I’ve recently finished another coaching season. I coach high school gymnastics and have done so for the past three years. At the end of my season I reflect on how things went down. I ask myself ‘Is there anything I could have done differently?’ These questions can keep me up at night.
This isn’t my first coaching gig. I have been coaching gymnastics or cheerleading for twelve years. Being a high school coach takes commitment, hard work, and most importantly patience. It requires you to put your all into the short time you have together, while keeping in mind that some of the people you are coaching will never be as dedicated as you. When they miss practice to go to their yearly dentist appointment and you wonder why they couldn’t schedule it three weeks later, you have to take a deep breath and remember ‘They are not all as crazy as I was.’
When I feel like I want it more than them, and that it isn’t worth staying out this late on a week night anymore, I think back to my own experiences and reflect on how the sport of gymnastics, and my coaches have shaped my life. For better or worse, I am a different person for it. I rely on my experiences to guide me as I make my decisions as a coach. What I try to be cognizant of is the lasting effect I will have on my team. ‘How will this team remember you?’
The Early Days:
I was enrolled in my first gymnastics class when I was just over two years old. I remember the good old days of jumping on small trampolines and rolling down colorful mats shaped like wedges. They told me I was a natural! I could walk across the beam without holding anyone’s hand and cartwheel with ease. My coaches were proud of my progress and would tell my parents how great I was doing. I loved gymnastics and couldn’t wait until I could go again.
The gym I went to had levels. Certain skills had to be mastered before you could move on. I had worked my way from a tumbling tiger to the navy blue group. While in class I would watch the girls on the competitive team. ‘Those girls are the best!’ I wanted to be on that team so bad! I made it my goal to get asked to be on that team! When I reached the age of seven I was old enough to compete and I was asked to join the team. I was so excited and a little nervous. I would finally get to train with the team girls and the team coaches, get a long sleeve leo, and be entered in my first meet! I was on my way. I worked hard, trained hard, and strived to be the best. I took criticism and looked to my coaches for corrections. Their guidance meant a lot to me. I wanted to do well, and I liked to make my coaches happy. As each year passed, I moved on from one level to the next. At each change of level, my time at the gym increased. It got to a point where I spent more time on a week day night with my coaches than my parents. They were a big part of my day.
When I reached seventh grade I moved to a new school district, and entered the Junior Senior High School. I would now be in the same school as seniors. I was definitely intimidated, but what I had going for me was I already knew girls at the school because they went to the gym I went to. They put me in contact with the varsity gymnastics coach/ physical education teacher and after a meeting; she gave me a place on the team. I would be the only seventh grader on a varsity team at my school.
Our coach, Nancy, had a strong presence. She demanded respect from us and we gave it willingly because she treated us all like we were her own. Nancy had high expectations and none of us wanted to let her down. Her goals aligned with ours, she wanted the best for us, not herself. Letting her down was the same as letting ourselves down. We tried not to do that. We knew Nancy had our backs and it was comforting to know that at school, in the gym, and everywhere else, I had someone else out there supporting me. She was more to me that a gymnastics coach, I trusted her, and confided in her. She was a constant in my ever-changing life.
Perception vs. Reality:
At my club gym, my gymnastics progress around this time began to taper off. I wasn’t scoring as high as I used to. My parents felt like it might be time to send me to a gym that was more competitive. I hated to leave my old gym but I knew it was time to move on. The new gym we chose had a larger team. The coaches were younger and were more driven to win. Their gymnasts were talented and I thought being a part of this team would increase my chances of earning a college scholarship. What I found was the “team” wasn’t really a team but a collection of your fellow competitors. Yeah you cheered for them, but you really wanted to beat them.
We had two main coaches, a female and a male. When I first joined their gym I was learning new moves and progressing at a nice pace. I enjoyed both coaches and worked really hard to show everyone that I was meant to be there. I wanted to prove that I could keep up with this new pace and be a strong competitor.
These coaches were different from what I was used to and they had no reservations about expressing their disappointment. There were times that the male coach would get so frustrated that he would throw stopwatches, or his hat. He would make you stop in the middle of the routine and go climb the rope. This was not hard for a gymnast but it was publicly humiliating. If you weren’t the cause of his anger then it was hard to not get frustrated with the girl who was messing up because you knew the coaches would probably start yelling at you next. They believed this treatment would push you to be the best. Sure I moved up levels in my gymnastics career but the in-your-face berating also made me freeze up more during competition. It made me doubt myself, and lose confidence. “Don’t fall or he will get mad!”, “Don’t balk or he will yell”, “Don’t lose or he will ignore you.”
The female coach was even harder on us. On a good day she was cold. The better you were the harder she was on you. She would ask us to perform the same skill and compare us to each other. This didn’t exactly harbor a team atmosphere. She wanted us to be successful, we all knew that. She was just so icy and dismissive if you did not meet her expectations. She brought us to the edge and sometimes past the point of tears. I was already hard on myself; she reinforced those negative feelings with a hammer and a ton of nails. I lost my competitive spirit because I went in to competitions feeling like I didn’t even have a chance against my own teammates. I would focus more on doing well in their eyes instead of enjoying myself out there. The nerves got to me.
As I got older practices got harder. The gym became an incredibly stressful place. At one practice, we had to idly sit by and watch a teammate hit her head on the bar multiple times before she was allowed to stop trying a new move. We tried to comfort her when the coaches weren’t looking.
Injuries are the nature of the sport and I got my fair share. I would have stayed at that gym despite some of the other weird things that happened. I would have stayed and learned to ignore the interactions other girls had with the coaches. I could have even let the odd and uncomfortable feeling slide when the male coach would tease me time and time again about dating my mom. I would have stuck with that gym until the end of my gymnastics career if it were for one thing. They didn’t believe me when I told them I was hurt.
Flexibility is important for a gymnast. We have to be the right combination of stretch and strength. Well, my upper body, particularly my shoulders were very flexible. My whole gymnastics career they were beyond stretchy. I didn’t know it until years later that rolling my shoulder was not a normal thing and what I was doing was subluxating my shoulder constantly. Naturally my shoulder began to ache and tingle. I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. Despite that, I kept going.
My shoulder became very weak and visibly lower than the other one. It got to a point where I actually complained to my coaches but they thought I was asking for ice so I wouldn’t have to do other skills. I will never forget what the male coach told me one day. I had just yanked my shoulder hard on bars and asked if I could ice it to numb the pain. With a blank stare on his face and a serious tone he told me that nothing hurts worse than giving birth to a baby and women do it every day. “True.” I thought, “But what do YOU know about having a baby?” They saw my shoulder as my excuse.
Finally one day on floor I did a move and fell forward onto my stomach. Normally that would be no big deal. When learning moves, gymnasts fall and we learn over time how to do it safely. Well this time I fell and slid a little but my arm slid further and it came out of socket. I could hear my coach yelling for me to stand up and go again. I struggled to get up quickly because I couldn’t bend my arm. “Get up, get up, GET UP!” I yelled in my head, I had another tumbling pass to do. It felt just as horrible as it did a few moments before except now it was tingling straight through to my fingertips. When I did stand up my right arm was longer than the left. I could feel my fingers hit my knee. My teammates gasped. I was in such a mental frenzy that I had no idea my shoulder was dislocated. I felt dizzy, weak in the knees, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to vomit right there on the floor. I looked at my right shoulder and it was sloping down at an alarming angle. I tried to wriggle my fingers and I couldn’t. I bent my elbow so I could scoop up my elongated limb and instant relief came when my shoulder sucked itself back into place. The tingling stopped and a dull ache replaced it. I could finally think again! This all happened in the time it took my coach to walk across the floor. He didn’t see that it was actually dislocated. To him it was just another case of Fallon being dramatic. During a break I got to my phone and asked my dad to come get me early.
My parents took me to get a MRI and the doctor was shocked I had only dislocated my shoulder once. I had torn all the connective tissue in that joint. I had to stop gymnastics and surgery had to take place. ‘Uh, what?!’ I insisted that my parents meet with my coaches because I didn’t know if they would believe me. I was right. They wanted me to go to their doctor to get another opinion. His diagnosis was worse. He told me they wouldn’t be able to repair this orthoscopically, and I would never be able to do gymnastics again. There are no words to describe how I felt. A combination of numbness and disbelieve. ‘What will I be when I am not, Fallon the gymnast?’
We went to one more doctor. He had repaired the shoulders of famous professional baseball players. He assured my parents that I would be able to repair my shoulder orthoscopically and I might be able to do gymnastics again. So I went through with it. Boy was it painful. Between the painkillers making me nauseous and wearing off too quickly, I was miserable for about five days post-surgery. Any time I used muscles in my right arm I could feel the metallic pain in my shoulder. Sleeping was a nightmare. No more rolling into that side literally ever again.
The pain eventually ceased and my sling was removed. My arm was skin and bones. My muscles had noticeably atrophied. It would still be a while until I could think about doing a handstand again. The bigger problem was. I really enjoyed my gymnastics break. That was alarming. My love for the sport was faded. I felt burnt out. I didn’t feel like it was worth it to keep going. What was the point when I would never catch back up to the level of the other girls? I could hardly lift my arm past horizontal let alone swing on a bar. The thought made me cringe. My relationship with my club coaches was ruined. I decided that I never wanted to step back in that gym again.
Time to Rebuild:
Luckily I still had Nancy, my high school coach. She brought me balance. She was tough, don’t get me wrong. She would yell and scream and kick us out of the gym but we actually deserved it. Nancy didn’t take any nonsense and if we were wasting her time she wouldn’t stand for it. Nancy had a way of getting me through skills that held me back at my other gym. She was patient and I knew that she believed in me. I felt more at ease, and I felt less immediate pressure and stress. I performed much better with a clear head.
When I could finally move my arm around, I met with Nancy over the summer and asked her for her advice. I trusted her opinion. She recommended that I try a smaller gym; a place where I could work out and get back into the swing of things and not get beat down. It was called Elite. I had never heard of it. My parents and I decided to go for a visit.
The gym was small and the ceilings seemed a little low. The equipment was old. The team was young. The head coaches of this gym, Chris and Nicole, were cute and petite. I wasn’t sure if they would be able to spot me. I would be the oldest one there. I wasn’t sure what to think of it.
After a conversation with Chris and Nicole, I was sold. They were nice! Their smiles seemed genuine. They didn’t come off like gymnastics obsessed crazy people! They seemed to have their priorities straight. They wanted to do well but also knew there was more to life than gymnastics. At this point I had to get back to a mentally healthy place.
Chris and Nicole were amazing. All of my concerns were quickly erased. They pushed me, while encouraging me. They developed a team atmosphere and never publicly humiliated anyone. As I struggled through my recovery and re-learned moves that were once easy for me, they never made me feel bad. They cared about the team and they cared about me. They helped me love gymnastics again.
My recovery went better than anyone would have expected. I got back to the level of gymnastics I was at prior to my surgery and actually progressed even further. Chris had established an atmosphere of safety, encouragement, and success. In the world of gymnastics, that’s a rare place. Working with people who believed in me helped me regain my confidence and competitive edge.
My senior year was my best year! I had some incredible performances and caught the eye of multiple college scouts. With the help and guidance of my parents, Nancy, Chris, and Nicole I was offered a college scholarship. It was also a great year for Elite. Chris was really making a name for herself, and membership had just about doubled at the gym. I was not the only person who loved the gym and its wonderful coaches. People were impressed with the positive coaching style and the team’s competitive results. Chris was able to expand her business into a brand new beautiful gym!
Nancy, Chris, and Nicole are three women who I have the utmost respect and appreciation for. They helped shape the person I am today. Coaches make a huge impact in the lives of their athletes. As I build relationships with the gymnasts I coach, I think back to their methods. They were patient, they took the time to understand me, most importantly they believed in me and they made sure I knew it.
I am not perfect and I know as a coach I have made some mistakes. I have definitely mellowed out over time. Maybe I could be harder, yell, dole out more push-ups or something like that. There are times when it would be the simpler road for me. It is certainly easier to yell at a gymnast in frustration instead of taking the time to guide them through their uncertainty, but then I ask myself “Is that how you want to be remembered?” That will not be my lasting impression. I don’t want a moment of victory to be clouded by ten other moments of stress and fear. It is important to achieve success, but success does not have to be attached to a goal medal. Earning a spot on the team, learning a new move, making a 100% commitment, and coming together as a team are successful moments which stay with you longer than that time you won first on beam. Coaches have a strong influence over their athletes and I am very aware of that. I would rather be remembered as someone who cared about my athletes and for the individuals they are, someone who acknowledged all of their successes, and someone who instilled in them the importance of teamwork. Influence is a responsibility that I do not take lightly and I hope that one day I will be as admired as much as I admire my coaches.
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