Post-Competition Reflections 2018

Our first competition season of the year is done and dusted! We had the National Championships in March, and the National School Games in April. What a ride. We had such an intense period of preparation, but so worth it! I am so incredibly proud of all my gymnasts (#clichedbuttrue). Some of them won medals and some did not, but ALL of them grew in strength, mental and physical, and character compared to this time last year.

Competition: National Championships Level 1 Team Champions
Congratulations to our Level 1 Team Champions!
Competition: National Championships 2018
National Championships – Clockwise (L-R): Congratulations to Danielle for her 1st place in Stage 2 Uneven Bars; Two good friends happy after awaiting their Floor score; Level 1 and Stage 2 girls
National School Games Competition
National School Games – Marymount Convent School

After every competition season I like to reflect on my observations, so that I can use them to improve training going forward. Here are my Top 5 Takeaways from this year’s first competition season:

1. Process goals are more effective than Outcome goals

I’ve said this before, but it is so important I will say it again.

Those who kept thinking about the outcome of the competition did not perform as well as those who focused on what they needed to do during competition (“I need to keep tight”, “I need to straighten my knees” etc.). I honestly don’t know why it works this way, but I can say with conviction that it does. Perhaps it is because outcomes are partly beyond our control, so thinking about outcomes induces helplessness, which distracts from focus and effort. As a coach, it’s been my experience that when I emphasize effort and openness to failure, my gymnasts produce better results at competition.

2. There is NO substitute for preparation.

No amount of talent, intelligence, natural confidence etc. can substitute for preparation. There is no shortcut. I have now seen more than a few gymnasts with above average natural talent perform worse at competition than those with less talent, because they prepared less. They missed practice more often, or did not put in full effort during practice. Even resilience takes practice – the more times you fall, the more opportunities you have to practice getting back on your feet.

Make no mistake, when a gymnast performs during competition, it’s muscle memory she relies on the most. Confidence in the competition arena comes from repetition in the practice gym.

3. Play the long game. 

When I first started coaching, I was so impatient. I thought of the progress that I wanted in terms of weeks and months, not years. When I didn’t see it, I thought that there must be more efficient ways of training that I was missing. But my more experienced colleague basically laughed in my face and told me that it just hadn’t been long enough, and that constantly changing training techniques would actually be counterproductive to progress.

Most of the gymnasts I took to competition this year have been training with me for about 2 years. Looking back, I can see that progress is something of an exponential process. You have to put in a lot of effort at the beginning to lay the proper foundations, and you are unlikely to get good results at first. But, if you patiently persist, your effort pays off exponentially later on.  Take it from someone more experienced than I:

“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.”

Christopher Sommer (former USA men’s gymnastics national team coach)

4. When dealing with young athletes, speak their language. 

After the National Championships, I was leaving the competition arena when I saw one of my 7-year-old gymnasts bawling so hard, I thought she’d hurt herself. It turns out that she was upset because she had just realised that the post-competition party I had promised them was not immediately after the competition but a few weeks later!

We all know that children and adults find different things important. To me, the competition was the main event and the party merely an afterthought. But to my young athletes, the party is such a big thing. Even the older girls look forward to it. Planning a party for the girls is not really part of my job description, but it’s one of the small things I can do to strengthen my connection with my young athletes. 

Children are motivated by fun, so I try to find ways to make tough training simultaneously fun. When I show them that what matters to them matters to me, it pays dividends in training. 

5. It’s about so much more than gymnastics.

No gymnast remains a gymnast forever. Even if they reach elite levels, they will at some point retire. What then is the point of pushing them so hard when they are young? Because they learn so much of what they need to thrive in life through gymnastics. They learn that hard work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success, that you don’t have to be the best to be happy, and that there is joy and meaning in the uphill climb. They practice failing and moving on, succeeding and remaining humble, lifting others up and cheering them on. These are the true lifelong benefits of gymnastics. 

And so, armed with these insights, we move onward to the next competition season!

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4 Ways To Help Young Gymnasts Excel At Competition

Competition Team Gold!

As coaches and parents, we all want our young gymnasts to excel at competition.

But if we’re not careful about what we say or how we act around our young gymnasts come competition season, we may hinder their performance instead. 

Here are 4 simple strategies to help young gymnasts overcome nerves, feel confident and perform their best at competition:

1. Make Bouncing Back A Habit

At competition, you only get one attempt at your routine. And that attempt lasts just one minute.

It doesn’t matter how many perfect routines you’ve done in practice. If you mess up in competition, you can’t fix it. 

Can you imagine the pressure?

No wonder young gymnasts fear mistakes. Fearing mistakes may:

  • Make them nervous,
  • Cause them to ‘play it safe’ by reducing the amplitude or power of their movement so as not to fall, 
  • Cause them to lose focus after a mistake, which can derail the rest of the routine. 

The tragedy is that any of the above can end up costing the gymnast more points than a mistake itself!

So how can we teach our gymnasts not to fear mistakes? By making bouncing back a habit.

I tell my gymnasts that if they make a mistake during competition, they should move on, focus on the next skill and keep fighting. This is easy enough to understand. But understanding doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to do it when it counts. So, we have to practice. Before the competition, we have many mock competitions so they can practice bouncing back, until they can do it automatically.

While coaches should take the lead on this one, parents can help to soothe pre-competition jitters by reminding young gymnasts that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that bouncing back is an achievement in itself. 

2. Focus on Process, Not Outcome

Sometimes, well-meaning parents and coaches tell their gymnasts, “If you work hard, you will do well”. Unfortunately, the reality of competitive sport (and life in general) is that sometimes you work hard, and you still don’t do well.

There could be many reasons for this: other competitors were more experienced, or they were luckier on the day, or the scoring was slightly subjective…the list goes on. The point is, the competition outcome is beyond the gymnast’s control. And trying to control something which is beyond your control is not only stressful — it also doesn’t work.

Instead, get the gymnast to focus on what they can control: effort and attitude. Set process goals like: work hard in training, stay focused in competition, bounce back from mistakes. Have gymnasts focus on what they need to do to be successful, rather than the outcome –success– they want.

When gymnasts focus on what they can control, not only are they more confident, they’re also more likely to achieve the outcome they want.

3. Make Competition Fun

Gymnastics Party
Party shenanigans!

My gymnasts love competition, because they know that after every competition, regardless of outcome, there’ll be a party!

At our party, there’s cake, there’s jelly, but most importantly (to them), there’s 2 hours of PLAYTIME in the gym.

Our young gymnasts are serious athletes, but they’re also kids. Kids work harder, persevere longer, and perform better when they are having fun. (Adults too, for that matter.) We should help them associate competition with fun, joy and laughter, rather than fear and stress.

4. Rack Up Competition Experience

An experienced coach once told me“高水平是比出来的,不是练出来的。” This roughly translates to Excellence is developed through competition, not (just) training.

I basically treat the first competition any of my gymnasts do as a write-off. It is strictly for experience, and I tell them as much. If they do well, it’s a bonus. It’s important that parents understand this as well, so they don’t come away from their child’s first competition thinking that they aren’t any good at gymnastics. 

The more competition exposure young gymnasts get, the more experienced they will be. They will get used to the competition pressure, get better at bouncing back from mistakes, and learn to rise to the occasion. They will also have more opportunities to observe the best, which will motivate them to work harder.

Every Competition Is An Opportunity

At the end of the day, every competition is an opportunity, no matter the outcome. It is an opportunity either to excel, or to learn. Oftentimes, the learning is more valuable to long-term success. As coaches and parents, we must teach our young gymnasts to make every opportunity count

 

Now I’d love to hear from you! If you have any other strategies for helping young athletes succeed, leave a comment below. I read every single one. 

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