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.

Like a Girl

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


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?

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.