Did you know that according to a 2014 research study by George Washington University, the number 1 reason why athletes quit their sport is because it is no longer fun? Did you know that 75% of athletes will quit by the time they are 13? As parents, what do we do with this information?
Parents have a large part to play in their child’s sporting life. They probably are the reason why the child started sports, they are the transportation to and from practice and competition, they pay the bills, wash the practice clothes and uniforms, and love and support the athlete. Parents can also play a large part into the enjoyment of the sport for children.
When a child starts in gymnastics they usually love it. This is the first stage of sport. It’s the Fun stage. They probably can’t wait to put on their gymnastic’s clothes before practice and after practice they probably don’t want to take them off. They love to jump on every piece of furniture and won’t stop bouncing all over the house. They use the back of the couch as a beam, they use the bed as the floor, they use the kitchen cabinets as P-bars, and they jump over everything as if it were a vault. They spend more time up side down then they do on their feet. The gymnast loves learning new skills, flipping around, bouncing on tramp, and the feeling of flying through the air. They love gymnastics because it is fun.
As time goes on the gymnast moves into stage 2. The parent and coach discover that the gymnast may be quite talented. They decide to add more classes. Maybe even add private lessons. The gymnast starts to focus their attention on not only learning skills, but perfecting these skills. Gymnastics becomes more detailed oriented. This stage is called the Technical stage. Now the gymnast must spend quality time on stretching which is painful, conditioning which is painful, and more difficult skills which are frightening. The better the gymnast will become, the more time in the gym they will spend, the more time in the gym they spend, the more the gymnast’s life is consumed by the sport.
It is in this area of sports when most athletes lose the Fun. Parents can also start to add pressure. Some parents can start to see the potential of their gymnasts and can get caught in the whirlwind of what could be. It is common for parents to want to help their gymnast in every way they can. They can begin to micromanage their child’s career. They can take on the role of coach, judge, agent, and manager. When parents take control over the gymnast’s career it can cause a lot of chaos.
The coaches can also be more demanding. They can set their standards higher and make practiced more structured and intense. These types of practices are essential to mold the gymnasts into fearless competitors.
For athletes to make it past this Technical stage there are some things that parents can do to help relieve excess pressure and help their athlete keep the love and fun.
1. Support, love, and give kisses
Athletes want to know that when practice or competition becomes difficult they can always run back into the non-judgmental arms of their parents. Athletes do not want their parents to give their opinion, critique, or advice about the situation, they really just want hugs and kisses. An athlete needs to know that they will be able to have a bad day and go to their parents for unconditional love.Athletes already feel pressure from their sport, adding pressure from parents can create a fear of failure. When athletes have a fear of failure it is usually due to their belief that if they have a poor performance they will disappoint parents, coaches, or even their teammates. By showing unconditional love the athlete can feel free to be aggressive in their performance.
2. Leave the coaching up to the coach.
Once the parent feels comfortable with the athlete’s coach and gym, then they need to leave their gymnast in the hands of the professionals. Trying to coach a child when a parent is not a coach can create tension. Comments from parents such as, Why didn’t you throw you back handspring on high beam, you need to keep your legs straight or if you want to move up a level this year you have to be more aggressive can only make the gymnast feel pressure. These comments may be said with the best of intentions, but they do not help. Comments from the parents should remain on the emotional side ( I love you and wish you the best of luck) and stay away from the technical side ( Make sure to connect your bar routine and stick your landings).
3. Give the sport to the athlete
When parents hand the athlete’s sport back to the athlete the athlete will start to learn and grow. The best thing a parent can do is let their athlete fail and succeed on their own. When they fail, do not rescue them. Give them the information they will need to find their own answers to the challenges. They will feel a huge sense of accomplishment when they are able to solve their own challenges. When they succeed, let them bask in their glory without taking any credit. Let them feel their accomplishment. This will be their moment to shine.
4. Focus on the process and not the outcome
It will be easy to get caught up in all the gold medals your gymnast wins, but remember that a medal does not mean they have won. Just as not receiving a medal does not mean they have lost. If a gymnast has a terrible competition or a poor attitude and still wins a gold medal that is not a successful competition. If a gymnast is mentally strong and has an amazing performance but doesn’t get a gold medal, that is an extremely successful competition. When dealing with sports performance is it important to focus on the process. How the athlete can over challenges and work through a competition from beginning to end is a better and more important lesson than having a poor attitude and being awarded with a medal. If the parent is very concerned about “winning” the gymnast can feel an expectation to “win”. When an athlete focuses on winning, they are not focused on HOW to win; how to make routines, hit their skills, or to stay aggressive.
5. Help them find their fun
Gymnastics at this competitive level will not have the same type of “fun” as it was when they began. Their fun now will be overcoming challenges, getting new skills, mastering routines, or fighting through fears. Help them understand the new fun of sports at their new level. Another way to help them find their fun is making sure they enjoy their childhood outside of gymnastics. Keep the technical gymnastics in the gym and once they set foot out the door then they are no longer a gymnast, they are a child. Make sure they still go to parties, go on vacation, or have friends come over to play. Make sure that gymnastics doesn’t become a job. Keep it something extra and something that enhances the athlete’s life.
When the athlete makes it out of this technical stage they move into the last stage called Mastery. This stage is self-explanatory. By this stage the athlete knows their goals, the parent knows their role, and the coach is able to do their job. This is the stage where athletes can reach their full potential.
The road will be long and it will be filled with exciting opportunities. Remember to keep gymnastics in perspective. The best way to help your athlete get the best out of the sport is to remember that it is just a sport.
Enjoy the journey.
Please let us know if you have something to add based on your own experience!
This article is exclusively written by our contributor:
Wendy Bruce Martin was a member of the 1992 Olympic team and 5x national team member. She has been involved in gymnastics for 36 years and coaching for 22. She received a degree in psychology and is a certified mental toughness coach. Wendy owns the Mental Toughness Company, GET PSYCHED! and is co-owner of Gold Medal Moms.