As a gymnastics coach, I run into a lot of kids that say “I can’t.” Gymnastics is a very difficult sport that takes perseverance, persistence and at times some discomfort. Even the most basic skills take quite a lot of strength, flexibility and coordination that can be frustrating for kids that live in a “give it to me, now” society. Gymnastics is not a “give it to me, now” sport.
Over my 15 years of coaching I have noticed that kids give up quicker than in the past. What used to take many turns before they said “I can’t.”, Now takes only a few. Kids are starting to make up their minds quickly that they are incapable of completing a task. The “I can’t” kid typically breaks down, gives up and refuses to try again from fear of instant failure.
The easiest response to an “I can’t” kid is- “Don’t say that!”, “Gymnasts don’t say ‘I can’t’”, “Yes, you can!”. Maybe the “Yes, you can!” seems like the best, most well intentioned response. However, you are lying. The child really can’t do the skill… yet. So, saying “Yes, you can!” doesn’t make sense. You are watching them fail, yet saying they can do it.
Effective motivation can only be used after a thorough explanation. First, agree with them that the skill is difficult and validate their sense of frustration that they can’t do the skill.... yet. Yet, is the key word. Educate them by explaining that we are here to learn and the coach is here to help. Teach them that the inability to do the skill is a phase and learning is a process that takes time, determination and perseverance. Give them the appropriate words and tools to ask for help and provide a space that promotes asking and learning.
An example of a response to “I can’t”- “Yes, this skill is difficult right now, isn’t it? You’re right that you can’t do this skill just yet. But, that’s why I am here! You are here to learn and I am here to help you. Let me see you give it your best try. You might not make it today, but that’s ok, you’re still learning! If you keep working hard and trying your best, you will continue to get better and eventually make it. But, it takes time for your muscles to gain enough strength to make this skill. So, instead of saying “I can’t”, next time you can say “Can you help me, please.” Because with my help and your hard work, you will be able to do it in the future.”
Yes, that response takes time and can be exhausting to convince a stubborn “I can’t” kid into believing what you are saying is true. But, once that child makes that skill- there is nothing better than seeing their face light up from the accomplishment of their hard work. And when they do make that skill, make sure to reiterate that it was through their hard work and perseverance. Then- jump up and down! Run a victory lap for them! Pick them up and twirl them around! Positive reinforcement for that hard work will resonate with them and they will be more likely to adopt the same behavior in the future.
As an educator, don’t pass up this moment to teach this important life skill, because once they are successful through asking for help, they are likely to use the tools learned in gymnastics class in school, at home, college, work place and etc…
Tip: Create small successes to lead up to their big success. Try not to give the student the whole skill at once. Break the skill down into parts and give them a piece at a time. Small achievements boosts their self confidence and increases their motivation to strive for the ultimate goal.
Danielle Baker has been a gymnastics coach since 2001. She has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and is a former preschool teacher. She is CEO of DaniBees Activities, mobile gymnastics company, in Los Angeles.