Since beginning this blog I have had numerous parents and gymnasts reach out to me as some of my posts have resonated with their own experiences and I have been asked on a few occasions to post a narrative on their behalf. I believe all lived experiences are valuable and add knowledge to the growing repertoire of accounts. Each individual’s experience will be their own and is shaped by numerous factors including the environment they/their child are within, their personality and their coping mechanisms. I consider the narrative I am sharing today within the motivational climate literature and the long term effect the coaching environment can have on a child’s mental well being.
Gymnastics is an early specialisation sport where deliberate practice is undertaken at an early age, Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer (1993) suggest that specialised training through sustained systematic performance results in expert sport performance. However, it has been established that highly structured sports activity may detract from enjoyment, leads to ego-centred motivation, focuses on mistakes and may decrease confidence (Cote et al, 2003). Fraser-Thomas and Cote (2006) suggest that engagement in early specialisation sports may heavily influence a culture of external motivation from a young age.
Achievement goal theory (Ames, 1992) recognises two forms of achievement goals – performance goals and mastery goals. The former focuses on outperforming other athletes, demonstration of superior competence with minimal effort and exceeding normative standards with motivation often obtained through external rewards (Dweck, 1986); whereas the latter is directed toward maximising effort, exhibiting internal motivation to perform to the best of one’s ability and feeling fulfilled knowing one has tried one’s best (Elliot, 2005).
Achievement goal states are influenced by the motivational climate and coaching style imbued through the gymnastics programme. How the coach relates to the gymnast’s basic needs such as competence, autonomy and relatedness has a direct influence on the gymnast’s intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). The coach athlete interactions, rewards and sanctions and values transmitted within the environment all affect the motivational climate. The environment can forge a mastery climate similar to that expressed within achievement goal theory where effort, commitment and determination are rewarded, in contrast an ego climate can be undertaken emphasising outcome, external rewards, comparison with peers and sanctions for mistakes. It has been suggested the motivational climate can affect an individual’s goal orientations especially when an athlete is subjected to a particular environment over a period of time (Ames, 1992). The coaching behaviours are therefore paramount to how the gymnast perceives themselves and their goal orientations with the coach’s values influencing the gymnast’s motivational state (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003).
It has been established that excellence in sport is attributed to the number of hours of deliberate practice (De Bruin, 2007) and that weaknesses must be addressed in order to fulfil elite athletic potential (Chi, 2006). This then lends itself to the creation of a performance oriented motivational climate, however, Duda (2001) purports that the engagement of deliberate year round practice demands athletes to be high in motivation which is most likely to be achieved through a mastery environment, this orientation is also deemed the most appropriate to continue through adversity and persist when things go wrong. The motivational climate is determined by the goal orientations of the coach, how they treat the athletes can have an affect on the gymnast’s satisfaction and enjoyment levels as well as contributing to stress responses and anxiety (Christianson, Breker & Deutsch, 2012).
The effect of the motivational state upon sports performance has been well documented in the literature with a focus on performance outcomes, attrition rates and enjoyment within the sports environment. The narrative below gives us cause to consider the long term impact on mental health of the motivational climate within the gymnastics setting given the age at which many children enter the environment and the period of time spent within it. Although it can be seen there are many positive attributes to be taken from the sport we also need to consider the negative aspects and the effect this may have moving from adolescence into adulthood.
Now that my daughter has long since moved on from gymnastics, I often sit and reflect on the many things I wish I had known before I signed her up to that first gymnastics class. I wish I had known then, what I know now – that her gymnastics journey would change her permanently in so many ways. Would I do anything differently if I had known?
Gymnastics was never meant to be anything other than a ‘fun’ after school activity. Her first class was in a school hall, where the children worked towards earning brightly coloured badges as they gained new skills. The club didn’t separate the children into ability levels, or take part in competitions – it was all about fun!
Within a few months, she had caught the gymnastics bug and wanted to do more. My sitting room had become a makeshift gym, with sofa cushions in place of mats, whilst skills were practiced over and over. So, having eventually caved into her nagging, I swapped her to our nearest ‘proper’ gymnastics club. She was still only doing ‘fun’ gymnastics once a week, working towards the same badges but, from the first time we stepped inside the club, I knew that things might get more intense – after all, this was a serious gymnastics club and lots of their girls competed to a really high level. Within just a few weeks, she was selected to join a competitive gymnastics squad.
Suddenly, overnight, the number of training hours increased, A LOT! My car quickly became part changing room, part canteen, with pre- and post-gym meals eaten quickly on the way to and from the gym. Almost every weekend was spent at gymnastics competitions. I learned a whole new language of terminology and began to recognise the proper names for skills. It’s a pattern many gymnastics mums will recognise – in the blink of an eye, gymnastics had become a massive part of our life; it was almost like having an extra part-time job.
Then, about 6 years after her gymnastics journey began, it was all over. She had left the sport she had once loved. There was no big moment which led to her choosing to end her gymnastics journey; she had simply fallen out of love with the sport. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I now recognise that you never quite ‘leave’ the sport of gymnastics – what your learn within those gym walls stays with you and impacts on your life forever.
I must start by saying that gymnastics shaped her personality in many positive ways. She quickly learned the value of hard work and that it takes a long time, and a lot of repetition, before you get really, really good at a skill. She learned not to expect instant gratification; that you often have to wait a long time before you receive any recognition for, or the benefits of, the work you have put in. Indeed, often you never receive any recognition or rewards. She learned to play to her strengths and minimise her weaknesses. She learned to work independently, whilst also learning the value of being part of a team working towards a common goal.
Over the years, when outsiders asked why we had committed so much time (and money) as a family to gymnastics, it was these benefits I pointed to. I’d explain that these were the skills that gym had taught her that would serve her well in life; they were all skills a future employer would value and would increase her chances of success in life.
However, over the passage of time, as gymnastics became firmly part of her past and no longer part of her present, I have realised that it wasn’t all positive – that gymnastics has also had quite a negative impact on her personality. She is a total perfectionist and her own biggest critic. She picks tiny faults in everything she does – nothing she ever does is ever quite good enough – there is always room for criticism and improvement. She places very little value on her own worth – instead she constantly compares herself to, and values her own worth against, others. Her inner critic is constantly whispering in her ear – “X is better than you”, or “if only you could do Y better”. No amount of positive reassurance is ever able to silence that negative inner voice of hers!
Each coach had a kind of ‘mind control’ over her, which I still struggle to understand today. She was terrified of disappointing her coach and would follow her coach’s instructions precisely. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a positive trait – it has had the lasting effect of paralysing her ability to think freely and creatively; she is afraid to experiment and make mistakes and seeks constant instructions and directions.
I often sit back and reflect on the fact that my daughter’s gymnastics journey has changed her permanently. Whilst it has shaped her personality in many positive ways, there is no question that gymnastics has also had a lasting negative impact on her mental health. I will not be at all surprised if she doesn’t need counselling in the future to come to terms with the damage it has done.
Would I do anything differently if I had known? Pondering that question sometimes keeps me awake at night!
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