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!
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.