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?”

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

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.

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.

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.