Gymnastics: The Way It Should Be

         For years gymnastics has been a sport that many children participate in. But as the years have gone by it has turned into something other than a place for kids to grow and learn. Its overwhelming commitment has continued to replace kids childhoods with stress, mental and physical pain and eating disorders. Many results have come from this change in the gymnastics society. Gymnasts have come to a point where they have been told and directed to understand that winning is the only important factor in gymnastics. “ It’s about the elite child athlete and the American obsession with winning that has produced a training environment wherein results are bought in at any cost, no matter how devastating. It’s about how cultural fixation on beauty and weight on youth has shaped the sport and driven the athletes into a sphere beyond the quest for physical performance.” (Ryan 5)
         As a society we have the ability to change the ways in which our elite gymnasts are learning gymnastics. We need to redirect the teachings of the coaches and the parent involvement in order to achieve a atmosphere in which gymnasts can explore, learn and gain gymnastic abilities in which they feel they can handle. “ Over the last 20 years there have been many publications on coaching as it relates to sport psychology or sport pedeology. No theoretical framework, however, exsits for explaining which factors are most important in the coaching process and which relationships among these factors are most significant.” (Cote pg.1) I propose that we create an environment with a stress on healthy dieting, good exercise and less strenuous workouts. Not an environment where winning is the prime concern. There are many issues in which I would like to direct your attention to throughout this paper. “Winning” is one issue in which I feel (as a former gymnast) has a great affect on the gymnasts ability to achieve and succeed. The idea of always having to win is not the only concern in which I find to be true. Anorexia, as well as poor dieting is another one of my main concerns. Something must be done about these two issues which hold very true within the gymnastics world today. But there are “ no comprehensive frameworks that represent the complex reality within which coaches work.”(cote pg. 2)
         Coaches today have trained their gymnasts to maintain the so called “proper weight” that they feel is right for their athletes. Christy Henrich’s coach “claims that gymnastics and its emphasis on slimness are not responsible for Christy’s illness and death. He claims her intense drive to win contributed to her eating disorder. The gymnastic training system encourages young female athletes to keep their weight down, and many gymnasts live on diets of fruits, laxatives, and painkillers” (93). This coach’s statement is not unusual. Many gymnasts go through this kind of training throughout their gymnastics career. We have the ability to change what goes on in gyms like this one. As a lot of psychologists suggest, we as a society have to “inform” our athletes and coaches about the dangers of eating disorders. I don’t think that coaches ever talk to the athletes about the importance of healthy dieting. Most of the time they encourage them to cut down on eating, not to just reconstruct their eating habits and the kind of food they intake. Another solution to the problem, which some psychologist do not agree on, is to have meals in the gym. Instead of taking time off to go eat at home, or to the store, have food brought in. This way the girls can feed off each other by what is good and what is not good. When girls sit together they tend to listen and take in what others are doing. If one girl is eating a healthy lunch, then the other one will as well. The girl who does not eat properly will stick out like a sore thumb and will create an obvious reach towards anorexia. Even though Christy’s coach says that it was more her fault than the gym’s, it is unfortunately more likely to be a combination of both. Coaches tend to believe that their reasoning for such training is important for the future of the gymnast. “In 1976 the average age of a U.S. gymnast was 18, with an average weight of 106 pounds. In 1992, the average age of a U.S. gymnast was 16, with an average weight of 83 pounds-a drop of 23 pounds” (93&94). We know and understand that it is important for a gymnast to keep a low body weight, but unfortunately measures are being taken too far. Something must be done to help the young gymnasts become fully aware of what they are doing to themselves and hence destroying their bodies. “Participants must maintain a very low body weight to conform to the standards, and must also devote many hours to practice to maintain those standards” (94). A coaches emphasis on the body makes many young girls self-conscience about their weight. This encourages many adolescents to become obsessed with their eating habits. Thus, the girls watch everything they eat and focus on maintaining or losing weight to fit the coaches criteria. Alas, many girls resort to starving themselves (anorexia) or purging their food after meals (bulimia.) Anorexia and bulimia are common forms of ways for gymnasts to fight away the pain that the pressures of winning gives them. “ Others-many-who became so obsessive about controlling their weight that they lost control of themselves instead, falling into the potentially fatal cycle of binging on food, then purging by vomiting or taking laxatives.” (Ryan 4) “ A lot of the time coaches tend to nag gymnasts about their weight, and look at weight loss as a victory because they encourage their gymnasts to be as thin as possible.” (Jett 27) Coaches need to learn that you can’t resort to pushing an athlete in a direction you know she will fall from. This constant nagging with the gymnasts about their weight does not necessarily make them strive to win. I feel a lot of the time it holds them inside, not letting them express their true feelings about certain issues. “Our national obsession with weight, our glorification of thinness, have gone completely unchecked in gymnastics.” (Ryan 9) “ ‘Everyone goes through it, but nobody talks about it, because they’re embarrassed,’ gymnast Kristie Phillips told me. ‘But I don’t put the fault on us to be so skinny. It’s mental cruelty. It’s not fair that all these pressures are put on us at such a young age and we don’t realize it until we get older and we suffer from it.” (Ryan 10) A lot of what Kristy says is true for most gymnasts. They come to this point in their gymnastics career that winning becomes the soul glorification of gymnastics, and without it they will have become nothing, as well as have failed their parents and coaches. Anorexia I think can sometimes give them a sense of hope. And what I mean by that is, that the girls in gymnastics are always so controlled by the coaches, that them controlling their food intake gives them a sense of control over themselves. Something they have seemed to have lost, ‘control’. “I weighed ninety-eight pounds and I was being called [ by her coach] an overstuffed Christmas turkey, I was told I was never going to make it in life because I was going to be fat. I mean, in life. Things I’ll never forget.” (Ryan 10) When it comes to anorexia and bulimia the only one that is in control of their bodies is the gymnast herself. Coaches tend to influence many things upon the gymnast, but self- discipline and responsibility must take charge in times like these. Many people say that anorexia and bulimia lye within the coaches and parents responsibility, but I think that it lyes within the beholder. It can become the gymnasts fault for letting the coaches influence them. I think the coaches are responsible for creating the mind set that goes into the gymnasts heads, but the actions are only taken upon by the gymnast herself. Self discipline and responsibility can overpower the control that the coaches feel they have over their athletes. “ Self-discipline involves many things, but in the athletic world it implies the ability to control one’s destiny through self-enforced practice, willpower and firmness of purpose.” (Neal 4) When it comes to your daughter or your special elite gymnast, the hopes and dreams for them are high and wide. If she can’t make it there, don’t blame her. Unfortunately, today’s parents and coaches want them to succeed in their gymnastics career, they tend to forget about the athletes feelings. “Any time you have trouble, there is a period of loss. But if you can renew- almost get them mad, like it’s never going to happen again- then they come back fighting”( Normile 47). Many studies have been done on the issue of anger. Whether or not getting angry helps. When reading upon the Journal of sport and exercise psychology I found there to be similar belief as those that the coaches had. They agreed that “ Anger is a good thing. It’s okay in my mind, and it is almost encouraged to the point that it is not going to make you faster or stronger, but you can get aggressive. If your angry that is good.” (Cote pg.6) This kind of attitude is what occurs in most gyms today. It is a period of commitment for the child and a time of pressure and demands for a coach. Most of the time coaches develop a sense of control for their gymnasts and expect them to follow the demand. “ Dawes’ mother, Loretta admits it was hard to watch, and Dominique had a difficult time herself coping afterwards.” “ It did disappoint me. I would have loved to medal in the all- around”(Normile 48). Most parents around this time in their child’s gymnastics career, find a point in which they overload their child with their expectations. They don’t mean any harm in suffocating them with their hopes and dreams for them; but they feel some connection to the sport by this time and sometimes feel to make it a point to give advice or opinion. This attitude can help most girls, but the fact is that it hurts more than it helps. It put the gymnast in a position were she does not know how to handle something, therefore the coach or parent goes ahead and tells her what to do. That is not what a gymnast needs. She needs to figure out for herself what she expects out of her, not what others do. Because if she lives for what they want, then there is no point in attributing that much time and effort into something that she can’t appreciate for herself. For parents and coaches it’s not the performing that matters, it’s the performance. “In gyms across the country, the air is thick with a scent of the Olympics. And the parents, coaches and young athletes chase it like hounds, impatient for the rewards of the sport that captivate American audiences as no others do.” (Ryan 2) Parents and coaches continue to fight for their right to “make” their daughter’s experience of gymnastics a unique one. Unfortunately they tear them apart by trying so hard. “Much of the direct blame for the young athletes problems fall on the coaches and parents. Obviously, no parent wakes up in the morning and plots how to ruin his or her child’s life. The money, the fame and the promise of great achievement can turn a parents’ head around. The boundaries of parents and coaches bloat and mutate, with the parent becoming the ruthless coach and the coach becoming the controlling parent.” (Ryan 10) A lot of the times parents are struggling so hard to train their children to perform well, due to the fact that they are making up for lack of something they didn’t have in their childhood. It is hard for them to understand that they can only push their children so far before they crack. They sometimes don’t understand that winning isn’t everything. “ The intensive training and pressure heaped on by coaches, parents and federation officials-the very people who should be protecting the children-often result in eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating injuries and damaged psyches.” (Ryan 7) One method that I have found in reading in the Journal of Sport psychology that will help the coaches as well as the athletes to understand what we can do to encourage each other with positive attitudes is “ that is high expectancy children who attain higher frequencies of performance success will trigger higher frequencies of positive instructional feedback, where as low expectancy children, who attain higher failure rates, will present the instructor with more opportunities to respond with some form of mistake- contingent behavior.” (Horn pg. 61) I think coaches have one of the hardest jobs. They are responsible for making the athlete into everything she can possibly become. But along with that job comes a lot of stress. Not only stress from the outside community, but from parents as well as the athlete herself. She is counting on her coach to get her to where she wants to be. As we can see throughout this paper, coaches tend to handle the stress and release out upon the athletes in ways that are not conducive to learning. It has become a problem throughout society. It is hard to direct a coach in the actions he must take in order for his athlete to succeed. But we need, as a society, derive ways in which the actions that the coaches take in order for their athletes to perform well do not hurt the athlete in the long run. There are not that many solutions to the problem at hand. But through reading about sport psychology, one can see that there are ways in which you can alter the actions in which a coach takes in order for a gymnast to do her best. The “self fulfilling prophecy” theory is one way in which coaches can learn how to respond to the needs of the gymnast without taken harmful action. “ This theory postulates that the expectations which instructors form concerning the achievement potential of individual students are reflected in differential instructional behaviors which convey to the student the type of response and level of achievement expected from him or her. If such instructional behaviors are consistently exhibited over a period of time, the students performance and behavior may conform to the teachers expectations.” (Horn pg.61) With this theory we are helping to redirect the way the coaches coach, as well as the way in which the student learns and performs. One of the goals in which sports psychologists feel the coaching process should work is developing the athletes to establish goals for their technical skills. This will help the athletes to have a mental model for competition. What they mean is that is now the coaches responsibility to give appropriate knowledge to the gymnast as to what demands and activities they may need to perform while in training. (Cote) Many of the coaches have to come to understand that the skills that the athletes are being taught is not something that is going to come naturally to them. A lot of times coaches think that the athletes automatically will respond to the skill when it is given to them. Although for many years psychologist agree that aggressiveness is one of the key factors in training. “ develop aggressiveness/intensity.”( Cote pg.6)
         As you can see there are several problems that lye within the gymnastics society, but we the outside force must come to learn, understand and teach the athletes and coaches some of the correct ways in which they can handle situations. I have come across some major problems throughout this paper, along with some good solution which I hope everyone can take into account. It is important for not only the athletes of this country to be aware of the problems they have, but also to inform the rest of society about the situations hence forth. I know things can change when we put our minds together and create action upon our solutions. I hope this information has helped anyone who was having a difficult time understanding some of the issues that arise with gymnastics, or anyone who had a question. “ Don’t let a problem or situation get in the way of a dream.”

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