In front of me sat eight little people who looked up at me with a combination of eagerness and shyness. It was a scene oddly familiar from years back, yet completely anew. Here I was, about to coach gymnastics for the first time in years. Part of the job title was to display the gymnastics circuit for the kids later to mimic which made me feel slightly queasy. Let’s make a couple things clear, this is recreational gymnastic which means easy but I was never specifically any good at gymnastics and it has been years. Despite starting at an age considered ‘too old’, it was my first love and if there was anything I could do with the sport, including coaching, I would.
When it came time to display specific drills my mind remembered it all very clear but my body held a different story. Eventually, after some embarrassing spills, the basics came back quick enough to feel I could actually coach. Interestingly enough, something which skipped my awareness in my younger years of coaching was what the title coach actually meant. There were the obvious do-gooders and keeners who were easy but then there were these ‘other kids’ who proved more work than the pay really warranted.
The trouble kids… every class has one or two of them, perhaps even you fell under this category. At a very clear point in my life I certainly did. Going from the quiet, shy, straight A student to someone who walked out of her grade 8 chemistry class while proceeding to tell the teacher to fuck off and go to hell was indeed a dramatic change. High school was downhill from then on. There was no teacher brave or caring enough to sink their teeth in deep enough to find out what was really going on.
after gym fun
Perhaps it was from my own personal interest of what I could learn while coaching these kids or maybe it was a genuine concern over someone so small destined for a direction totally preventable, but either way, I yearned to have them in my group; to grasp their attention to make an imprint, to show them their own greatness.
Let’s take Mike. Mike’s favorite thing to say was ‘I can’t’. He’d say it before he tried, while he tried and after he tried, he’d confirm that belief. His mind would tell him no on basically everything, sometimes outright saying he was too stupid and fat. Another kid, let’s say Luther, as it seems a fitting name for the little devil. Luther barely made eye contact, wouldn’t listen and would fight with the other kids to the point of aggression. He would outright lie saying it was me who told him he couldn’t do a skill and often said he was bad at gymnastics. As I watched him believe everything he told himself, my version of reality came out in empty words, seemingly bypassing the space between his ears. Now take Emily. At an age when most kids are considered fearless, she’d shake and quiver to the point of crying despite my holding her hand, encouraging her the whole way.
She, like Mike and Luther, would not try things because they didn’t think it possible, and if they did try, it was often the most halfhearted attempt ever witnessed. It was all so, interesting… heartbreaking, and so simply human. Their fragility was so open, unlike our own masks. It was pretty clear that my job was not to teach these kids how to do a perfect cartwheel but rather, to instill in them a belief of what was possible, to change their way of thinking, to emphasis effort over outcome not matter what.
After a few weeks of coaching I became more familiar with the stories these kids built up in their heads. They believed them to be true because someone who had some sort of authority over them told them it was so. Tell a kid he is great and with determination and hard work, he can do anything and he’ll believe that. Tell a kid he is unworthy, incapable, too fat, weak, dumb… he believes that. Many of the kids had the mentality of a fixed mindset something which I learned about just last year when someone thankfully pointed mine out to me. A fixed mindset is fixable and totally worth instilling with all my effort.
My white legs... :) Photo credit: Malek Taleb
With each and every kid I would praise their effort no matter the outcome. Even if their effort was that of a sloth, they could always try harder and I encouraged them to do so. If I heard ‘I can’t, I quickly replaced it with an ‘I can’t yet’ thus to infuse possibility. I wouldn’t let them skip a drill no matter how scary or intimidating until they at least tried. I pushed and encouraged them, told them to focus on their breath if they were scared, to not believe their thinking if it said otherwise, and simply, to try as hard as they possible could. As the weeks passed my efforts were not in vain. Emily focused more on her breath without me having to tell her. One time after class Mike stayed with me on his own accord just to keep practicing a skill which I knew he could muster. Luther however, I just couldn’t get through. His walls were so tall and thick, my knock was barely heard.
It wasn’t always the trouble kids that caught my attention. Some kids believed anything was possible and worked hard at skills despite numerous falls. They had a look in their eyes which screamed focus and intensity. Nothing could get to them in this zone. I must have seemed the strangest coach when I interrogated them, asking them about their thought processes when they did a difficult skill, poking at them to share their secrets.
So what do these kids have to do with climbing? Having just finished with the Munich World Cup with an unsatisfying performance, my introspective self has come to sit and ponder. Clearly I made some mental errors like Mike, doubted myself like Emma and believed my thinking like Luther. When these kids repeated the same mental mistakes over and over, I was there, looking them straight in the eyes, reminding them it wasn’t so. But sometimes, when caught in the moment, be it standing on a balance beam or precariously balancing on a climbing wall, no one is there to shout in your face but your own conditioned mind.
This comp taught me one thing; my way of thinking has a far way to go. The first problem was a dyno followed by my first thought which claimed, I can’t dyno, I’ll try but it’s impossible. Fixed mindset, self-limiting beliefs... My shoulder immediately hurt from the weird position. Further tweaking my shoulder was less than ideal considering my last 5 months were spent dealing with tweak after tweak so I easily let that go to focus on the problems to come. But as the comp progressed, I made error after error, mentally and physically.
Felt like i was jumping my whole body length to get this bonus! Well, tagged it at least..! and no, this was not the dyno..!
Adjusting my body from various insecure positions posed feelings of improbability. As I worked to bring my foot higher, my mind doubted, repeating, ‘you’re going to slip, it isn’t going to work’. Seconds later, I was on the ground. While weighing my foot on the slab so very precariously, my mind was caught up with was going on behind me. It’s like, come on thomo, who gives a fuck who’s watching! Focus on the bloody task at hand!! Trust yourself, just climb…!
A pattern emerged of repeating mistakes made in the past; as if I didn’t truly learn. Too much focus on the outcome, instead of enjoying and relaxing in the moment. My thinking wasn’t that of confidence and ability. I told myself the holds were so far that reaching them was impossible, believing this to the point where my effort wasn’t what it could be. I was seeing small and more so, playing small.
Comps can leave an aftertaste akin to a bad break up; failure, pain, loneliness. Watching the other strong competitors who had also had a bad comp later enjoy the experience reminded me of the insignificance of it all, to see the bigger picture; to empty my mind as the inspiring Zen kids in class. What coaching gave me was a real chance to give these kids something which I wanted more of: empowerment, grit, tools’ for a path toward a better self. There is a saying that one should teach what one wants to learn in order to fully learn it. Fortunately for the sake of growth and evolving as a human being, this process will never stop. We can always strive to be better than we were yesterday, even if we take a couple steps backwards on the way.
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