Monday, April 12, 2010

Never Give Up on a Child

Coaches, teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors should never give up on a child. Children need and want guidance. They may not act like it, but they do. They may not overtly accept the bits of wisdom given to them by the adults in their lives and they may not act like the role models in their lives, but they are learning from both.

Many times after practice I have thought there is nothing more I can do for a child because (any of these reasons):

She doesn’t want to be here.
She doesn’t listen.
She can’t make corrections.
She doesn’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish.
She’s lazy.
She’s easily distracted (and, therefore, becomes a distraction).
She’s afraid of her skills.
She’s given up on herself.

I’ll admit. There have been times when I thought some of my gymnasts should give up the sport and do something else. Then I came to my senses and asked myself WHY some of the things on this list may be true. Why doesn’t she want to be at practice? Why is she easily distracted? Why is she not progressing?

There are a lot of variables that play a role in an athlete’s success/failure and persistence/dropout. I like to visualize these variables on a bar graph, each variable with its own level of competence. If an athlete is frustrated, unmotivated, and just not having fun, the cause is likely rooted in one of the areas represented by a low bar on the graph.

I’ve heard these thousands of times (and I’ve said them myself), “she just doesn’t listen” or “she just isn’t flexible” or “she’s lazy” or the one that inspired this blog post “I just don’t know what to do for her until she fixes (insert weak area here).” Whoa, stop the presses, rewind. “until SHE fixes”? Do we really want to tell our athletes “when you’ve fixed your problems, come to me and I’ll coach you.” Of course we don’t. It’s our job to look at the bar graph and help our athletes be competent in all areas. An extra amount of time and effort should be given to the lowest bars on the graph. After all, those are the variables which will most likely cause frustration, practices that aren’t fun, and dropout. The greatest gains will be made in the areas of least competence. A gymnast who improves her flexibility from 90% competency to 95% will benefit from that, but not near as much as the gymnast who improves listening skills from 20% to 40%.

As coaches, we get frustrated with our athletes. At that point, we can give support or give up. If you’ve found this blog, I’m sure you’re the “give support” kind of coach. Look at your mental bar graph for the athlete in question and find solutions to make those lower bars grow. A coach who pulls a kid back from a near dropout to watch her succeed over and over in the future is a well rewarded coach. It’s okay to ask yourself “what if I’d given up?” I hope none of us ever have to ask ourselves “what if I’d tried a little harder?”

(as a level 5, this gymnast was the slowest runner on my team.  Give up?  I don't think so.)

One more note. If we applied the bar graph idea to ourselves as coaches, what would it look like? What variables would be on my list and how competent am I in each? I’m not sure I want to look that hard at my coaching abilities (and lack thereof). But, I’m going to do that right now and see what I learn.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments and please visit again.

Photo courtesy of Mark Baldwin, 2010 Folger's New Year Invitational


Anonymous said...

I have always been of the philosophy that if you give the kid time, energy and a love of conditioning ;-D that all kids will achieve something. I have had many gymnasts go on to be very good divers, football players, track stars
I think sometimes Coaches get to a burnout stage as well or have a crisis of confidence with what we are doing with the gymnasts. How can we as coach’s best keep our own doubts in check year after year?

Mark Folger said...

Good points. I think learning and improving as a coach is a lot like learning and improving as a gymnast. It's progressive and you must do well at one level before moving on to the next level. I've always tried to keep my personal education several steps ahead of what I'm teaching in the gym. Watch video, study, talk to other coaches and make plans for the skills you may be teaching next year or in a couple of years. Then when the time comes to teach those skills, you will be ready (confident) and your gymnasts will feed off that.
I'm hoping to get to a high school track meet soon to watch 4 of my former gymnasts pole vault. The girls tell me that one of them goes 12 feet!

Heidi said...

Mark, I have already read a couple of your blog posts and they are fantastic! We are definitely struggling at our gym as a whole. We could use a TON more positive across the board. I plan on passing your blog along to fellow gym staff and members and I have added you to my blog roll as well. May I ask how you found my blog post about the 27 Things for parents of gymnasts? I was pleasantly surprised to find such a thoughtful comment from someone as experienced as yourself in the gymnastics world!
As I parent the situation has weighed on my mind recently and I am striving even harder to take a good look at myself and work on those things!

Anonymous said...

I saw this column in a Tumbl Trak newsletter and have been thinking about it off and on for awhile. I'm a Mom of a 6 year old, pre-team between level 1 and level 2, for whom your article rings so true. Being that she's 6, I'm sure it's different from the older girls you are probably thinking about. And, I realize each girl is different, but here's what I think happens with mine. If she has to wait in line for very long, she checks out - she'll start working on something else on her own. If the class is too easy in her estimation, she will check out. If the coach is spending too much time with a more advanced girl and not enough time with her, she checks out. If she can't get validation from the coach - she seems to need a lot of high fives and good jobs - she will stop pushing herself and may even check out. Coaches that have my daughter figured out seem to do the best with her and are able to help her shine. But there are coaches who basically check out on her themselves, which leads to the problem being worse. I have to say, it really ticks me off when I can tell a coach has written my daughter off. Short of telling a coach how to do his or her job, which would probably only make things worse or would be ignored or resented, I am doing the best I can to help my daughter. I'm talking to her, but I'm just not sure how well that is going to work as she forgets me when she goes out there. I even considered stopping gymnastics altogether for my daughter, but she tells me that she really wants to do this.

Mark Folger said...

I understand your feelings. I believe every gym has situations like yours from time to time. Don't be afraid to voice your concerns, but do so through proper channels. Approach the right person with a solution oriented attitude (not a complaining attitude)and I bet you'll get a good response. Coaches are like athletes, they need feedback to improve and they appreciate feedback that's supportive. Everyone involved shares the goal of making gymnastics better for your daughter. Good communication will help in that endeavor.

Brenda said...

Thanks for your suggestion above about talking to the coaches. It was at a point of frustration and was considering giving up on my daughter myself, which is why your post meant so much to me. Things have gotten better in the short time since as her classes have gotten more challenging, the coaches seem to have a better handle on her and she's doing a better job at being a student (not perfect, still needs some reminders but better). I hope it's not temporary but is working towards better days. So, I will keep your advice in mind and continue to watch and address it positively if we seem to step back again.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

So sad. Today the coaches gave on up my daughter. She is a level 6. Her fears took over. Losing her skills one at a time. The backtuck, the backwalk over on beam. I can't believe they gave up. We switched gyms 8 months ago because our old gym lost the 2 main coaches. This gym has a different philosophy. They don't spot. We were at the other gym for 8 years. She was always spotted until she was confident. She was always a top scorer. Her confidence is at an all time low. She's also depressed. What to do? She's 12.

Mark Folger said...

Follow Brenda's example and talk to the coaches with a solution oriented approach. Understand that that may not solve the problem. If the gym's philosophy is "no spotting" and your daughter is used to being spotted in the process of learning new skills, then the two may be incompatable. If that proves to be the case, politely explain that to the coaches and/or gym owner. Then, find a gym which more closely meets your daughter's needs.

Rob V said...

I appreciate this is an old post but I came across it because I am trying to figure out what to do and this post resonates quite well. I have an 8 year old son who is doing gymnastics and if I am truthful his motivation/enthusiasm waxes and wanes. Recently we were told that for the last few months he has not been giving his best and they were considering removing him from the squad. He was put on a trial period but I think now all the focus is on finding ways for him to not be part of the squad rather than on keeping him. Again, he is only 8 and is being accused of talking and messing about, yet since he has been on trial we have spent much more time at home encouraging him and he has achieved several of the progressions that were lacking (kickovers, circleup on the bar, squat through on the vault etc). I think their minds are made up but not sure what to do about it really...he's not the best gymnast ever for sure, and I worry that going to another club might be perceived as me thinking he's much better than he is. What saddens me is the approach to coaching. In my view a coach's role is to extract the best from their people. From what I hear (and this is from the mouth of an 8 year old, not first hand) most of the "encouragement" is in the form of shouting and berating. To be fair they do do high-fives and positively re-inforce but I would have thought there should be NONE of the former. As a parent, I don't want to hear about an 8 year old - "He should want to do it, we shouldn't HAVE to keep pushing" - Surely that's the definition of a good coach, someone who can enthuse their team. (not sure I have ever written this much in a comment)

Mark Folger said...

Rob, Your post has a couple of great points. First, shouting and berating are not encouraging, especially with kids. Both create an uncomfortable environment and possibly fear. The coach's point that "He should want to do it, we shouldn't HAVE to keep pushing" is also a good one. A coach's goal should be to have athletes who are intrinsically motivated. The coach's role is to do things to develop, maintain and nurture that intrinsic motivation. The best way to do that with children is to create opportunities for success, progressively challenging successes, small steps to reach the big goals, and to celebrate each of these small successes (see the post on goal setting and motivation or the ebook The Progressive Motivation Cycle). Unfortunately, it seems like the focus with your son's group is on behavior rather than progress. I have coached a lot of 8 year old boys and I can say that managing the energy level of a group of young boys is challenging for a coach. But, if a coach can channel that energy in the right direction, the results will be amazing. I would discourage you from changing gyms unless you feel there is no hope in getting the proper environment where you are. Having said that, I also believe this, your son will only live his childhood once. You won't want to look back in 6 or 7 years and ask "what if we'd talked to the coach, what if we'd changed gyms, what if we hadn't changed gyms?" etc. Don't make your decisions based on reactions to situations. Make them based on things that are consistent. Are the things happening consistently over time good for your son or is there something better? This is the most important question.

Joshua Rietsema said...

I need a coach for my daughter she has the drive just not the right trainer she needs the right coach one on one and she will show the drive and improvement I have great confidence in her, she has had lessons but has taught herself more then any lesson I have paid for, I am a middle to lower class family looking to fulfill this little girls dream, if anybody can send me in the right direction please email me at any help or step in the right direction is an accomplishment for her happiness. He is 9 years old and can accomplish the world in short time!!!