Chapter 6: Becoming a coach
This past fall, I had the honor of becoming a staff member at Flipper’s Gymnastics in Ramsey, NJ. It’s the gym where I’ve been training since the summer of 2018, when the gym where I’d been going to shut down. Fortunately, a fellow Geriatric Gymnast had been planning to open her own place, a serendipitous coincidence, since her new place was much closer to my house and was willing to take on adults as clients. Most gyms do not want to take on the extra liability of people over 18 flipping head over heels, but being an adult gymnast herself, she understood how important it was for us to keep training. So, we made the move to Flipper’s when she opened her doors.
So, how did I become a coach? I had no real intentions of doing so. Other than helping my classmates by passing on the good advice that had been offered to me over the years, I was much more comfortable being the student. Even after over a decade of gymnastics training and almost 30 years as a dance teacher, I wasn’t confident that I had enough experience and background in the coaching aspect of gymnastics to keep someone else safe as they progressed. Though I do understand the body, how to condition it, skills progression, class management and so on, I also understand how the body can get injured when things go wrong. I didn’t peg myself as someone who could anticipate and predict all of the possibilities in a gymnastics arena and keep people safe. The last thing I wanted to do was get someone hurt because I missed something in their training.
When the original coach for our adult class left for personal reasons this past summer, we were without a leader. No coach, no class. We were all tacitly worried that our Sunday morning workout tradition would suddenly be over. This was a daunting thought; for 14 years, my Sunday mornings, with little exception, had been dedicated to a ritual that has become ingrained in my body and soul. The idea that I might not be able to attend my temple of flipping was quite distressing. The owner of the gym, who worked six days a week and wasn’t excited about giving up her day off (completely understandable – I wouldn’t either), asked if I was interested in coaching the Sunday morning class. I was a little flabbergasted, because it seemed that she trusted me in a way that I didn’t initially trust myself. But if she felt I was capable of keeping people from killing themselves, I was willing to try.
It also meant that I got to wear an awesome blue staff shirt, which made me feel really official, so I had to step up my game and start thinking like a coach. (That’s me in my favorite shirt.) I also now have my favorite staff sweatshirt, sweatpants and socks, so when it’s cold and I go to the gym, I’m a walking Flipper’s billboard. But I digress…
As excited I was about exploring this new opportunity, I was also not stupid. There’s much more to coaching than encouraging someone to bounce on a trampoline. You need to understand skills progressions, know how to keep people safe as they (literally) jump out of their comfort zone, identify and correct physical imbalances through proper conditioning, and encourage the adult brain to embrace regular failure as a path to success. Most importantly, you also must understand your own limitations and accept that there are things that you don’t have enough expertise in to properly coach.
My friend Tammy, whom I have had the good fortune to train with for many years, is a stellar gymnast. While only a few years older than me, she has been flipping since she was a kid, and has continued her conditioning, keeping her body strong and flexible, maintaining skills that some teenagers struggle to learn. Her body of knowledge in progressions, prerequisites, drills, and safety is vast. She is also a physical therapist, with an incredible understanding of the body, how it’s supposed to work, and how injuries occur and heal. Though she hadn’t been coaching, I always thought she’d make an excellent one. However, her expertise was not in teaching, so she had her own reservations about stepping up into that role. When she offered to co-coach with me, I was quite relieved. A symbiotic relationship developed: I could develop my coaching knowledge and strategies side by side with her, and I could give her some more confidence in her ability to run a class. We’d bounce ideas and learn from one other and together, we could offer the newbies a fitness experience that they could manage and get excited about week after week. We would also be able to continue our own training.
As each week passed, I thought carefully about the foundation that a new gymnast would need to learn. Whenever a new student comes to the gym, they have no real idea of what they are getting themselves into. Usually, they want a fun way to get fit – something different and exciting that they can sustain. The magic of Geriatric Gymnastics (and of Flipper’s Gymnastics in general) is that there is no competition, no comparing yourself to your classmates, and no need to rush your skills development. In fact, the best part about being in the class is looking at the various levels of experience and competencies and learning how to get closer to the things you want to accomplish, one step at a time.
I remember walking into the adult gymnastics world 14 years ago and seeing people, my age and older, who were doing complex tumbling combinations as I was struggling to stay on my feet whilst bouncing on a trampoline. I stood there, flabbergasted, and wondering if I would ever be able to do any of those things. This is the moment that I try to remember when I approach a new tumbler, because they are thinking the exact same thing. My job is to know what they need in order to stay on their feet, gain a new skill, and come back the next week.
I’ve heard myself saying over and over that sometimes, you have to back up and work the fundamentals in order to have a breakthrough. I say that because I have experienced this truth over and over again; you get a skill, you lose a skill, you have to build it back up again. The other day in class, we were talking about how we are not the same person that we were last year, last month, or even yesterday. We are the sum total of every moment of experience, stress, anxiety, all compounded into an aging body that doesn’t always respond the way we want it to. We are juggling so many mental and physical variables that it sometimes feels like we are doing something for the very first time, even if we have mastered it before. (Read about this in Chapter 2: The road to mastery.)
I think this is the most exciting part of the coaching experience: as newbies realize the struggle of learning a new basic skill, I know exactly what to say because I know how they feel. I feel most comfortable guiding people through the fear because I understand it – heck, I still feel it when I am trying something new. I think that’s what makes me a valuable teacher – I recognize the frustration and I can diagnose some of the fundamental problems that hold back the acquisition of new skills. When I see it happening, I know how to validate and address it.
For example, in order to learn any sort of flip, you must understand your positioning in space and how to get back to your vertical line. As a flipper starts to learn the complex and momentary process of chucking their hips over their head, they need to inherently understand how to find and maintain their vertical stance before and after they flip. If they can’t jump repeatedly on the trampoline with their hands over their head, and stay in the middle of the bed, I will not progress them. Building body control and proprioception (your awareness of your body’s position in space) is essential before you do any inversions. Over the years, I have seen too many near disasters that made me gasp because they weren’t paying attention to their vertical line. Not on my watch.
More importantly, I know how important it is for them to understand what is missing and to be patient with themselves. Part of coaching is teaching people to celebrate when things go right, accept when things go wrong, and understand how to re-evaluate what they can do when they fail. Another part is knowing when to initiate a hard stop, back up and go back to rebuilding fundamentals. Skills that we have gained can be easily lost with one bad landing or near disaster – the fear factor is a powerful force. In class, I make sure the newbies see my learning process as I struggle through my challenges. A great teaching strategy is to show your students how you learn.
That aspect of coaching adults, having them witness the training process in real time, is so valuable. One of the reasons I agreed to coaching was so that our adult class could run and I could keep training – I was not ready to give up my Sunday morning workout ritual. My initial arrangement with Tammy was that we would alternate coaching weeks; when I was focusing on coaching, Tammy would get a better workout and vice versa. We’d still get to flip on our coaching days, but our main focus would be on the students in the class. By keeping up with our own training, the new people could see that geriatric gymnastics was a work-in-progress, one that spanned over many years. Our coaching situation has morphed into a more fluid arrangement; now there are two coaches in class and we operate in tandem with each other every week.
Of course, one of the best parts of teaching is seeing hard-earned progression come to life. When a student struggles with a new skill, either from a physical limitation or a mental block, and suddenly they succeed and their entire being emanates joy; there’s no words to describe the pride you feel for them. You’ve been in their shoes. You know how hard it is to break through a wall. You’ve given them as many strategies you can think of to move them forward, and when it finally clicks and connects, the look on their face is priceless. Something in them changes for the better and being a part of that is quite rewarding. I am so proud of the adult camaraderie (cult) we have built at Flipper’s Gymnastics. That embracing community is the most essential tool for supporting grown-ups who are taking the leap and trying this crazy new obsession.
To learn more about Flipper’s Gymnastics, visit their website!