Do You Have Young Coach Syndrome?

This editorial is for gymnastics coaches.

One of the indications of “young coach’s syndrome” is the tendency to ignore the scientific evidence on peaking and tapering athletes for major competitions. The most flagrant abuse seems to be increasing conditioning and the amount of practice time right up until the day of a major competition. The scientific evidence is clear on these points. A tapering off period is most beneficial, both physically and psychologically.

There will be no appreciable physical benefits from intensive conditioning for the three days before a major competition. The strength level will not increase and the body will not have had time to rest, recover and grow before the event. The conditioning program should be planned to peak before the major competition and then a tapering process should begin. The tapering process may start a week before the meet and only mild maintenance conditioning need be done. The day before a meet, no conditioning is required.

From a mental point of view, skills need to be learned and imprinted months before major competitions. The competitive season prior to major meets could be used to introduce single new skills, one at a time. For consistency reasons, skills and routines should be locked in a month before major competitions. Performance and consistency should be emphasized.

If coaching style is predominately negative during the majority of the year, a primarily positive coaching style will produce significantly better results during peaking (not to mention during the entire rest of the year). This positive input will culminate in a day off before the competition in which passive and/or active positive mental imagery is employed. Positive mental practice is the best type of practice the day before a meet.

My Russian friends and I, National and World class coaches, are in the habit of laughing at young coaches and their seriousness. We laugh because we deserve to laugh, having already progressed beyond them and their place in the sport. And we laugh about the incredible mistakes they are making. And we laugh so that we don’t cry about the mistakes we have made and all the gymnasts whose talents have been and will be wasted before their coaches learned any better.

We laugh when we hear a young coach asking or talking about ideal technique with the seriousness of one discussing religious beliefs. Ideal technique for whom? The ideal technique for the taller, weaker dancer gymnastics prototype or the shorter, muscular athlete? Can they be the same? No, not ever. Can even the same teaching approach work with every gymnast? Are they all of equal intelligence, maturity and understanding? Obviously not. Sure there is an ideal to keep in mind when coaching, but it is ridiculous to try to force all gymnasts into one mold.

Ideal technique is for the academics who have no need or responsibility to actually teach the skills to a live gymnast. You know the ones – with the scientific theories, graphs and charts and multi-syllable words. None of which could possibly be understood by young gymnasts at the age that they should be learning the skills. We are not laughing out of ignorance of the physics of the sport, for we have studied far longer and harder than most. We are laughing at the lack of perspective and reality that such approaches have.

We laugh when we see the young coach, regardless of age, speaking volumes, right before the competition, to the athlete. Do this, do that, don’t forget this, remember that, concentrate on this, focus on that …. On and on for longer than the event even lasts. Which one of those things did he really want then to remember? For the human brain is a one-track mind, in that it can only remember, concentrate or focus on one thing at a time. It is amazing sometimes that athletes can compete at all with all the useless *#&@!* some coaches pile on. The mature coach has already thoroughly prepared his gymnasts for competition and needs only a smile and a word to encourage their performance.

We laugh at the coaches who don’t know when to quit – the ones who are conditioning their gymnasts the night before a big meet, who make them practice the day of the meet, the ones who build their coaching intensity up to an intolerable crescendo right before the meet. Sport science long ago determined that tapering, both physical and psychological, is best for tired bodies and minds and leads to the best athletic performances. We laugh because we know that coach’s athletes need not be beaten. Their coach has beaten them up and beaten them for us.

We laugh when a young coach comes to us asking for the secret to our coaching method, in general, or for some skill in particular. Sometimes, for fun, we even tell them what the “Russian” secret is and laugh again when they nod sagely and thank us effusively for the inside information. There are no secrets in the sport. Everyone knows the skills and the requirements. The steps of progression are simple and obvious.

If there is any secret, it is that you must systematically follow those steps, period. There are no secrets, no shortcuts, no magic formulas, no special techniques, and no secret training drills. You must systematically follow the steps for each of your gymnasts. The steps are there for everyone to see. It is always still up to the gymnast to do the work and for the coach to see that they do it systematically.

We laugh when we see the young coaches talking about “new “ techniques, skills or drills we had forgotten or abandoned years ago. It makes us laugh, when we have forgotten more of them than they know. A coach, whose knowledge comes only through how they themselves were taught, makes us laugh, again, to keep from crying.

We laugh when we see coaches who fail to continue to educate themselves in their craft. Those who arrogantly assume they already have superior knowledge and all they ever need to know about the sport. We know of no one who cannot learn something new and useful from the study of another gymnast, coach, gym, clinic, convention. We did not laugh before at studying the sport, only at those who study it in the academic halls of unreality and who are unable to translate their message, if any, to real, live, young gymnasts.

I remember one such “authority” hired by a National federation as their technical spokesperson, who seemed to make a habit of assuming the “ideal” technique was always performed by the first person who did the skill in a competition he had seen. At this particular clinic, he had asked for local demonstrators for a tumbling lecture and embarrassingly harassed a young female gymnast about her inability to tumble “correctly” according to his way of thinking.

For some reason, he could not get her to bend her arm into her head and lunge within a foot or so of the floor on her round-off like the Chinese men he had just seen the month before were doing. He declared to all that this girl was uncoachable and would never amount to anything on floor. Unfortunately, I can not tell you of his reaction when he must surely have eventually found out that the girl was that year’s National Champion on floor and was currently out-tumbling everyone in the country and most in the world. I was forced to leave, laughing at his embarrassment.

We laugh at other symptoms of young coach syndrome. We laugh upon hearing about the current conditioning program so carefully laid out by coaches and their solemn faces as they explain that this is what they do every day. And when you look at their program, you realize that they could not possibly have time to do anything else during their entire practice time if they, indeed, follow their own program.

We laugh at those “young” coaches whose gymnasts are “working” triple twisting flifuses or whatever. But who never seem to have a gymnast winning any event but always have an excuse why we are not seeing that particular skill today. You know the coaches who are always just about to have the next Olympic champion.

We laugh at the pomposity of coaches quoted in newspaper articles, of a certainty, that their young six year old gymnast, who is doing double backs and multiple somersault passes on beam, is a sure bet to be an Olympic champion. She is so far ahead of everyone else her age and is working out 35 hours per week at such a young age that she can’t possibly miss.

Never, I repeat, never have I seen one of these young “prodigies” ever make it. Why? They have already been burned out, quit the sport or been injured long before they are old enough for international competition – the current age requirement of which is 16 years old. We quickly laugh at this one before we cry, trying to forget the numerous talented gymnasts we ourselves burnt out before we learned this lesson personally.

We laugh when we see a coach who is running around spotting so much that he works out more than his gymnasts. No one on his team does anything without him there to spot. He is wishing there were a spotting Olympics, because he would surely win. He is the hero in the gym and in his own mind, because of all the lives he has saved with his amazing spotting.

Why, just the other day he saved the life of one of his Level 5’s doing a double back on the floor. After he had spotted their round-off (had to get their chest up) and back handspring, he made a running, diving spot to save their life when they traveled back too far after his set. He can never seem to understand, though, why his team never seems to win anything as hard as he works and well as he spots. He’s a great coach, his gymnasts have complete confidence in him. Why don’t they have enough confidence to win?

We laugh, well, we just laugh. We laugh at all the foibles of young coaches and we try to forget our own mistakes. Mistakes that we, in the past made, are the same mistakes that coaches are making today. And all of which are at the expense of young gymnasts, burning them out, driving them out of the sport, injuring them or crippling them psychologically.

“When will they ever learn, when will they e-e-ever learn?”

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