Most of us had no idea what we were getting into when we first signed our child up for a rec gymnastics class. What we found once they started competing was an intense, year-round sport that challenges athletes physically, mentally, and emotionally. As soon as meet season ends the push for next level skills begins. There is no doubt it’s a demanding sport for our kids, but as parents, gymnastics also demands a lot of us, and at times it might drive the best of us a little bit crazy. Find out how you can stay sane and supportive over your years as a gym parent.
Top three tips
Whether your child is brand-new to gymnastics, or is deep into Optionals, Doctor Alison Arnold, PhD, best known as Doc Ali, a mental strength training coach and founder of HeadGames (www.headgamesworld.com), offers these tips on maintaining a healthy relationship with your child’s sport:
- “Always keep love, play, and joy at the forefront,” says Doc Ali. “Love for the sport should always be the reason your child does gymnastics.”
- Stay optimistic. There will inevitably be ups and downs in gymnastics, but as a parent, you can learn to ride these waves and always be your child’s cheerleader. “Practice relentless optimism,” recommends Doc Ali. “The ups and downs are normal, and by staying optimistic you can get through the down times.”
- Be in a gym where you feel confident in the program. Make sure it is a healthy, supportive environment, and stay vigilant. “Remember that you are your child’s guardian,” Doc Ali says. “Sometimes parents are afraid to question coaches, but you have to trust your gut, and you have to be able to trust your gym program.”
Manage your own nerves
Your gymnast isn’t the only one who may get nervous before meets, plenty of parents struggle with major anxiety while watching their kids compete.
“First of all, it’s really normal for parents to feel anxiety about meets,” says Doc Ali.“Parents and children are so connected, and they see the long hours in the gym and their kids pushing themselves to master challenging skills and manage fears, so it’s normal for a parent to really want to see that pay off for their child.”
That said, Doc Ali encourages parents to “exude the mental state you want your athlete to have”.
You may be freaking out on the inside, but it’s important that your gymnast doesn’t see it.
“You want to communicate confidence to your athlete, and if you have to, fake it until you feel it,” recommends Doc Ali. “Try to calm down and focus on your breathing. You want to take deep breaths in with long exhales to calm your nervous system. And just like you want your athlete to do, practice positive self-talk. Tell yourself, ‘I know this is going to be okay’.”
It may take a little time and practice, but you can learn to calm your own nerves, project confidence, and enjoy watching your child compete.
Remember the true gifts of competition
There is an awards ceremony at the end of every meet where medals and trophies are handed out; meet scores are posted online for anyone who cares to look them up, and it can be easy to focus on those aspects of competition. However, Doc Ali recommends focusing on the “character gifts” that gymnastics offers, rather than achievement or outcome.
“When you focus on things like, ‘Did my child have fun, did they go all out, were they a good team leader?—those are the true gifts of competition, not the outcome,” she says.
It may still be many years down the road, but there will come a day when your child moves on from gymnastics and won’t need the next tumbling series, or release move on bars, but they will always need the character gifts they developed through competition. Among other things, competition teaches gymnasts that they may fall, but they can get back up again and persevere to finish strong, that putting in their best effort may not lead to an immediate victory, but is part of the journey to success, and that working as part of a team is just as important as their own individual accomplishments.
Maintain perspective on mental blocks
Mental blocks can seem to pop up out of nowhere. For months your gymnast has had beautiful giants, and one day they just disappear for no apparent reason.
“Mental blocks are so frustrating,” says Doc Ali. “But don’t get too caught up in trying to find the logic behind a mental block. Many times, there doesn’t seem to be a rational reason for the block and looking for the why can make you crazy.”
Instead, Doc Ali recommends normalizing fear for your athlete. Acknowledge that fear is a normal, natural thing, but that that it is also something they can overcome.
“Remind your athlete of past successes and help them form a ‘brave identity’, which is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves,” she says. “Point out ways that they have succeeded in the past.”
Then help your child develop tools to increase their mental toughness, which may come through books, online courses, or a mental toughness coach who can help them train their mind and learn to control their emotions during competition.
“You want to help them by providing them with the tools because pushing through fear will be something they deal with all of their lives,” says Doc Ali.
Many times, parents wonder if they should ask about their progress with the mental block, but Doc Ali suggests asking them more general curiosity questions when they come out of practice. Things like, “How was practice today?”, or “What did you work on?” instead asking about the skill they have been struggling with.
Mental blocks are frustrating, but with patience and the right tools, most gymnasts canovercome them.
Make a plan for injuries
Whether your gymnast suffers an acute injury during practice or is dealing with an overuse injury that has been gradually worsening, it is miserable seeing your child in pain, and the fears of missing out on competition or falling behind on skills can feel overwhelming.
“When an athlete gets injured, there is often a period of sadness or grief,” Doc Ali says. “Honor your child’s emotions. After the injury listen, acknowledge, and validate their feelings. Once they have processed the injury it’s time to move to action.”
Doc Ali points out that gymnasts like to have a plan.
“Gymnastics is a very structured sport, and gymnasts want that structure,” she says. “They want to have a plan in place for moving forward.”
Doc Ali recommends this plan include:
- A physical plan for treating the injury, which will include things like PT, conditioning, and slowly building back to skills in the gym
- A mental plan, which may include things like visualizing their skills or walking through those skills.
- A nutritional plan to help them heal.
- A spiritual plan, which is one that helps them stay connected to their love for the sport and includes activities outside of gymnastics to feed their soul.
- A future plan, which frames the injury in a positive way and looks forward to preparing for their future in gymnastics.
It may only take a few weeks for your gymnast to recover from their injury or it may take much, much longer, but by helping them follow a recovery plan you know they are taking positive steps forward to heal and return to the sport they love.
Being the parent of a gymnast may be a wild ride, but this journey that you get to take with your child also offers incredible opportunities to bond, create memories, and learn lessons that you will both carry for the rest of your lives.
Jen Kula is a Massachusetts based writer, and mom to two gymnasts. She has published one novel, has worked for several magazines and websites including; MetroSports Boston magazine, Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoors Magazine, and Babyzone.com, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.