How do we build the courage to do hard things? Do we see ourselves as competent and able to tackle the challenges? In this chapter of Geriatric Gymnastics, I discuss how gaining personal experience and developing a strong support system puts us on an upward trajectory for molding the best version of ourselves.
Maintaining a positive self-concept at the gym
In psychology, there’s a theory of self-concept maintenance (Ackerman, 2019). The idea is that people take an active role in shaping who we are, based on the knowledge we have about ourselves and how we feel about what we know. It also takes into consideration the impact that others’ perceptions of us has on how we think about ourselves.
In my teens and twenties, I (like most others) struggled with feeling comfortable in my own skin. There were things I was passionate about, that I loved to do, but didn’t feel firmly rooted in my abilities to claim any real expertise in those pursuits. I always felt a little behind the eight-ball, seeing others around me achieving so much more and not necessarily embracing my own accomplishments as having enough merit. I think I suffered from a bit of imposter syndrome from time to time, and was always afraid that someone would discover my secret that I was often winging it and praying things didn’t collapse in an embarrassing mess.
When it comes to being a Geriatric Gymnast, just under the surface is the buzz of “you have no business doing this thing that teenagers do;” a refrain of “how long can I keep this charade up?” Those murmurs can turn into a cacophony of anxiety and doubt if we are not careful to keep those voices hushed.
It’s hard to look around and see what others are capable of doing, as you compare their work to how you think about your own limitations, real or perceived. That’s for another future post. Now, after five decades of living, I realize and have embraced the mantra that #progressisntlinear because no matter how much experience, how many degrees we have, or how many skills we have acquired, everyone is on a continuum of learning in their own headspace. I think that being mindful of this fact releases some of the pressure of having to know everything or thinking that someone else will always do it better than I can. That may be true, but the more important truth is that no one can offer me better than me.
This is what I am working on in my second act of life: focusing the future development of my self-concept on the benefit of offering me in whatever capacity I can. How do I do that? I observe, listen, teach, try new things, write, share my thoughts, and learn from the world around me. When you allow yourself to try, fail, try again, and maybe succeed, it provides fodder for lots of growth. That growth translates into experience, which can give a great boost to your self-concept.
Alongside the personal experience, which is learned by doing, I think what also helps to give your self-concept a boost is when you have solid support, both from the people you love and the people you learn with. From a Geriatric Gymnastics perspective, that support comes from many places.
Here’s what support from others looks like to me:
Good coaches: They respect your worries and limitations, but give you tools and advice when you are ready to move forward. Even when you’re not sure you’re ready to move forward, they give you the encouragement and the security that you have the ability to get the job done. They watch you carefully and identify elements that need specific improvement. They keep you safe as you take a risk.
I’ve had a lot of unofficial coaches as well, women who I’ve trained with over the years who offered some random expertise, good advice, things that have helped them and are passing the word on. In my first gymnastics post, I am a gymnastics addict, I talked about Lisetta, one of the first women who welcomed me into the cult that first year. She offered a phrase that, to this day, I remember every time I do a handspring: “scrape the ceiling with your toes.” It doesn’t make much sense to non-gym people, but as a rule for gymnasts, it gives you the most beautiful body line when you invert heels over head. Whenever I apply that lesson, it makes me a better gymnast. I have paid that advice forward countless times.
Loved ones: I can’t count how many times I’ve come home with aches, pains and injuries (minor and major). When you do complain of joint pain, or take a pain killer, or start icing some part of your body, your loved ones don’t question your decisions, rather they trust that you know how to make good decisions to heal yourself. They think it’s pretty awesome that you’re even trying this crazy stuff and still watch your videos, even though they’ve seen all the skills ad nauseam. While they will always worry about you, they respect that this is something you just have to do, despite some physical setbacks once in a while.
Friends on the outside: In the first chapter of this series, Flipping for all to see, I talked about sharing my progress on social media. There’s something sweet about getting a random message from an old friend saying how much they enjoy and are inspired by your gymnastics posts. I don’t see a lot of “haters,” which is nice. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to present my authentic self, mistakes and all. I hope that people look at my imperfect self and realize that it’s okay to be human when we do hard things. Falling on your ass is so much better when you can laugh and get back up again.
Geriatric Gym buddies: When Lauren called me the GOAT because of some particular thing I did that day. When Gina (who is a magnificent geriatric gymnast who’d give any 20-year-old a run for their money) believed in my ability and kept pushing me to try new things. When Tammy (a brilliant technician and moves like a gazelle) devises clever drills to help facilitate our progress. When I land a new skill and my classmates applaud. When I pass along my own sage coaching advice to someone, they take it, and they improve. There is an inclusive, family feel to every class. We all want each other to succeed. We want everyone to feel that sweet, fluttery feeling in our chest when we finally land on our feet. It’s because we are all in the same boat, doing something that most of us have no business doing, and we’re doing it anyway.
A questionable self-concept doesn’t end when you reach 20, or 30, or even 50. It gets quieter, for sure, but there’s always something ingrained in your brain that sows the seeds of self-doubt. If we actually listen to those repeating refrains that question our right to thrive on the path we have chosen to pursue, we can easily get derailed from even attempting something new or difficult.
I’m proud of my young self for deciding to be brave and for choosing to go after the things she wants. Her older self is now trained to look for new things she wants to pursue, and figuring out what it takes to get better at those things. Whether the call-to-action is big or small, there is power in choosing ourselves. I am also eternally grateful for my support system, who (perhaps unknowingly) validate and help to reinforce the self-concept I have chosen to sculpt as an adult.
To read more about self-concept, click What is Self-Concept Theory? A Psychologist Explains by Courtney E. Ackerman, M.A. (2019).