Whenever it comes up that my 8-year-old son trains 12 hours a week on a competitive gymnastics team, I get one of two responses. The first is an excited, “Awesome, so he’s, like, going to the Olympics, right?” The second response is more subdued: “Wow, that’s a lot. When does he get to have fun?”
I can usually predict which response I’ll get. Parents at my kids’ ultra-competitive school and childless colleagues are generally in the first camp; teachers and family in the second.
I shrug off the Olympic hopefuls, and I assure any concerned parties that for my son, gymnastics is fun. I’m also quick to volunteer the otherwise damning fact that he still spends plenty of time playing video games. But the truth is that it’s a constant balance, for him and for me, between achieving big dreams and being a kid—just one of the unexpected lessons we’ve both learned over the past year.
Sports were, to be kind, never where I shined. I tried and quit basketball, softball, track, field hockey, dance and gymnastics. I stuck with gymnastics long enough to learn some cool tumbling tricks, which earned me a coveted spot on my high school and college cheerleading squads, but academics were really my forte.
So I had low expectations as I dutifully signed up my kids for everything on offer: ballet, soccer, swim team, skating, tae kwon do. Sometimes they lasted a few months, sometimes a year, but nothing really stuck.
Then, after seeing the men’s Olympic gymnasts at an exhibition, my son asked about gymnastics. It took a while, but I eventually found a boys’ class. Within a few weeks of signing up, he had an offer to join the pre-team group, and shortly after that, he was promoted to the competition team. In a few months, he went from an hour a week of gymnastics to eight.
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It happened so fast that we hardly knew what we were signing up for, but when someone tells you your kid may be exceptional, and that kid (a bit of a loner whose previous interest in sports was limited to Wii tennis) is happier than you’ve ever seen him in his short life, it’s hard to say no.
The gym is half an hour from our home, which made it tough to go back and forth. So while my daughter did homework in the lobby, I watched practice and found myself getting irritated when my son lagged behind other boys in learning new skills or seemed to get less attention from the coach. The more I watched, the more stressed I felt. If he was really as good as the coach said he was, why did he always forget to point his toes?
As the first competition approached, I became increasingly anxious. I joined an online gymnastics community, peppering the forums with questions. I scoured the Internet to find scores from last year’s meets to figure out how many kids my precious child would be competing against and how they had scored. I knew every element in every routine, and how many points each bonus move was worth.
Yeah, I know. I’d become a CGM—crazy gym mom—pretty much the worst insult in the gymnastics world. When the coach started calling me for competition intel, it occurred to me that I was maybe, just a wee bit, out of control.
The first meet ended on a high. Following five solid routines, my son did an advanced bonus move in his last event—the only one of a few hundred competitors to do that particular skill. He ran to meet me afterward with a huge grin. Triumph!
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Then came the awards ceremony. My son was up against 67 boys, many of whom had competed with the same routines the year before. He finished just out of the medals and was holding back tears.
The two-hour ride home was agony. The coach and I tried everything we could think of to cheer up my despondent little guy. He barely spoke during the drive and couldn’t even be persuaded to stop for ice cream.
When we got home, he finally let himself cry in my lap. He had done his best, I assured him—and he really had. But all he could see was that his best wasn’t good enough. I felt terrible. What had I done?
I mentally reviewed the past few months. I hadn’t meant to put any pressure on him. I had said over and over that I didn’t care whether or not he won, but now I had to wonder if that was really true. I admitted to myself that I was disappointed too. I hugged him tighter and finally coaxed him to bed. The coach texted to say my son could skip practice the next day if he needed a break.
The next morning, I was shocked when he bounced out of bed smiling. I mentioned skipping practice, and he insisted he wanted to go. “I’m just going to work harder,” he said, “and next time I’ll get a medal.” Huh. Maybe something I said had helped, or maybe he just needed some time to work it out on his own. Either way, he was back and more determined than ever.
He was also right. At the next meet, he brought home a fistful of medals. I was the one holding back tears when his name was called the first time. I peeked over to see the coach grinning almost as widely as my son. The rest of the meets went well, and he topped off his first season with two silver medals and a bronze at the state championship.
© M’Kate Photography
I won’t lie—it’s a lot more fun to see your kid win than lose. But we both came away from the season with something more valuable than awards. My son now knows that while medals are cool, bonding with his team, the satisfaction of hard work, and the high he gets from mastering a new skill are even cooler. I learned that I can’t protect him from disappointment, that he is more resilient than I gave him credit for, and that if I just let go a little, he’ll find his own way.
We sacrifice a lot for this sport. Family dinners are rare, weekend trips are nonexistent, and the high cost of his training means fewer extras all around. But while we’re all supportive, in the end he’s the one who has to show up to the gym every day, so it has to be something he wants, not something he thinks I want.
He’s now preparing for the next competitive season and working harder than ever. He practices more hours and trains to master more challenging skills, but we’re both a lot less anxious now. I’ve stopped sticking around for practice. When my son mentions a new skill he’s mastered, I say, “Wow, you really worked hard for that,” instead of asking its point value.
Besides, I can just look it up online later. What? Recovery is a process.