23
Feb
12

by a hair’s breadth

There are some sports where the margin of victory is not as clear-cut as a point total, a defined score or even as simple as whether the competitor is still standing (vs.a knockout). Sometimes scores, like in gymnastics, are subjective or based on judgement, and that judgement can be the difference between a Wheaties box or oblivion. Sometimes the judges have a difficult time of assessing a performance especially when the competitors are so close in ability or difficulty. Judges are human and their job is ridiculously hard. Barring intentional deceit or malicious intention (which is rare) gymnastics judges do a pretty good job.
The whole sport (specifically Gymnastics of course) is based on who performed better on that day, in those conditions with those judges under that circumstance. THAT allows quite a few variables. There are so many attached to a competition that is evaluated in this manner. Was the gymnast having a bad day? Did she have a cold or her period? Did she fight with her boyfriend last night? (I love coaching teenagers). Was the equipment suitable or comfortable? (Kids complain about slippery or wobbly beams, stiff bars, springy bars, hard floors, sticky vault tables, etc.) Was the judge well rested? Did she get her coffee before the meet? Does she hate your leotard? The variables go on endlessly and so when a gymnast defines their success by a score they have to take into account all of these variables. These factors are mitigated at the higher levels because judges are vetted by experience and the minor distractions like boyfriends become less significant or able to affect performance. There are still variables and outcomes often decided by a hair’s breadth are affected by them.
One of the variables that can be a factor is the pressure placed on gymnasts from outside sources. When I watch international gymnastics or college meets I get frustrated that the commentators always address the things that are affected by the variables. When a gymnast performs a skill in competition it is because they trained it and it was deemed safe and appropriate by the coach and gymnasts alike. When it causes a fall, or an extra step it is more a factor of the other variables than of a decision on the performance. During a performance no gymnast thinks “I should crash this skill or take an extra step.” But following the routine, the interviewer always plays on the mistake. This isn’t limited to TV commentators ar world levels, I see the same focus on the negative from parents at Level 3 and 4 meets. I believe that keeping forward focused is essential to future success for all athletes (and all people in general) and dwelling on the falls makes our futures less likely to be successful. To experience success in anything people build upon experience, trail and error. For a gymnast, the formula is simple: Perform, Assess, Reevaluate, Train and then repeat. The problem lies in when someone, often outside the process, blows one of these steps out of proportion and it causes the whole cycle to go off kilter.
I have seen great athletes get piled on by the press and their shoulders loaded with pressure to perform differently than they did at a given meet. More often than not, the outcome is stalled progress or an all out meltdown. I suggest that competitors be separated from the media barrage following a competition like footballers do. After a game the media rarely speaks with the guys who didn’t do well and the main address is given by the coach in a post game follow-up. Football got something right!
The truth is one of the values of experiencing competition is that athletes at all levels learn to deal with the pressures before, after and during the game/meet. That training is beneficial for other pressure situations that kids will experience in life; from giving speeches to job interviews and more as long as we keep the winning (and losing) in perspective.

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