A Gymnastics Career and Retirement: A Parent’s Perspective

I was fortunate enough to be an All-American high school football player. I was lucky enough receive a full-scholarship to a major university to play football. I enjoyed my time as a college athlete. I went on to receive a master’s degree in sport psychology followed by a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. I needed all that experience and more when I came home from work and found out that my oldest daughter (my only daughter at the time) had been put in a gymnastics program without consulting me at the age of three years old.

It started out simply enough. One thirty minute class a week, a few bucks a month, no big deal really. But after only having been in gymnastics a few months, we moved to Atlanta and without any research we joined Gymnastics Academy of Atlanta. Very quickly they moved my daughter from the recreational side of the gym to the competitive side of the gym. The time commitment moved from 30 minutes or an hour a week to a couple of hours a week and the financial piece ticked up a little bit more. She was now at the “Progressive” level. Now she was doing “intragym” meets. She was winning them.

Another year passed and they moved her up “progressive advanced”. More time, more money, more wins at the intragym meets.

And yet another year passed. Now she was up to pre-team. Now she got a team leotard for spirit leotard Wednesdays. More time, more money, another win. Also, her first back injury. It was nothing severe, nothing long lasting, but it was a first.

The next year, less than 4 years after walking into a gym for the first time, she was competing with other gyms across Georgia and the southeast in Level 4. At this time, I saw other gymnastics parents and I had heard stories. My training as a sport psychologist and as an ex-athlete gave me some guidance. I wasn’t going to be the father who put the weight of the world on my child’s success and failure in her sport or any sport. I wasn’t going to be the parent who only focused on gymnastics. Who pushed and pushed and pushed. I wasn’t going to be the parent who only talked to their kid about gymnastics. I wanted more from my daughter than to “just be a gymnast”.

I made a commitment to myself and my daughter that we would not focus on gymnastics. Whatever would be, would be. When I picked her up at night I would ask her two questions. The first question was always, “Did you have fun”? The second question was always, “Did you work hard”? That was it. My questions about gymnastics were done by the time we were out of the parking lot, literally. I was committed to this.

The hours grew. She had moved from the little 30 minute a week class to 4 days a week at 2 hours per day. My six-year-old was in the gym 8-10 hours a week. The price tag was going up. We were no longer at just monthly fees. We now had a quota to meet to pay for coaching fees, travel time, meet entry fees (and parent entry fees), a spirit leo, and the plethora of competition gear. Personally I was out of pocket probably $4000 a year (more or less). My daughter was not great on beam, bars, and floor. She had three natural gifts though. One was speed, one was the willingness to work exceptionally hard, and one was her ability to be coached. Level 4 was a success. She had a number of wins on vault throughout the year and a number of podium finishes.

The hours grew again. On to Level 5. More time – up to 12-15 hours a week or so. The price tag went up. The intensity went up. Straight from school to practice. Practice was 3:00-6:00, 4 days a week. She continued to do well. She won her first all-around and continued to place on the podium frequently. She was getting better. But the questions stayed the same. Did you have fun? Did you work hard? In the end, when it would be all said and done at some point in the future, that was all that really mattered to me. Even if she never won another event. When she looks back on her gymnastics career, what will she have taken from it?

Another year, XCEL Platinum. This year was different. A month before the season started, she tore an abdominal muscle. For a gymnast, this is difficult because the core is the key to everything. She couldn’t even condition to stay in shape. For the first time since she was just short of 3 years old, she couldn’t even come in the gym. A month out of the gym, led to about 6 weeks of recovery which means she missed her first meet ever. When she came back, she struggled. As a matter of fact, she struggled for the entire season. She did better than the average gymnast but was no longer standing on top of the podium. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th place finishes started to mount. Her frustration, for the first time in a very difficult sport, was starting to show on her face. But we kept asking the same questions. However, at 9 years old, she was the one extending the conversations. We tried not to push beyond what she was bringing up. Sometimes we failed, but we generally succeeded. It was her decision on how much gymnastics to talk about. School was getting harder. Her sister had joined her at the gym and her little sister’s natural ability was very evident from Day 1. Things were changing.

The next year came along with middle school. School ended at 4:15 and she went straight to the gym and practice started at 5:00. She would be there 3 nights a week, with optional Fridays, until 9:00 pm. Covered in chalk, she’d eat dinner and 9:15 and start her homework at 9:45 at night. Saturdays were 9:00 – 1:00. 20 hours per week. The financial commitment was huge. Not only were the monthly fees, quotas, and everything else going up, but we were having to drive and fly long distances and full weekends for meets. Between both my daughters, the financial commitment was nearing $10K per year. But as parents (now me and their stepmom), we were committed to doing what was best for them and having them involved in a sport where they could succeed, not sit around the house after school as their biological mother would have preferred.

Right before the beginning of her Level 7 season, something happened to both of her wrists. We weren’t really sure what, but we knew it was painful. In all likelihood, it was overuse. Tendonitis. No big deal. We would treat it every night after practice. Ibuprofen, hands to elbows in buckets of ice water for 20 minutes after practice. She hated it. We hated it for her. The coaches hated it. But she continued. No missed practices. She continued to work hard. It was clear that she was in pain. This was not fun for anyone, especially her. She pushed through. Meet after meet after meet. The pain, the treatment, the struggles on certain events were very evident. The practice time and quality decreased. After her final meet of the year, with no improvement at all, we took her to the doctor for a third time (the first 2 diagnoses were tendonitis). This time it showed something much different – a broken right wrist. Casted. A nice green cast for the year end banquet. It was then then I realized how physically tough my daughter was and how mentally tough she had to be to deal with her coaches yelling at her about why she wasn’t better every day for 5 months and how she managed to practice and compete. Yes, she competed an entire season in gymnastics with a broken wrist. I was in awe of my own daughter. She never complained. Not once. She did what she thought she had to do.

Due to the fact that she had the broken wrist and missed so much time and wasn’t able to progress her skills, she was forced to repeat Level 7. We were all disappointed, but we knew it was coming. When strangers and family members asked her how she was doing, she would tell them 100% of the time she wanted a college scholarship and wanted to be a Georgia GymDog. When a lot of kids say they want a college scholarship, its because they have a parent or parents who have invested their own personal identity into their kid’s athletic prowess. Its not necessarily the kid’s life goal or dream, it’s the parents trying to fulfill their own childhood dreams through their child. In this case, I had my dream met. I played college football, I didn’t need that from my daughter. Her stepmom, who was and is 100% invested in her success, didn’t know the first thing about gymnastics when she first came into our lives and certainly never pushed as she wouldn’t have known HOW to push it since she had no previous knowledge of the sport or even that you could get a college scholarship in it. I was shocked that after 2 years of injury, she was still 100% moving forward. No thoughts of quitting. She wanted this college scholarship all on her own. I was exceptionally proud of the attitude.

Once she recovered from her broken wrist, she competed Level 7 again. The wrist issues continued for the entire next year. Intermittent pain, but the complaining was minimal and the effort was still maximal. The hard work paid off as she returned to previous form and was again back on the podium with high finishes on a regular basis.

We decided when the season was over, she would get her first vacation…EVER. She was one of the very few kids who didn’t want to take time off. If the coaches were there and expected her to be there, she was there. Every holiday she was there, even when most kids weren’t. She was committed. It was time to give her body a break though. It was breaking down. We rewarded her 13 years of life and exceptional work ethic with a 10 day cruise. Guess what she did on the cruise. She conditioned 7 of the 10 days. She was at the gym on the ship working out. She didn’t want to not be in shape when she came back. Level 8 was waiting.

Within in days of returning to practice in early July, disaster struck. A return of the injury from 2 years ago. X-rays concluded this time it wasn’t broken. Tendonitis was the diagnosis. Anti-inflammatories and rest. She couldn’t do anything. Literally. Every time she put weight on her wrists, she was in agony. Her skills suffered. She was going backwards. She was relegated to 4 hours of conditioning 5 days a week. This was painful. It was painful for her emotionally and us as a family. Something was about to give. It was decision time.

I handled this on my own first. I needed to be ok with whatever happened next although the decision would be in her hands ultimately. I have a daughter who had managed the stress of competitive gymnastics, the coaches, the time commitment, and all advanced classes in middle school with Straight A’s. I had to trust her to whatever decision she wanted. But I had to prepare myself first. I, too, had committed. Tens of thousands of dollars, the emotional stress of watching her compete for years, the carpools, the not being able to spend time with her because she was at practice for thousands of hours over the years. I had to figure out how to be ok with this. Yes, I knew she could move to diving or pole vaulting or track which is where most gymnasts move to (if they do anything at all), but its just not that simple. It took me a few weeks and many conversations with my wife. I understood, as with my own athletic career, that you can’t do this forever. And I remember back to when she was 2 ½ years old the reason I didn’t want her in gymnastics – the injury potential. That day was possibly here now. I trusted that my daughter was wise and smart and likely unhappy. Was she staying in it now to make me happy? I had to make sure this was not the case.

My wife and her had a conversation one day where my daughter basically confirmed, she didn’t want to tell me she was done. Really it was more that she couldn’t bear to repeat Level 7 again even though she had progressed to Level 8 but her injury wasn’t allowing her to move forward and maintain the Level 8 skills. I had failed to communicate to her that I was ok with it. I had resolved the issues in my head but failed communicate them to her.

So the next day I took her to our local high school parking lot for a driving lesson (yes, I know she’s only 13). But before we started, I parked the car and had a father/daughter talk. I asked her what she was thinking. She told me the same thing she told her stepmother. When I reacted with a smile, she looked taken aback. I asked her what her surprise was and she told me that she thought I would want her to continue gymnastics. I had to explain to her that that time comes in every athletes life. I was there. I went through it. I had to quit college football due to a back injury. We discussed options: diving, pole vaulting, track (which she threw out immediately due to “too much running”). Her natural personality and everything she has learned from gymnastics enabled her to have that tough conversation with me.

Not long after that Rio happened. We were, as a family, glued to it every night. We all stayed up until midnight watching the gymnastics (and everything else for 2 weeks). Both my daughters were glued to it like they would be in Beijing. Even the one who knew her days were numbered. Interestingly enough, there was an above average interest in the diving. David Boudia, Abby Johnston, Kassidy Cook, Steele Johnson. My daughter actually picked them out of the opening ceremonies parade of nations having only seen them once. My wife and I gave each other the sideways glance. What was this? The conversations about diving started to increase. Critiques, listening, slow-mo re-runs. We learned. The twinkle in her eye started to re-emerge.

We immediately set out on two paths. One, the wrist injury was more serious than tendonitis. She had to get an MRI. Second, I set out on finding out more about diving and how to get her started. Before the MRI results came in, we had already decided that August would be her last month in a leotard. It was clear that competing in gymnastics at the level at which she was accustomed was not going to happen at Level 8 in 2017. She would stay simply for the conditioning aspect. That was my decision but no argument from her. I also found a top level diving academy. She had her first tryout the day after her MRI.

It was a one hour tryout and they knew she’d never jumped off a diving board before but that she was a Level 8 gymnast. Ten minutes on learning how to crow hop then to the pool. 1m pencil jumps and lean over dives for 10 minutes. Then to the 3m (which I told her there is no way they would have her do). 3m pencil jump and lean over dives. 1m. 3m. 1m. 3m. At minute 58, she jumped off the 5m platform.

After every single dive for 1 hour as she swam out of the pool, she would give her stepmom and me a big giant smile. Every time! Even after a terrible entry, there was a shoulder shrug, a grin, and then a smile. We wouldn’t have been able to wipe the smile off her face with a chamois full of gymnastics chalk. I haven’t seen her smile like that in years. We knew 30 minutes into that practice, the decision was made in her mind if the diving academy would take her. When we asked after it was over if she wanted to do it again, she violently shook her head yes. The coach told us they would be in touch.

Two days later, on Friday evening, the diving coach called and asked if she wanted to come back the next morning for another private lesson/tryout (since official practices didn’t start until September). This had to be a good thing. There was a conflict. She had gymnastics practice that next morning. She had a decision to make and this decision was all hers. Turn down the diving practice, skip gymnastics practice, or have that very difficult conversation with her coaches telling them that she was retiring from gymnastics and then go dive. I made one thing clear to her: this decision was hers and that she would be telling the coaches of her retirement. She was no longer the quiet, shy, 3-year-old or the hesitant withholding 9-year-old. This was her last chance to show the coaches how much she’s grown under their tutelage. She decided she wanted to dive.

She went in to the gym at 8:30 am on that Saturday morning. She, with her stepmother and me quietly by her side for support) told the coaches that this coming week would be her last week and thanked them for everything they had done for her. She was so unbelievably mature in such a tough situation (I remember having to do that with my college football coach at almost 20-years-old and she handled it just as well). After a 20-minute conversation, we left to go dive. She came back to the gym the rest of the week and made the following Friday her last day. She had a long hug and conversation with her coach, her long time friends and teammates cried and smiled and hugged (and asked for all of her pre-wrap and tape), and off she went into that goodnight (ironically to return 24 hours later for a birthday party for a teammate at the gym).

So for those of you parents who are reading this, I hope you’ve gotten the point of this story. It doesn’t matter whether your son or daughter is a gymnast, football player, chess player, golfer, swimmer, or math club member. We, as parents, put them in these activities for a number of reasons. Being involved in something is better than being involved in nothing. It increases their chances of lifelong success because of the lessons they learn. Time management, how to win with class and lose with class, hard work, dedication, team work, determination and perseverance, reduce the risk of obesity, etc. This is not about us as parents. We are merely a support mechanism and a financial means for them. Its not about pushing our kids to get scholarships or trash talk other kids. Its not even about proving who’s the best or being able to brag about it on Facebook or Instagram. Their success is not your success. Their success is something for you to be proud of. Their failures are not your failures but rather an oppotuniry for you to teach and guide. Their success is THEIR success. Its not about fulfilling our own lost childhood dreams. Its not about us, its about them. Remember that. When you can teach your kids all of that AND see them smile so big it lights up the night sky regardless of what place they come in, then you know you’ve done your job.