Many times I’ve been wondering why some kids are just naturally internally motivated and others seem to need a lot of external stimuli to even get themselves to get up and go to practice. I kept thinking, „Are they lazy? Or pre-pubertal? Are they genetically predisposed to have a weak willpower?“ I thought of these assumptions based on the short time I’ve interacted with them and their parents but no factor in their lifestyles has ever given a strong enough indication of what the culprit could be. As I’ve researched the topic and tried a few general tips from other coaches, gradually, I’ve started seeing improvement. Then I humbly realized it’s not the kid who’s at fault but many little variables which together can create a bigger problem. So, what IS the problem?
Here’s a little example I’ve sadly seen repeat too many times. A girl comes to my gym, she’s about 4-5 years old and seems to be pretty pumped about the lesson that’s about to start. She tries really hard the whole 60 minutes, does everything right or corrects herself immediately after being told, doesn’t talk to others and focuses during all exercises. The perfect athlete, right? That’s what I told her mom after she finished her first class and went to change her clothes. What surprised me though was that according to the kid herself, she wasn’t doing anything right, it was too hard for her and that’s why she didn’t want to come back. I was quite taken aback because it made no sense.
When I talked about her with my colleagues and my mom who’s been working with kids her whole life, we got to reminiscing to the time when we were kids and remembered how we reacted to situations like this. Story time again: I was 5 years old, we went to the circus that partly made me excited about gymnastics and a girl acrobat was going down this 2-way staircase bent in a bridge and then kicking over or standing up. I really wanted to learn it but I was like “how do I get to that level? I can’t imagine myself doing it.” My mom told me that she’ll get me enrolled in a gymnastics club, there will be a coach who’ll teach me some stretches and exercises that will strengthen my back, then she’ll help me with the bridge so that I understand the feeling and then she’ll let me do it myself when my muscles are ready. It created this trust in me towards my future coaches, whoever they might be, and made me feel OK about not having the skills yet because that’s the way it goes, right? When I told my mom after all those years, already from a position of a coach, she was really pleased that she’s had such a profound impact on me. If she didn’t explain to me how the process works, maybe I would have felt like a loser amongst all those skilled gymnasts as I was already 8 and couldn’t yet do what younger kids could. In a way, she saved my confidence and my future as a gymnast and a coach. I don’t want to criticize parents who don’t know how important this can be, I understand that lots of them have no experience with sports and some may have no idea their kid will react this way until they do. Some would even say it’s the coach’s job to explain the process of training and they’re right, to an extent, but how are supposed to do that if a kid decides to never come back after her first practice?
If a child resists her own negative feelings for the greater purpose of doing what she enjoys, problems may still arise later in her career, all tied to her low self-confidence (because if you strive for perfection, you can never be satisfied with your score, your performance, or the way you look and move as a gymnast). I personally love perfectionists. They work hard, they’re focused and determined, and most of the time, they’re the ones who bring home the most medals. BUT, every trait has its downfalls and this one has a big one. These gymnasts are extremists; they feel a constant pressure to be better in every aspect of their lives to the point when it consumes their minds. This psychological state can be overwhelming and if there is no stop to that, one may burn out. Then it’s really hard to get back your motivation when it feels like too much or that nothing matters anymore.
- Hormones, routine, frustration
It all blends well with the idea from the previous paragraph – girls grow up, they’re around 11 or 12 now and the next set of problems with motivation emerges. If you’ve managed to handle your overly perfectionistic gymnasts until now, you deserve a round of applause – but don’t celebrate just yet – the problems WILL come. We all know that during puberty, everything’s a big deal, and girls get especially emotional. Around this time they go through a lot of physical and emotional changes which affect everything they knew and all of a sudden, nothing feels comfortable. To transfer this into a gymnastics perspective, your gymnast will most probably hit a plateau, but may very well regress. As if all the changes aren’t confusing enough, her posture will change; the center of gravity isn’t the same and a lot elements are harder to control even if they were already perfectly encapsulated in her muscle memory. It may feel like she’s doing her best or more than before but results aren’t coming. Wouldn’t that be frustrating?
With all of that, after a few years of training, it is kind of hard for coaches to create a super innovative warm-up routine. The conditioning is essential so you can’t really omit it, moreover, at this fragile age when growth plates are closing up, leaving out any integral part of training can be outright dangerous. However, that leaves us with seemingly no way out needing to repeat the same, often not even slightly more challenging practice sessions. Seeing the frustration from our gymnasts can easily be transferred to the coach - a situation that only creates more tension and resentment towards the sport or any kind of regime.
Let me explain – what I’m talking about here is “low age,” as much mental as physical. As I’ve already mentioned in my previous blog post, it’s very important to have passion for the sport if you want to be successful in it. Sometimes though, you’re brought into it before you even know what you like, and that’s the issue. If you’ve read it, you know how I feel about this but I’m gonna repeat it – a child should be the one who chooses the sport, not the parent. If you force your kid into a sport she has no inclination towards, she might grow into hating it and sometimes even create negative associations with any other physical activity. A few months ago, I’ve talked to a friend about the lockdown and she said she was fine being at home doing nothing since the only thing you were allowed to do outside was go for a walk; and apparently, she has this aversion to it because her mom used to take her for long walks when she was little, pretty much unwillingly. Childhood trauma, we laughed, but it makes you think – it’s very much like those girls you see sneaking out of the gym and other gymnasts covering for them because they don’t want to do it anymore (or maybe they never did to start with)…
Prispejem ešte jedným mojím príbehom z detstva, už posledným, sľubujem. Keď som chodila do škôlky (takže asi v tom čase, keď väčšina gymnastiek začína), chodievala som sa von hrať s mojím bratom a jeho kamarátmi. Jazdili sme na bicykloch, hrali sme hokej alebo sme len vymýšľali niečo hlúpe a nebezpečné a ja som bola na 100% s nimi. Raz sme šprintovali o to, kto prvý dobehne od nášho vchodu ku kriedou nakreslenej cieľovej čiare. Bola som veľmi súťaživá, a tak som bežala nadoraz, čo mi nohy stačili. Predbehla som všetkých chalanov okrem môjho brata a ten bol na mňa právom pyšný. Neskôr som sa ho pýtala, „Dá sa bežať ešte rýchlejšie? Lebo som myslela, že asi zomriem.“ On sa zasmial a povedal mi: „Vždy zvládneš viac, ako si myslíš.“ Viem, znie to ako motivačný citát, no čo tým chcel vtedy povedať, je: „Nič sa ti fyzicky nestane, je nielen možné, ale hlavne DOBRÉ prekonávať svoje limity.“
What can you do as a parent to motivate your child?
- Talk to her
Communication is key. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times and that’s because it’s true. All you need to do is ask your kid what’s wrong and more often than not, you’ll find out there’s no real problem to begin with. I’ve witnessed a girl not wanting to go to training, crying and refusing to put on her leotard and her parents making a big scene about commitment to sport, only to discover that all she wanted was a different leotard that her mom put into laundry and couldn’t pack it that day. It kind of makes you smile. She was just 3 years old so her parents automatically assumed she did not want to go.
- Explain how training works
Think about it this way – let’s say you’re taking a cooking class, you can barely boil water and don’t understand half the terms the instructor is using. You might feel incapable during your first lesson but it’s not gonna make you quit because you know that throughout the course you’ll learn and improve your ability. Sounds easy enough but a lot of parents forget they’re dealing with kids. They don’t yet have the experience to draw upon and so they might get scared they’ll never learn, especially if others in the group are more advanced. Explain to them using their kindergarten or school as an example – first you learn to draw various lines, then you learn the letters, and at the end, you can write whole sentences - but it takes time and you can’t give up in the middle of the journey.
- Encourage perseverance
I cannot stress this enough. We all have times in our lives when it feels like we can’t do it anymore, even if it’s something we like. Life can get overwhelming for kids too and if yours is a perfectionist or is very sensitive, she might get to overthinking and ruin her own chances. It is vital to tell your kids since the early childhood that it’s not important if you “fail” but that you’re strong enough to keep going and never give up on your dreams – and your obligations, for that matter. When dealing with teenagers, the commitment talk is actually the right strategy - things like “Your actions today affect your future” and “every little thing counts.” So if you’re tired, not in the mood for training, feeling like you’re not improving, don’t let yourself down and do just a little something – sit in an oversplit for 5 minutes while looking for a new music for a routine.
What can coaches do to motivate gymnasts?
- Be a good example yourself
Don’t forget that you’re a role model and everything you do, they see. If you come late to practice for no good reason, you lose credibility – but if you come pumped up, practice with them, you’re showing them how to push themselves, and most importantly, that it’s fulfilling and fun.
- Change the warm-up often
Viem, nie je to vždy jednoduché a z trénerského hľadiska chápem, že potrebujeme istú jednotvárnosť, aby sme videli a dokázali hodnotiť výsledky. Vždy sa však dá vymyslieť niečo nové – napríklad posilovačky na hudbu, ktorá je teraz hitom alebo zaviesť akýkoľvek typ hry v rámci tréningu. Ja keď začnem vidieť unudené tváre z neustále rovnakých cvičení, dám deti do skupín a vyhlásim súťaž. Potom už to nie je len nezáživné posilovanie, ale príležitosť vyhrať a prekonať svoj limit či vytvoriť nový rekord.
- Selective choice
You wouldn’t believe how effective this one is. You need girls to do more core exercises? If you tell them to do a plank for 2 minutes and they’ll start pouting, rephrase it to “ok, 2 minutes plank or 3 minutes of any other core exercise.” It’s a very subtle manipulation and works perfectly every time. Because they have a choice, it makes them feel like they’ve actually chosen to do conditioning and that’s empowering.
- Praise effort
This is a big one for me because in rhythmic gymnastics, it is undeniably substantial to have some genetic predisposition for the sport. Then, if your joints aren’t loose enough or your back is not that flexible, there’s a point to which you can stretch until it just won’t go any further. That’s why in competition, it’s not always the kid who works the hardest who gets on the podium. Not everybody though needs to be an Olympian and it’s important to acknowledge that talent isn’t everything. After all those years of coaching, it is sometimes more fulfilling for me to see a kid who struggled for months and can finally do a split rather than one who puts 20% effort into training and requires attention for every little step towards the right direction. I always give credit to those who give their all. The other day in the gym we were doing conditioning, I declared a contest for the most performed crunches in 1 minute and I was doing them too to compare. One gymnast did an insane number, more than I did, so, impressed as I was, I started clapping for her. Everybody joined and the atmosphere of appreciation filled the room. Girls adopted this habit and it became this little thing that always cheers me up and restores my faith in team spirit.