Gymnastics has been the central focus of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve been coaching gymnastics for thirteen years – nearly half of my life! Beyond that, I’ve been involved in the sport for twenty-one years, and even before that, for as long as I can remember, it was all I wanted to do. Ever. There are few things I love more in this world than flipping my body around, swinging around a bar, or holding a handstand with precision and control.
That weightless feeling in a back flip when my feet have left the ground, and I’m upside down, nothing holding me to the earth but gravity, nothing supporting me but my own ability, is rich and incomparable to anything else. What amazes me about it is how unnecessary thinking is. Yes I’m focused on the task at hand, but there’s no thought process going on. I don’t have to think, “bend legs, jump, swing arms, reach up, set, pull knees over, see the ground, land…” there’s no time! If I had to think through all of that I’d be on my head, crumpled in a heap, by the time I got to, “reach up.” Thanks to muscle memory built over the last two decades, my body knows exactly what to do. It blows my mind! I can go a year without doing a back flip and then decide to do one, fully confident that my body remembers.
Teaching this muscle memory, and changing it when it isn’t working, is, for me, the most challenging, and rewarding, part of coaching. That moment, while watching a gymnast struggle with a skill, over and over again – limbs flailing, frustration building, tears welling – when I suddenly see where she needs to lift her hips, or keep her arms straight, or reach out further; the moment when I suddenly see the subtle but simple change she needs to make to get the result that she wants is unbelievably satisfying. It’s like putting in the last piece of a puzzle, or finding that earring you dropped on the floor and have been searching for for the last fifteen minutes. I light up, she lights up, and the rest of the girls in the group light up because they feel the possibilities.
That capacity to find and coach the root of the problem is one I’ve been growing and developing, consciously, over the last couple of years. When I first started coaching, all I could see were bent legs and arms, the pike in the hips, or the arch in the back; I was so overwhelmed with the symptoms of the problem that I couldn’t get to the root of it. I would repeat, “keep your legs straight!” over and over until I was blue in the face, with no results. It was like an impulse. I saw a bent leg, knew it needed to be straight, and demanded it! And when it didn’t happen, I would blame the gymnast for being unwilling to make the correction.
I’m not sure when this started, but at some point in the last five years, I started to become curious as to why a gymnast’s legs would bend in a skill. I got quieter in my coaching and watched more turns, trying to recognize a pattern before offering a correction. I started to see things I hadn’t seen before. Clearly she was bending her legs because she didn’t have enough rotation to keep them straight. Try as she might to straighten them, her body’s intelligence was bending her legs to prevent a face plant. Smart body! The correction, then, must address how to create more rotation rather than how to keep her legs straight. Once that is sorted out, the legs straighten themselves!
This root based approach transformed my coaching, and the results that I see. The girls get to relax because they aren’t getting more information than they can digest, and instead are able to actually apply the comments I give them to what they are doing. It takes patience, awareness, attention, and a willingness to admit that I’m unsure and to wait until I’m certain.
Recently I’ve been inspired to apply this coaching perspective to my life. I’ve been flailing my limbs, the frustration is building, the tears are welling; sometimes it feels like the uncertainty of life is eating me from the inside out. And, I’m having a hard time waiting; I want the answers now!. I’m finding it a lot more challenging to apply it to myself. I’m impatient, scared, unsure.
In my last piece, I spoke of liminal space, and the possibilities it’s opening up for me. Yes, that wide open space is fun to play in, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by agoraphobia.
During the first week of my retreat, nature week, we did a few blindfolded hiking exercises. In the first one I was blindfolded and had to find my way to a drum.
It. Was. Awesome.
Walking through trees, over rocks and stumps and fallen logs, unable to rely on my eyes, was absolutely invigorating. I loved swinging my arms in front of me to make sure I walked around trees rather than into them. I felt much satisfaction in testing the surface of the ground before letting my weight fully sink into it. Even though the drummer was moving, I had something to move toward. Armed with that little taste of direction, I could have followed that drum for hours.
In the second exercise we made ourselves into a blindfolded train, holding on to the backpack of the person immediately in front, with the leader acting as our eyes. This one started out just fine. I trusted the leader, and found that following someone else, feeling the subtle shifts in her height and speed, gave me enough information to walk without fear of tripping.
It was all fun and games until our leader, Mark, started running. Try as I might, I couldn’t hold on, and I lost contact with the person in front of me. In the ten seconds I was standing there, blindfolded, unsure of where the train in front of me went, I experienced a range of emotions. First I was pissed! I’d trusted Mark to lead us safely, and it felt like he’d broken that trust. The next feeling was fear. How do I get back to them? Where do I go? I have no idea where I am, or what’s in front of me, there are people connected to me expecting to follow, how do I lead them to where we need to go? I felt my eyes starting to well up under my blindfold, and then I felt the front of the train come back in front of me, I grabbed on, choked back the tears, and we continued our hike.
A while later we sat in a circle and talked about our experience of the hike. When it was my turn I got about two sentences out before I collapsed. All of the fear and anger came to the surface as white hot tears that I couldn’t speak through; I well up now remembering the intensity. My wonderful friends and teachers sat patiently waiting, giving me space for the emotions to move through me.
I discovered in that moment that life lately has felt like that hike. It’s as if I was on a train for the last twenty-six years, and it had all the usual stops: high school graduation, college degree, job, relationships, settling down, family, children. The tracks were laid out in front of me and there was safety and comfort in them.
But something made me jump the train.
And while most of the time that feels really good because I now get to write my own future rather than following in the tracks set up by those that came before me, a lot of the time it feels like I’m standing in the woods alone, blindfolded, not sure if I’m going to run into a tree, stub my toe on a rock, get lost, head in the wrong direction, or fall off a cliff.
The intensity of emotion that I felt came from that, not from the hike itself. It unlocked the fears I was feeling and struggling with, bringing them right up to the surface and shining light on them. And, of course, the first impulse I have is to fix them and make them go away. Just like when I coach and feel the urge to tell the girls to get their legs straight when the real problem is the lack of rotation, I want to fix the symptoms of this struggle rather than get to the root of it because I can’t see the root yet!
Luckily, I’ve surrounded myself with wonderful people, who remind me to sit in the uncertainty, the discomfort, and the fear. To be patient and wait for the roots to appear and the answers to come. To stop trying to answer the questions and instead let them answer me. To quit looking at this life as a problem to be solved and instead see it as an experiment, or an infinite game, waiting to be played. The playing field just got bigger, and I’m still adjusting to the new boundaries. It’s a process.