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Personal Development: The Worst Day Of My Coaching Career

By Dave Tilley

In the 12 years that I have been coaching gymnastics, I have been lucky to experience some incredible moments. Like when one of our gymnasts hits a huge routine at Regionals and qualifies herself to Nationals, causing everyone to erupt in celebration. Or the tear-jerking moment when a graduating senior tells a room packed full of parents and young gymnasts – “I am proud of the person I have become thanks to our gym, the coaches, and gymnastics as a whole.”

In contrast to this, I have also experienced some truly awful moments of regret.

Today I would like to share the lowest moment of my coaching career, in an effort to help you not make the same mistakes I did.

It came when I received a phone call from another one of our soon to be graduating seniors. Through her tears, she told me that an MRI had just revealed two severe stress fractures in her back, that she was quitting gymnastics, she would no longer be pursuing her dream of competing in college, which she had been working her entire life for.

Her parents had made her go to the doctor because along with the chronic back pain she was ” just trying to push through”, she started having shooting leg pains that made her unable to drive, sit in school, or put her socks on.

After deciding with her family that gymnastics was too dangerous for her long-term health, she would now be changing schools so her family could save money.

I remember literally not being able to formulate words. Adrenaline surged through my body, and I instantly felt like I wanted to throw up. After finishing the conversation, I hung the phone up and stared blankly at my computer for 25 minutes. Every negative feeling and negative thought you could imagine ran through my head.

How did this happen?

Do her parents hate me?

Am I an awful coach?

The worst part? I was also her Physical Therapist. This happened the year after finishing my doctoral work in PT, when I was in my first year of both coaching and treating full time. Not only was I responsible for training decisions that contributed to her fractures, I was the one who was supposed to be fixing her fractures.

Now there were many factors over the years that likely accumulated to her career-ending back injury.

But one thing is for sure – the toxic combination of lacking self-awareness and a massive ego blinded me to see the clear red flags that her back pain was not just “part of gymnastics”.

Thankfully, upon years of reflection and reverse engineering that terrible situation, the injury rate at our gym is fractional compared to the rate that it was when this occurred. Accidents still happen, and we do have gymnasts who battle lower back issues, but they are much less severe and come with less collateral damage.

Here are 5 valuable coaching lessons that had I known then, her and I may have had a much happier 6-month end to her gymnastics career.

1. Ego Is The Enemy

Credit to Ryan Holiday, who wrote the incredible book Ego Is the Enemy. I have come to realize that my large ego as a younger coach likely caused hundreds of gymnasts I worked with to not reach their full potential, or to get hurt. During my current travels, many people tell me that they are impressed with my work ethic and humility. Well, now you know where it comes from. It took this gut-wrenching experience for me to realize I was, unfortunately, making some training decisions based on how I would look, not how our gymnasts would feel. I now try to weave humility into my moral fabric every day. I strongly recommend that coaches who are just starting out do the same.

2. Embrace Reality, and Deal With It

The gymnast I mentioned had months of warning signs that I chose to not act upon. Again, my ego was allowing me to believe that I should not acknowledge the situation because it would make me look bad. Being a coach with gymnasts who have back injuries isn’t a great look for a PT who is supposed to be an expert in preventing back injuries.

The take away is this: fires don’t turn to ashes just because you chose to look away. They turn into raging wildfires.

The sooner you look at your problems in the eyes, the better.

3. Do The Harder Thing, Especially When It’s The Harder Thing To Do.

I know more than anyone else, as a coach it is incredibly uncomfortable and anxiety provoking to really look at the things that terrify you. I was scared to tell this gymnast “I don’t know”, I was scared of what people would say or think about me, and I was scared to own up to the reality of her injury progressing. If I had followed Steps 1 and 2 early and admitted there was a problem, her and I would have had a much happier 6-month ending to her gymnastics career.

4. The “Ivory Tower” Is a Lonely and Dangerous Place

The Ivory Tower is an expression for people who think they are better than others and possess a sense of entitlement. During this time period of coaching, I thought that I was special because I had a doctorate and knew a lot about the medical field. All this did was create resentment in the coaches and gymnasts I worked with, rightfully so.

When I was spewing out big medical words to sound impressive, they would roll their eyes at me and gossip behind my back. The only thing I gained from living in my big Ivory Tower was a more painful fall from grace when I finally opened my eyes. Now, I try my best to practice empathy and hear our people’s point of view whenever possible. I openly tell our gymnasts, coaching staff, and the parents they have full permission to call me out if I’m acting like a jerk (so long as it’s delivered professionally).

5. Learn, or Lose

I saved this for last because it really encompasses all the points above. From the more technical learning (new drills, new business tactics, how to spot a skill) to the more “meta” learning (self-awareness, reflection, perspective taking) there should never be a day you don’t sponge up new knowledge. Even if it’s about something you have done for 10 years and could do in your sleep. There may be a better way, a new way, or a more efficient way.

In our current age, technology changes at a blistering pace and new ideas are surfacing every day. Gymnastics is no different.

If you don’t physically build in time for learning in your calendar, you’re doing yourself and the gymnasts you work with a huge disservice. I didn’t have the tools I needed to help this gymnast, and I paid the price. Now, I block one hour of continuing education first thing every morning.

The Problem with Gymnastics Education

Building off number 5, I feel people’s frustration with not having the time, access, or money for new gymnastics education based on the actual problems they face working in gymnastics. Everyone in gymnastics tells me that trying to find new information online is exhausting at best, and when they do find something it is either impossible to implement during practice or they are unsure about the science behind it.

To solve this problem, I built a brand new online gymnastics platform called The Hero Lab that gives people monthly gymnastics webinars based on requested topics, a discussion forum to get help with their everyday struggles, and an international network of gymnastics professionals. I want people to have all the tools they need to be happier during training, help their gymnasts, and build incredible gymnastics cultures, right at their finger tips.

Also by Dave Tilley:

Does Coaching Style Increase Injury Risk In Performance?

Body Science: Are Oversplits Bad?

Published in collaboration with Shift: Movement Science and Gymnastics Education
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