Gymnasts Want to Be Great

It always bothers me to hear gymnastics coaches complain that their team gymnasts “don’t really want it” or are lazy. It occurs to me that any gymnast in America, who is coming to the gym every day, wants something and is far exceeding the activity level of most kids their age. What is it that makes us coaches think they don’t want to be great?

My “Favorite” Gymnast

My favorite gymnast when I was coaching every day was always the gymnast who was working the hardest and listening and learning the best that day. Many times it was the same gymnast from day to day, but some of the most surprising, rewarding and interesting days were when a gymnast who almost never worked hard came into the gym and outworked everyone else.


I had a gymnast on one of my teams, who “never” worked hard. I had always attributed it to the fact that she was spoiled. And there were many “stories” that might support that idea – she got a new Mercedes as soon as she turned 16 and got her driver’s license, her parents built a new house and her room was so big that she actually slept in her bigger-than-a-normal-bedroom walk-in closet for a year because she got scared sleeping in her “cavern” of a new bedroom.

Natural Talent, but No Gymnastics Work Ethic

She was a talented enough gymnast that even with minimal work, she would still win medals at meets, especially on beam, but she worked so little in practice that I was never sure why she even stayed on the team. And she would weasel out of practice in some of the strangest ways. I would be coaching bars and would look over to see her vacuuming the floor ex mat instead of vaulting with the coach there. She literally worked out hard in practice only once every two years.

Amazing Two Days of Skill Progress

The first time, I must have really missed it because it was at least her third year into her team career when she came into the gym two days in a row and outworked everyone in the gym by such a large margin, it was hard to believe it was even her. And I am not just talking about outworking just in terms of that kind of effort, but she made such phenomenal skill progress it was difficult to believe. I literally could not believe it, even on that day when I tried to tell her parents all that she had learned, but I do remember that it included giengers (self-taught on the pit bar during her regular practice turns), double flyaways (again into the pit), double full and 2 and 1/2 twist on floor, flic layout flic on beam, round-off double full beam dismount and at least 30 more new skills.

That Was Friday and Saturday, On Monday…

On Monday, it was back to her normal non-workouts. When I asked her why, I am sure that she really did not know why either the sudden burst of effort or why she was normally so lackadaisical. I asked her if she knew how great she could be if she worked out that hard every day and she just shrugged. It was at that moment that I realized that there was so much more that I needed to know about motivating gymnasts and exactly how big a gap there was in my knowledge (and the knowledge level in the sport generally) about what makes gymnasts want to work hard, how to motivate them and whose responsibility that it was to fix the problem (mine).

Young Gymnasts are Children Who Must Be Taught

It occurs to me, that the average gymnast, especially female gymnasts, are young children and young women, who must be taught and led to success. Any coach who expects a young gymnast to know and understand all that is required to become a high level gymnast does not understand gymnasts or their own coaching responsibilities.

Gymnasts are Often So Smart That It is Easy to Overestimate Their Abilities and Responsibility

Young gymnasts are often so smart and so dedicated that it is easy for coaches to think they can leave motivation for gymnasts to achieve by themselves. Young gymnasts are very often exceptional individuals, but they are still children and need to to be taught what they are not able to learn on their own.

All Gymnasts Want to Be Great

The truth is that gymnasts want to be great. If they are not, it is most likely a coaching problem. To attribute the problem to a young gymnast is to have unrealistic expectations of a young gymnast’s knowledge and experience. Assuming they have the talent (the coach did put them on the team, so we can assume they do), then any failure, including problems of motivation, rests solely on the adult in the relationship – the coach.

Coaches Have the most Influence on Gymnast’s Gymnastics

The performance results of any gymnast depend in great part upon each gymnasts expectations. No one person does (and should) influences gymnasts more in terms of performance expectations than their coach does. Coaches greatly influence gymnasts expectations of their potential success in gymnastics. Scientific research proves that coaches (teachers) who have high expectations for their gymnasts (students) get better performance from them.

Gymnasts Can Read What Their Coach Really Thinks of Them

A gymnast’s expectations for themselves and performance are driven by a clear vision of their specific gymnastics goals, a clear understanding of what they need to do to achieve those goals and the what they perceive that their coaches, parents and teammates expectations for them are. Those perceptions of what their coaches, parents and teammates think about their chances for future success are transmitted verbally, but also to a significant degree by non-verbal communication.

Coaches Are Responsible for Gymnast’s Success

Coaches’ actions shape gymnasts expectations for their future success. This includes (but in no way is limited to) how much time coaches spend with gymnasts, what level of skills for which they are training them and what the coaches “secret” (gymnasts are incredibly perceptive about such things) beliefs about the potential for each gymnast is. Certainly, one responsibility of coaches is to transmit positive and high expectations for everyone of their gymnasts.

The Team = The Coach

A team reflects the coach, whether they want to acknowledge that or not. They chose the members, they created (or should have) the goals, expectations, training plan, competition schedule and every other relevant aspect of the team program. It is their responsibility for the results and no amount of excuses or attempts to transfer blame to the gymnasts changes that.

Improvement Requires Change

If a coach wants to change the results their team is achieving, it is likely that they first need to change themselves first. This is particularly true for every coach but is absolutely true for the head coach who is often also the gym owner.

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