Somber yet Uplifting, Rewarding yet Frustrating

In the past five years, I have never missed blogging before my final exams. I believe it’s a time of year where it is especially important to take time to reflect, and as easy as it would be to ignore blogging and keep cramming for my exam tomorrow, it’s probably about time I found my way back to The Life of Pinya.

Finals week is never smooth sailing, but this past week has been particularly rough with a whirlwind of emotions.

A week ago today my uncle passed away. Technically he was my great great uncle, but with the way generations work out in my family, everyone just called him Uncle Early. I’m honestly still a bit in disbelief that he passed, even just writing this paragraph in the past tense is kind of surreal. It was a shock to everyone. He was only in his mid-70s and in good health. Just a few weeks ago he was crushing it on the dance floor at his daughter’s wedding and every year he’d still challenge me to a fried chicken eating contest at our family reunion. Then two weeks ago he had a stroke.

He has to have immediate brain surgery, but things were still looking good. He was recovering so well; the last time I went into the hospital his temperature had just come back to normal, the nurses completely took him off of one of the painkillers, and he got rid of the case of strep he caught. Then they found something else in his brain. To be honest, I still am not clear on the details, but he died later that night while I was at the gym coaching.

My Uncle Early was a great man. Perhaps he had a bit of a cynical humor from time to time, like when he called a baby a “chubby little porker,” but he was good-hearted and everyone always admired how he brought people together. As one of my relatives put it, our family is comprised of a lot of halves and quarters and all sorts of combinations, and Uncle Early was one of those people who connects everyone. At his memorial service this past weekend, one of his daughters told us how on the notes in his phone was a list of all the Christmas presents he was going to buy for the people in the apartment in NYC he and his wife lived at once a month and another list of plans for their next family vacation for Summer 2019. It really made me realize just how much he was constantly thinking ahead and thinking of others.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see Uncle Early all that often despite the fact that we were in the same city. We mostly talked at our annual family reunion and the occasional family gathering for birthdays and weddings. Two summers ago my grandma and I also got to spend a week with him and his immediate family at a villa in Italy which was an amazing time. I think his passing made a lot of my family realize how silly it is that we don’t stay better in touch, and now more than ever it’s important to actively work to be together with our main connector gone.

And while you may think that having a family member pass away in the middle of final exams is already emotionally draining, my week only continued to get mind-boggling. On top of my uncle passing away and all of our family coming in town, we also had our first gymnastics meet of the season this past weekend. Thus I spent a good portion of the week in the gym for extra last-minute practices trying to get all of our girls prepared for the meet and the gym ready for us to host. And this only became more challenging once it was official that my uncle’s memorial service would be held in the middle of the time our meet was scheduled for. My mom, sister, and I were all supposed to be working at all three sessions Sunday, and thus when the memorial was planned we then had an extra stressor of trying to figure out how we would cover all three of us not being at the meet – there were a lot of phone calls to old coaches and having to explain to our girls why they would have to have a coach they hardly work with at their first meet.

I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed to not be able to be at the meet. It’s my first year being an official team coach in terms of actually having a set schedule where I’m the main coach for our youngest girls, so I was kind of looking forward to seeing them compete. Plus I felt bad for them because a competition is already so nerve-racking and I can only imagine what it would be like to then not have your main coach there with you. Not to mention it was the very first gym meet ever for most of my girls as they are on our lowest level of team so they’re mostly newbies to the competition world. I’m proud to say that from what I’ve heard they all had a pretty solid first meet, though a part of me still wishes I could have been there.

I was back at the meet though right after the service because to add another level to this past weekend, not only was I scheduled to coach, I was also scheduled to perform at the meet with my acro partner. While some may say they couldn’t even imagine performing after a memorial service, I’m a big believer in the saying, “The show must go on,” and it was making me more anxious and harder to contain emotions to even think about not performing when I knew I could make it work.

Despite what her mom may have said, I couldn’t bear to think about letting my partner down by not performing because acro isn’t the kind of thing someone can just come in to “fill in” for – if one partner is out, then no one performs. Plus we were both so excited though to show off our new skills and the fact that we finally got everything needed to be an official level 8 pair! (Well officially level 8 besides my tumbling which was a whole other stressor this past week of trying to work past my fear of back tucks while also dealing with my hurt wrists preventing me from other options…) Not to mention, I’m studying abroad over the summer and will miss our in-house meet in the spring, so I’m really not sure when our next performance will be which made me especially upset about potentially missing this showcase.

And I think it’s what my uncle would’ve wanted as well. I mean even his own service ended with a party in his honor because that’s the kind of person he was – someone who loved to bring people together for a good time. So my mom braided my hair in the bathroom after the service and I got in an uber and rushed back to the gym. My partner and I had not had the greatest of practices leading up to the meet, and to be honest for one of our routines we had only ever done it successfully with all of the skills once before the show. So besides all the other emotions, I was not in my most calm state rushing into the gym for a quick warm up before performing.

Somehow, thankfully, our performance actually went as good as we could’ve expected! My tumbling was awful, but we made every skill which for this point in the season is good enough for me!

Then Monday came and the whole “it’s the middle of finals week” officially hit me… Between coaching, spending time with family, seeing shows (like my high school director’s annual one-man version of A Christmas Carol, which I hope to never miss, and Elf the Musical – both full of great and much needed holiday spirit), and just trying to stay calm, it was maybe too easy to procrastinate school work…

So now these past few days I’ve been working hard finishing projects, portfolios, and taking tests all the while studying for my one in person exam tomorrow morning before I’m finally done with the semester.

I know I’m a compartmentalizer when it comes to emotions, which is probably evident even in this post, and honestly, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this week if I wasn’t. But that’s also part of why I thought it was especially important for me to blog tonight. It’s often when we feel we have the least amount of time and/or desire to take a moment to reflect that we need to the most.

I don’t have a problem with talking to people about personal things, but it’s been exactly for that reason that instead, this has been one of those weeks where I just kind of avoided people. I knew I would naturally share with people the chaos of this week, but I wasn’t really in the mood to repeat the story so many times with each new person I ran into. That’s a bit too emotionally draining even for this compartmentalizer. The follow-up comments are just… awkward … There’s no better way to describe it personally. It’s a conversation no one knows how to have or continue or what to say or what not to say. I guess that’s just another reason it’s nice to blog- it’s a way to think without stress or interruption and get it all out there at once, not for the sake of sharing or for the desire of a response, but for the purpose of trying to help take it all in.

This week has seen it all. It’s been somber yet uplifting, rewarding yet frustrating, and a whole mix of other things I’ve yet to fully process, but I think writing some of it down might have helped a little at least to get out of my head and start to piece together just everything that happened this weekend. It’s had a bit of a sleepwalking-like feel which I’m not sure I’ve even quite shaken off yet, but “The show must go on.”

And with that, as the tradition goes:

A merry finals to all,

And to all crammers,

Good luck and good night.

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Thankful for Gymnastics

The world of gymnastics has had a lot going on in the press recently, and unfortunately, the majority is negative. The thing is though, you only ever hear about the bad stuff in the news when the truth is that I think everyone could benefit from gymnastics in their life.

I have literally grown up in the world of gymnastics. My mom was coaching while she was pregnant with me. I was taking classes by the time I was a few months old. I first crawled on a gym floor. I started competing at age 5. I had to quit competitive team due to moving but was still in a gym taking classes until we started a new team program. I started helping with coaching occasionally with birthday parties and camps by age 10. My mom then opened up her own gym and I started training in acrobatic gymnastics (versus artistic gymnastics as most people think of due to the Olympics). By age 13 I was choreographing competitive routines for other team girls and occasionally competing since I was around and kept up my skills. Since then I’ve stopped competing in artistic gymnastics, but am currently training level 8 in acrobatics and have an official coaching schedule as a team coach for our lower levels and choreographer for almost every girl on our team.

Despite several moves at a young age, changing interests, and normal growing up stuff like going to college, gymnastics has always been a part of my life. And I imagine it always will be there in some way because as an athlete, coach, and general lover of gymnastics, there’s so much I’m thankful for about gymnastics.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has taught me to always keep brainstorming and learning from others because there are always new ways to use your resources.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to express my artistic side through choreographing routines and occasionally performing myself.

I’m thankful for how gymnastics has allowed me to play a role in helping kids grow up by working with them to develop their confidence and resilience as well as physical ability.

And I’m thankful for so much more because I know this sport is about more than the scandals and policy changes you might hear about in the news. It’s not even all about the metals or getting to the Olympics either.

Gymnastics at its core is about growth through movement. It’s about the process of setting goals, mastering skills, and performing at your highest caliber. It’s about balance in all senses of the word.

This past weekend I attended a camp for upper-level gymnasts and coaches which is what prompted this post on gymnastics. I appreciated the chance to listen and learn more about drills, techniques, and mindsets currently being developed in our sport. Coaching is about more than just how to teach skills, and what I find most people don’t realize is just how much time coaches spend learning and discussing sports psychology, mental health, and safety on top of the practicality of how to best teach skills. We have a duty to train kids beyond just physically but also mentally and emotionally which is a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

And on the note of mindsets, one of the biggest things I was reminded of this weekend is that in the midst of change we have to stay positive and continue to share the reasons we love what we do.

The simple truth is that a few bad apples can never describe the whole batch. Despite what the media may currently say about the world of gymnastics, there are a lot of great coaches out there doing great things for kids nationwide. And I’m thankful for those coaches and the world of gymnastics for all it has, is, and will teach me.

 

From Fear to Greatness

Being a coach 100% makes me a better educator.

I understand the worry that comes along with the responsibility of teaching and training kids.

The wonder about if you’re good enough to be leading them. The confusion when you can’t put well to words what you want from them. The sadness that comes when you see a child that looks as if she is going to burst into tears over a comment you made when all you were doing was trying to give constructive feedback. The actual tears you see sometimes…

Then there is the ever-present challenge of keeping up with new times, new drills, and new standards of excellence. That moment when you learn a level has completely changed their expectations for an event and you get vexed beyond belief because for the past few years you’ve been leading the kids entering this level down an entirely different path. Then you try to throw in some new drills into your class and you’re thinking it’ll be great – just like how you saw it at that conference you attended!- but it never is. Instead, the kids try out your new drill and it just looks all wrong, so you try to make corrects but can’t tell if it’s even worth continuing with this new drill. Did I explain it poorly? Am I not remembering the technique right? Was it too advanced for their skill level? Did I push them too far too fast? Or do they just need to get in more repetitions? Well now we’ve used up all of our time on this event today and I don’t even know if I just wasted the last 45 minutes or am making progress in a great new area that we’ve not trained as effectively before.

Honestly, time is the worst. Do you spend a little time on every event today, or do the kids really need to focus on just one event they’re weak at? Do I even have this option? Is today’s schedule set in stone because there are too many different groups moving around or do I have flexibility with my time? How do we balance learning new skills while also practising their routines necessary for the next competition? When is there next competition anyway; are they really ready for it? Am I wasting time explaining so many directions? Should I be doing our normal warm-up for consistency and time effectiveness or mixing it up so different skills are worked? Does it take more time to set up these stations then they’re worth doing? How much time is left before we have to rotate? What happens when they come to this event with a different leader next time and the kids get confused with new directions and expectations? Are the kids progressing at a reasonable pace? Is anyone falling behind? Is anyone being held back?

So ya, I can empathize with teachers. I know all of those worries and concerns and feel them while maybe not daily, at least bi-weekly, but I’m often thinking about this work much more often than just while I’m in the gym. Half of the time I ride Marta I’m listening to potential gymnastics music or choreographing new routines based on the skills I know kids have/expect them to have come performance time.

While I understand and constantly am faced with these concerns, I also can respect the bigger picture. USA Gymnastics completely changed lower level vaulting progressions this year. It’s a pain in the butt because now we’re having to teach all of these new vaults to children and we feel less confident in how these new changes play into our personal philosophies. But at the same time, the changes are mostly good for the greater whole of trying to improve American gymnastics.

And fears of if you’re good enough to be a leader, while perhaps valid, are also in a way trivial. Whether you feel good enough or not, you’re what these kids got. So either step up or step down, either way, get out of the way because these kids are coming and have expectations of you. So make it up, make mistakes, make saves. Try something new, and give it adequate time in the experimenting phase before judging it’s worth as a drill or skill. When you’re stuck or need a second to catch your breath or even just help with setting up, let the kids lead- they’ll surprise you. Learn from those around you and don’t be afraid of a “double spot” or an extra hand to help out; we tell kids it’s okay if you need a little extra help getting a new skill, so it should be okay for us too.

Fears, nerves, and concerns can drive us to great things if we can accept their validity and then move on to push past them; sometimes it just takes time, creativity, and a little extra help every now and then.

 

Even if it’s a Game…

There’s a recentish trend in education around trying to “gamify” certain lessons to make them more engaging to students.

Personally, I’m a fan of this concept, I even use the tool myself when teaching gymnastics sometimes by making conditioning into competitions or basics on beam into a repeat after me game as I did today. I think it can definitely be a useful tool for any teacher’s toolbag.

However, I also learned today that doing a poor job at gamify-ing actually makes things worse from a user end.

As part of my psych class requirements, I participated today in a research study. If it wasn’t giving me class credit I would say that it was the biggest waste of an hour and a half I’ve ever had; it still quite possibly could be. Some part of me hopes that the researchers can benefit from my involvement in the study, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be an outlier in their study.

The study description was:

The purpose of this study is to assess how information is valued when it comes at a cost and how time pressure influences information foraging. In this experiment, you will play a medical diagnosis game where you will select information to aid in your diagnostic decision-making. 

So I come in, sign my release form, and then I was put at a desk with a computer in a small room that had a divider between me and the other participant. When I read that this study was being conducted in the form of a game I got excited thinking it was going to be a fun mental challenge with interesting rewards system; you know- game like.

Turns out this was not a fun game. The game worked by a patient “coming in” and telling you their symptoms. Then you could see the results of different tests like an MRI or Cat scan, etc. There were four symptoms, four tests each with three possible outcomes, and four potential diagnoses. Upon correctly diagnosing a patient you’d get $1000/points. Then there were different rounds that added different factors like time and hidden information which were meant to help get at what the study was trying to test.

In theory, you would have to guess at the beginning of the game and then would slowly recognize patterns to help you make informed decisions on how to diagnose each patient. The problem for me was that I never learned anything. To be honest, I got really annoyed with myself because I could not figure out the correct connections. It didn’t help that half of the test results looked the same and I didn’t realize during the instructions would be the only time they tell you the difference between the “positive, neutral, and negative” test results looked like.

What I do know though is that my feeling of “failure” to learn what I was supposed to be learning lead to exactly what you’d expect: I stopped caring to try. I just continued to guess and honestly, it made things faster and I was still having decent success in my opinion, though I have nothing to compare my game score against. At that point, I really just wanted to get out of there but knew I had to finish the study for my credit (and for feeling like a decent person purposes and helping with their study despite being bored out of my mind).

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I almost fell asleep out of boredom. This “game” turned into my clicking a mouse twice in two spots then clicking the space bar. Repeat. Over and over again. I then got to that point where I felt jumpy from sitting in one place for so long and trying not to think about going to the bathroom because I was just wondering how long I would have to keep playing the stupid game.

I’m pretty confident that there are a lot of other students out there like me in this story and even more that may have not even tried as long as I did to figure out the learning lesson. Students where if they were in the situation of feeling like they were never going to learn something, they stop trying to learn it if no one gives them a new way to approach the topic. I think people intrinsically know when a certain style of teaching is not going to work for them, so why keep trying to put the square into the circular hole when you know it will never fit?

And this goes even for exercises that seem “fun” and “game like”; they still may not work for everyone, no matter how excited you are about a new activity for teaching a topic. There always needs to be options and adjustments if we want everyone to succeed; we talk about that all the time in gymnastics. When we teach a new drill, we say it, show it, have the kids try it, and still sometimes need to give a few kids a spot through it for a little; it doesn’t matter how they get the information, but they need to be able to all safely try on their own.

It was honestly a big MoVe moment (moment of visible empathy) for me walking out of that room realizing how some students may feel fairly often at school when they just aren’t getting it and don’t know what to do about it.

The Pay Off

Kids are so funny.

Today I had a mom of one of our team gymnasts come up to me after practice asking if I babysit. I told her yes, though unfortunately am unable to this Friday morning which is when she was asking about. Still though, she got my number because apparently her daughter just really wants me to babysit her. She said that her daughter thinks I’m like her lucky charm or something because she’s gotten two new skills in the last week or so and I just happened to be working with her both times.

I found this all very funny because to me I was just doing my job and coaching like normal, but to this girl, it really meant a lot. This same kid has recently gotten to be much more of a leader than in years past because she’s coming even on her optional day of practice and therefore is working with the new team girls as well. She has gotten to lead warmups, demonstrates a lot, and be the “big partner” (and this girl is a pipsqueak so she’s not “big” by any means) and she’s really seemed to be enjoying it.

Her newfound leadership also means she has to set an example during practice by pushing herself to work hard even during the challenging parts of practice like when we condition or work flexibility. It’s great to see her stepping into the role of being a leader and her extra practising has paid off with getting new skills. One of those proud moments as a coach.

Hard work pays off, and it’s kind of nice to be the coach around when it does.

Changes Are Coming

It used to be that every four years the USA gymnastics routines would change for compulsory levels. The last time routines changed was four years ago, however, an annoucement was made a few years back that for this set of routines we will be waiting eight years before changing routines.

The thing is, eight years is a long time to keep the same compulsory routines and policies for levels. Plus, like most things, once kids started actually performing the routines, the board realized things they’d like to change. So despite the fact that we have the current routines for four more years, some changes were put in place for certain levels.

Therefore, our level progressions (because there are some options so not every girl takes the same path to get to a certain point in their gymnatics career) have now been all turned around and wonky.

I feel bad for this first round of gymnasts having to be the first to experience these changes, the “guinea pig year” so to say. It’s always hard being the guinea pigs of new changes, but that’s how we learn is by shipping new ideas and seeing what happens. There never seems to be a perfect transition, but that’s life; it’s just a lot harder when you’re the coach versus the athlete because you have so much influence over how easy or hard that transition is for all the kids.

Becoming a “Real Coach”

I had a gymnast ask me on Monday, “Coach Anya, are you like a real coach?” We, of course, all laughed and asked the kid what a “fake coach” would be, but the fact that the question was asked just goes to show how far my coaching as come even just recently.

Last night we were actually driving six hours to get to North Carolina for the Region 8 Gymnastics Congress which we then attended all day today and will attend all weekend. I’ve travelled with my mom to Congress before, but this is the first time I’m really attending sessions as a coach rather than just tagging along with the family for the trip.

Being at a conference isn’t a foreign atmosphere for me due to my work with education, but it has been funny to be more of a “real coach” now. This year apparently hasn’t been the best Congress in terms of sessions running because there are so many rule changes this year that sessions about clarifications and new policies have taken a lot of time. However, none the less I’ve been enjoying learning new things and being more a part of the conversation in terms of the future of our team girls progressions especially for this summer and our predictions for levels come fall.

A Step Down

One of the comments people often make when talking about gymnastics is, “How do girls do all those flips so high up and on only a 4-inch beam?!”

The beam can be pretty scary for a lot of gymnasts, especially as they start to work on new skills. I’ve found that a lot of our younger girls noticeably have a fear of the beam even if they won’t voice their concerns.

It’s understandable really; most girls, if they haven’t themselves, have at least seen someone split the beam before, which in this case means they fall onto the beam with one leg on either side. Speaking from experience, it is not a good feeling… However, we like to say that you know you’re a true gymnast when you first split the beam. It means you were working hard and going all in for a skill that maybe just didn’t go right, but you will most definitely learn to not try doing whatever you did the same way again.

It’s hard though to help kids get over their fears. I have noticed though, that our kids like to fight harder to go for skills and stick them when they’re performing or competition. So today we did a lot of partner drills and some competitions on the low beams and I think it went rather well.

Sometimes the best way to move forward is to take a step back, or in this case, a step-down, and I never underestimate the power of friendly competition. Done right, a small competition can make things more fun and more performance-based, and some kids just do better when they feel like they’re performing.

Becoming Involved

This past year, and primarily these last few months, I have become more and more involved with coaching our team girls at the gym. This summer I’m going to be even more involved and it’s just been interesting to see my own progression over time as a coach.

I’ve been coaching somewhat since I was 10. At that point, I was helping mostly just with camps and birthday parties and I was also still competing myself. Then I’m not really sure of the order of what happened next. At some point, I started choreographing my own floor routines and then was asked to help teach floor routines to younger team kids, then started dreaming up some big group routines that I eventually brought to life. Then I guess I started subbing for people from time to time and then started choreographing floor routines for more team girls, and everything just kept escalating basically to the point where now I actually am being asked to work more with the younger team girls.

I got a thank you note/end of the year gift from the girl I coach/do acro with and it was really sweet (also reminded me she’s only just about 10 years old). It’s one of the few thank you notes I’ve received from a gymnast I’ve coached and it just got me thinking about how sometimes you don’t really realize when you’re slowly becoming more involved with some kind of work. The note was also a great reminder of the best part about coaching: impacting the kids.

Familiar Faces

I use to go to some sort of sleep away summer camp every year since I was about seven. There were some that I went to them every summer for a given amount of time, and other that I just tried randomly, like this one YMCA camp in Ohio.

I always loved summer camp because of all of the activities and weird traditions and games and meeting new people that you somehow become so close to in as little as a week at times. I’m still in touch to this day with some of my friends from mime camp and nerd camp and it’s been years since I attended either of those camps.

It’s been weird not going to sleep away camp anymore the past few years; however, this week is the second year now that I’ve helped work at a speciality camp. Today was the first day of Olympic Gymnastics Camp run by former Olympian ​Svetlana Boguinskaia who my mom has been friends with for a few years now which is how we learned of the camp. My sister used to be a camper when she still competed, and then last year was the first year we both started working there. 

It’s funny to now have a camp I’m at again but now as a coach. There are so many kids I at least vaguely remember but the passage of time seems so much more significant as a coach rather than a camper; especially since some kids jumped a ton of gym levels since I saw them last. It’s nice to have a new place with familiar faces from over the years though.