Why Gymnasts Secretly Hate Gymnastics But Refuse To Quit
No young gymnast really likes gymnastics. The viewer who can’t see past the done up hair, sequins, and muscle tone probably enjoys watching it, but no gymnast truly likes doing it. And there are three main reasons why we pretend to love what we so despise.
Gym Family = Frien-emies
Gymnasts practically live in the gym. I, like many, have created a gym family that we like. But we are forced to compete with each other and that means friendships turn ugly. We want praise, and when the pressure is high enough in a competition, we are willing to let our gym family fall. In a competition, we want each other to fail, at least a little (maybe a lot), because the individual scores matter most. I’m not saying that I dislike my teammates. In fact, one of my closest friends is a gymnast, but you wouldn’t know it on competition day. On any other day, she and I are so close, but on a day when we compete against each other, we are cold. Emotionless. We don’t even wish each other good luck. We are supposed to be a family. But we aren't. We didn’t even sign up for a team sport. We wanted an individual activity, and that’s exactly what we got, but we didn’t realize our mistake until we were so invested.
There comes a period where you feel like you've been doing it too long to quit, and you realize your friends are at gymnastics. You also begin to realize that you are only friends with them because of gymnastics. It is so confusing. Plus, you give all of your energy to gymnastics and the people there. You feel like you wasted so much energy, and now you don’t have any more energy to give. We smile and nod and use the discipline we’ve learned, we use it to become the best fake family that we can be to get through another practice. Gymnastics is about getting to the highest level possible, not staying with your friends. What young person would like this?
Gymnasts start at an early age, and we are pushed to perfection from the beginning. We are taught the rules of elegance—pointed toes, gymnastic hands, extended knees—and we are taught to follow them at all costs. We work to elongate our bodies and hide our imperfections because everything should be perfect and strong. Gymnasts are forced to develop large muscle ratios at a young age. Every gymnast I know has the “I was stronger than all the boys in my second grade class” story. But what we didn't realize, until it was too late, was that we were only making the gym feel safe because at least other seven-year-olds looked like us. Ironic, right, that the place where coaches scream our imperfections at us in front of others is safe?
Why We Don’t Feel Safe
The place where parents judge little kids and later insecure teens is not safe. We are constantly scrutinized and told how to behave. For example, we are only allowed nude nail polish, something that surprises so many people. We are told not to distract anyone from our form— ironic, as our leotards are bedazzled, but that's all part of the illusion. We can point our toes, we don't need a cover up for that. But a slightly crooked spine is harder to fix or distract from because judges can clearly see that. So, when coaches can not “fix” something, they create an illusion. It’s their job. Make us look as perfect as possible, almost robotic, no imperfections: inhumanly human.
We were never warned how much it would hurt. Coaches never told us how many injuries we would have to work through with no sympathy. Most of our coaches were gymnasts, and they dealt with these pressures, so they think we should deal with it, too. The cycle is damaging, but it’s been going on for so long it’s considered normal, like how our bodies suffer. The reason that the average gymnast is 4’9? The sport compresses our spines from landing so hard at such a young age. The plates of our spine press closer than they should. Coaches and parents play it off like a childhood injury, but it isn’t.
Most medical professions agree that our spine is quite important - so it is unfair to be categorized as an innocent accident. Gymnastics - the people supporting it at least - aren't innocent, not at all. They know the pain because most were gymnasts themselves, yet they never tell you how scared we'd be to even admit we are physically hurt because we can't be seen as weak or seen as a disappointment. The worst part? Most of us have no idea how emotionally abusive it is, because the line is blurred between doing our best and just being verbally abused. People don’t understand that gymnastics hurts us so badly that it stunts our growth physically and emotionally.
So why don’t I just quit? I have all the power to do so. But I don’t. I still do gymnastics. Maybe it's because I have spent so much time committed to it, or maybe it's because I have convinced myself that I like the pain. Gymnastics took away part of my childhood, but also holds some of it. If I leave, I leave a part of my childhood, a part of myself. I am abandoning my childhood. And I know I wouldn’t be able to go back. I wouldn’t physically be able to, and I mentally probably wouldn’t want to. So, for now, I don’t want to leave because I am afraid to disappoint that little girl with all those dreams.