Age: 9 and 7
Gymnastics Level: Level 5
Both my sons are in Level 5 competitive gymnastics this season and were All-Around Level 4 State Champions in their age groups last year. I have some concerns about their coach’s approach to training this year. If the boys on the team are not able to perform a certain skill correctly (for example…handstands on the p-bars with correct form and body position), their coach will make them do handstands on the wall for approximately 5 minutes. Many of the boys get very upset and exhausted after doing this, yet the coach requires them to continue training at the same pace with just a short water break. Can this be dangerous and how do I best approach my coach and let him know my concerns? My sons have become fearful of making a mistake and being punished. He does get results from the boys, yet I am beginning to get concerned.
Let’s start with the overall, most obvious and probably most important, evaluations you have communicated. You stated that “He does get results from the boys” and that your boys were both All-Around State Champions last year. At least at your boys’ current level, it is difficult (and should be) to argue with success. And while success at the lower levels is no guarantee of success at higher levels, or that a coach who can produce winning level 4s can also produce Elite gymnasts, it is certainly not a negative indication. Give credit where credit is due and be happy about your boys’ success so far.
Handstands Are the Basis of Virtually All Men’s Gymnastics
There is nothing more basic to men’s gymnastics than handstands. And handstands against a wall for five minutes is certainly not out of line for what young male gymnasts should be doing. While they should have built up to that amount of time in a progressive manner (to avoid excessive wrist strain because of inflexible wrists), five minutes is not too much handstand work for them to be doing.
Intense Paced Training
And evidently their training proceeds at a continuous intense pace, but they are given water breaks. Continuous training is efficient, which is necessary for gymnastics since training time is always at a premium. There is no doubt that continuous intense training can be difficult to deal with and young boys can react in a variety of ways to that. That is fine and they will adapt to this level of training, and even more difficult training, over time.
With the positives having been said, there are some coaching concerns that are legitimate, but perhaps not the ones you thought or in the ways you might have thought.
Punishing with Conditioning
It can be a definite mistake to “punish” with gymnastics conditioning. Great gymnasts love to condition. Great gymnasts love to work hard and do really intense strength training. Punishment tends to attach negative feelings to whatever is used as a punishment. Specifically, in this case, we would in no way want your boys to not want to do lots and lots of handstand work, because they were programmed, by being punished, to have a handstand aversion.
Fear of Being Punished
Punishment is the go-to strategy and most common method of trying to alter behavior, and not just by coaches, but by parents and virtually everyone else. The primary problem with punishment is that nothing positive about changing the desired behavior is learned. The next problem with punishment is that if it doesn’t work the first time (and it rarely does), there is nothing to do but escalate the punishment until sooner or later, it reaches a point where the punishment far exceeds the “crime.” The psychological effect of punishment is to that the subject “learns” to evade, lie or cheat in order to avoid the punishment. This is not a good outcome in a gymnastics training environment.
Fear of Being Punished
The primary reactions, that fear induces in people, are either to freeze them in place (like a deer in the headlights) or cause them to take flight (fight or flight reaction). Neither is appropriate or effective in a gymnastic training situation. Anything that causes fear in a gym training situation is counterproductive. That includes fear of punishment.
The Freedom to Make Mistakes
Gymnastics (and life) are full of mistakes and gymnasts need to be free to make them. Just taking a look at their training gym, which is full of safety mats (and probably foam safety pits) is obvious that mistakes are expected and coaching should allow for mistakes. In fact, we advocate encouraging gymnasts to get out of their own head and make significant changes (positive changes hopefully, but mistakes are accepted as part of the process). Learning in gymnastics (and life) comes from change, trying new things and trying to do things in new ways. If gymnasts do not change what they are currently doing, it is impossible to improve. They may temporarily change in a wrong direction, but if they don’t make any changes, improvement is simply not possible.
How To Approach Your Coach?
The first question you have to decide is whether to approach him at all. On balance, there are no major issues here. Sure, we would do some things differently, but there are many potential paths to success and your coach has let your sons experience early success. Parents need to choose their battles and there is nothing here that warrants a battle. Plus your sons have to learn to grow up tough and strong in “boy world” and in “gym world” both. “Boy world” and “gym world” are no place for wimps and they have to learn to deal, sooner or later, one way or another. Trying to intervene on minor matters will not help them in that process. I recommend you celebrate your boy’s successes and