Feature: Our obsession with elite

Our Obsession with Elite – It’s Not Just Gymnastics

This week’s announcement that the Western Australian Institute of Sport was cutting funding to its elite women’s gymnastics program “because it has not produced enough high level competitors” is a devastating blow to the sport. It highlights common, narrow focus of what sport is and should be. The cutting of the women’s WAIS program gives the message: “our athletes are not good enough”. Giving-up and not believing in one’s self is the antitheses of what we ask our athletes to do.

Image by Grafic House - www.grafichouse.co.uk - 07903809884 Quatro Gymnastics, 2012
Image by Grafic House – www.grafichouse.co.uk

Having worked closely as a psychologist in gymnastics for over a decade this is what I know about the young people who dedicate their lives to its craft:

Gymnasts are amazing people. They have a work ethic second to none. They are disciplined, passionate and extraordinary. With the right mentoring,  children as young as 9 and 10 are able to develop self-awareness and self-knowledge years above their peers. They face fear and frustration head-on and find a way through the most difficult challenges. They have to learn how to emotionally regulate because failing to do so tenses the body, interferes with biomechanics and escalates errors.

Gymnasts don’t quit: They don’t pull away from tasks because they are too hard. They problem solve, refocus and try again. If training isn’t going well, I don’t see dropped heads and slumped shoulders. Instead, I see an eagerness to get back on the equipment and have another go. They dedicate hours and hours to specific practice. They develop a skill set for life with a command and control over their physical and mental being. This will enable them to participate in any sport and/or challenge that takes their fancy.

With society’s narrow focus on only supporting the super-elite it is a wonder that so many children remain engaged in such a tough sport. Mentally they can be really hard on themselves. Closure of our elite programs risks pushing all of our athletes into the professional codes where the financial support is infinitely greater?

Gymnasts love the control they have over their physical movements. They love the friendships and the challenges. The greatest gift I believe gymnastics offers our children, however, is the opportunity to develop self-awareness and resilience.

They repeatedly experience and overcome failure and regularly get back up to have another go. While their non-athletic peers may avoid activities that create anxiety or frustration the young gymnasts sees it as a challenge and seeks to understand it.

This was highlighted to me recently when a 10 year old, using picture cards to express his feelings, pointed to an angry bear and said “when the bear is angry he does not think enough.” Then he pointed to a scared bear and said “when he is afraid he thinks too much.” At 10 years of age he was able to learn the strategies needed to regulate both his fear and anxiety.

This is an emotionally intelligent, self-aware child. A resilient child. Let’s hope a positive solution can be found for this great sport.