Beyond the Gym
By Cheska Jackson
We hear the phrase all the time. We even use it ourselves to justify the amount of school they miss to both ourselves and others; “They are learning skills in the gym that will serve them throughout life.” But what does that phrase really mean? What exactly are they learning and how will the things they are learning in the gym benefit them outside of those four walls?
Most obviously, these kids are learning to be strong; both mentally and physically. There is no denying their physical prowess. All one must do is observe them while training or review their results in various athletic endeavors. Gymnastics athletes are simply exceptionally conditioned due to their dedication and the way they have learned to push themselves. More importantly, as a result of their conditioning, they have learned that they are capable of amazing feats and outstanding results, and they have come to expect and demand excellence from themselves. They have learned to be their own self-motivators and evaluate what they need to do to succeed in reaching their goals.
While there is always debate in the world of athletics about which is the hardest and most demanding sport, gymnastics is often rated in the top three – above hockey, rugby and even the Iron Man – and for good reason. The mental and physical toughness required to focus and endure the relentless training schedule and perform such a breadth of maneuvers with grace and control is unparalleled in other sports. When evaluated on the level of fitness, amount of time required to master skills, the complexity of skills and the level of pain tolerance required to persevere, gymnastics always comes out ahead, as outlined in the Aug 5, 2016, “sportingnews.com” article, which rated gymnastics as the second toughest sport.
“Thetoptens.com” however, gives gymnastics a first place rating due to its intensity “involving the performance of exercises requiring strength, flexibility, balance and control”. It is a relentless sport with no off-season and ranks number one on their toughest scale because of all the rips, muscle strains, intense conditioning, dangerous maneuvers, severity of scoring and the performance abilities that are required on a daily basis. Gymnasts simply must have it all, and to become “the complete package,” they work harder than most athletes, both inside and outside of the gym. They set the bar for work ethic and toughness.
When they struggle to get a skill or face a debilitating fear, they must learn to find the strength and confidence within themselves to overcome the challenge. Coaches and parents encourage, but in the end, it is up to the athlete to develop the resiliency and perseverance required to overcome obstacles and become the best that they can be. And this is what they are learning every single day they come into the gym. They are also developing a powerful combination of other life skills, like:
- Planning ahead
- Devising backup plans, in case they forget something or something just doesn’t work out
- Knowing themselves and evaluating their limits
- Dealing with disappointment and learning to move beyond it
- Goal setting and formulating strategies to reach those goals
- Developing a strong sense of self-awareness and empowerment as they realize they are in control of their progression and the actions/decisions that will take them down their own path.
- Evaluating the various paths available to them, and their willingness to put forth the effort and make the sacrifices to follow those various paths.
- How to take risks and not fear failure, but instead to look at setbacks as learning opportunities, reasons to work harder and a chance to grow.
Struggling, (we hate to see it, but they all do at some point,) may make them feel down on themselves in the moment, but it’s an essential part of personal development. They try, they fail, they learn to pick themselves back up and try again, maybe in a different way, until they get it. When they get through it, they know the true feelings of pride and achievement – it’s something that they just can’t get from participation awards that are handed out so freely in other areas of their lives. Through struggle and adversity, they develop inner strength they can always draw on. They learn to believe and trust in themselves, and they are better equipped to face future difficulties in all areas of their lives, simply because they already have the experience of getting through them. The fear of getting knocked down isn’t nearly as scary once you know you have what it takes to get back up. And sometimes, the struggle can even teach they gymnast how to laugh at themselves – not take themselves so seriously, and to put things in perspective. Another added benefit of the struggle, (and it may seem odd that I am pointing this out, but there is a false assumption among many that you should be happy all the time and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you,) is that they learn it’s okay to feel sad, disappointed and frustrated sometimes. By experiencing all of these emotions, they become more resilient, more complete people, capable of empathy, compassion and understanding themselves and the world around them.
The level of dedication, perseverance and drive required for success in gymnastics is highby all scales. Personal sacrifices must be made and pain endured. Exemplary time management skills required to balance training, school and personal lives, self-discipline, initiative, organization, responsibility and the ability to both collaborate and work independently, are all essential. In addition, gymnasts must be able to perform in an instant while under the harsh judgment of critics, conducting themselves with maturity, poise and confidence. These, along with all of those already mentioned, are life skills that must be learned and developed over time, and there are very few environments in which they can all be cultivated simultaneously and to such a high degree. It is undoubtedly a tall order, but it is also the real payoff of competitive gymnastics. These skills will lead our athletes to future success, regardless of what they choose to do with their lives, when they venture beyond the gym.
Before I conclude, I would like to share a quote that I feel accurately reflects the over-achieving nature of our athletes and the work they do in the gym. Gabby Douglas, US Olympic Gymnast, defined a gymnast best when she said: “Hard days are the best. That’s when champions are made.” Whether they realize it or not, this is the mantra to which all successful gymnasts subscribe. Every day in the gym has its challenges. These athletes learn to face them, work through them and rise above them with the resilience, respect, gratitude and integrity their coaches have instilled and they themselves have refined. They push themselves to the limit both physically and mentally, building incredible strength of character while learning to balance the various aspects of their lives, dealing with pain, fatigue, adversity, negative self-talk and fears. Let’s face it…Life isn’t always easy, but a competitive gymnast truly has everything they need to face it head on and succeed at whatever they do by using the tools and skills they have acquired while training. They endure the hard days and develop an unfailing work ethic, along with the strategies to help them push forward, reach goals and succeed. Whether it’s at the end of a successful career or after the latest training session, they step out of the gym as the champions that they are.
Catching up with Alumni Beyond the Gym
So what are some of our alumni doing now that they are living life Beyond the Gym and how did the life skills they learned while training help get them there?
For Hannah Gula, it is more of a question of what ISN’T she doing. She retired from the OGC WAG program to pursue post secondary education and has been seen training as a power lifter, mastering wake boarding, rock climbing, aerial silks and partner acro. She is embracing every aspect of life, using that gymnastic prowess, confidence and ability to overcome any fears and push herself to ever higher limits. The following is what Hannah had to say about how the gym prepared her for life:
“I moved away from my family and my small hometown of Red Lake, Ontario to pursue training at the Oakville Gymnastics Club when I was 14 years old. I trained 25 hours during the week and went to competitions on the weekend. To most people, who are either not involved or new to the gymnastics world, this probably sounds like this would only be worth it if this story ended in Olympic glory. Spoiler alert – it doesn’t; not even close. But, the life skills I have walked away with from my time as a gymnast are more valuable than any award could ever be. Every single day I find myself utilizing life lessons I’ve learned from gymnastics, while my medals collect dust in a shoebox under my bed.
I have learned how to deal with fear. As many of my coaches could probably tell you, I was a tentative gymnast when it came to the beam. Some days, the fear got the better of me, but most days, I pushed through. I never totally overcame my fear of the beam, but that has allowed me to learn how to work with my fear, instead of against it and has enabled me to try new things and discover new passions that seemed really scary at first.
In gymnastics, you are supposed to look confident when you are competing. You actually get points taken off if you don’t! Because I have not always felt that way, I have learned how to put on a “confident face” and pretend. These days, I don’t perform my routine, but I still get that familiar knot in my stomach when it comes to things like school presentations or job interviews. I always think to myself, if the judges, who could see every imperfection in your routine down to a hundredth of a point, couldn’t tell that you were just pretending to be confident, neither can your professor or potential employers. This in turn, always gives me a realboost of confidence.
If I had to pick a single most important life lesson that I have taken away from gymnastics, it would be that I have learned to fall and how to get back up. Every new flip or twist that I learned in the gym had hundreds of failed attempts. If I had given up on a new gymnastics skill just because I fell down, I wouldn’t have been able to do even the most basic level of the sport! I learned that you make a mistake, you learn from it, and you move on and become better from it.
I am the person I am today because of gymnastics and I am forever grateful that I was able to learn and grow as a person in this wonderful sport. These days, I live in Thunder Bay and I have recently graduated from college. I am hoping to pursue business at university next fall. I currently coach gymnastics part-time and am an avid crossfit athlete and weightlifter. I am also really enjoying the beauty of northern Ontario and spend as many days as I can outdoors, whether that’s rock climbing, wakesurfing, snowboarding or hiking. I definitely miss being a competitive gymnast, but I am so excited for this new chapter in my life!
Kelsey Brasil – Former OGC Tumbler
Kelsey is another celebrated OGC alum. She retired from tumbling, completed her education and has become a successful entrepreneur. She credits gymnastics and the lessons it taught her for helping to shape her into a strong individual and for contributing to the successes she has enjoyed.
“For most of my life, OGC has been my home away from home. The gym was never just a gymnastics club for me or any of my teammates. When you are dedicated to gymnastics, it is inherently a commitment to yourself and your capacity to grow, learn, and challenge your personal best. I have cried, screamed, laughed, and shook with fear within those four walls. Gymnastics teaches you as a kid that if you keep getting up after you fall, adjust your mindset, and listen to your body, you can achieve your goals.
I was a national power tumbler. My coaches Niki Lavoie and Don Holmes were there for me during my development as an athlete and as a young woman. I learned about guided visualization and relaxation for my sport, and applied it to my life when I lost loved ones at a young age and was crippled with grief.
I am often told that I am incredibly confident. Growing up as a gymnast, I was constantly in a mindset that no one could make something happen for me but me, that I had complete control over my success. Not only was it about being successful (in fact I was quite a spaz as an athlete and rarely competed well), but I loved learning about my resiliency. The resiliency of my mind, and my body. Gymnastics/Power Tumbling gave me confidence in my capacity to heal and move forward. Though it is an individual sport, you learn how to support your community while staying true to yourself and your goals. In a way, that taught me boundaries in relationships; how to [be there for] others both in the context of our sport and as friends, but still stay focused on my journey, my goals, and my healing.
I now run my own organization, Let’s Sprout, where I connect with youth and we explore gender inclusivity, environmental sustainability, and authentic leadership. I also work full time as an educator on energy efficiency at Green Schools. Before that, I spent a year in Ghana working with youth on professional and personal development and employability skills training. In any interview I have ever had, I mention that not only have I coached gymnastics for over 10 years, but I was an athlete for most of my life. And every time without a doubt the potential employer’s eyes light up, and they jot it down. Employers are aware of the work, dedication, courage, and focus it takes to be a gymnast. My plate is always full, and I am constantly creating, innovating and problem solving. Gymnastics gave me that confidence in myself to take risks. Let’s Sprout is a consistent risk for me, a challenge I take on willingly because I know I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
So yes, gymnastics shaped my life. My coaches continue to be my mentors, and know me on a very deep level. I continue to apply the relentless and fearless attitude to my work, my relationships, and my own passion projects. The gym was my sanctuary during my years of grief, it was my punching bag when I was frustrated, and it was my safe space when I didn’t know who I was. The gym taught me to sit with discomfort, to visualize a positive outcome, and to work at challenges with an open mind. It taught me to ask for help when I needed it, and it taught me to confront fears not back down from them.
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