When my daughter was little she enjoyed going to gymnastics. Tumbling, jumping on trampolines, swinging on bars, what more could a kid ask for? It progressed from gymboree to actual gymnastic classes where she began more formal training in the different aspects of uneven bars, floor exercise and the beam. But it was still all fun and games. It was a way to stay in shape, socialize and learn something new. Around 5th grade she was asked to join a “team” and make it official. I was hesitant, not only because this would change the focus of the classes, but the atmosphere as well. It would no longer be for the enjoyment, but the win- for her and her team. It was also a huge jump in hours. From two hours on Saturday mornings to six hours throughout the week.
They even dangled the “O” word- Olympics. As though a child by the age of 10 could realistically become an Olympic athlete. It was absurd. I knew it, the gym owners knew it, but they still implied it. So she jumped in with fervor and glee. Over the course of months her physique changed, becoming ripped and muscular. She worked tirelessly, pushing herself to be the best. But my sweet baby was just not “Olympic material.” She wasn’t even able to compete with the majority of other girls far her superior, not out of neglect or laziness, but due to her lack of skill and talent. Even so, she was approached and again asked to compete at a higher level where she’d train double the hours. It was insanity! She couldn’t keep up now, so why would six more hours a week at a more challenging level with even more competition be appropriate?
Flattered and eager to please her coaches she couldn’t see the reality. I wanted to protect her and at the same time allow her the opportunity to succeed or fail on her own. It didn’t take long. Within weeks the hours became exhausting, with very little progression to show for them. Parents and coaches were screaming at the kids to perform better, and pushing them to win for the school and team at all costs, including injuries. I was appalled. When did that become the goal? When was winning at all costs the reason she was out there competing? Not the athleticism, camaraderie, discipline, but the medal?
Finally we trekked up to Phoenix, Arizona for a statewide meet. It was impressive. Just like on TV the equipment was strewn around the gym and each team competed at the same time on the different devices. Once done, they rotated to the next one. The girls were amazing. Their poise and abilities shining through regardless of the distractions around them. Initially it was a blast. Surrounded by the hoopla and atmosphere. Here they were in the thick of it, all smiles and attitude. But the stress and frustration was wearing each time the scores were posted and our team fell further and further behind. Soon the coaches and parents screams to do better and stop shaming them was intolerable.
Afterward, we agreed it was time to get back to the reasons she’d started gymnastics in the first place. To stay healthy, make friends and have fun. Remembering that goal, she ultimately took the skills she learned early on to compete in diving, basketball, cheerleading and pole vaulting. Some she excelled at, others she didn’t. All added new dimensions to her life. As important as they each were at the time, no coach diminished or lashed out when a loss occurred. She learned that the true meaning of winning was overcoming fears like diving the 10 meter board, or making team needs the priority over ones own. All experiences she draws from today.
Win at all costs. Is this the attitude we want to instill in our kids? It is certainly one that we seem to encourage and promote the most. People destroying others to climb to the top, get the position they want or win the election. Competition is beneficial. It brings out the motivation to do your best but that’s where it needs to stop. At doing our best and then accepting and being proud of our accomplishments. We tell our kids this but they know we don’t believe it. Not when parents are screaming and yelling to get out and play, then demean or demoralize when games aren’t won. Not when we are enthusiastic and excited as long as they are on top, number one, winning. . . but frustrated, angry, less supportive and more demanding when they aren’t.
Winning isn’t everything, It’s not the only result that matters. This is an attitude we need to change. Winning is great. It feels good. But if you showed up and did the best you could, that is what counts. If you put in all the work, time and energy but lost, patting ourselves on the back for getting involved and learning from the experience is all that matters. I hate to think how many of us might not attempt anything at all for fear of loss and all the experiences we’d miss due to unreasonable expectations. Losing is a natural part of life. We can’t win all the time. Accepting it gracefully, congratulating and appreciating the accomplishments of others is integral to growing beyond our own needs and learning to support each other.
Isn’t that the lesson we want to teach our children?