How a Gymnast is Like a Carrot: Myths and Truths of Progress



“My child wants to quit because she is not making any progress.”

These words begin so many of the meetings that I have with parents who are conflicted about having their child continue in gymnastics. Quite often, the parent will say that the child likes gymnastics, is happy when she is at practice and is constantly flipping around at home, but that quitting is being discussed because nobody (because let’s face it, it is often the parents as well) sees “progress.”

Sometimes, they are absolutely correct: little to no progress is being made. Usually it is the result of spotty attendance or lack of effort during practice.   Or it might be because the athlete is returning from injury or an extended vacation. Or a mental block might be standing in the way of a gymnast making progress. In these cases progress is slow at best. But these are not most cases.

For more often than not, after some discussion and gentle reminders about how far the athlete has come, most leave my office realizing that their child is, in fact, making progress.

Am I magic? No. I just think that many of us don’t understand much about what progress looks like or how to measure it.

Myth: Progress in skill development comes evenly and easily. So long as he shows up at practice, everyday we get a little bit better, a little stronger and a little closer to our goals.

Truth: While attendance and engagement in practice certainly is the key to progress, progress comes in fits and starts and is often followed by plateaus that vary in length.

In the beginning when there is great deal to learn, of course your child may learn a lot quickly. But as she gets more expert, it becomes harder and harder to see huge improvement and, in fact, to improve. Preparing your child for the reality of the process of progression will help her understand that it is perfectly normal to take a long time to see improvement.

In gymnastics there are certain skills and certain levels where many athletes will stall for a bit. For instance, learning a kip is a troublesome exercise for many gymnasts. Yes, it is not uncommon for it to take 1,000 tries to learn a kip. 1,000. It’s a bit like watching paint dry. Transitions from compulsory to optional gymnastics can be rough, and even jumps between certain levels can me more difficult than others.

Myth: The best way to gauge her progress is to measure her against others.

Truth: While measuring herself against others is one way to measure progress, it is often not the best or most accurate way to tell if she is improving in her sport.

The best way to measure progress is for the athlete to exceed her own goals rather than surpassing the performance of another.   Is her time faster than it was six months ago? Can she now stick 5 out of 5 beam routines when six months ago she was struggling to hit 2 out of 5? Then she is making progress.

Of course it is frustrating when others progress faster or with greater ease than we do. I get it–I am an insanely competitive person. Yet, an athlete or student constantly looking to compare herself against others fails to see her own progress and will often feel defeated despite her achievements. Yes, it is true, there is most likely someone better than you in pretty much any athletic pursuit or other pursuit in life. It’s okay. It’s true for me too.   Believe me, I am not wild about this fact either.

Myth: Kids who progress the fastest in the beginning are more talented than the children who take longer to learn athletic skills and, therefore, are most likely to succeed at the highest level of the sport. And, conversely, kids who struggle learning the fundamentals are not likely to be successful.

Truth: Yes, some kids who show an early demonstration of talent do rise to the top, but not all. Likewise, not all kids who make it to the top show early signs of promise.

The kids who are more athletically inclined off the bat might be so for a number of reasons that have little to do with talent. They could have older siblings who plays the sport and, as a result, are familiar with the rules and basics.   They might have grown earlier and therefore are stronger and faster than their peers. Or the early part of the sport suits their given skills set and thus are able to use those skills to their advantage.

This is an important concept, so let me give you an example. In gymnastics, the beginning levels of competition have compulsory routines. There are no choices of skills or style, each child performs the same routine. Well, if the routine happens to require a skill that is extremely difficult for one gymnast (perhaps because she is not naturally flexible, for instance) and that is quite simple for another gymnast (she is naturally flexible), the Gumby-like gymnast will be more “successful”. However, as the gymnasts move through the system and into optional levels, the less flexible child will be able to use her strengths (perhaps she has very strong legs and tumbles well) and can work around her weaknesses and may, in fact, become the more accomplished gymnast in this scenario.

Furthermore, even if a child does have tremendous natural talent, those kids need to be coached carefully because at the first sign of progress not being linear and meteoric, they will often be in my office proclaiming that they “want to quit because they are not making any progress.”  Ironic, no?

Myth: I can skip training for several weeks and pick back up where I left off when I get back to the gym.

Reality: HA!

In gymnastics we use the rule of thumb for younger kids one half of the time they were gone to return to where they were before they left. For older, more advanced kids the time is LONGER—typically day for day to simply return to where you were prior to the break in training. It leads to frustration to think that there won’t be a period of time where “progress” is repeating the progress that lead up to the weeks off.

So does that mean never take a vacation? Of course not. But to take off for several weeks and to expect to pick up where you left off and see immediate progress is unrealistic to say the least.

Occasionally, despite all of my reasoning, the parents and the child remain unconvinced and still think that due to lack of progress it is time to hang up the grips. So, if the athlete still wants to quit, I explain the difference between quitting and ending and we make a plan.

But now I will be adding another little tool to my bad of tricks. David Benzel , who runs a wonderful program called Growing Champions for Life: ask the athlete to write out two versions of her sports story. In the first, describe how things would be by leaving the sport. The second version she should describe how things could turn out if she persevered, worked harder, made a break through and emerged successful despite the plateau.

I think this exercise might have some interesting results!

Bottom line: Progress is not linear, should not be defined in terms of others’ success, takes time and needs sustained effort to maintain and advance.   Like a carrot that grows under the soil, you cannot always see the progress of the carrot’s growth until one day it pokes through the dirt.