Not Too Slow for This Team

Tryouts for our gymnastics team were always more of a showpiece than a real tryout. The decisions about who had made the team were made by evaluating daily practices seeking out the qualities I favored in my team girls.

Our gymnastics team had an excellent reputation both regionally and nationally and being on our gymnastics team in our community was close to super stardom in the town.

Our team girls were the envy of even the most popular cheerleaders, since they better than others realized the skill and talent our team girls had. Since losing some of our team girls to cheerleading in the first two years I coached there, we had always gone out of our way to make our gymnasts’ talent and success visible in the community.

I called it our “Gymnasts as Heroes” program and it consisted of a series of public exhibitions, high school basketball halftime shows at the basketball games with the biggest local rivalries, and exhibitions at the schools of every gymnast on the team featuring most prominently the ones who attended that school regardless of whether they were the best on the team.

The program was a success and our team girls were well known in the community and achieve an enviable and recognizable status. Because of this and because of our competitive success, there were always many girls who wanted to make the team, enrolled in Pre-team and Jr. Team programs and tried out for the team

This year was no different and there were seven girls who had demonstrated the qualities that I was looking for to continue the competitive success and reputation we had created over the years.

Strength and flexibility were the prerequisite. No one made the team without being strong and flexible. Coach-ability was something that makes every coach’s job easier, but is also the factor that allows even talented athletes to rise above their natural talent level. Determination, attendance record for practices and the ability to progress in gymnastics skills and execution rounded out the primary criteria. Talent is always a factor, but it does not take a good coach to see talent. Everyone sees it.

One of the seven girls who had, in my mind already made the team, was Tammy. She was physically 12 years old, a little bigger than the average team girl and a few years older than the age at which we normally moved girls up to the team, because she had started gymnastics late and her progress was not as fast as some.

Tammy was extremely strong and had worked fanatically to improve her splits and flexibility to an acceptable level. She was eminently coachable, always listening intently and trying her hardest to do what she was told. Although Tammy’s learning style (visual) and my coaching style (auditory – verbal) were different, there always seemed to be one of our team girls around to demonstrate skills, which she then quickly picked up.

Her talent level was medium, but her determination and love for the sport showed through and she had certainly done everything to earn a place on our team.

Tryouts were always on Saturdays and the entire team and all of the hopefuls were tested and scored, even though once a girl made the team her position was ensured as long as she followed the team rules.

After tryouts, we made a big show of tallying up the results and then announced the new team members, presenting them with their team leotard and warm-up. Usually, this ceremony was attended only by the girls trying out and their parents and our regular team girls went home. The parents whose daughters were to make the team already pretty much knew, because we had to get their leo and warm-up sizes ahead of time and we had to give them a chance to decide if they, as parents, were ready and able to make the time and financial commitment before we announced their daughter’s name.

On the way up to the podium area where we normally made the presentations, Tammy’s parents stepped determinedly into my path with a look on their faces I had come to see as trouble. My experience told me that there was going to be some problem that was going to keep Tammy off the team and her parents wanted to tell me before Tammy might have to be disappointed.

I could tell that it was difficult for them and after several attempts they finally made it clear that Tammy didn’t go on the same bus or to the same school as the rest of the girls, but rode the special bus. Her dad said, “Tammy has always been slow in school.”

In less than a second, I responded, “Not in gymnastics she’s not. Not in this gym she’s not.”

I looked around and saw that all of the regular team girls were still here. They and their parents hadn’t gone home and they were all watching this. I suddenly realized that every one of them knew. Every girl knew Tammy rode the short bus. And I suddenly realized why there was always some team girl there when I needed a demonstrator for Tammy.

I turned back to Tammy’s parents and said, “And not on this team.”

In the next few seconds, my team girls and I saw the most amazing transformation in the eyes of Tammy’s parents. They had approached me fully expecting this to remove their daughter from consideration and participation on the team. They were so hopeful for their daughter and yet they felt obligated to tell me the truth about their daughter.

And in the next few seconds, visible in their eyes was the burden of years of reduced and shattered hopes and dreams disappearing replaced by joy and pride and amazement in the realization that their daughter was to join the ranks of the most exclusive and successful athletic team in the area. They both turned and looked at their daughter, perhaps for the first time ever, able to celebrate her success as a high achiever in the tough and real world, the world of gymnastics. Their posture perceptibly straightened, their shoulders went back and their heads went up and they positively glowed as looked with fresh eyes of admiration for their now truly “special” daughter.

I looked at Tammy and she was demonstrating the quiet firm confidence, typical of our team. I looked at my team girls and was glad that even not having seen all of the now obvious signs that I had made the right decision. I had already made my decision that Tammy deserved to be on the team and I stuck with it.

Tammy not only deserved to be on the team, actually, she was already on the team. The team girls had already made that decision and I had passed yet another of their tests by confirming it. They had expected me to do the right thing and I did. It was a great moment to see the respect in their eyes and to know I had confirmed their respect for me. And I was never more proud of my team than at that moment.

Needless to say, her parents became strong supporters of the gym and tireless workers at home meets and fundraisers.

As it turned out, Tammy did belong on the team. Tammy competed on the team for six years. She won many medals and ribbons at the compulsory level and eventually won a State Championship in Vaulting. She competed as a Level 8 successfully doing Tzukahara vaults and was always strong on bars. Her vault and bar scores often counted when we won team medals. The fine points of beam and floor dance came slower to her, but her teammates were always there to demonstrate and tutor her.

And after Tammy came on the team, it seemed as if more and more that the team girls lost some of their focus on just themselves and started to help out, not just Tammy, but other girls on the team. And that made our team better and even closer than before. Each of us has been given gifts and when you do the right thing and give to others, it always comes back to you.

NOTE: We received this story anonymously and with it a note that said:

I read your story “Are You Sure She Should Be On the Team?” and it reminded me about one of the most heartwarming moments in my coaching career. I just felt compelled to sit down and tell my story about Tammy, which seems so remarkably like your story about Marley. It is good to know that there are coaches and teams members in our sport that make stories and dreams like this come true.

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