Gymnastics is the sport of sports. There is no other sport in the world that challenges all that you are as a human like gymnastics. It isn’t that I don’t think that other sports aren’t hard. Motorcross—difficult, Triathalons—endurance to the extreme, swimming, football, cycling, skiing, etc. all demand much of their adherents, but gymnastics is the penultimate.
Everyday when you go to the pool to swim, you aren’t worried that you will drown. But, when you do gymnastics, breaking your neck is always in the back of your mind…every skill…every time. When you run a marathon, you aren’t moving backwards, forwards, flipping and twisting. There are similarities between gymnastics and wrestling, in both you use every muscle group, but when you wrestle you don’t do the entire 3 minutes upside down. There is no opponent in gymnastics, there is only yourself, your execution and your difficulty, your failure or success. No other sport in the world asks you to perform the hardest physical feats humanly possible while also trying to make it pretty at the same time. Gymnastics is art with your body; ballet on every axis.
Gymnastics is the elevation of man, it is the next step in our human elevation. Gymnastics is the artistic and athletic manifestation of applied physics. You flip forwards, backwards, and sideways, you twist both directions, and spend the majority of your time on your hands. But most of all, it is fun.
Why would you not want to be involved in this sport?
Most people coach gymnastics because they were gymnasts and their bodies stopped before their love of the sport did. Some don’t know anything else, so after they are done, they just turn to coaching. Some coach because their bodies stopped but their egos didn’t. Unfortunately, there are a lot of coaches like this. I think it is hardest for those who accomplished a lot in the sport, and for those who didn’t but wished they had.
In contradiction to those archetypes, there are those who coach out of love, there are those like my friend Mark.
Mark was a gymnast, but like many he was limited by funds, the facilities in which he trained, and the knowledge of those who coached him. However, his love for the sport never diminished. Mark got into coaching because for him, it was an entree back into the world that he loved so dearly. And then one day something happened.
Mark was teaching recreational gymnastics and I asked him if the coach that I had replaced had ever taught him about coaching? He admitted that the coach never really talked to him, taught him, or help him develop his own skills. I asked him if he was interested in learning, and he answered in the affirmative. This launched for he and I one of the most beautiful gestations I’ve ever witnessed or been a part of.
Mark is no slouch. Although it may sound corny, Mark is like a panther. He watches everything and although he usually remains silent, his lack of initial outward response belies the wheels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that are running full throttle. Mark is one of the most intelligent coaches I’ve ever met. In my opinion his second greatest asset as a coach is his ability to assimilate the key ingredients of any pedagogical instrument or technique, and distill it down, and make it his own.
His greatest asset though is something that surprised even him. When Mark got involved with the program that I was developing, he came in slowly, always cautious and always watching. At the first meet that he ever went to with me, I asked him if he wanted to spot the guys on the events (a task that at that point he was fully qualified to do) and he replied, “No, I’ll just watch.” It had been a long time since Mark had been to a meet, and the last one that he had attended was his own. Being back in the “forum” so to speak, he found himself with a greater respect for the process, the details, and the athletes then he had ever anticipated. And then it happened, I think Mark really realized that he loved the kids that he was coaching.
It was sneaky the way that it came on. All the watching, calculating, evaluating, and synthesizing of what I and others were doing all made sense to him; he did it and wanted to do it for the love of the boys.
In gymnastics, especially men’s gymnastics, you don’t get paid much. You work 6 days a week often with 13 year-old kids who think that they know everything. During meet season, it isn’t uncommon to work 12-15 hour days and not get a day off for months. You don’t sleep well because you stay awake all night fretting and worrying about what you will tell the kids the next day at the meet.
You toss and turn because you are busy rehearsing the mat placement, the warm-up protocol, the routine structure, and the endless calculations of variables. You review and replay it in your mind over and over. You worry about and pay attention to little 6 year-old boys’ needs for the bathroom, water, food, nerves and fears. You take to heart the dreams of the 16 year-old who hopes to make the national team. You do your best to give the advice, skills, and knowledge to parents who hope that their son can garner a college scholarship because they can’t afford college otherwise. It causes you to make runs to the store in the middle of the night to get medical supplies, tape, sugar water and honey, and prompts you have to pack extra uniforms in your bag just incase there is an “accident”.
On top of that you have to balance the demands of the meets, other coaches who sometimes “aren’t so friendly”, overbearing or irate parents, and gym owners that meddle, impede, or neglect instead of support. But, you bear these hardships lightly, because when you see your team win or do well for themselves, accomplish a goal, or overcome a fear—your heart soars. When they fail, your heart hurts. The worst feeling ever is knowing that you let that team or kid down in someway.
Mark does all this willingly and without lament because he cares; he loves the boys that he coaches. It is small wonder then that he has been coach of the year for two years running, and has produced more state champions, regional champions, and happy kids than any other coach in California.
I was honored to watch the transformation of Mark from shy recreation coach into a coaching force to be reckoned with. But, I was even more delighted and honored to watch Mark begin a new chapter in his own development, namely by bringing up a recreational coach and mentoring, honing, and initiate him into the craft of compassionate coaching. David, a fellow artist, is now Mark’s “Paduan Learner”, and he too is learning that love, compassion, and joy are the fundamental principles of gymnastics instruction and by extension all of life’s interactions.
While David, Mark, and I sat around drawing each other the other night, I was reminded of all the wonderful mentors and fellow brother and sisters in this great sport of gymnastics that I love so dearly. The people like Jed, Scott, Vince, and Karen who work tirelessly not only for athletes but other coaches out of love. I am reminded of the senior coaches that have helped me like Mike and Donna Payne, Dr. Max, Jerry, Scott Barkley, Mike and Tina, and countless others who love gymnastics and children enough to devote their lives to a sport that is so difficult and yet so rewarding.
I suppose that there are those who will read this having no understanding of gymnastics. They might think that I have gone far afield in my monologue here. But, it is the heart of all these coaches, the people like Mark, that represent to me the humaneness of being human. I was reminded by my friend Scaughdt, that Gothe famously said, if each man merely swept his front stoop, the whole world would be clean. It is by our ability to love those around us with the fullness of our being that we are living up to our full potential. Loving others is a choice amongst an array of possibilities. If we each chose 3-8 young men and women and loved them with the fullness of our ability, the world would be much brighter. I am lucky that I’ve been able to watch Mark and my other friends in the gymnastics community love kids with all they’ve got.
Upon returning here to San Francisco, it was imperative that I see my old boys again. To remind them that I love them and that I haven’t forgotten them. However, It was also for them to see that I have not abandoned them for nought. I have run 1,200 miles to see them again. I did not lay down the mantle of coach easily or with careless abandon, but rather I did it because the cause of peace is even greater than my love of coaching. Perhaps in time, they will understand…maybe even respect that.
For the time being I will be consoled by one boy who, when he saw me again, burst into tears. I told him, “I’m happy to see you too.”