Geriatric Gymnast

Geriatric Gymnastics 12

Tammy Goedken, part 2

In part two of my conversation with Tammy Goedken, we talk about our observations as coaches for the adult set, and how we believe that gymnastics is the most fun way to condition your body (and soul).

Tammy and I started coaching together out of sheer necessity. For many years, the adult class was coached by a wonderful, talented young woman who really understood how to navigate the adult learning experience. She brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and really celebrated our gains, no matter how small. In the summer of 2021, she had moved on to other things and we were suddenly without a coach. The owner of the gym, knowing how important that Sunday class was to us, asked if I was interested in coaching the class. Without a coach, we couldn’t run a class.

Long story short, I suggested that Tammy and I co-coach the class. It made me more comfortable, since I hadn’t officially coached before, and we could each bring our strengths to the class; my teaching and classroom management, Tammy, her extensive gymnastics and physical therapy experience. (The longer story is in my post Geriatric Gymnastics 6.) Turns out, it was a match made in heaven. We get to continue our own training whilst spreading our love for the gymnastics to others.

While I hadn’t officially coached before, I had spent years quietly assisting and coaching my fellow students in class, helping with observations and corrections. I have also been a dance teacher for about 30 years, so I understand progressive skill building from the ground up. I know how to get people started, set a safe foundation, and make instant corrections through specific feedback that they can implement immediately. I lean on my experience and strong observational skills to pinpoint exactly where people are struggling. Maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s mental/emotional, but I have a strong connection to their experience as a new or frustrated gymnast.

My style is a combination of drill sergeant/no self-judgment allowed/high school teacher/comedian. I ask questions, make them think, guide them to answers, and help them to understand exactly what they need to do in each skill set. I make them smile when they start to get frustrated and remind them to be kind to themselves. Keeping them focused on proper technique is really important especially when they flounder, usually by applauding a safe fall and welcoming them to the fail club. After all, #progressisntlinear. Ever.

Tammy has the benefit of participating in over 40 years of advanced competitive and recreational gymnastics. She understands the gymnast’s psyche, the hangups that we have, as well as the connection to the mechanics of the body in motion. She also quite resourceful and does extensive research on skill drills to help everyone develop the strength and flexibility to move through their obstacles. Tammy comes up with great challenges and modifications, has lots of stories about her experience, understands how each body type responds in motion, and also gives direct feedback that tends to work more often than not.

Together, we are a pretty powerful coaching team. Our students learn quickly and usually come back for more.

In our chat, we talked about when we work with a new student for the first time, and how interesting it is to be able to immediately identify a person’s physical and mental deficits. For example, if they can’t hold a handstand against a wall, or have limited adductor flexibility, or their core is weak, or they don’t have air awareness, or they have extraordinary anxiety, the gaining of gymnastics skills becomes much more of a challenge. Our job as coaches is to make sure they come back for more training, which means no injuries and no looming frustration. We also stress how you can’t be stubborn or stupid, you must understand your body positioning in any given moment, and understand what your current limitations are. Finally, we try to stress the importance of being willing to put the work in over time. 

All of the above impacts a student’s internal learning environment. Tammy and I talked about three major areas that tend to complicate the teaching of adults:

1. Training bad habits out

One of the toughest part of coaching adults is training bad mental and physical habits our of adults, especially if they are coming from a non-gymnastics fitness background. Tammy explained, “One of the more risky areas of adult gymnastics is when someone comes in with a lot of strength, but has never had to control their body moving in the air. That’s not an intuitive thing to do.” Often, a high level of strength is associated with a low level of flexibility. “They’re capable of throwing their body with great force all over the place and hoping for the best, without learning ‘air awareness,’ the ability to know where you are in space.” These are often the most nerve-wracking people to train, because they think they are capable doing a skill before they fully comprehend the technique steps involved.

Another challenge of teaching fit adults is their own expectation that they should get something right away. Ego and emotionality are very difficult things to train out of someone. Infusing patience is even harder to train into those individuals. Often, adults have a hard time releasing themselves from their previously-adopted learning patterns, which contributes to slower progress and higher frustration. Sometimes, they have learned skills improperly and hold on to those techniques because that’s what they are mentally comfortable doing. Convincing an adult to change a learned pattern = teaching an old dog new tricks. Not impossible, but it requires more time and effort than they may be willing to spend.

2. Fear of falling

Something that plays into the adult mindset is the fear of falling. We joke that when kids fall, they bounce and when adults fall, they break. A large part of gymnastics is falling and new adults haven’t learned to do that safely. This is something we talk about in a new student’s very first session, and is reinforced regularly. It is one of the most essential fundamental skills; to be able to fall on to a tramp bed or a crash mat and not dislocate a shoulder or crunch your neck.

It’s almost easier to take somebody who comes in with nothing, because then you’re building it all simultaneously.

Tammy Goedken

3. Removing judgment and focusing the work

Teaching cartwheels on the “bad side” is very telling of how a person thinks. Their ego and lack of self-confidence come shining through here. What we work to train into them is to accept the fact that their early attempts will undoubtedly be ugly and feel uncomfortable. In order to build new neurological pathways, it is completely necessary to work on the “bad side.” Why? So you don’t encourage asymmetry in your body. Nothing is worse than one side being stronger than the other, and then feeling the pain as a result of your muscles pulling against your spine unevenly.

Another strategy we use for this is intentional limitation. When we take turns on the trampoline, we give students very specific parameters; for example, 15 second turns or 5 attempts on a specific skill. This forces them to narrow their focus and not waste time overthinking things, and they don’t have time to beat themselves up if they “fail.” Instead, they find the way to work in a more focused, efficient way. They don’t bounce nervously for as long, wasting their energy and breath in anticipation of the scary move they are about to do. They spend less time ruminating on “failure” and more time applying the techniques they’re being taught. This was a strategy that my first adult coach did all the time. After 3 attempts, if there wasn’t a success, it was time to move on. There’s no point in reinforcing a bad habit when you’re frustrated or disconnected. That’s when you must take a step back, wipe the slate clean and try again another time. It takes a long time for the adult brain to process some of this stuff. It doesn’t come naturally or easily.

Our motto: Gymnastics = fitness fun

If nothing else, gymnastics must be fun. Adults don’t really want to beat themselves up in a workout if it isn’t fun for them. Tammy and I both take no pleasure in running the roads or pumping iron in a gym. We’ve done it, and those activities can be good to achieve a fitness goal, but we have come to realize that they aren’t necessary to keep your body conditioned, strong and flexible. And really, they aren’t much fun.

Working on some synchronized back tucks.

We liken gymnastics to the perfect cross-training fitness plan. Bars, trampoline, handstands, beam – these activities work every part of your body in every dimension and plane of movement. Not only are the possibilities for strength and flexibility training endless, but your sense of body control, balance, and coordination increase immensely as well. 

This is our idea of a strength workout.
We are not wrong about that.
It’s hard, but it’s fun.

Working out having to be fun has become Tammy’s modus operandi. Honestly, it’s become mine too. You can’t do something this frustrating and intense if there isn’t a significant element of fun. Every major fitness goal we attain now is through gymnastics activities. She admitted that she shies away from the end-of-class conditioning exercises we sometimes do if it means she can get a little bars set in. (I usually skip the strength conditioning to stretch a little more, since that’s what my body needs most.)

I would rather do a wall handstand for a minute than lift a barbell over my head. I would much rather do the gymnastics skill.

Tammy Goedken

I agree with Tammy. 100%

Our attempt at synchronized straddle front tucks.
It was a comedy show.
But it was fun and no adults were harmed in the filming of this lunacy.

You can see more of our crazy videos on Instagram @staceytirropublishing and @theneotenyprinciple, or on TikTok @stdancechick.

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