A Letter To My Young Athletes: How To Train Your Inner Strength

Inner Strength - The Gymnastics Way

Dear Young Athletes,

At this point, you all are between 6 and 9 years old. Some of you have been training with me for 1 year now, others close to 3 years. I’ve watched you laugh, cry, fall and grow. I don’t keep track of how many medals you’ve won, but I know your personalities, strengths, weaknesses and your individual journey by heart. And I am proud of you. You don’t realise it yet, but through your training you’re learning so many important life lessons, and building the foundation of your inner strength.

As you grow older, life will get harder and more confusing. You will need to rely more and more on your own inner strength, instead of coaches or parents to guide you. I am writing you this letter to remind you that the lessons you’re learning now in gymnastics apply also to other aspects of your life.

All that I say below, I have said to you before in training, though in much less detail. I don’t explain the concepts to you now, because you are too young to understand. But you are practicing them, and you are growing strong. And if in future you struggle, or feel broken, or start to doubt yourself, I hope that you will read this letter and tap into your training.

To train your inner strength, do the following:

 

1. Dare To Fail

You’ve already failed countless times in gymnastics. You failed while learning new skills, you failed in competition, you failed while others succeeded. But you haven’t given up. 

I tell you repeatedly in training that failure is how you learn, how you grow stronger. And you’ve internalized this. When you fail, you say to me: “Gymnastics is falling.” “I want to try again.” “Can I try on my own without help now?” You’re no longer embarrassed by failure; you’re familiar with it and accept it as part of the path towards excellence.

Well, this is how life works too. Successful people rarely find success without first becoming familiar with failure.

If you ever find yourself afraid to fail, remember that before you were 9 years old, you knew that the path to success is through daring to fail. Dare again, fail again, grow again.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” — JK Rowling 

 

2. Welcome Challenges

Inner strengthThere are 2 kinds of young athletes: the ones who welcome tough training and consistently do more than what is required of them, and the ones who waste time and energy complaining or making excuses. The first kind of athlete progresses faster and achieves better results.

Some of you are naturally the first kind, others naturally the second. But in training, I try to mould all of you to be the first kind. This is why I come down harshly on complaining and always nag at you to learn to enjoy tough conditioning.

But as you grow older, and definitely once you are an adult, nobody will spend as much time trying to help you become the first kind of person. You must do it for yourself.

Because life works the same way. Challenges in life are the “tough conditioning” which will help you excel at it. Whether you like them or not, challenges will come. What determines how much you gain from them are your attitude and the amount of effort you give to overcoming them.

When facing challenges, think back to your training: keep calm and solve one problem at a time, push your own limits incrementally and repeat until you succeed.

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, Cardigan Mountain School Commencement Address

 

3. Practice Consistently

If you want to do this skill well once in competition, you have to do it well 1000 times in practice.” I repeat this so often, I sound like a broken record. I say 1000 times, because I’m not sure you can count up to 10,000 yet, but 10,000 is more accurate.

Remember the 5-in-a-row drill? When you learn new skills, I ask you to repeat the new skill successfully 5 times in a row. If you fail on any attempt, you go back to zero and start again.  Once, one of you turned to me after 4 successful attempts and said, earnestly, “I wish I can succeed on the next one.” You didn’t, and you had to start all over again. You ended up having to attempt about 50 times to get 4 sets of 5-in-a-row.

When we first started the 5-in-a-row drill, you got frustrated easily. But now you grit your teeth and focus. You do, and fail, and do again. And slowly but surely, you become more consistent.

The same thing applies to inner strength. If you want to have sufficient inner strength to weather the big storms in life, you have to practice being strong in every small annoyance, inconvenience or setback. To train yourself to control your emotions, start by keeping calm when someone cuts your line, or when you don’t get the grades you want in school. To train determination, choose to increase effort or find alternative solutions, instead of complaining, when the restaurant you want is fully booked. It may not sound like much, but these baby steps matter. Remember that you learnt your handstand walk by starting with 2 steps, then 10 steps, then 30 steps, then 60 steps.  

And be patient. It will almost always take longer than you think to get the results you want. Don’t give up. 

 

4. Support Others

Many people mistakenly think that gymnastics is not a team sport, because gymnasts perform their routines individually at competition. But you know better.

You know that your teammates encouraged you when training was tough, cheered for you in competition, comforted you when you failed. You did the same for them, and together you all were strong.

To grow stronger, support others and accept support in return. Sometimes it is easier to encourage others than it is to encourage yourself. Support others unselfishly and watch them grow strong as a result. You will find confidence and a sense of purpose. When they return the favour, never be too proud to accept help in return.

No one is strong on their own. Strong supportive relationships not only make you stronger but also happier

“[I]t is not true that I am self-made. Like everyone, to get to where I am, I stood on the shoulders of giants. My life was built on a foundation of parents, coaches, and teachers; of kind souls who lent couches or gym back rooms where I could sleep; of mentors who shared wisdom and advice; of idols who motivated me from the pages of magazines (and, as my life grew, from personal interaction).” Arnold Schwarzenegger

 

5. Believe In Yourself

You’re too young to observe this right now, but I have: those of you who believe in yourself progress faster. It’s subtle, but those of you who believe in yourself actually push harder, bounce back quicker and are happier during training.

Self-esteem can be trained. Some of you started gymnastics shy and unsure, and have blossomed into confident young girls. If you ever stop believing in yourself, remember that before you were 9, you accomplished amazing things that many adults can’t do. Believe in yourself again, because you can accomplish amazing things again.

If you want to accomplish something, don’t wait until you feel confident to try it. Become confident by practicing, failing and bouncing back. You may not feel confident about new skills or knowledge, but you can be confident about your resilience and inner strength.

 

6. Laugh At Yourself

You may not remember this, but right now, whenever you fall in training, you laugh at yourself. Then you just get back up and try again. No fuss, no drama, only fun. As you grow older, you may notice that you start to care more about what other people think of you, your ego has more influence over how you react to situations, and you lose your ability to laugh at yourself. 

Nip this in the bud. Your ego will make you weak. If you take yourself too seriously, or you constantly worry what other people think of you, you are going to be stressed out and insecure, and it will be harder to navigate life’s ups and downs. Instead, laugh at your previous mistakes, your past immaturity, your embarrassing moments. Then do better. 

 

Gymnastics Is Really About Your Inner Strength

You may not realise it now, but for me your gymnastics training is about so much more than just gymnastics. It is about laying solid foundations for your inner strength, so that whatever you go on to do after gymnastics, you will be strong. This is and always has been my priority, not least because it’s also the way you get good at gymnastics. 

Being strong doesn’t mean you never feel scared, disappointed, stressed, upset or beaten. If you never have these feelings, it means you’re not trying difficult things; you’re not living up to your potential. Being strong means that each time you fall, you choose to pick yourself up instead of dwell in self-pity. 

You are already strong. You have inspired me by embodying values that some adults struggle with, like positivity, tenacity and eagerness to learn. You laugh when you stick a skill, and when you fall on your butt. Life can sometimes make you forget how strong you are, so if that ever happens to you, read this letter and remember your training. Be inspired by your 6 or 8 or 9 year old self, as I have, and go on to inspire others.

 

Love,

Coach Christine

August 2017

 

 

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4 Ways To Build Resilience In Athletes

As a coach of young athletes, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to build resilience.

When I first started coaching, I was surprised by how quickly some of my students gave up. 

Some attempted new skills only half-heartedly, before announcing “I can’t” with such earnestness that I knew they believed it. Every time we’d have a mini test in class, one girl in particular would always say “I will surely be the worst” before it even started. Another girl spent more time listing reasons she couldn’t do a skill than actually working on it. 

Then there were the students who loved challenges, whose eyes lit with determination, who always wanted to try new skills. They genuinely believed that they could excel, and were unfazed by others who were better than them.

As you can guess, the latter group of students improved more quickly than the former, who viewed the progress of the others as confirmation that they indeed “couldn’t”. 

What makes some athletes more resilient than others? Can we help those who are not naturally resilient become resilient?

Studies have shown that resilience can be taught. Resilience is a set of skills which, if made habitual (and this is key), will help young athletes excel in sports and other endeavors later in life.

Here are 4 ways to build resilience in  athletes: 

1. Push Their Limits Incrementally

All coaches should push their athletes’ physical and mental limits. But how the athletes are pushed will determine whether they grow resilient or give up.

Handstands
Pushing handstand limits

Good coaches build resilience by pushing each athlete just a little past their own limit each practice.

Why just a little? Shouldn’t coaches shoot for the moon? Not really. Coaches who set unrealistic, lofty goals for their athletes will develop demotivated athletes. Their athletes will constantly feel inadequate because they’re not at the level they’re ‘supposed’ to be. (Even if they’ve in fact progressed!)

As coaches, it is our job to have long-term goals for our athletes, but not to burden our athletes with them. Coaches should break long-term goals down into smaller steps, so that athletes can focus on conquering each small step. The success of conquering each step will motivate athletes to work on the next.

Breaking goals into smaller steps does not mean going easier on athletes. Each step must be slightly beyond the athlete’s current ability so that it is challenging yet achievable. Having a good grasp on each athlete’s limit is largely a matter of experience. Some athletes will give you the “I’m dying” face at 40% of their true capability, while others go straight to 100% and still don’t want to rest (make them!).  

 

2. Give Them Freedom To Fail

When coaches believe passionately in their athletes’ potential, they will be equally, if not more, frustrated than the athletes when they fail. But a good coach knows not to show it.

If a coach shows frustration or scolds or belittles athletes every time they fail, they will learn to fear failure. Failure will be a stressful, shameful thing. Given that some failure is inevitable in the pursuit of excellence, how long do you think it will be before the athlete gives up altogether?

falling
The more you fall, the faster you learn

To build resilience, good coaches give their athlete freedom to fail. They understand the value of failure and even encourage it.  

In the words of Christopher Sommer (former USA men’s gymnastics national team coach):

“Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations time-wise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.

…accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.

Certainly celebrate the moments of triumph when they occur. More importantly, learn from defeats when they happen. In fact, if you are not encountering defeat on a fairly regular basis, you are not trying hard enough. And absolutely refuse to accept less than your best.

Throw out a timeline. It will take what it takes.”

 

3. Teach Optimism

girl-bossing it in the gym
Ever optimistic, ever strong

In the 1970s, psychologist Martin Seligman discovered through research that pessimists are more likely to give up without trying, and at greater risk of depression. Optimists, however, resist helplessness and persist when faced with problems. He also discovered that it was possible to immunize people against giving up by teaching them optimism. 

In his book “The Optimistic Child“, he explains that optimism isn’t just positive self-talk, but a specific mindset used to view setbacks. Optimists habitually interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable, while pessimists interpret setbacks as permanent, pervasive and general.

Coaches can build resilience in their athletes by teaching them to think like optimists.

For example, if they do badly in competition, teach them to use a optimistic explanatory style:

   Pessimistic explanatory style  Optimistic explanatory style
Permanent / Temporary I will never do well. I did badly this time/I’m not good enough yet.
Pervasive / Local I am bad at gymnastics. Vault is my weakest event.
General / Changeable I  did badly because I’m just no good at gymnastics. I did badly this time because I didn’t work hard enough in practice.

 

4. Teach Radical Responsibility 

Radical responsibility is accepting full responsibility for everything in your life, no matter who is at fault.

Author Mark Manson explains:

“For example, if you woke up one day and there was a newborn baby on your doorstep, it would not be your fault that baby was put there, but the baby would now be your responsibility. You would have to choose what to do. And whatever you ended up choosing (keeping it, getting rid of it, ignoring it, feeding it to your pet parrot), there would be problems associated with any of those choices and you would be responsible for those as well.”

Accepting radical responsibility for your life builds resilience because it shifts your focus from what you can’t control (fault) to what you can control (your response).

Athletes who accept radical responsibility for everything in their lives are more resilient, because they believe they are masters of their own fate, and take action to create the future they want.   

Mark, again: 

“With great responsibility comes great power.

The more we choose to accept responsibility for in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives. Accepting responsibility for our problems is the first step to solving them.

…Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. This is because you always get to choose how you see things, how you react to things.”

pike hold, l hold
The face of determination in a 6-year-old

Resilience > Talent

Resilience is more important than raw talent in achieving excellence. You can make up for a lack of talent with hard work and resilience, but not the other way around. 

Build resilience in athletes by pushing their limits incrementally each practice, giving them freedom to fail, and teaching them optimism and radical responsibility.  

 

P.S. If you liked this post, check out how to help young athletes excel at competition and why parents should choose gymnastics

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