Coaches The interplay between personal philosophy and coaching style

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Geoffrey Taucer

Staff member
Gold Membership
Jan 21, 2007
Baltimore, MD
I want to open a discussion of how -- and to what extent -- your approach to coaching is influenced by your personal views on life, the universe, and everything. Because this discussion has the potential to include philosophies on political/religious subjects, we will be suspending the usual rules against politics/religion on CB, but there are some rules I want to make for this thread up front:

This thread is for discussing how your political/religious/philosophical beliefs play into your coaching -- it is NOT for debating the merits or validity of those beliefs. It is also not a platform for proselytizing.
What happens in this thread remains in this thread; if you take offense at what somebody else says here, you are welcome to (politely) explain why in this thread, but do not take disagreements here to other parts of the forum.

I may add additional rules if I feel they are needed.

I'll put my own thoughts in a separate post.
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I think there are two parts of my personal philosophy that strongly affect how I coach: being a progressive feminist, and being a pantheist.

I am an ardent progressive feminist. Now, the term "feminist" often gets interpreted different ways in different circles, so let me clarify what I mean when I say I am a feminist: I believe that there are many aspects of how our society views gender roles that are destructive both to individuals and to society as a whole, and most of these issues are caused by the glorification of a very specific (and not entirely positive) idea of what masculinity should be, and a contrasting disdain for pretty much anything that does not fit this mold. I think that most of the negative effects of these gender roles are felt by women and LGBT individuals, but men are also hurt by these societal pressures.
To get more specific to how this effects my coaching:
First, I believe that bodily autonomy is of the utmost importance. An athlete -- whether male or female -- is the sole owner of their body, and thus gets to make the final decision in what sorts of risks they are willing to take with it. This specifically comes into play with fear issues, as I do not believe in forcing kids to do skills they are afraid of. In such cases, my job is not to make them do the skill, but to help them feel safe enough to do the skill, and the ultimate decision of when they feel they are ready is theirs and theirs alone.
Second, I believe that all kids -- but especially girls -- should be coached in such a way that makes them feel strong, empowered, confident, and independent. I do not want my athletes to push themselves because they're afraid I'll yell at them if they don't -- I want them to push themselves because they enjoy the sport and feel confident in their ability to improve. I want them to think of their accomplishments as their own accomplishments, not as something I or other coaches have accomplished through them.
Third, I believe that all kids -- but especially boys -- should feel safe being open with their emotions. Sometimes kids are sad, or frustrated, or afraid, and that's ok. Sometimes they cry because of it, and that's also ok. I do not yell at, shame, or punish athletes for crying.

I am also a pantheist, another term that I think requires some explanation. Pantheism is the reverence of the universe itself as a deity, though in my case a more accurate description might be that I think of the laws of physics as one might think of a deity. They created the universe and all its wonders, they dictate everything that happens within the universe, and they inspire in me a sense of wonder and inspiration. And if the laws of physics themselves are a deity, then any gymnastics exercise is, from my perspective, a literal dance with god.
When I teach gymnasts, I want them to understand the mechanics behind the skills they're doing, and I want my explanations to be as accurate as possible. To give an example: this past saturday, at the end of practice, I brought all my girls over to the rings, explained conservation of angular momentum. What it is, how it works, how we apply it in gymnastics skills. I then let them each take a turn hanging from a ring and spinning, while changing body positions in order to feel how this effected their rotation. I feel that when my athletes understand the laws of motion behind what they're doing, it does two things: first, it makes them more able to feel what's going on in their skills and figure out how to make the necessary adjustments, and second, it makes the sport far more beautiful when you understand the mechanics behind it.
My belief is that there is no "gymnastics" body or "correct" age for a level (other than the USAG minimum age). ANYBODY who wants to do gymnastics should be able to, to the best of their ability, progress in gymnastics. Gymnastics is an individualized sport and our athletes are treated as individuals. I also don't think money should price a girl out of the sport or that time constraints should make her have to choose gymnastics OR whatever else they want to do. Xcel is not a "lesser than" program. YMCA gymnasts can be just as good as "club" gymnasts (some YMCAs compete against club gymnasts and do well ... ours doesn't compete outside the Y program, but that is one way we keep costs down).

1 - I have a cousin that has a developmental disablity. She is several years older than me. She competed for her high school gymnastics team AND Special Olympics. She was able to do an aerial on BEAM! She even tried to teach me when I was 13 (and she was in her 20s) by doing one herself on a concrete planter ledge 3 feet off the ground. It was crazy good, but I wasn't crazy enough to attempt it.

2 - We have girls on our team that we design routines for that meet the requirements, but they aren't doing typical passes for one reason or another.

3 - We offer scholarships and ways for parents to cover gym fees so economics isn't an issue. We have had parents clean the gym or work the desk or learn how to teach or help with rec classes.

4 - We understand that girls have other activities. We are lower hours AND understand if they need to miss part of or all of practice. They may or may not progress as quickly, but our girls do progress and can feel successful.

5 - This year we have a total of 9 girls repeating levels out of 44 gymnasts in Levels 3-8 and Xcel Gold and Platinum.
I want to add one more:

I am a firm believer in being gentle with regards to the athlete's gymnastics, but very strict with regards to the athlete's behavior.
I do not believe in yelling at or punishing athletes for anything relating to their gymnastics. Execution, fear issues, inconsistency, etc; none of these should ever be addressed by yelling at, shaming, or otherwise punishing an athlete. I believe that sometimes athletes have a bad day, and sometimes they have long-lasting struggles, and neither should be cause for shame.
But behavior -- encompassing respect for teammates, safety, attentiveness/focus, etc -- is a very different story, especially for team-level kids. I absolutely will yell at a kid, sit them out, or send them home for behavioral problems. The gym can be a dangerous place for those who approach it without discipline, and when you're in one of my groups you are either attentive and respectful or you are sitting out. I do believe -- quite firmly -- that kids need regular time and space to be crazy, wild, unfocused, and random, but gymnastics practice is not that time or place.
Interesting exercise to do!
  • I try really hard to make my gymnasts want to train at the best of their abilities. Still, gymnastics should be fun.
  • But, I also strongly believe that if an athlete doesn't do as well as she can, she isn't doing it voluntary. There's a message behind the behavior (fear, stress, tiredness, pain...).
  • It's important to adapt to the kids energy, mood, etc.
  • I also don't believe in forcing a kid to perform while being afraid. Yelling or keeping a kid working on the skill for an extended period of time isn't my way of dealing with fear either.
  • I will praise efforts, even for the slightest improvement.
  • Disrupting others while they are working hard, interrupting me while explaining or not watching a teammate while showing skills is a big no no tough. Respect is definitely a priority.
  • My expectations are pretty much the following:
    • Help (set stations at the apparatus, sometimes for some conditioning exercises, bring the box with the water bottles...)
    • Speak (something you don't understand, you're hurt, a problem with a teammate...)
    • Be respectful to others
    • Work your hardest.
  • Humor can turn a whole training around.
Crazyness is okay during warming up and if we do it a game at the end of practice.

When something is not working, stop it. This works for certain stations, fear issues etc.

You will not say I can't. My reason for this is that if you believe you can't do it you never will be able to do it. If you can't do it, you say I can't do it yet or something in that trend.

Listen to the corrections I give your teammates.

I am not a monster. If something is bothering you, tell me.

I will absolutely let you sit out for behavioral issues. And I will let you sit out in the gym, so you can see how much fun your friends are having. And so I can keep an eye on you to make sure you aren't goofing off while that's the reason you were being sat out
  • But, I also strongly believe that if an athlete doesn't do as well as she can, she isn't doing it voluntary. There's a message behind the behavior (fear, stress, tiredness, pain...).

AGREEING WITH THIS SO HARD. Telling a kid they're not trying hard enough is an utterly useless thing for a coach to say; a deficiency in effort is generally no more voluntary than, say, a deficiency in strength.
What do you say when coaches ( or parents or teachers) say a child is "trying too hard". A young athlete I knew used to get this comment ALL the time.
What do you say when coaches ( or parents or teachers) say a child is "trying too hard". A young athlete I knew used to get this comment ALL the time.

I think the quote « trying too hard » could be like this: sometimes kids try to make too many corrections or think about too many things at the same time while doing the skills. So the skill isn't made as naturally...

Again, it's the coach responsability to priorize and give only the most important corrections. We have to get to the root of the problem, and not tell the athlete to correct the results of the error. For example, if my gymnast undercut her back handspring, which make throw her head, have bent knees and have closed shoulders, I'll tell her to lean back and then push through her toes. Not go farther, keep your chin in, get your legs straight and arms by your ears...

Hope that last paragraph is clear... Sorry for the french quotation marks. Key board isn't english ;)
This is a super interesting post! Kudos to you, @Geoffrey Taucer for starting it. I'm going to love reading all the responses, and I'm hoping to be humbled, and to learn some things! :)

I have a pretty high career goal for myself, which is to eventually coach at the elite level. As such, there are times I can be pretty hard on myself, like on the days I feel I did not do the best thing for my athletes, or when I wasn't coaching to the best of my ability. However, I have come to realize it is this discipline in myself that has helped me better understand my actual potential as a coach, and that I am good at what I do. It is also the force that drives me to continually improve myself, and become a better student of the gymnastics coaching profession. It is so essential to success in any area of life to use hindsight, failures, and other hard experiences as learning opportunities. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is undeniably true, and it's what drives me everyday in my coaching, and towards my ultimate goal. Geoffrey Taucer, I think you will get the reference that hindsight and reflection are the "Saiyan blood" that allows me to come back even stronger after each "near-death experience." It's what allows me to keep ascending to the next level, and I try to instill this virtue in the girls I coach. I tell them they cannot be perfect everyday, and I don't expect them to. I do expect them to learn from their mistakes, and to always give their best effort, even on the crappy days when nothing seems to work. There's a wonderful quote I love: "Winning is simply giving the best you have to offer."

The second concept I believe strongly in is that to truly reach a level of mastery in something, you must relentlessly pursue the task, consistently taking the necessary steps along the way, and not settle for anything below that goal. I recognize that this is a simple truth, and I apply it to not only my endeavors in life, but to my coaching. After working with a given group of athletes for a while, I start to recognize the ones that are beginning to develop this quality, and the ones who do not have it, or at least don't have the potential to develop it yet. It is very binary, very black and white, that the ones who have this quality are the ones that will go to the outer edges of the sport, and that the ones who don't, will not. This obviously relates specifically to achieving the highest levels of the sport; you cannot reach the elite level without this mindset. As a coach, it is my job to take this law and apply it to the infinite amount of variables within every kid. If I applied this to every single child in a militaristic way, with no variance to the individual child, nobody would make it out the other side. Instead, my efforts are basically to attempt to gauge each kid's tolerance to this concept, and coach to those limits accordingly. There are kids who are in gymnastics just to have fun, or are in the sport because their parents want them to be, or because they really enjoy the sport but not the hard work, or are very talented but don't love the sport, or who are ultra dedicated to becoming better gymnasts, and countless other permutations. None of these types of kids are better than any other; they are all equal in my eyes and I coach them to the best of my ability and to what they can tolerate. However, I realize that the kids with the dedication towards mastery are the only ones who will reach the absolute highest levels. I also believe that the insane level of effort required to achieve this level of skill can only be applied to one field. For instance, I love solving puzzle cubes/rotational puzzles (think Rubik's Cubes) because I like the mental stimulation it gives me, but I would never be able to become a top level speed solver because it would take hours upon hours of practice every day for multiple years. Naturally, this would take time away from my coaching, and I would not be able to pursue my coaching goals to the same level. This is not to say that if you can't get super good at something, it's not even worth doing! That would be a very foolish statement. In fact, it is precisely this reason why some gymnasts will never reach the highest levels, because they simply may be putting those efforts and hours into some other pursuit. It's all relative to the individual and their goals and passions, not to mention that a vast majority of kids aren't even aware of this concept yet. Just look at all the little ones who are dead set on making it to the Olympics! :p

A final rule I live by, is that I don't worry about things that are outside of my control. So much stress in life can be avoided with this mind set, and it really can save you a lot of time, too. I feel this is an invaluable trait to have for anyone in a position of authority, especially a coach, because it helps the kids immensely when they see their coach is calm, collected, and not worried about things that can't be changed or controlled. It's also an incredibly valuable skill to teach to your athletes, too. It will help them to feel more invested in the things that really matter, like their overall progress in the sport and what they're getting out of it, rather than their scores, placements, or level. Conversely, things that are within one's control should be worried about, and more importantly, acted upon. If there is something that I want to change, then I get up and do it! This can often times be said much more easily than done, and I'd be lying if I said I never procrastinate, but I have gotten better at being active in enacting change in things that are important to me. This philosophy has really helped me in my task of improving the team program at the gym I recently started working at. It helps me not stress over things I can't control, and simultaneously helps me work towards the changes I can make and want to see.

So, in summary, I guess the three concepts/beliefs I apply most to my coaching are:
  • Using failures as learning experiences to better myself.
  • Working relentlessly towards a goal, with maximum effort over a long time is the only way to achieve mastery.
  • Don't worry about things outside of your control, and get up and do something about the things that are within your control.

These three things help me inch closer each day towards becoming the elite coach I want to eventually be. I also strive to teach these ideals to the athletes under my charge, because I feel they are essential to success in life. When I think about what I teach young girls on a daily basis, I feel so grateful to have the career I do. Coaching, in and of itself, has helped me become a better person in so many ways, too! That could be a whole other thread: How has coaching changed your thoughts and views on life?
Another point I want to add:

I believe that gymnastics is a tool, not a goal. Competition is a tool, not a goal. The GOAL is to build athletes into stronger, happier, healthier people; individual skills, competitions, and even the sport as a whole, are tools used to achieve this end. And what a tool it is; whether they realize it or not, every single athlete in this sport is superhuman.

To give a concrete example of what I mean, one which every compulsory coach has seen play out a thousand times: consider the kip. You work drills for the positions, for the strength, for the timing, for the setup, etc, etc, etc. You carefully prepare every step of the way, and when an athlete is finally ready to try the skill itself, here's what happens:
1) They step up to the bar, fully prepared.
2) They give their absolute best effort.
3) They fail. Spectacularly. They don't even come close to making it.
4) Having just failed, they repeat steps 1-3 again. And again. And again and again and again. By my calculations, most of them fail over a thousand times.
This. Is. F***ing. Amazing.
To fail over a thousand times and continue unfazed is simply amazing. Normal people are simply not capable of this. Normal people, when they try their best and fail at something, give up after a few attempts. When (or even whether) the athlete eventually gets her kip is irrelevant; the willingness to try again after a thousand failures is something that normal people will never experience in their entire lives, and yet for these athletes it's just another day at the gym.

That thousand-and-first kip attempt -- whether they make it or not -- is worth more to me than all the gold medals in the world could ever be. Success or failure at any particular meet is insignificant by comparison; before they even arrive at the first meet of their level 4 season, they've already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are superhuman. For this I stand in awe of every single one of my athletes. Sure I'm proud of the one who takes first at states, but I'm even more proud of the one who bombs, places dead last, and still shows up for workout the next week.
I love reading your thoughts. I agree with so many things!

For me, the most important thing in coaching is to keep the kids in the sport as long as they are enjoying it. The optional group that I'm coaching now has 12 gymnasts with very mixed abilities and goals. It's a challenge to coach a group like that and sometimes I think "what's the point of making this over 170 cm tall 17 year old gymnast practice giants on the pit bar, when it's highly unlikely that she will ever transfer them to her routine?" but then I think "heck, there is very little percentage of people in this world who will ever learn giants on ANY bar so she's already a superstar for doing what she does, why not celebrate that and let her have fun while learning new skills, no matter if they will ever be competition ready as long as she tells me that she enjoys training bars".

There are gymnasts in my group who will likely go far, and there are gymnasts who have reached the highest competition level they will ever reach, but they are still all important to me and I care about each and every one of them. Some of them I want to keep in the sport because they can reach high levels, win medals and become champions, but some I want to keep in the sport because they are such a good role models, hard workers and good examples for the younger girls and because I think they will make awesome coaches one day. If I dropped kids like them, the entire program would suffer.

I make sure to ask at least one question from every gymnast each day. I want to make sure that they all understand that they are important, I'm interested in them as persons, not just as gymnasts. I ask about school, family, friends, what's your favorite X, are you tired, when did you go to sleep last night, how are you feeling, is your knee still hurting, what is your new dog like, what school do you go to, how long is your commute, what are your teachers like, where did you get that T-shirt because it's awesome, have you got a new water bottle?
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