The Hero Coach

girl coach superpower

Earlier this week, I wrote how gymnastics coaches are like superheroes–people with powers far beyond the range of normal human ability, who use these powers to protect the innocent and for the general good.

Forget “like”–there are gymnastics coaches that ARE superheroes.

This beautifully composed essay reflects on a gymnast named Emily’s first coach’s influence on the development of her confidence (among other aspects of her personality!).  Emily’s essay underscores just such an example of a superhero-coach.

Here is Emily’s essay:

 My Confidence Booster

“Like the window of an office building, I strived to fit in. Look the same, act the same, blend in. As a 7 year-old girl, I did not always know what I was doing or who I was, and was content with the fact that no one else knew either. I never raised my hand in class, I stood in the middle of line along with everybody else in gymnastics class, and I did everything I could to not stand out. I did not know the word confidence, until I met her.

She changed her hair more often than a chameleon walking on a rainbow, but only between a few specific colors. It never occurred to me until now, that perhaps some people simply have multiple ways of expressing themselves. Red reflected the boldness, and fearlessness which matched the tone of her raspy voice. And black, emulating her sense of professionalism, contradicted the tattoos down her arms – at least that’s what people thought. But when you’re 7 years old and you haven’t yet learned that society teaches you to judge people based on their appearance, the tattoos really don’t make any difference at all.

Coach Cari was not afraid to tell you what she thought. She did not sugar-coat anything. Everybody knows that if you ask a little kid a question, you’ll get an honest answer regardless of it’s effect. Instead of asking a 5 year old, you could ask Cari. She told everything how it was, which was particularly helpful as a coach. Instead of dancing around what you need to correct, she would flat out tell you that your skill was ugly and that you need to point your toes and fix your form. If you were being a bad teammate, she would tell you that you better change your attitude or you were gonna have a consequence. Because of her, I am who I am in this very moment.

Cari was my gymnastics coach for almost five years. Some people consider their first years of gymnastics to be the most important, because they help you build the basic skills you need throughout your whole gymnastics career. This was largely the case for me. I met her when I first started gymnastics, when I was about 7 years old. We had just moved to Washington, and I was the new girl at the gym. Once she saw me, I remember her taking me aside and asking to see my skills, and that she was very encouraging and supportive. Coach Cari was the one who put me on her gymnastics team, and was my coach throughout my compulsory levels.

At all my competitions, Cari was the most supportive coach I had, especially at my level 4 state championships. I was used to having my best friends and teammates competing by my side, but this time they were not there. I was like the kid who gets picked last in P.E. for the flag football team. The way the age groups were split, I was the only one young enough to be in the last session – I had to compete by myself. As I walked in, my legs were already trembling and my stomach started to ache. I saw Coach Cari across the gym and I ran to her with my bag on my shoulder and tiny braided ponytails in my hair. She knew right away how afraid I was. This was the biggest meet of the year, and I had to compete all by myself.

“Are you ready?” she asked with the brightest smile on her face, and with just enough excitement and enthusiasm to make me feel a little bit better. I pulled out my best fake smile and said to her,

“I guess so.” trying not to let her hear how terrified I actually was. But she knew me too well by this point

“Em calm down,” she said, “If you think about it, now you get my full attention the entire time, and you don’t have people who are going to distract you from doing your best. All you need to do is exactly what you come into the gym and do every day.” I was still nervous and my little legs were still trembling as much as a deer who just spotted a lion running after him, but I was starting to feel more comfortable. After warm up I watched a girl compete on floor as I waited for my turn for my first event. I felt Cari’s hand grab my head and turn it towards my event.

“Do not watch that girl, you need to focus on yourself. All you’re doing is psyching yourself out.” She pulled my arms to my ears and pushed down abruptly, simulating how it would feel when I competed.

My first event was successful, and so were the next 3. Coach Cari continued to keep me focused and on task, and made sure to remind me that I had these routines hardwired into my brain and that I just had to go do exactly what I knew.

In the end it was the best meet I’d had all season, and I did it all by myself. At awards, I got first place out of all the girls who competed, and standing on the first place podium made me feel like a meerkat standing watch on a tall tree. I could hear the crowd’s laughter, because even the girls that were standing on the podiums below me were towering over me. When the announcer told us to salute, I did so with the biggest real smile I had ever had in my life. As soon as I got down, I ran into Coach Cari’s arms and she swung me around.

“I knew you could do it.” she said, and even though every coach has probably said those exact same words to multiple athletes, it gave me encouragement for the rest of my gymnastics career. Just knowing that somebody I looked up to believed in me enough to think I could win an entire meet gave me all the confidence I needed.

It does not always take a person going out of their way and doing something obvious to change somebody’s life. Cari did her job, and that’s all it took for me. From that day on, I continuously improved my confidence level, and every single day in the gym I strived to make her as proud as I did that day. Instead of walking into my competitions with a stomach ache and shaky legs, I strolled in ready to do what I knew I could do. I also caught onto her sarcastic, smart-alec, humorous personality very quickly, and she is a lot to blame for the person I have developed to be throughout my life. Even 8 years later, I still have her to thank for my approach to gymnastics, my sarcastic jokes, and the confidence I have in myself.”

Champ Emily w Coach Cari Snowball Level 8,9 1-14-2012 (53)

While I am not lucky enough to have Emily at my club (she lives several states away), I am fortunate enough that her former coach Cari has been part of my management team for the past six years.  I know Cari well and am proud to have her on my staff and am even prouder to call her my friend.  (Today also happens to be her birthday, so happy birthday, Cari!).

And as wonderful and special Cari is, I know that there are so many other coaches like Cari who, as Emily so eloquently wrote simply “did her job, and that’s all it took for me.”  Just by showing up and doing what we do, forever impacting the young people with whom they work.

It has been said “Teachers affect all eternity. You never know where their influence stops.”  Well, those are powers far beyond the range of normal human ability.  And when teachers and coaches use these powers like the Cari’s of the world do, to protect and promote the children in their care, there is no doubt that they are heros.

I can be tough on coaches in this blog.  But is is because I have high expectations for our profession because I see the good (and harm) we can do.  So please do not misunderstand that I am this way for any other reason than my whole-hearted belief in the power of our ability to be a Cari to an Emily, and the difference that can make in the life of a young person.

The great educator Marva Collins said, “What all good teachers have in common, is that they set high standards for their students and do not settle for anything less.”  The same is true for us as coaches–we must set high standards for each other and never settle for anything less because it is so clear we are capable of so much more.