Gymnastics and play
Why is jumping on the trampoline so much fun? Why is it such a draw? The focus of this blog post is how adults need to play just as much as kids do and how gymnastics provides an excellent way to satisfy the needs of our inner-child.
What is play?
Play is always associated with happier, relaxed, more positive life experiences: activities filled with discovery, experimentation, joy and imagination. A self-directed venture, it is always pursued for the sake of enjoyment. For children, play is a vital part of their cognitive, emotional and social development. But what about adults? Don’t we need to play too?
Play, in almost any form, has myriad benefits for adults. It reduces stress, improves feelings of optimism, builds cognitive flexibility, and is even theorized to help attract and keep mates.“Play” Psychology Today
Play for adults is critical in our stressful go-go-go lives. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. And it can even help to keep us young and feeling energetic. Studies show that play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Play has also been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.
It seems that play is, or should be, a requirement of adulting.
I was in the car, listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour series Work, Play, Rest – part 2. In the episode, they were talking about the importance of all aspects of play; in the creative process, in “adulting,” in activism, even through more serious and challenging life experiences.
Inspired, I started to think about the role of play in adults’ lives. We always stress the importance of play in childhood, and there have been plenty of studies bolstering just how important it is to their brain development. Far fewer studies have been done on the importance of play in the sphere of adulthood. It feels as though it has become acceptable, or worse, inevitable that life’s weariness will strip us of our ability to be child-like. Sadly, losing touch with the playful parts of our life experience seems to be the expected norm of getting older.
One of the NPR guests was 5-time Grammy-winning musician Jacob Collier, who recalled a quote that resonated with me:
The creative adult is the child who survived.
That quote came from science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. In her nearly sixty-year career, Le Guin used her imagination to weave reality with fantasy within a variety of genres (National Endowment for the Humanities). There’s something notable about successful, creative people that we should all take lessons from. Certainly, in my own personal universe, I have leaned heavily on the power of imagination and play as it pertains to my career as an arts educator, my hobbies, everything I do. I love the wide-eyed feeling that related to discovery. I want my inner child to survive, so that I maintain an eternal font of inspiration and source of creating my own happiness.
Gymnastics is my adult version of play
In my Geriatric Gymnastics series, I have covered myriad topics from joining the adult cult, to validating my inner child, to the physical and mental benefits of flipping, to enjoying mental breakthroughs throughout the process. For me, it fits all of the reasons for play, although attracting a mate is not part of my flippy-fun plan. When I go to the gym, even on a slow day, I am seeking the wash of a calmer, less stressed spirit, and connecting to my workout buddies. The sense of accomplishment in something that I chose to do freely is addicting.
What underlies all of the facets of the GG experience is this fundamental truth: jumping on a trampoline and flipping over things is just plain fun. There is an exhilaration when you jump super high, or flip yourself around and land on your feet (or wipe out on your bottom). Managing the adult fear and protective instincts associated with taking risks is part of what makes adult gymnastics both insanely frustrating (when they get in our way of progress) and highly rewarding (when we achieve something new).
Of course, safety first
Before I go any further, let me make it clear that when it comes to adult gymnastics, going it alone is ill-advised. A proper coach who understands the psyche of being an adult as well as the mechanics of the adult body is essential for safety and proper progression. The coach must engage a new adult gymnast’s sense of play and possibility in order to unlock their willingness to see themselves doing an activity that is usually designated for children. Then, the coach must take a newbie through the fundamentals one bit at a time, making sure they are mitigating the inherent risks. After all, a good coach wants their adult gymnasts to return week after week.
What brings weary, jaded adults back to gymnastics?
Really, gymnastics provides adults with everything from which children benefit. But what is it that keeps them coming back once they decide to take the leap? I have a few theories.
You get to play in the big-person Discovery Zone
In almost every gym session, someone new walks in, either looking for a new workout activity or returning after a long hiatus from gymnastics. Walking in, I don’t think they realize that this will become their new playground. At first glance, it is a huge warehouse filled with intimidation that can lead to fear-inducing panic. However, as they go through the basics, one step at a time, suddenly the space becomes a big-person version of the jungle gym, swing set, and slide, giving them the burst of endorphin-filled excitement that was once taken for granted when recess was acceptable and expected in elementary school.
In pulling back the curtain, the anxiety fades as the bouncy surfaces, thick pads and mats, and attentive coaching mitigate some of the inherent risk factors that make our protective brains think twice about engaging in an activity that was once reserved for the younger set. What is revealed is a place where adults can discover new things about themselves and expand their capabilities and self-concept.
As a veteran geriatric gymnast and relatively new coach for adults, I can say that the best part of witnessing the newbie experience is seeing them come back week after week. I remember that elated feeling, like I was just accepted into a once unattainable secret society. Heck, I still get that elated feeling every time I start jumping; it never really goes away.
You find a new social network
Adult gymnastics is the perfect blend of focused hard work, exhilaration and social connection. Nothing builds up a sweat faster than jumping on a trampoline. Nothing is more exciting than landing your first front tuck. And nothing is more validating than a group of other weary, jaded adults roundly applauding your efforts. It doesn’t matter how small the accomplishment seems to be. Whether it’s a new skill acquired, a mental block that has finally been conquered, or just something cool that people haven’t seen before, the work is wholly appreciated by the rest of the adults in the room.
Everyone is working at their own level, battling their own anxiety demons, breaking down emotional barriers. The veterans see the struggle of the newbies, cheering them on for overcoming their fears and trying something risky and new, giving bits of coaching and suggestions to help. We all share the same feelings in the same space, and support each other through the setbacks. We all know that we’re doing this on “borrowed time,” so we’re going to get as much out of the experience as we can while our bodies are still amenable to the task.
You use the creative process, on your own terms
I also think that gymnastics satisfies the creative aspects of play. Maybe at first glance you may not think so, but hear me out.
Learning gymnastics is in the same vein as learning dance. First, you learn the fundamentals of skill and technique, then you learn how to execute those skills with more grace and fluidity, then you start to figure out combinations of movement. As a dance teacher and choreographer, I have followed this creative process year after year, project after project. The mastering of skills is a major part of the creative process; you start with your resources and your body and brain and you constantly use them to figure out next steps. You stumble, you fail, then you learn how to work in a different way to succeed.
In his 2021 Forbes article How Thinking Like A Gymnast Will Help Yield Better Results, former gymnast and present iconoclast Tony Zorc reflects on his creative experience as a competitive gymnast:
When I was competing, judges were always very impressed with creativity—the willingness and desire to do something different. It is the creativity element that makes this sport so special; there are very few sports that provide the opportunity to incorporate that level of creativity. Creativity, as it turns out, is an incredibly valuable principle in every aspect of life and essential skill in challenging the status quo.
In order to be creative, we must first use our imagination to visualize ourselves doing the skills we want to attain. We start from our own experience and expand out from there, adding new elements that we must play with in order to eventually assimilate them into our knowledge base. That act of creative play is what gets us to come back and keep trying, despite the many setbacks we are bound to have; the expansion of our abilities is very enticing.
Going back to the NPR interview, Jacob Collier reflected on how he learned music, not through early childhood lessons (which he politely declined), but through the self-discovery process.
Certain things you need to practice in order to be able to do them and other things I think are better discovered through, just the process of kind of stiffing out what feels really good and both sides have existed for me ever since I began the world of music however conscious I’ve been of either process, but much to my delight and gratitude looking back, I was really enabled to make my own world and design my own learning process in this room for myself.
In the beginning, Collier wanted to explore the process on his own terms instead of following a prescribed method for learning music. Adult recreational gymnasts have the flexibility to decide what they want to learn, and follow their own pace as they develop their skills with their coach’s support. There’s no pressure to perform or compete; thy gym is just a place for self-discovery.
You have permission to jump out of your comfort zone
Sometimes, we put ourselves into a box because it is more comfortable to do so. We see ourselves in certain, perhaps limited ways.
In taking up gymnastics as adults, as we go through this creative process on our own terms with our new social network, we break social norms, expectations and conventional wisdom of being an adult. While adults are generally autonomous creatures, the decision to take on gymnastics doesn’t come easily. From our adult experience, we have learned specific ways that we learn new things, developed personal barriers, and perhaps reinforced the norms that might prevent us from taking on “too much risk.” Society reinforces that notion all of the time. I wrote more about that in chapter 4: Keeping the Bones Strong, when a doctor I saw for an injury said isn’t gymnastics for teenagers?
When we choose to start learning something as seemingly unattainable as adult gymnastics, we have to embrace the creative spirit, because we are literally generating new neurological pathways as our brains slowly figure out how to make our bodies perform in completely new ways. Adults must be convinced that it is acceptable to take on both the physical and emotional risk of training. After all, we don’t normally take too kindly to falling on their butts and I know the general medical community doesn’t wholeheartedly support adult gymnastics.
However, there are more and more gyms taking on the “liability” of coaching adults. World champion and Olympian Chellsie Memmel runs weekend summer camps at her Wisconsin gym in the summer for adults of all ages and skill levels. There are others all around the country as well. Tammy, my dear friend and fellow coach at Flipper’s Gymnastics recently attended Memmel’s camp and ramped up her already off-the-charts GG skills. Tammy has a great blog called Searching for Mula Bandha and shows all of her amazing gymnastics prowess on Instagram at theneotenyprinciple.
She and I both coach adults at Flipper’s Gymnastics in Ramsey, NJ, where we stress having fun, taking safe risks, and breaking that silly notion that adults don’t do gymnastics. (photo by Frederic Moretto)
Bottom line, the weaving of play and practice over time is what gets adults to keep coming back to the gym. It really is like a drug that creates a sense of euphoria; dopamine is a powerful happy hormone. Even when we fail, we are encouraged to get back up, and try again from a different angle. When you accept my favorite saying progress isn’t linear, you have permission to step out of your comfort zone and keep pressing forward. Then, laissez les bon temps rouler!!