I Have a Problem with my Coach Part 2
Dr. Joe Massimo & Dr. Sue Massimo
Excerpt from Psychology and Gymnastics by Drs. Joe and Sue Massimo.
Over the years, we have received hundreds of letters from gymnasts, coaches and parents concerning issues raised in our articles or other concerns of a “psychological” nature regarding our sport. In the majority of cases we answer these letters one by one and that has proven to be satisfactory. It is always nice to hear from readers and feedback, whether positive or negative, keeps a person on his or her toes.
On several occasions we have received a surprising number of letters, mostly from gymnasts, asking for help with a personal problem or with some special situation in their gym. Although all of our answers are of course confidential, enough letters have come in talking about similar difficulties in the gym of a general kind that we felt some type of larger response might be useful for more readers.
In any setting where people are striving for the kind of creative expression, as required in gymnastics, there are bound to be some problems. Since everyone is unique, with varied backgrounds and genetic dispositions, any given situation will be seen in a different way by each individual. It would be impossible to talk about all the various problems that might arise in a gym, and, because of our uniqueness, even more difficult to make suggestions that would always work for everyone. However, there are some basic issues that have continually been raised in our mail which many gymnasts apparently experience in common (individually or as a group) when it comes to their coaching situation.
In this article, we felt it would be valuable to consider a few of the more often raised issues or problems that gymnasts have written to us about. And yes, we’re talking about “The Coach.”
The Situation Where the Coach Plays to Favorites
We have never met a coach, who is honest with him or herself, who has not had to struggle with this natural tendency to have favorites. In all human relationships, people form stronger attachments with certain individuals, rather than others. Why should it be any different in the gym? Of course, sometimes coaches pay more attention to the most talented gymnasts. In other cases, it is not always a situation that occurs based on talent but can come about because of some other factors that are not easily identified. Whatever the basis, it makes for a tough situation when a single gymnast or group of gymnasts who are part of a team clearly feel that certain individuals are getting preferred attention on a regular basis. Occasionally, a particular gymnast, because of special skills being attempted or competitive level, must have extra help and time from the coach. Most coaches make this clear beforehand and indicate that this may be the case from time to time, and that each gymnast in their turn, as appropriate, will receive the same special handling. Some coaches may ignore certain gymnasts at particular times—this may not have anything to do with “playing favorites,” but may be intentional to encourage self-motivation and direction. This is perfectly acceptable and is usually temporary.
In the article, “Behavior Change: Part II- Self-Evaluation,” we describe the benefits of having gymnasts work with and encourage each other, rather than always relying on the coach. This is not only good practice, but can reduce the effect of special attention given to a single person (one should also remember that the person receiving the special attention that is overdone is in a spot in their relationships with other kids). If the “playing favorites” condition happens continually with the same one or two gymnasts at the sacrifice of the others, nothing short of confrontation will help. What we mean is that the other members of the group, as a group, must bring this to the coach’s awareness. If your coach is so domineering that he or she is too powerful, in your eyes, to be approached in this regard, then perhaps the only solution is to ask for adult assistance (e.g., parent). This is a suggestion we don’t like to make, since, as we have stated in other articles, such as “My Daughter the Gymnast,” we have strong feelings that parents should stay out of the coaching interaction. On the other hand, the condition we are speaking of is in the extreme, and when it is out of hand, it will be obvious and clearly destructive to all, and must come to an end. We started this discussion by saying we never met a coach who has not had to struggle with this issue—struggle is the key word. Most coaches try very hard to be fair with their time and give equal attention to individual gymnasts as needed. In the majority of cases, they succeed in their efforts. But sometimes, the best intentions go off, and the further it goes, the worse it gets. Group action is the best solution.
We would be amiss to say that if a gymnast feels he or she is being neglected, they should also carefully think about their own behavior. Few people, not even saintly coaches, can only take a pain in the neck for so long. It is as natural to turn away from obnoxious behavior as it is to be attracted to favorable characteristics. Make sure you don’t, in fact, bring about the so-called “neglect” out of your own “unpleasantness,” before you launch a campaign to change things.
The Negative Coach
There are some coaches that talk a good game, but who just cannot seem to think “positively.” They seem to always be putting the gymnast down with negative and/or sarcastic remarks. Often they yell a lot and even have temper tantrums from time to time. It surely is hard for a young gymnast to have a childish coach! The coach who operates out of a negative view of things often makes his or her gymnasts feel guilty for what they are doing or failing to do. In the worst of such conditions, gyms that have a negative atmosphere are very unhappy places to be. Some gymnasts adjust to it through willpower and personal drive—many, on the other hand, bow out of the sport with a bitter taste in their mouths. Some coaches seem to slip into a more negative mode close to meets when pressure is greatest—that is a different matter, but still a problem. When there are at least some positive things happening, most gymnasts can manage by accepting the negativism as part of the coach’s “style” one has to live with over time. For more on this issue see “Abuses of Anger in the Gym.”
Another method for coping with this type of situation is for the kids to pull together and provide the positive support to one another. Sometimes, this will give the coach a model for change which might rub off. Of course, doing this requires a kind of maturity among the gymnasts themselves and this is sometimes asking a lot. It may work for a few, and at least they will feel better in the setting. We are big believers in group influence and pressure—as in the case of the playing favorites coach, the ultimate action might be for the gymnasts to make a direct approach to the coach with the problem. Sometimes, this works and sometimes it doesn’t. In any event, it will be difficult for the coach to claim he or she was unaware of the problem, once it has come into focus. Coaches can easily dismiss an individual’s complaint, but it is a different matter when a group presents a case. Once this is out in the open, many coaches can alter their behavior. When they do, the results are usually so rewarding that they begin to modify how they operate on a more regular basis.
For the gymnast bringing these issues to your coach is the first step in resolving them. In these situations we have looked at for openers, there is one other approach that can be made. If you are in a gym with several coaches, it may be possible to bring the message to the “head person” through one of the other coaches who are not part of the problem. Often in multiple-coach gyms, certain youngsters feel more comfortable with one coach than another when it comes to getting at certain problems. It is not disloyal or inappropriate to take advantage of this condition as a possible way to bring about change which will make things better for everyone. As a coach, you must be open to look carefully at your own behavior and the effects it is having on the team or individual gymnasts in your charge. Appropriate behavioral changes must be made to ensure the overall health of your gymnasts.
Massimo, J. &. Massimo, S., (2012). Psychology and Gymnastics. NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “Abuses of Anger in the Gym,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “Behavior Change: Part II- Self-Evaluation,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “Coaching through Goal Setting” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “My Daughter the Gymnast,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “My Goal is to…,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
DRs Joe and Sue Massimo are in the final stages of editing Psychology and Gymnastics and it should be in Print Soon. This is a MUST READ for all coaches.