Kern Health jul18 Asthma leader

When a Child with Heart Enters the Picture

A Coach's Story of Love

Seven-year-old David came in the gym for the first time accompanied by both of his parents.  Looking at the couple should have been my first clue.  They seemed tentative and… lost, obviously much more comfortable in front of a computer screen than a gymnastics gym. David, small and thin, was the spitting image of them both, but had an eager smile on his face.  He was ready to try something new.  We all shook his hand and welcomed him to class.

When people consider Sports to put their daughters in, gymnastics ranks high up on the list along with swimming and dance.  It’s a natural choice.  But for boys…well, it’s a different story.  Baseball, soccer, football, and basketball come to mind first.  Gymnastics?  It ranks way down there on the list, if it even appears at all.  Occasionally gyms like ours get the pick of the male athletic talent.  One precocious 5-year-old was immediately put into gymnastics when his parents caught him climbing the support beams to the ceiling at their local Home Depot.  He ended up a 2-time Olympian for the United States. But that is not the norm.  We usually get the ones too slow for this, too short for that, too weak for everything, or full of fears and phobias.  Looking at David it was hard to determine which category he fell in.  Again, looking at his parents should have been my first clue.

David was enrolled in a Level 1 boy’s gymnastics class: an hour once a week designed to teach strength, coordination, and love of motion through the 6 men’s Olympic events.  The class starts with a quick warm-up to get the heart pumping and core temperature up.  Today that was a jog around the springy, padded floor mat.  Easy enough.

But not for David.

David just started to walk.  When we encouraged him to keep up with the other boys, he just walked faster.  He tried to mimic the other boys, pumping his arms back and forth, but nothing changed.

David didn’t know how to run.

We had the class break into a skip.  All did, except David.  He stopped, befuddled.  He had no idea how to skip.  We tried breaking down the skill to a basic hop on one foot.  He couldn’t do that either.

We came to learn that this was the first physical activity David had ever tried in his entire life.

David failed, dismally, at everything he tried that day.  He couldn’t do a push-up or a sit-up.  He couldn’t even start to initiate a chin-up.  Lacking any grip strength, he slipped from the bar after only a few seconds.  He couldn’t support himself on the Pommel Horse or Parallel Bars.  He was as flexible as a steel girder.  Bend over and touch his toes?  He couldn’t bend over and touch his knees!  Forward and backward rolls tipped over sideways.  What he called a cartwheel looked more like Road Kill.  Individuals are blessed with either ‘Quick Twitch’ or ‘Slow Twitch’ muscles.  David was cursed with ‘No Twitch’.

Initially, it seemed David was going to be that “Terminal Level 1” student, never able to master even the basics of movement.  He seemed doomed to be the laughing stock of his P.E. class for the rest of his life, always the last one picked for any team.  “You guys get David, and we’ll promise never to guard him.”  “No, you guys get him, and we’ll play with one hand tied behind our back.”

Our challenge was before us, but what could we do about it?  After all, he was only with us one hour each week.  What we eventually learned, however, made all the difference.

David had heart.

He always came to class.  He always had a smile on his face.  He was that child who, when asked to try stretching or push-ups at home on the days he wasn’t at the gym, actually put in the effort.  I encouraged his parents to install a chin-up bar in the doorway of his bedroom.  Hopefully each time he went in or out of his room he would try one chin-up.

Not ‘do’.  Just ‘try’.

That has always been my key phrase.  I don’t care if you make it or not.  I just want you to try.  That is the first step to success.  (Spoiler alert: David ended up his school record-holder in chin-ups.)

David tried, though nothing came easy.  It took him two months just to learn to jog.  Skipping took him almost six months to learn.  But each week there he was.  Big smile.  Big heart.

After a year, we moved David up to a Level 2 class.  He was so proud he tripped running to tell his parents the good news, ending up with a face full of rug burns.  Level 3 followed a year later and then, at age 10, I asked David to be part of our competitive team.  This was a big commitment of time and energy.  He shook my hand and said yes.

The last time I shook David’s hand he was 15.  He came to me and said he was quitting gymnastics.  The next wave of skills to learn, frankly, scared him, and he was ready to devote more time to other activities.  There was a tear in both of our eyes, but somehow we both knew it was the right decision.  He left us as a top athlete able to perform double-back flips from the Rings and Horizontal Bar, and was Regional Pommel Horse Champion (the best athletes from 4 states.)  He had a ripped, hardened body that was certainly the envy of his friends (and their parents), with a justified confidence that he could handle any challenge, physical or mental, that life might throw his way.  He knew how to work hard.  He knew how to set and achieve goals.  He absolutely knew how to overcome adversity.  As I look back on my greatest victories in 33 years of coaching, it is not my National Champion, or my Junior National Team Members, or my State Champion Teams - it is David.

There are countless articles out there boasting of the benefits of gymnastics.  It is commonly referred to as the ‘basis of all Sports’.  It helps in everything from reading, writing and math proficiency to developing ‘life skills’ that benefit its participants far past their competitive careers.  I believe all of it.  That is why I coach.  Still, it’s nice to have that first-hand experience to validate it all.  David was that experience.

A child with heart.

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Tags: Enrichment, Parenting, Sports

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