What Al Fong Helped me Remember…

This is  something I have wanted to write about for such a long time, yet every time I sat down to put my thoughts on paper I would start to worry if I would offend anyone, or if people I knew or know now would take it personally, so I never finished it. Then I watched a video on a gymnast who was an inspiration to me growing up. I watched a gymnast who trained her whole life for a shot at the Olympics. A gymnast who made it to the trials, and then was not asked to be on the team. As a spectator I watched her world diminish into depression and despair. Only a few years ago, she started talking about the verbal abuse her coaches put her through and the lasting affects it had on her.

I started to think if I have something to say that could potentially make a difference in a child’s training, I am going to do it, and I will not apologize for it. For these are my views and opinions alone, I am not asking anyone to adopt them as their own, or to think I have some vendetta against them. I am purely doing what this gymnast should have done a long time ago…Advocate!

I started this blog to help gymnasts have the opportunity to compete in college gymnastics, not become Olympians. I choose to do this because I have seen first-hand the tragic side effects of “burnt out” gymnasts who could have gone further, and coaches who did a poor job at mentoring their gymnast to the level of collegiate gymnastics. It took a clinic by Al Fong to remind me that no matter what, I will always try to push a “positive” training environment, and help coaches and athletes reach their dreams without tears and failure.

So here is what Al Fong taught me…

Two weeks ago I found myself driving down to Blue Springs, Missouri for a clinic hosted by Al Fong. All I kept thinking was what I could possibly learn from a “free” clinic. I left that clinic with more than I hoped for. I have to admit walking into his gym; I expected a military structured practice with no talking and no distractions. Although the gymnasts were very well-trained and worked hard, I did not see this at all.  I left that gym with a completely “refreshing” and “positive” outlook into the coaching I do every week.

Of course there were drills to be learned, stations to try, and ideas from Al Fong himself on how to get your gymnast from level to level but that is not what I took from the gym. What I took from that gym was a refreshing reminder that not every coach is going to be a dictator and you do not have to make your gymnasts afraid of you for them to learn.

The three days I was there I never saw a child cry one tear. In fact not one child was “yelled at”, or “criticized”, or “belittled” in front of their peers. Instead calm voices explained the correction of a skill or if a change in behavior was needed it was done quietly and to the point.

I was amazed watching the level 5′s, who were smiling ear to ear while doing press hand stands on the beam and the level 10′s racing up the rope… no one was looking like this was a “job”. Even the elites were talking to each other and discussing ways to improve each turn.

Each team warmed up their practice in a different way, whether it was on the trampolines or running around the floor. They then moved to the conditioning phase of their practice, which included the basic TOPS conditioning. There was no gymnast doing 20 rope climbs and crying because of sore hands. I never saw a gymnast needing to perform 200 leg lifts on the bar while a coach sat and yelled if they missed one. Most importantly the coaches were involved in the conditioning from level 5 to elite. Making sure the 10 press handstand were done to the best of their ability and sit ups were done correctly to make sure they were using their correct muscles.

  This is something that I have a strong opinion on, which some disagree on. I do not believe a gymnast needs to do 500 v-ups in a practice to build stomach muscles, I also do not agree in conditioning a gymnast until they are too weak to practice, just to show them “you” the coach are powerful. I think this is something that needs to be brought to the attention of parents, gymnasts, and coaches everywhere. You do not need to intimidate your gymnasts to make them perform.

After the conditioning phase of practice the athletes broke off into their respective groups and hit the events. Numbers, numbers, numbers! It is not a secret to be successful in gymnastics one must do a routine over and over to make it his or her best. What is lacking from gyms however, is efficiency. Use every bar, every beam, any floor station you can think of to maximize your time on each event. Instead of having a group of gymnasts in line doing one routine at a time, constantly have a side stations going at all times. If a side station is not open, have your gymnast in their splits or working shoulder flexibility. I must have watched the level 8,9,10′s do 20 routines in a 30 minute period, all done with minimal corrections and done to the best of their ability. When they were off of the beam they were asking their teammates for suggestions on how to improve the routine, or working full turns and dance elements on the floor.

At the gym I currently work at we have 6 beams available for 10 girls. While the girls are not doing routines I have one in their splits, one working turns, one on leaps, and one watching a routine to give helpful advice to the girl on the beam. This helps make each gymnast accountable and honesty how many time do coaches tell their kids to point their toes? For some reason when a peer does it! Pointed:)

This is another lesson I learned from Mr. Fong, make the gymnasts accountable. When they are at the stage in the season when coaches are watching routines and the gymnasts are doing the same skills in repetition, have the gymnasts also make corrections to their peers. This helps them fix their own corrections and gives them a sense of responsibility and work ethic they need.

While giving corrections, don’t forget the positives! Near the end of the season we are getting ready for State, Regional, and J.O’s- we as coaches start to get burnt out. You think to yourself “how many times have I told her to keep her head in, or spot the landing, or block through the shoulders…” It can be just as tough motivating gymnasts through a season as it is competing as one. Try to remember, as a coach, you have done all the preparation work for these big meets. If you have done everything you should have, there is nothing left to teach, there is only support and mentoring left to do.

All of the gymnasts at Gage know why they are there. They are there to be the best gymnast they can be and they hope to one day make it into that exclusive group of girls who get to train with Al Fong. These gymnasts are not competing compulsory levels over and over to win level 5 sSate, and they are not home schooled at level 6 to try to win the level 7 State meet. They are working hard to make it to ‘Regional’s, Easterns, Western’s, J.O’s, and if lucky the Olympics. Al Fong does not require his gymnasts to live, breathe, sleep gymnastics. He requires them to come into the gym ready to work hard and do their best. The more coaches I talk to here in Minnesota, the more I see that they also tend to work towards success in the higher levels- not the compulosry levels. This has proven to be a great system to live by if you look at the clubs that are on top in the level’s 8-9-10.

However, not every gymnast is on the road to the Olympics. In fact be realistic with the parents in your gym. If you have a 10/11 year old level 8 the chance of them making the Olympics has gone from that .1% to almost none. Unfortunately, just by their age they will be 14/15 at the next games, which makes them too young to compete. Then they will be 18/19 when they can compete; how realistic is it for a gymnast to stay on top for that long, with the sport constantly becoming harder?  Just for argument sake… why not focus the energy on team relationships and a college scholarship opportunity. I can bet that any one of Al Fong’s level 10 gymnast could walk onto a Division 1 school today with no problem. I talk about collegiate gymnastics to my teams all of the time and talk about the opportunities it can give them. Again, that is just my own opinion.

There are many paths gymnastics can take a gymnast. Some will go elite, some will end up on a highschool team, and some on an EXCEL team. It our duty as coaches to guide them safely through their journey. It is not our job to take the credit of a gymnast for winning a competition, nor is it a coachs job to ever make a child feel threaten or hurt by our own words or actions. These children look up to us and it makes me sick to think that some coaches feel it is their “right” to bully them and make them feel like their nothing unless they are given approval by them. I think this falls under the same category as child abuse, and have no problem calling it out when I see it.

This of course is only my opinion and what I got from one clinic I was able to attend. There are a million ways to coach, and a millions ways to create great gymnasts. Some gymnasts work their best under pressure, and some need to be handled delicately. However, what I did take from this clinic is the fact that I will never apologize for treating the gymnasts I coach with respect, accountability, and trust that I also expect from them. I know I have only been a coach in this sport for a short 15 years, but I have never made a gymnast quit or hate the sport because I was un kind to them. I have never made a gymnast feel “un coachable”, and I have never used the power of authority to get them to do what I want. I will not change my coaching style for anyone. I will always advocate for the gymnast and support of treating the athlete the way I would want to be treated.

In the end- the gymnast decides whether they want to go to the Olympics, or try high school gymnastics, or as I hope, to do college gymnastics. I just hope as a coach reading what other coaches are doing, we take a second and think about where these gymnasts will be in 10-15 years, and if the impact we made on them will be a positive memory, or regretful one.

Written By,

Sara Gill

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7 thoughts on “What Al Fong Helped me Remember…

  1. Nicely said Sara! I totally agree. Sometimes I have parents tell me I am too nice; need to yell at them. No way! I only get loud when a gymnast is being mean verbally to another. Then I speak up. Love the sport!

  2. Pingback: in praise of Al Fong — Gymnastics Coaching.com

  3. Nice post! I wish in Australia the kids had the opportunity to work hard and look forward to collage gym/school gym!

  4. As a parent of a gymnast, thank you for “getting it.”. I firmly believe it is possible for a coach to be tough, to “push” the gymnast to strive for their best without belittling or otherwise demeaning the gymnast. Just as it is possible to parent in the same way.

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