isn’t it? It is, you know it is.) You have the snacks, the cushions to sit on, the prepared answer when she inevitably asks for a new leotard or t-shirt or gym bag that’s on display. You are old hat at this.

Well, in case you didn’t know, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes (actually it’s right in front of you because it’s a completely open gymnasium, you just don’t know it’s happening). Every meet is a brand new situation and no matter how hard your coaches try to prepare your daughter for every possibility, there are always variables you, as the parent, will never see.

As a coach, showing up at a meet means being prepared to think on your feet, make split-second decisions, and handle every possible outcome with your athletes and team. For starters, there is determining the line-up. Yes, even gymnastics has a line-up. Every gym does this differently, but at ours I know that the first kid up on each event is the most consistent, steady gymnast they’ve got. It’s a huge compliment to be put first because it means the coaches trust you enough to hit your routine and lay the groundwork for your teammates. But what if your most consistent gymnast had a terrible warm up? Or had a really rough week at practice? Who do you put first? Do you trust that she’ll handle the pressure when the time comes or do you pass that torch to someone else?

Next comes the equipment. Most people who have never participated in the sport don’t give much thought to the equipment the girls compete on. Trust me, the gymnasts do. Every gymnast is used to the way the floor bounces at her gym. The bars are chalked up just the way she’s used to on her home turf. And sure every beam is four inches wide, but there is always that meet with that beam she could swear is only 3-and-a-half inches wide… and why on earth is it bouncy?

It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but these tiny factors can have a huge impact on your daughter’s meet. Would you like my own personal, embarrassing ‘for example’? When I was competing the vault was not that nice, tongue-shaped tabletop you see today. It was a horse, much like the men’s pommel horse still is today minus the bars on top. Vault was one of my better events, I never worried about it too much, until we showed up at a meet in Arizona. For whatever reason, the host gym had entirely Spieth Anderson equipment, and SA equipment in those days was made of cloth instead of leather. My brain immediately went “cloth=slippery=nope.”

I was a level 9, vault was our first event, and I did not manage a single practice vault that did not land on my face. Naturally, my grandparents had driven all the way from Colorado and brought along a family friend to witness this equipment freak out. Competition began and it was not pretty. Jason, my saint-like coach, decided it would be wise to stand there for my vault in case he needed to save my life (a split-second decision I was grateful for later), something he’d never needed to do in a meet before. My vault was a tsukahara (you don’t need to know what that is, just know it involves a back flip). I landed the first one on my face after my hands slid off the vault the same second they touched it. My second vault was worse considering I missed my hands entirely and I’m pretty sure Jason was the only reason I even made it to my face instead of the top of my head. It was ugly. So ugly I got a zero and the judges actually apologized to me. Apologized. (I’ve never heard of that happening before.) Because your skill does not count as a skill if your head lands before your feet. Oh. Right.

I’d like to say the meet improved from there, but it really didn’t. The bars were slick, causing myself and a lot of my teammates to peel off on our dismounts, and floor was just a total disaster (I left both copies of my floor music at the hotel like a champ). I don’t actually remember beam, but I do remember that my gymnastics club didn’t return to a meet in Arizona for at least a decade. (I’m not even kidding.)

My point is this, there’s a lot going on at a meet, and a whole lot of nerves on top of it. Gymnasts are superstitious, and creatures of habit, and the smallest things can throw off an entire meet. It doesn’t always make sense (a cloth vault should not a disaster make), but it’s reality for your gymnast and her coaches. A certain brand of equipment will throw her off kilter, a certain judge will always make her extra nervous, competing right after a certain teammate will make her doubt herself. These are the minutiae of gymnastics and, for better or worse, we love it. So take every meet as it comes, knowing there’s always the next meet to fix a botched one, or even a next season to redeem herself.

Learning to compete well takes time; help your gymnast enjoy it by enjoying the spectacle as a parent. And it’s okay to laugh when your daughter completely forgets to salute the judge and has to run back onto the floor to do it.

Me, as a level 9. Just to complete the embarrassment.

Me, as a level 9. Just to complete the embarrassment.

What has surprised you the most about this competition season?