I’d like to thank WENDY BRUCE MARTIN for contributing this article. Wendy, a former US Olympian, is now working as a Sports Psychology Expert at Peaksports.com and Get Psyched. She has a great blog, Get Me Psyched, as well.
Life After Gymnastics
There are numerous articles, books, videos, camps, and conventions that focus on educating coaches and gym owners all the skills, drills, and secrets to having successful athletes. As a coach, we want to make sure we are on the cutting edge of training, conditioning, and skill development and we do everything in our power to make sure that we offer our gymnasts the best training experience. But what can we do to help our gymnasts prepare for life after their gymnastics career is over?
A typical gymnast’s life starts around the age of five. They usually start off training once a week for an hour. Then every time they move up a le
vel they add hours and days to their training schedule. By the time the gymnast is a level 6, they are training twenty hours a week. If the gymnast keeps moving up to level 10 and stays in gymnastics until the age of eighteen, they will have devoted over 10,000 (even more if they compete in college) hours of their youth to the sport of gymnastics. For those 10,000 plus hours they are told what to do, when they need to do it, how to do it, and why they need to do it. Every aspect of their career is dictated by the sport of gymnastics. They do their schooling around their gymnastics schedule. Their family takes vacations around their gymnastics schedule. Even their eating and sleeping schedule is at the mercy of their gymnastics life. And if you ask the gymnast, they wouldn’t want it any other way.
A gymnast is proud of their muscles, rips, calloused hands, and washboard abs. They take comfort in knowing that they have found a sport that they found their true friends and family. They have a sense of security knowing that their lives will pretty much follow the same schedule until they graduate high school. And they are honored to be called a gymnast. But what happens when a gymnast reaches the end of their career? What happens when their rips and calloused hands turn soft? What happens then they lose their gymnastics friends and family? What happens when for the first time in their lives they have no one telling them what to do, when to do it, how they should do it, and why they should do it? What happens when they are no longer a gymnast?
Many former gymnasts say that they had a hard time adjusting to life after gymnastics. One gymnast said this “It felt like I had spent my entire life being coached on how to be a successful gymnast and then one day it was over and I was left to fend for myself. Everyone around me expected me to just move on in life, but for me, I felt empty inside. I felt like something inside me had died. I had to deal with the loss of gymnastics, the loss of my gymnastics family, and even the loss of my dream of making the Olympics. I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest and I was standing on the peak admiring the pinnacle of my career and I looked back on my amazing journey with only great memories. But then I felt like I was left to figure out my own way home and everyone that had helped up to that peak had disappeared. Everything I had known my entire childhood was gone in one day.”
Numerous athletes tell me similar stories and how the loss of gymnastics was devastating. Like any loss in life, gymnasts may feel depressed, angry, confused, bitter, or empty. I have seen many gymnasts feel like they were failures in their sport because they didn’t live up to their expectations. Others who had to quit because of injury may feel robbed of their dream and have resentment to the sport. Some gymnasts lose their identity and struggle to find their self-worth without gymnastics. And still there is a select group that remains angry and bitter to a sport that they gave their childhood to and then abandoned them when they grew up. These stories of gymnasts that grieve over the loss of gymnastics are very real. But they need to know that they are not alone. It is OK to grieve over the loss of their gymnastics. They may feel many emotions from anger to bitterness. All of these emotions are natural and healthy. Gymnastics is one of most difficult sports in the world and it will be hard to find another sport that can compare to the training regimen of that of gymnastics. A gymnast needs to know that they can take all the wonderful skills both mental and physical that they learned in gymnastics and apply them to the rest of their lives.
It is also imperative for coaches and gym owners to understand that it is very important for gymnasts to feel that they are not lost and forgotten after they leave gymnastics. Gyms can create an alumni program: with gymnasts’ dinners, invite them to team banquets and have them sit at the alumni table, design boot camps to challenge their fitness, invite them to competitions and mock meets, have open communication with the athletes so they can know that the gym still cares, and have the gym owner and coach continue to help the gymnast set new life goals. These little things can make a big difference with a gymnast and hopefully help them transfer from a gymnastics life into life after gymnastics a little smoother.