Monday, April 19, 2010

Me and My Gymnasts. Sometimes I'm teaching them. Sometimes they're teaching me.

Awhile back one of my best gymnasts seemed to be lacking intensity at practice. She was typically a hard worker and had been very successful the last few years. But, for a few weeks she had been hard to motivate. She was still getting a lot done during her training time, and doing well at competitions (high 37’s and low 38’s). But, she wasn’t her usual self. So, of course, I was trying to figure out why. Maybe she’s bored, I thought. She’s been a level 10 since eighth grade (she’s now a junior). Maybe she’s getting a big head, a case of over-confidence. She has had three very successful seasons in a row and has committed to a top college. Four local TV stations have done pieces about her, with interviews. Maybe she’s just getting lazy.  Or, maybe because of her immense talent and successful competitions, she thinks its okay to coast along.

One day I casually mentioned to her that we needed to step up the intensity and get it back to where it used to be. Several days later when things hadn’t changed, I called her over and talked to her a little more in-depth about maintaining her standards, setting appropriate goals, and that while she was coasting, other gymnasts were improving (typical coach-talk).

Her reply didn’t surprise me, but the emotion that came with the reply did. The content of her response was “I’m trying the best I can. I’m doing everything you ask me to do. I’ve got three honors classes that are keeping me up late. I’m training twenty hours a week. I almost never miss practice. I’m taking extra classes to graduate early.” The emotion in her reply seemed to say “why don’t you believe me. This conversation is upsetting me.”

My response to that was something like “it’s not going to get any easier in college. Your professors and college coaches aren’t going to listen to reasons why you aren’t getting things done, they’ll just expect you to get them done.” I should have immediately slapped myself on the forehead and said “duh, good response coach.”

I spent the rest of that night and the next day thinking about how poorly I had handled the situation. A week later, I can still see her face and feel the emotion from when she said “I’m doing the best I can.” And, I now believe she was. Maybe she should have said “listen old man, you’re not seeing the whole picture here.” She would have been right.

Some of the points I was trying to make were valid. College is not always easy and college athletes need to be organized, prepared, and diligent in their effort to succeed in their sport and in the classroom. There was no doubt that her intensity had dropped off a bit. But, dealing with those things weren’t the lessons that needed to be taught at that moment. The lesson that needed to be taught at that moment was delivered TO me, not FROM me. I’ve coached this gymnast since she was six years old. I should have trusted her. All I needed to do was ask her why things had changed over the last few weeks. The best solution would have come from good communication, not accusation. If her intensity in the gym had dropped off a percent or two it was very likely that she had stepped it up a few percentage points in her schoolwork.  The balance between those is not always perfect.  The two tend to ebb and flow together.  An important lesson that she is learning.  Unbeknownst to her, her emotion-filled reaction in this situation was a good lesson for me. I hope I learned enough to get an “A”.

This gymnast did graduate from high school early.  She left Wichita in December to join the University of Alabama gymnastics team.  In April, three of the twenty scores used by the Alabama team to win the NCAA National Championships were hers.  In May, she walked with her high school class at graduation as an NCAA National Champion.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

It is truly amazing to me how much she could communicate to you without saying a word. So often we brush off what kids are communicating to us in the bustle of our own lives, and agendas. I often look back as you did on certain situations and realize I could have handle things better than I did. Hopefully, we learn from these moments and treat new, similar situations with our recently gained knowledge instead of with instant responses and haste.