“​If you are a gymnast, you have strong character. The gymnastics shut down has taken away plenty. Why allow it to influence or take away your character, too?”

Robert Andrews addresses turning the stress, pressure and uncertainty of the effects of COVID-19 on athletes into positive tools for strong character-building and an optimistic outlook for the future.

Photos by Lloyd Smith

Building Character in an Uncertain Time

By Robert B. Andrews M.A.

The COVID 19 Pandemic has literally turned the gymnastics world upside down. Gyms are closed. And with that comes extraordinary loss. 

*Loss of state, regional, national and international competitions. 

*Loss of a highly structured schedule of training, school, recovery, sleep and competition. 
*Loss of a goal-directed life.
*Loss of a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
*Loss of extreme challenges on a daily basis.
*Loss of connection to teammates, friends and coaches.
*Loss of family activities centered around gymnastics.
*Loss of the sense of community that goes with the sport. 
*Loss of the identity that comes with being a gymnast.
 
With so much loss it would be easy to just pull up the covers and stay in bed all day. Texting, Instagram and Netflix could easily become the norm. If that becomes a gymnast’s new normal, then they will not only lose physical strength, conditioning, flexibility and gymnastics skills, they will lose mental and emotional skills as well.

One of my favorite quotes goes like this: “If it is happening now, on some level I am ready for it. How can I grow from this experience?”

When faced with stress, upset and loss, we either react or respond. Reacting is an involuntary change in our mindset, emotions, behavior, physiology and personality. We don’t really have control over it. It just happens. Responding means we decide how we deal with the stress and uncertainty we are facing. It is a key strength necessary in building character. By mindfully responding, we decide how we handle stress mentally, emotionally, behaviorally and physiologically.

A more positive approach to the shutdown of gymnastics is to look at this as a time to develop character. Gymnasts, perhaps more than athletes in any other sport, have strong character. Character can be defined as the mental, emotional and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. 

It takes strong character to grind away at the gym day after day, week after week, month after month. It takes strong character to work for weeks to add a small upgrade to a routine. It takes strong character to overcome stress, injuries, struggles, failure and disappointment. 

If you are a gymnast, you have strong character. The gymnastics shut down has taken away plenty. Why allow it to influence or take away your character, too?

Stress and pressure can have serious effects on personality and character. Think of it this way: stress and pressure push down on an individual’s “best self.” In the absence of strong character, less desirable aspects of one’s personality come to the surface. The “best self” goes away and the “struggling self” takes over. It is all about how we respond to stress and loss. 

If a gymnast is strong, brave, and resilient on a “normal day” their personality might change in reaction to the stress and pressure they are currently feeling being away from their sport. They might become angry, controlling, critical. They might lose drive and motivation. These changes are a direct result of the stress and pressure associated with the losses I mentioned from gymnastics being shut down. 

There are two major sources of stress impacting gymnasts who are at home and not going to the gym.

  1. Fear and anxiety about an uncertain future. All of us are experiencing fear and anxiety about our futures. Gymnasts, coaches, parents and gym owners worry about the impact the shutdown has had and will have on their lives, families, careers and businesses. 
  2. Unmet needs specific to one’s personality. We all have distinctive ways of getting our needs met. I call this “filling our tanks.” This means engaging in activities, routines and relationships that energize us and bring out our passion. Some people love social interaction and connection. Others like leadership, taking charge and being in command. Being a good friend and teammate and making sure everyone is happy is important to others. And there are some who like to create order and structure in their environment and world. 

With the shutdown of gymnastics, these two critical sources of stress can take a tremendous toll on us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Unless we respond to these stressors in ways that build character. 

I have a challenge for each of you:

  • What are the five strongest character traits you utilize every day in the gym to help you be a successful gymnast, teammate and friend? 
  • What qualities do you exhibit that allow you to be coachable? 
  • What traits do you possess that allow you to get to the gym on the days you don’t want to go? 

Write the five traits down.

When I do this exercise with gymnasts, I usually hear traits and qualities like courage, resilience, discipline, passion, focus, eagerness to learn, love for my teammates and coaches, the ability to have fun and creativity.

Now, take these five strengths and traits and come up with creative ways to put these traits to work in your life now! 

Last week, I spoke with a gymnast who was having a hard time getting out of bed. She had lost all motivation and drive. Two of her strengths were the love of competition and making training and competition fun. She came up with the idea of having a daily jump rope challenge with her brother, who is also an athlete. I spoke with this girl’s mother a few days ago and she said her daughter is so happy. She is getting in better shape. She is finding creative ways to get better at jumping rope. She is having fun competing and training with her brother. Needless to say, she is no longer just laying in bed. She put her strengths to work for her and it completely changed her reaction to missing gymnastics. 

I spoke to another gymnast who has a love of learning. He loves being in the gym and challenging himself to learn new skills and effective ways to train. His parents set up a call with me because he seemed down. We talked about ways he can put his love of learning to work in his life away from gymnastics. He loves history and got to work exploring areas of history that excite and inspire him. Another one of his strengths is being a caring teammate. He set up a Zoom group with his teammates. They talk throughout the week to maintain their connections with each other and hold each other accountable to their training schedules. 

We Are Given Stress Until We Master That Stress

When we are facing stressful situations and experiences in our lives, we can shut down, close ourselves up in our rooms, watch hours of TV, get angry and frustrated. Or, we can respond to this stress in ways that help  us build character. 

I hope you choose to take this time to build character. The mental and emotional toughness you develop now will help you beyond measure when it is time to get back in the gym.  

 

 

In the spring and fall of 2016, Inside Gymnastics spoke with Robert Andrews, founder and director of The Institute of Sports Performance about athletes gaining a mental edge for peak performance. The interview appeared in our December 2016 issue.

During the summer of 2019 and early part of 2020, we revisited the conversation and asked new questions. Part 1 of that interview can be found in our July/August 2019 issue. Part 2 addresses SafeSport and USA Gymnastics working to ensure the safety of the athletes, and changes Andrews believes need to be made to ensure all athletes at every level of the sport thrive to become healthy, successful adults. Part two can be found in our March/April 2020 issue.

 

Robert Andrews works with athletes and coaches to maximize athletic performance, and teams and sports organizations to build championship sports cultures. He specializes in helping athletes return to play after suffering serious sports related injuries. And has worked with Olympic Gold Medalists Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez, and Olympic Silver and Bronze Medalist Danell Leyva. He also works with Olympians and Olympic hopefuls in track & field, men’s and women’s gymnastics, trampoline, swimming, judo, fencing, boxing, and figure skaters from seven different countries.

 

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