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Support a Young Gymnast


Part of being a parent necessarily involves being interested and concerned in all aspects of a child’s life. But how much interest and how much concern should a mom or dad show for their young one? It can be difficult sometimes, and go against the grain of parental instincts, but parents need to allow their children a modicum of independence for them to thrive, find their true selves, develop sufficiency and lead lives of their own outside the home.

A dilemma arises when parents become overly involved in their children’s lives, and particularly in the sports that they play. When this happens, the child will start to feel like a puppet, with his or her parents playing the puppeteer. Youngsters in this situation lose the interest and drive that initially motivated them to participate in a sport. Having lost all sense of control that they have over any decision involving their athletic lives, they will find less pleasure and more discontent, eventually causing them to abandon their sport.

With this type of parental (and coaching) conduct in mind, “days of silence” have been instituted at soccer games, banning parents and coaches from making any noise or vocal expressions during competitions. “Days of Silence” has so benefited young soccer players that it has been adapted by other sports. Apparently, the loud and rude behavior of heckling parents and aggressive coaches has been attributed to an overzealous desire to win, above and beyond anything else. (Free Press, October 1999)

This type of conduct in some parents and coaches has proved to have a negative effect on the youngster’s athletic life. Imagine the humiliation and loss of morale a young athlete experiences every time his or her parents and coaches bellow stridently at judges, or even at the athlete for a poorly executed move at practice or competition.

Many sports associations and organizations have noted the growing number of parents who have been exhibiting controlling behavior over their child athletes. In addition to being loudly belligerent to the point of violence during practice and competition, their actions have affected coaches, other athletes, spectators and the children themselves. The National Alliance of Youth Sports in The United States has established “The Parents Association for Youth Sports Program,” which aims to encourage sportsmanly behavior and the development of self-control, among others.

It is fortunate that this type of parental behavior hasn’t overshadowed gymnastics yet. However, there may yet be some possibility. Parents are advised not to be too overly controlling and overly involved in their children’s athletic lives, attempting to live out their unfulfilled dreams in the performances of their youngsters, frequently nagging coaches during practice.

The American Academy of Pediatrics noted in 2000, that an increasing number of parents are becoming thoroughly enmeshed in involving their children in sports. The tempting offers of athletic scholarships and the dream of professional sports have resulted in more and more parents investing time, money and even their whole lives into their children’s athletic development. Children are being pushed to enter specialized athletic programs at very early ages for this very reason.

Which leads to the question: how involved should a parent be in the life of their young athlete? Showing interest and concern is an admirable trait, as it makes the child feel loved, cared for and supported. Studies have shown that the measure of interest and concern a parent shows toward their children in sports has resulted in better performances and a drive to excel. It has also shown that children of interested parents show more enjoyment and more participation in sports and other physical activities.

However, if this interest and concern is taken beyond the appropriate levels, a problem arises when the children feel that their parents are too involved, making them feel a loss of control over their decision to participate in a sport. The young athlete ceases to be the star of the show, instead, and it is the parent who takes center stage. Additionally, research has proven that child athletes who feel they have absolutely no say-so in their decision to play a sport, lose out in the enjoyment and satisfaction aspect, lose interest, and eventually quit the sport altogether.

Parents with children involved in gymnastics need to know what the healthy levels of concern are, and when this concern passes over into obsession. This aspect of parental involvement can have a great effect on a child’s participation in gymnastics, as well as helping that child achieve what he or she wants out of the sport.

For instance, your daughter has been thoroughly enjoying herself at the floor exercise, and because of her enthusiasm and skill, finds herself moved up one level. All of sudden, after practice one day, she flops despondently on the couch and announces her desire to quit. So what gives? You’ll need to find out what caused this abrupt decision. Keep communication lines open with your young athlete, so they can take you in their confidence and keep you abreast of their progress. Or regress, as the case may be.

A possible explanation for her distress can stem from other female athletes in her new level. These girls have been in this higher level for a longer period of time, and their skill and experience may be making your daughter feel ungainly and incompetent. Uplift your child by expressing your continued belief in her ability, and express your support for her by sympathizing with her misery. Explain that she only needs to keep on working on her skills so she can reach, and even surpass her fellow gymnasts to be the best in her new level.

Above all, let your child know that she shouldn’t take things so hard. The most important thing is for her to continue enjoying her sport. As a parent, you need to be acutely aware that the primary reason a youngster participates in a sport is to have fun. Second is the opportunity to make friends, and third, though not quite as important – the excitement of competing and showing off new skills. Stress this fact to your child: the most important thing is to have fun.

Some parents are under the misconception that winning is everything for their young athlete. They couldn’t be more wrong. In their mistaken belief, they push their child at practice and competition, putting a lot of stress on the young athlete. Some parents become so obsessed about winning, and this places horrific pressure on the child. Eventually, he or she will lose all sense of enjoyment and drop out of sports entirely.

To be the parent of a successful child gymnast, you need to know and understand your role in providing love, encouragement and concern towards your child. Apart from the physical and financial support, your child needs emotional and psychological support, as well.

Emotional support will involve helping your child deal with wins and losses, discussing techniques at a personal level, and providing encouragement whenever possible. You also want to watch for inadequate coaching, while at the same time make your child aware of all the lessons he or she can learn from participating in a sport. There are instances when some parents give such an outpouring of emotional support, they lose themselves in it. They cross the fine line between giving support and becoming over-involved.

Parents who are emotionally involved in their child’s sport become overly upset, embarrassed, or even guilty, whenever their child makes an error or performs poorly. They are prone to be overly controlling and constantly push their child to do better and to practice more. They start to live their life through their child’s, and assume that their own goals are the child’s own. Pretty soon, their children begin to feel like the objects of ambition, and not “persons” at all.

Parents who are too emotionally involved in their children’s sports fall under two categories: the excitable, and the fanatical.

Excitable parents are supportive but often get caught up in “the heat of the moment”. They are the ones who constantly yell their encouragement loudly from the stands – at the coaches, the judges, and the athletes themselves. They become overly concerned whenever the athlete takes a fall, a bump or a bruise, and they are the first ones to run in just to make sure their child is alright. Although they mean well for their child, their conduct becomes a primary source of embarrassment and distraction for the young athlete. Children of excitable parents often try to keep their parents from going to their practices and competitions.

The fanatical parent is the most detrimental to a child’s athletic progress. This type of parent is obsessive about winning, and more often than not, takes direct control over their child’s participation in the sport. Because of the pressure, their kids lose sleep and develop poor eating habits. They have bad relationships with their coaches, and lose all enjoyment and motivation during practice sessions. Fanatical parents are controlling and confrontational, and are constantly under the impression that the sole purpose of their child’s participation in sports is to win competitions, achieve fame and prestige, and eventually become a professional athlete.

Fanatical parents have unrealistic expectations and overestimate their children’s abilities in the sport. They expect their child to win at every competition, and fail to listen to their children’s apprehensions and fears. Fanatical parents fail to realize that only 1% of young athletes make it to the professional level. Do they really have their children’s best interests at heart?

Apparently not, because the fanatical type of parent lives vicariously through their children. According to The University of Washington sport psychologist, Frank Smoll, a parent that over identifies with a child is living his or her life through the child. The youngster becomes an extension of the parent’s ego. As a result, the parent identifies with the success of the child for feelings of self-worth. In the same manner, any failure on the part of the child may make the parent feel bad and unworthy. This is called the reverse-dependency trap, and it places a tremendous amount of pressure on the young athlete.

The parents are pressured to have children win at every match and because of this, resort to inappropriate conduct during practices and competitions. They are driven by the spirit of competitiveness, a fear of humiliation, and personal pride. Parents who

have been former athletes themselves, are especially pressured to have children equal or even exceed their own levels of success. Even if they are realistic about their children’s personal abilities, they may still expect them to follow their lead and become accomplished athletes themselves. In addition, coaches and other people expect a lot from children of former athletes, piling on additional stress on the youngsters.
As mentioned before, parents mainly play a financial and provisional role in the athletic lives of their children. This involves bringing their children to and from practices and competitions, taking on the financial responsibility for gym membership and travel expenses, and providing their kids with the requisite uniforms and equipment. Usually the quantity of financial and provisional support will depend on the athletic level of the child, and the family’s own financial status.

It has to be mentioned here that gymnastics, like figure skating and ice hockey, fall among the sports which require an enormous amount of time and money for the child to participate in. These elements may cause disorder in the regular routine of family life, and make a huge dent on the family’s finances. As a consequence, some parents may feel that their child should reciprocate for all these sacrifices by applying maximum effort in excelling at the sport.

Unfortunately these parents use the guilt factor to accomplish this. Guilty young athletes will force themselves to continue with the sport because of parents’ exhortations about the amount of time, money and effort spent for the child to participate. It has been discovered that one of the factors behind the burn-out of talented young athletes is a perception that they have over-controlling parents who are vocal about the amount of time and money spent on their kids.

In the past, the fathers of young athletes were seen to be the most involved in their children’s athletic progress. However, in a recent study on parent-child interactions in the sports of soccer, wrestling and figure skating, it was revealed that mothers play a major role in the development of emotional and psychological behavior in young athletes. Usually, the father introduces the child to the sport, but it is the mother who provides the long-term support needed by a youngster to continue to participate athletically.

Child gymnasts look to their mothers as being more optimistic and encouraging, while view their fathers as more critical and evaluative of their performances. It should therefore be stressed that mothers are important in providing emotional and psychological support for the development of young athletes.

Although there continues to be an increased amount of negative conduct in parents during sports competitions, a majority of them remain on best behavior. Most young gymnasts agree that their parents maintain support, act as positive role models, and provide them with a safe, sound, protected and encouraging environment (Hellstedt, 1995). The young athletes who are under this impression continue to express enjoyment in their sport, are more confident and secure of their abilities, and are less likely to quit.

As a loving and concerned parent, it is important to let your child know that you will always put his or her interests over that of winning any competition. Your child’s coach will also let you know of his role, sports philosophy and team goals. In the normal course of enrolling your child in a sports program, coaches will hold an orientation or meeting, and are likely to:

1.) Introduce himself and his fellow assistant coaches
2.) Enumerate his qualifications, experience and his reasons for going into coaching
3.) Discuss his coaching philosophy
4.) Talk about the values imparted by playing sports
5.) Discuss his coaching method, and what a typical practice session is like
6.) Explain his beliefs on winning, losing, having fun in sports, sportsmanship, safety procedures and learning
7.) Lay down his expectations for each athlete and parent
8.) Enumerate the rules and skills of the sport, conduct demonstrations with the help of more experienced gymnasts, or play a video detailing the same
9.) Be frank about the risks involved, and ask you to read carefully and sign a standard release form
10.) Detail a list of risks and injury factors, including the safety procedures usually undertaken
11.) Discuss all the safety precautions he takes as a coach, including first aid in case of emergencies
12.) Give more information about the program
13.) Inform the parents of venue and practice schedules, and their role in bringing their children to and from practices and competitions
14.) Discuss the policies on team selection, and the decision process involved in selecting which player to enter in what competition
15.) Gives the list of required uniforms and equipment, and where to purchase them
16.) Enumerate rules, policies and disciplinary measures
17.) Entertain questions and suggestions from parents

Going Over the Rules

Your child’s gymnastic coach will likely distribute a list or pamphlet detailing rules and regulations to all parents. The list is usually about team and region rules, schedules for practice and competition, and what is expected of parents and spectators. The pamphlet may also detail the penalties imposed upon athletes, parents and spectators for inappropriate behavior during competition. These penalties may involve suspending the game, or suspension/removal of the child athlete from the gymnastics program. The rationale behind these penalties is to prevent what is known as the “Little League Parent” syndrome, in which parents regress to inappropriate behavior during meets, as is the case when view their children as extensions of themselves.

The coach will also lay down a set of rules regarding proper and improper conduct. Parents are encouraged to take an active role in the formation and promotion of these rules. Having a sense of responsibility over the rules will ensure that they are followed and implemented. The rules in the pamphlet provided will most likely be about:

1.) Parents picking their children up on time after practices and competitions
2.) Parents and spectators holding a tight reign on their emotions at all times, and while the are encouraged to cheer for their team and athletes, they should also maintain respect for sports officials and the opposing team
3.) Parents not shouting advice or coaching their children from the stands, or throwing insults at other athletes, coaches, parents, sports officials and judges
4.) Waiting until after competition is over to bring up their questions and concerns to coaches, sports officials or regional administrators, unless they are aware of a potential safety hazard that needs to be addressed immediately
5.) Having parents sign a contract stating that they are aware of and will abide with the rules and regulations of the team and region.

Long Story Short, a Parent’s Role Is…

1.) To keep an open ear and to pay careful attention to your child’s feelings and opinions about participating in sports
2.) To provide unceasing love, care and support whether your child wins or loses a game
3.) To make your child aware that winning isn’t everything, but doing their best is
4.) To encourage your child to be self-sufficient and to stand by every decision or action he or she makes
5.) To support your child in his or her other non-sports activities, to be able to raise a more well-rounded child
6.) To encourage your child to have fun and set his or her own standards of excellence; remember, this is not about you, but about your child
7.) To provide support, encouragement and sympathy whenever needed
8.) To stress that getting into sports is all about enjoying themselves and having the time of their lives

Any parent would agree that they would want their children to view sports participation as a means of enjoyment, leading an active lifestyle, learning new skills and accumulating valuable life lessons.



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