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?

Like a Girl

“A boy at school challenged Sydney to a pullup contest the other day. Results: Sydney 14, boy 0. Thank you gymnastics!”

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Miss Sydney Barfield, 7-year-old rock star.

This was a Facebook post today from a friend of mine, Luke Barfield. Luke and his wife, Trisha, own Colorado Aerials East gym, and watching them cultivate their own club, sharing their special brand of positivity with new generations of gymnasts has been amazing to watch. But this post isn’t about that. Sydney is Luke’s daughter, a bright 7-year-old who will be competing her first gymnastics season next spring on their Xcel team. And this day, the day she crushed some over-confident boy at school who assumed she wouldn’t be stronger than him by virtue of the fact that she’s a girl, will stay with her forever.

One of the greatest gifts gymnastics gave me was a supreme confidence in my abilities as a girl. Having talked about this topic with several of my girlfriends who were also gymnasts, I know they feel the same. Being a girl is hard, and to me it feels like only recently have we tried to look at why.

Always, a company that certainly knows a thing or two about being a girl, recently started a campaign to turn the tables on the age-old insult “like a girl,” hoping to show girls that doing something like a girl is empowering, not demeaning. When I was in elementary school (and middle school, actually) the Presidential Fitness Test was still the yearly bane of most kids’ existence. I, on the other hand, loved the day we had to do this dreaded test. Sit-ups, shuttle run, a pike reach, mile run, and pull-ups. Every year, without fail, a boy in my class would bet me I couldn’t do more pull-ups than him. Every year, that boy was put to shame. Thank you gymnastics, indeed.

As far as I know, they no longer keep track of these things at schools, but as of high school, I still held the record for pull-ups at my elementary school. I set that record in first grade. It gave me a confidence in my abilities that has yet to leave me. (I also have an absurdly competitive nature, so thanks for that, too, Dad.) My husband is a bit of a fitness buff himself, has been his whole life, and he still recalls being beat by Jamie McCalley at pull-ups in elementary school. She was the only person, and a girl to boot, who could beat him (ironically, Jamie was a teammate of mine at the time). As a boy, it taught him not to underestimate a girl’s strength just because she looks a certain way, or just because she’s a girl.

My mom was recently working with a group of high school boys on acrobatics for a stage production she helps to produce. They were at the gym, training to do aerial straps, and the boys couldn’t help but watch the tiny, little team girls climbing the rope all the way up to the ceiling while holding their legs in a pike to the side of the rope. None of them could do it even using their feet.

Girls are fierce and girls are capable and girls are strong. Gymnastics teaches its participants these facts at an early age, simply because it’s a requirement. You can’t physically do gymnastics without being able to hold your own body weight on your hands, or pull it up to a bar, or whip it over your head. If you are a gymnast, you are strong, and you know it. That knowledge, especially as an adolescent girl, makes you carry yourself differently. It helps you hold your head a little higher in the halls at school, it makes you grin at the thought of any strength challenge in P.E., it gives you the absolute knowledge that you are just as capable as any boy your age. It’s priceless and that knowledge of what you’re capable of never leaves you.

Recently Kacy Catanzaro made headlines across the country for being the first woman to complete the qualifying round of American Ninja Warrior, a physical fitness challenge that undeniably favors tall men with superior upper body strength. She wanted to prove to everyone that women shouldn’t be counted out of a challenge that clearly isn’t in their favor. Unsurprisingly, Kacy used to be a gymnast.

Gymnastics gives you a physical and mental strength that will give you confidence in the years when it’s hardest to find. It will teach you that being a girl means being fast, being strong, being capable of any challenge. So yes, thank you, gymnastics.

Tell me, what are you proud of doing like a girl?

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.