Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Elite coaching and the concept of happiness

Sorry for the slew of gymnastics articles, I've just found a lot of different points that can be made pertaining to everything from body image to eating disorders to doping to coaching. And this last point is one I want to touch on, especially as the women's gymnastics team final airs tonight.

There have been a lot of articles about Shawn Johnson, a favorite, to win the all around title at these Games. Reading various articles, what I've found most interesting is her "unconventional" if you want to call it that coaching and her balance of life. Unlike many gymnasts, Johnson only practices 26 hours/week. She attends public school, went to her prom, hangs out with her friends, basically just living a "normal" teenage life. It's really quite refreshing to read something like this, especially in this sport that does have it's darker side. You can read the most recent account with Jennifer Sey in Chalked up.

The other aspect I've found a "novel" concept (and I'm being facetious here) is that her gym environment is actually happy. Imagine that in the world of elite gymnastics. Often times, the audience and tv viewers only get a glimpse of the coaches. Most times the coaches are shown happy, giving a lot of praise to their gymnasts. Bela Karolyi who was known as the top elite gymnastics coach in the US since Mary Lou (Comaneci before that, but he was still in Romania at that time), was often shown giving his gymnasts "Bear" hugs. Every Tv viewer probably thought he was gruff maybe but also had such a warm side with those hugs, praise, and jumping up and down joyously when his girls did well. Honestly, I think it was all for show and he was far from it behind closed doors. That's only my speculation from accounts I've read and people I've talked to.

However, with Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, and his wife, I just don't get that impression. Sure, he is smiling on camera and such, but there is just a nice sense of true warmth about him. He's not about calling out names or telling a gymnast how awful she is. For him, it's more about happiness. He says here, "The kids in the gym, they have to be enjoying themselves and so do the coaches. If you're enjoying yourself by creating this loving environment, everybody can do more - everybody can be happier."

The other thing Chow also told Johnson before the Olympic trials was "perform like a champion, don't be afraid to make mistakes." In a sport that's about perfection, that can be hard not to worry about. Johnson said in the article,

"I remember him telling me that, It is almost just a relief. You're just trying to please the person who has taught you eveyrthing; you want to show them that you can be just as perfect as they've trained you to be. You're afraid to make mistakes. You're afraid to let them down -- even though you wouldn't. For him to have told me that, that as long as I went out there and did my best and he knew I had done my best, no matter what happened, he would have been happy -- it made me have a lot more confidence in myself because I knew if I went out there and made mistakes it wouldn't be the end of the world."

I think in any athlete in any sport, it's an important message. Mistakes are really the only way we learn and grow albeit sports or in life in general. The fact that her coach doesn't get upset when she makes a mistake and illuminates a positive attitude, has been so helpful to her success. My belief is that it's all about balance. Working hard is a deifnte part of the recipe for any goal, but so is having the assurance that everything will be okay no matter whether you win or lose.

I'll be rooting for her as well as the rest of the team tonight.


zandria said...

That's really awesome to hear about Shawn Johnson! Especially with her being such a role model for so many gymnasts, showing them that they can succeed without having to completely dedicate their lives to the sport is AWESOME.

Spider63 said...

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Wise words.

Tiptoe said...

Zandria, definitely agree with you. I should also point out (forgot to mention in this post) that her parents are supportive but not stage parents. They would love her no matter whether she hit her beam routine or fell 10 times. They also told her coach that he pretty much needed to be the one to give Shawn a reason to go to the gym, because they could care less.

Spider, yes, definitely wise words and ones I wish were more spoken.