Gymnastics can benefit girls of all ages in various ways, but for preteen and teenage girls, the benefit is increased tremendously.
We have all heard and seen the horror stories of the little, overworked, anorexic girls and the brutal coaches training them round the clock to be one of the seven chosen every four years. Nobody wants their daughter to be in that category. But in an age of x-boxes and computers, TV and ipods, just being in the gym for several days a week is reason enough to consider gymnastics.
But gymnastics is, first and foremost, a head game. Coaches tell the girls constantly: “Your body can’t do this unless your mind makes it do it.” The constant conditioning, strengthening, crunches, squats, and teaching of dance moves won’t do it if the girl doesn’t visualize herself doing it first. At times, when a girl cannot get the routine, when she keeps falling or not following through, the coach gets her to sit alone, head down, and get “in her bubble”, a place where she can block out all distractions and imagine the music, putting herself mentally through the routine. When she is ready, she comes back and tries again, many times to succeed.
What a great lesson for life! Life is a head game. No one can do anything until we visualize what we want to do. In gymnastics, the girls must think one step ahead of what they are doing at the moment, they have to visualize what they want to do and they go do it.
Coaches will say to the girls: “You have to use your brain to make your body do what it’s supposed to do, even when your body wants to do something else.” To which I say: “Preach it, brother!” The hope is when they are in a situation outside of the gym and their body wants to do something, the brain will remember to do something else.
Every conditioning exercise is a plus. Every lap around the gym for their cardio conditioning is helping break down the junk food. Even junk food is not as enchanting when the girls are told that to do a kip on their uneven parallel bar routine, they need protein and complex carbs, not Fiery Habreno Doritos. And when they see their friends get their skill mastered, and come close to mastering it themselves, they will forgo the junk to build muscle.
In gymnastics, there is a tradition of recognizing the accomplishments of individuals as they are accomplished, no matter what level the girl is in, whether the girl is four or fourteen. When a skill is mastered, often the whole gym stops and watches a demonstration, and all applaud. To have recognition by their peers is a constant boost to the fragile preteen, teenage estrogen-ravaged ego.
The learning of skills-round-offs, back handsprings, dismounts off the balance beam, shoot-throughs on the bars-are all through a lot of muscle work and more head-work, and are things girls can store up in their heart as accomplishments. The exercise away from the TV carries their changing bodies through an awkward time when every girl looks at herself with high scrutiny. The ability to put their spur of the moment wants aside for the vision they have for a future goal may just carry them through life.