*why it is important to let the child decide their sport and where the love for sport can get you* *
I´ve always been an active child. While I could focus on a game or a given task, I would always be in a shoulder stand or kick my legs up over my head. My mom knew I was gonna be some kind of an athlete (I certainly had genes for it), however, she hasn´t realized my sport was gymnastics until I actually said it. I was 3, we were watching World championships in women´s artistic gymnastics and I was like: “I wanna do this!” (and yes, I actually remember things before 4 years of age). So my mom took me to a local AG (artistic gymnastics) club in our district but I wouldn´t come in without her so they told us to come back when I´m more socially independent. Since I was still quite emotionally tied to my mom, she would do mother-and-child exercise classes with me and later tried to enroll me into a folklore dance company because she used to be this type of a dancer, but that didn´t work out because it was her passion and never mine.
Years passed and now I was 5, in an audience of a children´s musical theater called “The circus.” They were kids from a dance company which cooperated with a school from a nearby district; and since I was still this little non-defeated confident girl, again, I stood up and said: ”I´m gonna go to this school and no other.” This time I was already mature enough not to let my fear of being alone interfere with my desires and so I got accepted to a prep course of the dance company. I spent 3 years there and loved the dance and gymnastics trainings (not so much the rhythm and singing classes) and back then I still liked performing so I had everything I loved and was pretty much happy – until my mom overheard the other kids talking about a dance teacher being rude to me and, protective as she is, took me out of the company. I remember crying about it and trying to persuade her to let me go back there for so long, she came up with a compromise – I won´t be a part of the dance company anymore but she will enroll me in a gymnastics club – and that´s where it all started.
I was 8 at that time, already quite old for starting a sport but thanks to my talent I was accepted to the best club there was. I loved the trainings; I would come home and practice everything we did that day again until I could do it correctly. I learned splits on both legs and a middle split in 2 weeks and then a bridge from standing up in a few months followed by a chest stand with my heels touching the floor in front of my head. Later, we started learning split leaps and they were super easy for me (only after I started coaching I realized that for a huge majority of kids it´s a trick that requires tons of training and months, if not years to master it). After half a year, coaches started using me as an example which meant a world to me and was the appreciation I needed. I became a legitimate gymnast, the head coach didn´t even want to let me go skiing over the Christmas as it could be a risk of injury and she counted on me to transfer to a higher-level group. However, life happened, and after a year I had to quit (for various reasons). Long story short, I came back at the age of almost 13, they wouldn´t accept me as I wasn´t training for 4 years, but gave me an address of a less prestigious club where I could try asking – the club that has become my home for the next 14 years…
I was training competitively until the age of 20 but started coaching children already at 17 as an assistant coach. When I turned 18 and was officially an adult (certainly didn´t feel like it though), I took the RG (rhythmic gymnastics) trainer and a judge courses, got both my licenses and little did I know it would become my identity for years to come. After finishing University, literally everybody discouraged me to try and be a freelance coach, everybody except my mom, really. This way, I´d like to thank her for supporting me all my life to go for it and pursue my dreams – thanks, mom ;)
Now I am here, being what I only later in life realized, has always been what I wanted to do, seeing little kids on their paths to their dream future... or sometimes it seems, their parents´ „dream future for their kids“ – and that´s what concerns me. If you´ve read until here, you must have noticed 2 things:
1: My mom wanted me to be a folklore dancer because she loves it but the minute I said “no,“ she didn´t force me into it
2: She let me do what made me happy – even though she was scared sometimes when I was doing acrobatics or some really flexible backbends; and she was willing to help me to start my own business although it wasn´t always steady money in the beginning
In my coaching career (going on for 11 years now), I´ve started noticing a trend – no matter how much talent girls had, the ones who stayed in the sport the longest and the ones who won the most medals are those who chose the sport themselves and who truly love it. I used to think that when you have a talent for something, you necessarily start liking it because it´s easier for you to improve – and when you´re good at something, you like it, right? Wrong! Back to the time when I was 8 and we tried to find a gymnastics club, we called my dad´s cousin – a former prima ballerina of the National Slovak Theater. She´s pretty well known and she has lots of expertise so when she saw me then she couldn´t resist trying to pull me into ballet. I was naturally very skinny, tall, and flexible, and it wasn´t the first time someone offered me to join the ballet world. She was convinced I´d be successful because of the physical predisposition so she, super-excitedly, showed me videos of her dancing in beautiful tutu skirts and ballet shoes but I was just like “no.” I wanted to do flips and splits and unnaturally flexible tricks and ballet just seemed boring to me. Although I may have had talent for it, I´m convinced I would never have become professional because I just didn´t have a passion for it. Over the years of doing rhythmic gymnastics, I´ve certainly gained some interest in ballet but I just can´t get over this idea that you put so much work into it and it is almost invisible for a laic. This brings me back to the original idea – the passion for sport means so much more than talent or discipline and everything else.
I started training my first group of gymnasts at the age of 17 when most of them were 4 or 5. I´ve seen them grow and get better at gymnastics but I´ve also seen a lot of them quit and never even come back to see us. They turned to volleyball, show dance, or even skiing. Some parents blamed it on the system, others on imperfect environment, but all of them also blamed puberty. I admit, it was the time when most girls felt overwhelmed, some of them lost fitness or encountered injuries, but those who really loved the sport always came back. One of my gymnasts had a knee surgery at the age of 12, she wasn´t allowed or even capable of any type of exercise for 8 months and during her recovery, she would climb those 3 flights of stairs that lead to our old-building gym hall and she would just watch her friends prepare for competitions and later she´d take some apparatus and do her handling. When I asked her parents about the way she got into gymnastics, they told me they didn´t even know what rhythmic gymnastics was but their daughter saw it on YouTube and was so intrigued she wouldn’t stop talking about it so they found the nearest gym and enrolled her there.
After a few similar conversations it was getting clear that my theory was true. I started looking for stories of Olympic gymnasts and with a few exceptions found the same pattern over again. One of my favorite life stories is the one of Nastia Liukin – a 2008 overall Olympic winner in artistic gymnastics. Her mom was a World champion in RG and her dad an Olympic winner in AG. They are both Russian but moved to USA when she was only 2.5 years old. Thanks to his name, her dad with another Soviet gymnast established a gymnastics academy for “Olympic hopes” – kids who have the potential to become future Olmypians, in Plano, Texas. In all the interviews concerning Nastia he says they never wanted her to be a gymnast because they knew what it took. However, as a little child, she was always in his gym watching other girls and they just couldn´t prevent her from being interested in it. Nastia was actually not built for AG, she has her mother´s genes regarding body figure – she´s very skinny and too tall and flexible for AG. When she talks about her competitive years, she always says she struggled a lot and had to do much more conditioning and strength training than other girls because of her flexibility. You can even see her in a lot of “fail” videos on the Internet, which is ridiculous if you realize that she´s in fact an Olympic champion. However, her passion for artistic gymnastics got her through everything – and funnily enough, her perceived weakness of being too flexible and too tall translated into her being referred to as one of the most elegant artistic gymnasts of all time and also gaining her more points for execution. Now, imagine if her mom pushed her into RG – do you think she´d be where she is right now? I highly doubt that…
The point of this post, however, is the exact opposite of the positive stories about successful gymnasts who pursue their dreams. I wanted to talk about the kids whose parents think they do the best for them but they´re actually making their lives miserable. Every time I make an opening for a group of 3-6-year-olds I have to deal with their parents first. As much as I love when the little ones come to me and say they were practicing at home and show me their splits etc., it breaks my heart when I see a kid who cries before a class and asks their parents to go home but they just leave them there and think they´ll be alright. Some of them, surely, are just afraid to stay alone (as I was when I was 3) and it´s perfectly OK to come later when the kid is ready. However, most of these kids just don´t like gymnastics. There it is – clear as the summer sky. When a girl comes home from training and shows her parents all the new tricks she has learned and does handstands against a wall whenever she sees the possibility, you know it´s a gymnast. There are cases in which a child perceives stretching as too much pain because she´s not ready yet (very common with 2-3-year-olds) and it may be no indication of her future interest in gymnastics. There are times we all know when we are just tired and don´t wanna do what we have to so momentary indecision is normal. In my experience though, if a girl is 4 or more and refuses to come to training every time no matter the circumstances, it may be indicative of her sport preferences.
There are lots of parents who will tell me they want their kid to do gymnastics because it´s the perfect basis for all sports. I agree gymnastics is perfect for body posture, fixing bad habits regarding joints and feet placement in everyday movement, it improves flexibility and strength and develops dynamics, thus is ideal as a basis for a healthy body and athleticism, and also as a compensatory workout for kids who already spend a lot of time training competitively for less complex sports. What happens though, is parents forcing their kids to do gymnastics without further explaining why it´s important for them so the kid gets frustrated and either doesn´t put enough effort into it (and feels like she´s not good enough) or acts out and refuses to try harder which only creates tension and breaks the morale of the group. Praising them more often usually helps but consequently creates resentment in kids who are regulars in the group because they see the discrepancy and find it unfair. Parents of these kids use different techniques to make them at least a little bit excited about the class but mostly it´s indirect and won´t make a difference in the long term. I´ve seen parents promising their kids to bring them candy or some special gift if they are “good” at class. It made me sad because I was the one who´d told them they weren´t paying attention the previous class or weren´t making progress and this wasn´t the response I was expecting. With kids who don´t like gymnastics, whether they need it for health reasons or as a compensation, or not at all and their parents are just pursuing their own dreams through their kids, I´ve seen more harm than good. What I´m saying though, is not that kids for whom “gymnastics is life” is just a phrase, should never do it; I´ve spent quite some time doing ballet as a complementary workout for RG and I´ve learned to like it to some extent, I can even appreciate its positive addition to my technique and artistic expression; what I want to say is, I am just grateful my mom never forced me to become a ballerina and let be who I am.