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Gymnastics Resources for Parents & Gymnasts

Benefits of Gymnastics

by Nancy Thies Marshall

       When I was about eight years old, with a year or two of gymnastics and ballet classes under my belt, I hit the big time and "became" a gymnast. My rite of passage happened one blustery fall afternoon when, bored with the conventional after-school activities, I transformed my living room into the Olympic Gymnastics Venue.

       The wooden arm of a chair was my balance beam. I waltzed across the carpet to the dramatic overture from Swan Lake. Another chair served as the vaulting horse, with couch pillows acting as the vault board. (The uneven bars were eliminated because the dining room chandelier was insufficiently anchored.)

       All was going as planned. I won the gold on Floor and Beam. Vault was the final event. (I hadn't heard of competition order yet.) With all the gusto I could muster, I ran the entire length of our living room (five steps), put my head in the seat of the chair and kicked my feet in the air, anticipating a perfect landing. But halfway through, I realized the vaulting horse had wheels on it and I was sent crashing through the living room picture window. For some Divine reason, I landed in the front yard with only a few cuts on my heels and a stern rebuke from my mom to keep the flipping out of the living room and in the gym where it belonged!

       That episode, more than any, marked me: the family flipper, the child who lived upside down, the contortionist, the one who waltzed instead of walks. That was the day I became a Gymnast. While my folks weren't thrilled about the broken window, they were grateful to find a sport where their daughter could flourish.

       The childhood fun of recreational gymnastics eventually gave way to the challenge and excitement of competition. By the time I hung up my gym bag for good, I had traveled to the Olympics and beyond. The journey was not without challenges and heartaches...but no journey through adolescence is smooth sailing. And I am a better person for taking the trip.

       I am now a mother with three children, one of whom transforms our family room into her own gymnastics arena. (We guard the windows.) She's done other sports, but none have captured her passion and dedication like gymnastics. My husband and I have joined the carpool club and I've stocked up on needlepoint projects to relieve competition jitters (mine, not hers). Pictures of Dominique, Kim, and Natalie are plastered all over our house; the term "A Few Good Men" does not refer to the U.S. Marine Corps.

       While we've tried to encourage involvement in many sports, the middle child is drawn to gymnastics like chalk dust to a leotard. If forced to choose, she is adamant. The tennis racket and soccer ball play second fiddle to aerials and back flips! As I watch my daughter literally go head over heels for gymnastics, I recall the "teachable moments" of my Olympic journey and I'm once again reminded of what's so great about this sport.

       Study after study confirm that kids involved in sports, including gymnastics, are more likely to stay away from drugs, score higher on achievement tests, stay in school, have greater self-esteem and live a healthier lifestyle. Show me a child in a healthy athletic environment and I'll show you a child learning motor development, interpersonal relationship skills, perseverance, discipline, commitment, humor, perspective, teamwork, humility and leadership. And the kids think they're just having fun!

       No doubt about it, sport enhances life. And for those with a penchant for variety and challenge, the local gymnastics club might be a great place to hang out. Following are the five most important reasons why learning a cartwheel is a valuable investment.

1. Gymnastics is a multifaceted sport.

       This is a sport that develops physical strength, speed, agility, nerves of steel, and competitive prowess. Additionally, women must wrap that package of athleticism in grace and personality. Not many sports draw upon such a wide range of ability. Within the three main gymnastics disciplines (Men's and Women's Artistic and Rhythmic), there are as many as 15 different individual events, each with unique challenges and thrills. Add General Gymnastics and Trampoline and Tumbling, and opportunities in the sport are endless.

2. Gymnastics is a challenging sport.

       Walking, let alone flipping, is hard to do on a four-inch balance beam. It takes more than a few push-ups to master an iron cross on the rings. Leaping through a moving hoop is not a cake walk. Gymnastics is "difficult." But the very qualities it takes to master these skills - courage, perseverance, risk, determination, vision - are the qualities that foster excellence in any endeavor. Dealing with the "difficulties" will translate into valuable life skills and strength of character. Bolstered by unconditional love from parents and skilled guidance from coaches, gymnasts are better prepared to handle the "difficulties" of life because of the challenges faced in the gym.

3. Gymnastics is a socially interactive sport.

       The unique social environment in the gym provides for healthy growth. In gymnastics, a nine-year old trains with older and younger athletes. Self-esteem is boosted by camaraderie with older teammates. Maturity and perspective is nurtured as she then turns to relate to the younger athletes on the team. Few sports provide the opportunity for kids to work so closely with teammates of different ages. The social maturity gained within the sport is far healthier than the "social immaturity" forced on kids spending aimless afternoons at the mall or watching television.

4. Gymnastics teaches individual responsibility and courage.

       Though there is a team element, gymnastics is an individual sport. When practice is over and the green flag is raised, the athlete faces the apparatus alone. To execute a routine successfully, under the scrutiny of judges, coaches and spectators, it takes concentration, determination, endurance, and often courage. Confidence to call upon these qualities is nurtured every time a child attempts another routine. Life requires us to take personal responsibility for the choices we make. Courage to take that responsibility and make right choices is developed with each mount and dismount.

5. Gymnastics enriches childhood.

       After my Olympic experience, I was often asked if I felt like I had sacrificed a normal childhood for my athletic dreams. I was always a bit confused by this question. I did gymnastics because I wanted to. Sports was not a sacrifice, it was a choice. Granted, that choice meant sometimes I was also choosing to forego other activities. But thanks to guidance from my parents and coaches, gymnastics opened doors and enriched my life. Victories, defeats, travel, relationships and much more combined to teach me the joys, difficulties and realities of our world.

       And I'm not alone. Traveling the country to develop the Athlete Wellness Program for USA Gymnastics, I've had the privilege of meeting former gymnasts who now have careers in counseling, medicine, advertising, law, youth ministry, coaching, emergency response, environmental engineering and parenting, to name a few. All agree their gymnastics training better prepared them to tackle the challenges of the adult world.

       It takes wise coaches and parents to translate gym lessons into life lessons. But most gymnastics clubs are founded on the belief that the sport has the potential to be a health-enhancing experience for all who participate. If anyone is looking for fertile soil in which to grow life's champions, you might start at your local gymnastics club.

       Nancy Thies Marshall is a 1972 Olympian, five-time national team member, former national Vault and Balance Beam champion, and collegiate All-American. She is currently the developer and manager of USA Gymnastics Athlete Wellness Program and a freelance journalist. Nancy and her husband have three children and live in Salem, Oregon.


This article originally appeared in USA Gymnastics Magazine