Guest Blog: Advice to Gym Parents, by Darrin Steele

Darrin_Steele2Today’s guest blogger is Darrin Steele. He recently sent an email to the owner of the gymnastics club his daughter, Kalyany, trains at sharing his insights and thoughts as a parent in the brilliant sport we call gymnastics. While his thoughts are particular to Aerials, they are truly universal and could apply to any trustworthy club.

Darrin Steele is a two-time Olympic bobsledder. He was part of a four man bobsled in the 1998 Olympics and a two man bobsled in 2002. He has been the CEO of the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation since 2007 and is also involved with Autism Speaks and Project Play. 

With his Olympic background and his daughter now competing at the elite level, here are the thoughts he would share with any new gym parent, but I think they are valuable to any parent of an athlete.


  1. Relax about move-ups.

Success at one level doesn’t automatically mean a gymnast is ready to advance to the next level. Aerials does a fantastic job of ensuring that their gymnasts have the essential fundamentals necessary to safely advance to more difficult skills. Every time I see a level 9 or 10 from other clubs perform difficult skills with poor technique, I appreciate the Aerials process. A few years ago I learned about a girl who landed on her head during a bar routine and became paralyzed. That is one of the risks gymnasts face and the greatest fear for us parents. The one thing that helps me sleep at night when it comes to that fear is the unwavering commitment Aerials makes advancing girls only when they are ready.

Kalyany did not move up to level 5 (now level 4) with the other girls even though I thought she was more than ready. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that allowed her the experience of being one of the top girls at her level. It helped her confidence and allowed her to be a leader for the first time. In hindsight, being held back was one of the best things that ever happened to her. She eventually moved past every one of the girls who moved up before her. This sport is a marathon, not a sprint.


  1. Be a parent of a girl who does gymnastics, not a gym-parent of a gymnast.

Identity matters. Research shows that the more a girl identifies as a gymnast, the higher her likelihood of her burning out. Gymnastics is what she does, not who she is. Make sure she has other areas of focus. Those other areas will be crucial when she deals with injuries or set-backs, and they all deal with those from time to time.

A parent of a girl who does gymnastics is proud of her commitment, sacrifices and work ethic. Gym-parents have their identities connected to the success of their gymnast. Research shows that when parents emphasize competition success, the athlete is more likely to lose enjoyment, become averse to competing and will be more likely to drop out of the sport prematurely. When a gymnast performs poorly and looks out at her parents’ faces in the crowd, she is seeking comfort from her disappointment. If she sees that her parents are devastated, she will get the message that her performance is responsible for her parents’ emotions. Her drive to succeed should come from within and the best message to give her is that her parents love watching her compete, regardless of how she does. Anything else distracts her and takes away her enjoyment. It can be a devastating feeling to you watch your daughter fail when you know how hard she has worked. Too bad. Work on your poker face, because she needs you to fake it.


  1. Chill on college expectations.

Most gymnasts will leave the sport before college becomes a reality. We all think about it and hope that this expensive sport will lead to a college scholarship. It’s OK to hope it or think it, but keep it quiet. It only increases pressure on the girl and decreases the enjoyment. The investment you are making in your daughter should be the benefits she is getting from increased physical activity, development of work ethic, goal setting, character building, working as a team, overcoming obstacles, physical literacy and confidence – not college.


  1. Pick your battles when it comes to complaints about coaches.

Coaches in youth sports are not perfect. Aerials has great coaches, but they are still human and they will make mistakes from time to time. If you find a coach that does 80% right and 20% or less wrong, you have a good coach. The vast majority of [problematic] situations should be treated as learning opportunities for the athletes. Teaching them how to handle [less-than-perfect] situations prepares them for life and sends them the message that you believe in her ability to handle her own challenges.

In 10 years with Aerials, I only felt the need to complain about a coach one time. I didn’t go to the owner, I didn’t try to get the coach fired and I never told my daughter about it. I treated it as a learning opportunity for the coach and contacted that person directly. It’s a respect issue and the coaches have earned the right to understand the parents’ point of view when there’s an issue as well as the right to be heard since there is always more to the story. Yes, we pay a fee for a service, but there is so much more on the line than just a service. These coaches become very important in the lives of our girls and they do far more than teach them gymnastics skills. We are building a partnership in the development of our daughters and when that partnership is developed and protected, our daughters benefit.


  1. Focus on the positives and the real competition.

Golfers of any ability understand that even when they have a bad round, the good shots they had keep them coming back. The same is true for gymnasts. It doesn’t matter how bad a practice is or how poorly they perform in a competition, there are always “good shots” to be proud of. Sometimes we have to help them to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. The worst thing we can do is help them focus on the mistakes. Mistakes will be addressed in practice by coaches. Our job is to make sure they are having fun and focusing on the positives.

It’s natural to feel competitive toward your daughter’s peers, but keep it in check or you send the message that you care more about other gymnasts than your daughter. Athletes cannot control other gymnasts and the only real competition occurs between an athlete and themselves. An athlete should never focus on who they can or who they cannot beat. The most important question an athlete can ask is, “How good can I be?”

Not for Girls Only

Before I had kids, I was asked frequently (by people who knew my gymnastics background, at least) if I wanted my future daughters to be gymnasts. I have a relatively lengthy response to this that really boils down to: yes, if they wanted to be gymnasts, I would be thrilled.

Since having my three children I have, unsurprisingly, not once been asked this question. Why? Because I have three sons. No one even bothers to ask if I want them to be gymnasts because they’re boys; obviously, they’ll play soccer or football or baseball. Completely disregarding the fact that they would be third generation gymnasts with a grandfather who received a college education thanks to a gymnastics scholarship.

When did we decide gymnastics was a girls’ sport?

I’ve had several conversations with mothers of sons who are reluctant to put their sons in gymnastics. Not because of the long hours, or potential injuries, but because what if he likes it? What if that becomes his sport and he’s suddenly a gymnast? Okay, no one actually says that, but the implication is pretty heavy. Most of these moms have sons who are toddlers – 3, 4, 5 years old. I want to ask them what sport they did as a three-year-old that they actually continued into adolescence. Then again, we are now inundated with early specialization for our kids. If you want to be great at a sport, we’re led to believe you have to start it as a preschooler and stick with it through high school. While this can be true, it also does not mean that the sport your son is in now will be the sport that sticks with him throughout his life. In fact, please, for the love, do not let my sons continue soccer, baseball, track, and gymnastics all the way through high school; I will have to hire chauffeurs.

Do you want your son to play baseball? I hear gymnastics is great at teaching spatial awareness. Do you want him to play football? Nothing teaches coordination better than gymnastics. Do you want him to be a track star? Gymnastics hones those quick twitch muscles like nothing else. Do you want him to be a swimmer? Okay, you’ve got me there, put him in swimming. But also put him in gymnastics, because gymnasts make the best athletes. Here’s an article written in the UK that proves my point pretty well: “Who is FITTEST? Five elite athletes put their separate disciplines aside to find out.”

And if that’s not enough, here’s an article with world-class UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre flat-out telling you that gymnasts make the best athletes, which is why he does gymnastics for cross training and he wishes he’d started gymnastics sooner. “UFC 137: Georges St. Pierre Is Still Jumping and Flipping and Tumbling”

Lastly, I pose the question: what’s wrong with your son being a gymnast? Gymnastics takes hard work, serious discipline, problem solving, learning to overcome fear, the list goes on and on. It’s an Olympic sport. It can earn your son a college scholarship. It’s well respected by athletes from other sports. Also, have you seen those muscles?

So to all those parents who are reluctant, I say put your son in gymnastics. He will quickly become coordinated, strong, and physically capable of more than you thought possible. (Just this week I watched my six-year-old do fifty sit-ups and twenty push-ups in our living room with better form than most grown men.) Otherwise, he might just be the little boy who is seriously outdone in a pull-up contest on the playground by that tiny girl in his class.

Two of my sons stretching in their boys' pre-team class.

Two of my sons stretching in their boys’ pre-team class.

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.