How gymnastics and gender equality are related

As I’ve mentioned in one of my other posts I started doing adult gymnastics a few years ago. I had the advantage of doing it as a child but hadn’t been back in a gym for over a decade when I started again. It was a bit of a learning process but having a great, fun, eccentric retiree coach named Bruce meant I really loved getting back into the sport. One of the great things about being an adult is you get to drink the orange juice straight from the carton, and you get to choose what you want to do at gymnastics as well. I never liked vault as a child, mostly because I’m more flexible than I am strong, and as an adult I don’t ever have to do vault if I don’t want. It’s a great advantage of being an adult. But encouragement from Bruce meant I tried it again, modified to make it more fun and easy, and I loved it. It still isn’t my best apparatus, but I don’t mind giving it a go every now and then.

As an adult gymnast you eventually get asked, and most of the time convinced, to help out a gymnastics club by coaching. In my case, I jumped at the idea. I loved the thought of passing on my newly re-found passion for the sport to kids. I ended up coaching at a really great club. It wasn’t the best organised club when I first joined but my coaching learning curve was partly aided by this organised-chaos. At first I got away with my inexperience because of the haphazard nature of the head coach. Around the time I was really finding my feet she left and a new, very experienced head coach took over. And she was even more supportive of the rest of the coaching team. Gymnastics clubs mostly consist of young girls as athletes and in hindsight this club was a really great example for these young girls we were coaching. The head coach and all but a few of the rest of the coaches were women. The committee, made up predominantly of parents, was overwhelmingly comprised of women. And after the original head coach left, it was a very well run club. It was a great example of strong and competent women guiding the future generation of women.

I work in engineering and as a female we’re often woefully underrepresented. One of the aspects of my coaching job that I never anticipated was encouraging young, impressionable girls to pursue a career in the science/engineering/technology field. One of the teenagers that I coached asked me lots of questions about going to university and my career in this field. She just asked me casual questions while we were stretching, or grabbing a drink or at other down-times during practice. It was something I had underestimated about kids. They’re so impressionable and curious and all they want is the chance to ask questions and discover from people they can relate to. I was so proud of this particular teenager when she decided to go into the university course that she really wanted – physics – and then even stepped out of her comfort zone further and went on an exchange to Scotland.

I stopped coaching at this club after a few years when I moved countries. I’ve since started coaching again at a community centre in the town that I work in. It’s a small gym that’s set up twice a week for the local kids to do recreational gymnastics. The group that I coach only comes once a week, so they don’t get a huge exposure to gymnastics or me as a coach, but it’s still great to see their improvement. The small group of kids is coached by me and one other woman, both of us have had experience doing gymnastics as kids ourselves. The motivation for this particular blog post was an observation I had between the other coach and two of the kids at our session the other night.

The sessions are in a ten-week block. The first week we had a group of ten girls ages 9-12 who all had some experience of gymnastics before. There were a couple of girls with challenging behaviour but overall they’re good kids with some real potential to improve their gymnastics. On the second week two boys turned up who’d been signed up after the first week. A few of the girls made murmurings about boys being in the class but I was hoping that some different personalities in the room might help those girls with challenging behaviour so I was excited.

When we started our warm-up there was equipment on the floor from the previous group and the other coach said “boys can you clear the floor of the equipment”. I immediately wanted to take back, or alter her request. So I also asked some of the girls clear certain pieces of equipment so that the two boys weren’t singled out. I mentioned to the other coach that we shouldn’t be singling out the boys. These boys are the same age as the girls, 9 to 12 years old. They aren’t any stronger than the girls as they’re still gangly pre-teen kids. They shouldn’t be expected to be strong, just as the girls shouldn’t be expected to not be strong, just based on their gender. It’s simple choices by us as adults that set up gender stereotypes for adulthood.

The boys and girls in the class all have the potential to accomplish the same things. They aren’t even teenagers yet so their bodies are essentially capable of the same things, and everyone is naturally different. Some (girls and boys) will naturally be stronger, some will be more flexible. Some will keep trying until they achieve something, some will get frustrated and give up. They all need positivity when they’re achieving something and encouragement when they’re struggling. These things aren’t based on gender. If we expect young girls to not be able to do something, we’re allowing them to give up before they’ve really tested their skills. And on the flip side, if we expect young boys to be able to do something that is outside of their ability we’re setting them up for a feeling of failure. Everyone should be given the same opportunities and have the same expectations. It shouldn’t be gender specific.

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