After a fulfilling day of gymnastics coaching, I love coming home and sharing the day with my husband, Alberto.
It is so interesting to me which stories he remembers and brings up from time to time, especially since he was never a gymnast himself, and has not had much interaction with children. Surprisingly, it’s not the goofy, funny stories, like “Billy pulled down his pants and peed on my mats today.” (true story) that seem to resonate with him- but the stories of children overcoming fears and the step by step approach to build confidence and empowerment.
He has been urging me to share this- So, here you go, hubby! This is the blog post you have been waiting for me to write!
Creating a Culture of Empowerment
Kids tend to be very weary of new environments, especially preschoolers. Sometimes it takes children a while to get used to a gymnastics class room. There are strange mats and equipment they have never seen before, with a lot of action happening all around them. It can be overstimulating for some, and it just takes time for them to become comfortable.
Same thing for gymnastics skills. It can be very scary for kids to go upside down for the first time. I am sure adults can relate to a fear of going upside down too! The tummy turn over feeling (like going on a roller coaster), can happen in forward rolls, swinging on the bar, jumping off of a big mat- some people love that feeling and others need some time to overcome it.
I have found that pushing or forcing children to perform skills they are not comfortable with is not the best long term solution. It causes unnecessary anxiety, creates a power struggle with coach and gymnast, and gives them a sense of powerlessness.
We want kids to feel empowered and in control of their own personal gymnastics journey as well as their life. To create a culture of empowerment, we need to provide a safe environment for kids to communicate that they do not feel comfortable. If they can speak up when something is uncomfortable, then they are empowered to speak up when they need to communicate to an adult when they are in trouble or when an adult has acted inappropriately with them. If adults force children to do things they don’t want to do, then it is sending a message to kids that adults taking control without their permission is ok. Encouraging students to approach skills on their own terms and at their own pace is necessary in producing confident kids and eventually confident adults.
My husband has named these empowerment stories, “Just touch the bar”, stories.. based on this original story:
"Just touch the bar."
I had a student that was terrified of the bar. Every time it was his turn on the bar, he would run away and cry. It would have been easy for me to pick up this little two year old and force him to touch the bar, the “rip off the band-aid” technique - with this method he would quickly see that the bar is nothing to be scared of and he would be swinging within the next few weeks… right? Yes, I am sure this method is the quickest fix to have him overcome this fear- however, that path would not teach him to overcome his fears himself and the trust between coach and gymnast would be lost.
There is a better way. It takes a lot of patience and communication, but is definitely worth it.
Identifying the behavior towards the fear, without calling it 'fear' is the first step. I learned this from a very respected coach at a Congress I attended, Ms. Wendy. She pointed out that we should avoid using the word 'fear' in gymnastics. 'Fear' has a negative connotation to it and we don't want to give them the idea that they have a fear if they actually don't.
A better word to use is "uncomfortable".
“It seems like you are uncomfortable with the bar because you are avoiding the bar station. It is ok to be uncomfortable with this. Maybe you can just come over and touch the bar for now until you become more comfortable. Can you come over with me and we can just touch the bar today?”
At first, he was not comfortable touching the bar. And that was his choice, so I respected his choice.
However, while he was doing the other stations he watched all of his friends swinging on the bar and having a great time! I noticed this and went over to him again...
“Hey, looks like your friends are having a great time swinging on the bar! Do you want to come over with me and just touch the bar first?”
He still seemed afraid. So, I started thinking about why he would be afraid of just touching the bar. Maybe an adult in the past had told him that they were just going to do one thing and then picked him up and pushed him through something else... Maybe he is scared of me?
“How about I stay right here while you go over and touch the bar? Would that make you feel better?”
He shook his head yes, walked over to the bar, and touched it.
The next week he was in my class, he still seemed a bit uneasy, but it was a lot quicker to get him to touch the bar than the week before. He still didn’t trust that I wasn’t going to force him to do something else, so I would stand away from him so he could touch it by himself. When he touched the bar I told him how proud I was of him and also added..
“Maybe next time you can put both hands on the bar!”
the next time he went to the bar he put both hands.
“Wow, look at you! Maybe next time you can pick up your feet?”
he didn’t know how to pick up his feet to hang on the bar, so I asked,
“Can I come help you hang on the bar?”
He nodded his head yes, and I walked over and carefully lifted his body up.
Every week I gave him a new small challenge for him to master, and now he is swinging like there was never an issue!
This step by step method takes a lot of patience from the teacher, but is so well worth it because of the huge life lesson he has learned through this experience- and all on his own- on his terms- through his choices. He made the choice to take the suggestions from his coach and overcome his fear and become a better gymnast.
This small success of swinging on the bar taught him that he is capable of overcoming a fear, which will give him more confidence to tackle fear in the future- all on his own.
This is a "Just touch the bar" story that actually involves just touching the bar - but, you can use this teaching technique with any type of fear. I had a student that was afraid of doing a forward roll down the mat - The first step was - "Just touch the wedge mat." And eventually, step by step, after months of classes, this student is confidently doing forward rolls- not only down the wedge mat, but on the floor and over the bar!
Cultivate confidence through cartwheels - with love, Coach DaniBee
Do you have a "Just touch the bar." story?! Please, share it in the comments below! I would love to hear yours and am sure others would too!
"This is easy!" - How to change this contagious fixed mindset phrase in your potential growth mindset classroom.
A few years ago I finally read, Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. I had heard about the two different mindsets and read articles with fixed and growth mindset being used, but the importance of fostering a growth mindset really didn’t sink in until after I finally took the time to read the book- especially as a coach, but also for my own personal improvement.
So, if you are a coach, parent, teacher or a human being, and you haven't read this book yet- stop right now and go read it!
For those of you hearing about fixed vs growth mindset for the first time- below is a small graphic that summarizes the difference between the two mindsets.
The book reminded me that I have to focus on my own growth mindset as a teacher and focus on ways I can improve my teaching abilities to give my gymnasts the best instruction possible. Since the book really emphasizes the importance of developing a growth mindset early in life to reach one’s full potential- I started thinking of ways I could grow as an educator, what practical things could I change in my coaching to foster a growth mindset environment in my classroom?
Dweck says, “Every word and action sends a message.”
So, I began paying special attention to the words I was using with my students, as well as, what my students were saying. One of the things I noticed was that….kids love to brag..
They love to show their friends, parents, teachers, relatives and even strangers, how good they are at something. “Hey, look what I can do!”, “Watch this!”, “I can do that!”. But what I found to be the most common, most used bragging sentence in the classroom…
“This is easy!”
As they drag out the ‘E’s in Eeeeeasy… they look around at their friends to see if they are impressed. Most of the time, the child hasn’t even done the skill correctly, or better yet, hasn’t even tried the skill before they blurt out the sentence!
Parents and teachers tend to praise the word 'easy', with good intentions, to comfort children. "Oh, I am sure this will be easy peasy for you!" I have heard coaches say, "Come on, this should be easy for you by now.", when they are frustrated with lack of progress from a student. It is also very easy for adults to praise the child that does complete the tasks easily "Oh, wow- Jimmy can already do this new skill! Jimmy, you are very talented." Kids pay attention to not only the way you praise them, but how you praise others as well.
So naturally, kids are going to brag when things are easy for them, because the message they are hearing is that teachers, parents and coaches are impressed with skills being easy for kids.
I realized that the "This is easy!", sentence was creating a fixed mindset pandemic in a potential growth mindset classroom!
The more I heard this sentence, the more I realized the negative effects it was having in my classroom. When a child shouts out the contagious phrase, "This is easy!", all of the other kids in class feel the pressure of also needing to think it is easy or they will be perceived as not being good. So, they all start sneezing the phrase!
Kids need to show off that the skills are easy for them, even though it is difficult for them, so they don’t look like the failure in the classroom. They try to make it look easy for them (a fixed mindset trait) instead of actually mastering it and improving (a growth mindset trait).
In the “This is easy!” environment, kids don’t practice in fear of looking like the skill is too difficult. They revel in the ‘too cool for school’ attitude. They don't want to try or put effort into practice because that will show everyone they are not innately good.
"I have to try" means "I am not good at it"
Fixed, fixed, fixed!
It is a toxic environment for making progress and feeling comfortable to make mistakes in order to improve… and it is essential to make mistakes in order to improve!
Luckily, as educators, we have the capability to control, manipulate and change the environment through the way we respond to our students - what can we do to create a safe place for kids to feel comfortable to fail, make corrections and take lots of turns to get better?
With Mindset fresh in my mind, I remembered a quote that really stood out to me.
“So what should we say when children complete a task- say, math problems- quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise thy have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”
Was your mind just blown like mine was when I first read this!? Deny children praise?! YES! It makes so much sense... don't praise children when they complete something without effort. Praise children for their hard work and perseverance (process praise), not just the end result.
So, to change the "This is easy" epidemic, deny them praise for something being easy.
Give them different words to be excited about... ready for it? Are you ready for the best sentence to hear in your classroom?!
"This is challenging!”
Change “This is easy!”, into “This is challenging!”? When a child says “This is easy!”- say,
"Oh no! I’m so sorry this is easy for you, that means you are not improving and getting better. Let me see you do the skill and I will give you a challenge!”
Make the word, challenge, sound like the best thing ever! A CHALLENGE! How exciting that you need A CHALLENGE!
If a child tries a skill and falls down disappointed, say-
“Wow! Great practice turn! Looks like this is a great challenge for you- great! That means you are improving. Keep practicing- once you make this challenge, I will give you a new one!”
With the classes that I have been doing this for a long time now, I have given them the words to say. When I hear, “This is easy!” - I stop the class and ask everyone, “Hey guys, what should we do if something is too easy for us?!”. And they all shout out with glee, “Ask for a challenge!”.
Challenges don't need to be anything crazy- and is actually a great way for kids to focus on their form. They can't move to the next challenge until they make the straight legs and arms challenge, or anything that you would like to see changed in their technique.
The picture above is an example of an additional challenge- "First challenge is making it all the way down the parallettes without touching the floor - if you need a more difficult challenge- work on doing it with straight legs and straight arms!"
And you can keep adding on- "Oh wow, you did the straight legs and arms challenge! Now, can you complete that 5 times- Wow, you did it 5 times easily, seems like you need a new challenge! Can you walk just your hands out to a push up position, count to 10 and then walk your feet up to your hands while keeping your arms and legs straight? Ooooh, tricky!"
It has been great! Kids are excited to say that skills are challenging for them because it means they are improving, plus, they are trying to do the skills correctly because they can’t move on to the next awesome challenge until they complete the one they are on. Magically, kids start working harder, taking more turns, and creating….
contagious positive energy!
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.