In Choking/Fears/Slumps and Blocks, Coaching: Good/Bad/Unfair, Problems in Youth Sports

She was afraid of her back handspring on beam and so kept balking, unable to get herself to go for the skill. First the coach responded with impatience and disgust, as if this 10 year old was deliberately being oppositional. When that didn’t work, the coach’s frustration spiked and he began yelling at the little girl in front of the whole team, questioning her heart, work ethic and desire. “You aren’t trying hard enough! You just don’t care! You’re a chicken!”

When these “helpful interventions” surprisingly didn’t help the little girl feel safer, the coach began to threaten her and became punitive. “If you don’t throw this skill, I’m going to send you back down to work with the Level 6 girls. That’s about the skill level you’re at now!” and, “I don’t want to see your face for the rest of the practice (3 hours). You stay on beam until you go for it!” In tears, the little girl remained on the beam, virtually immobile for the rest of the evenings practice. The coach angrily ignored her, refusing to speak to her as she left for the night.

This same appalling scene gets repeated almost every day in gyms all across this country. In the process, little girls are shamed, humiliated and punished because they are afraid and immobilized by fears that are absolutely normal to have. The one person in the gym who they are most dependent upon for their emotional and physical safety, the one person who they most want to please and get to like them, the coach, is the one who is mainly responsible for making these little girls feel even more unsafe.

As a consequence, too many kids go home at night feeling totally devastated and traumatized by their coaches. They feel like they are somehow bad, that there is something very wrong with them because they can’t get themselves to do what they’re supposed to do. They feel the same kind of bad feelings about themselves that a child with dyslexia or some other learning disability feels when they can’t get the teacher’s lessons and that teacher allows them to feel stupid.

In these situations we are NOT dealing with a learning disability. When a gymnast is immobilized by fears it’s not “her fault” that she can’t get herself to go. This is NOT a reflection of her abnormal need for attention, her lack of motivation, that’s she’s not trying hard enough or whether she’s a “head case.” These explanations are totally inaccurate and to me, simply reflect a teaching disability. They highlight the coach’s inadequacies as an educator, not the student’s shortcomings.

When your athlete is scared and that fear immobilizes her, getting angry with and screaming at this child is an ineffective and abusive response. Your athlete is not deliberately trying to annoy or frustrate you. She wants nothing more than to be able to go and make you proud of her. The reason that she can’t get herself to go is out of her conscious control. It is not a sign of her being willful or stubborn.

Gymnasts who balk and are immobilized by fears are stuck in the biological self-protective state of FREEZE! They have unconsciously accumulated enough scary/upsetting experiences over the years so that their body automatically goes into this self-protective state. The athlete’s inability to move is an unconscious attempt at keeping herself safe. Getting angry at this athlete only makes her feel even less safe and contributes to her being more stuck.

Instead of letting your impatience, frustrations and anger get in the way of you being effective, how about a little perspective here, coach? If you try something with your athlete and she still remains stuck, don’t put it on her! Try something different that doesn’t involve threats and humiliation. Try to help that gymnast feel safer instead of less safe. You will rarely, if ever, get a kid unstuck by making them feel less safe. Try to understand where your gymnast is coming from and what her fear is about. Throw out your rational explanations for why this kid is stuck because fear is an emotion and you can’t get at it by trying to appeal to the rational, i.e. “You’ve been doing this skill well for years and you have no reason to be afraid.”

Also, you will never make a kid feel safe by being angry or humiliating them. These are living, feeling, sensitive children you’re working with here, NOT inanimate objects! Try being empathic for a change. Try stepping into their shoes and feeling what they’re feeling. It may give you some much needed insights that could help this child get unstuck. Finally, when they struggle, your athletes emotionally need you more than ever. Be there for them in a supportive, patient and encouraging role. Try to remember that you are not just teaching gymnastics skills here. Your working with something far more important. You are helping shape how this child will see and feel about herself outside of the gym for years to come.


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