Gymnastics, and Falling

I’m not normally interested in watching sports, but I have always loved women’s gymnastics.

Some of it is the story, understanding the arcs by knowing where these women came from, what they’ve faced, and the real drama is that you can know the part of each gymnast’s story and how it relates to the rest, and so every loss and gain is charged and bittersweet.

Some of it is envy and awe, with a twinge of nostalgia. I only had a brief stint in gymnastics when I was younger, since it was apparent early on that I wasn’t committed to building the necessary arm strength, and also that I would be too tall. No matter, I happily moved into acrobatics, but I am also really competitive, and that part of me is drawn to that aspect of gymnastics.

It always strikes me, though, that one of the things announcers always talk about with high-level gymnastics isn’t skill level or even artistry, but mental toughness. That it’s not just about disciplining the body, it’s about disciplining the mind. Focus.

It seems self-evident, but then you see a gymnast that you know has done this skill on the uneven bars thousands of times perfectly, so many times she’s probably dreamt it, and yet somehow in competition it goes wrong, she falls. There’s that flash of surprise, like she can’t believe that actually just happened, but quickly hidden; there’s no time to dwell because she has to get back up on that bar and finish the routine. Muscle memory, pushing through.

Yao Jinnan at 2013 Worlds

Yao Jinnan at 2013 Worlds

And it’s the bars, so it’s over pretty quickly, but more often the fall is on the beam, that great equalizer. Some gymnasts get back up on the beam after a fall and get through the rest of the routine with only a few minor balance checks, but more often they’re so intimidated by the apparatus, confidence shaken enough that the balance checks are too big to recover from, and no matter how tightly their toes grip that beam they can’t push through the routine.

Aliya Mustafina at 2013 Worlds

Aliya Mustafina at 2013 Worlds

Is the difference really toughness? Is it an ability to focus down and see only what is right in front of you that very instant, to not dwell on the past? How do you ignore something that happened moments before, or if you let it push you, can’t that adversely affect your performance too? How can you prepare for that, because training in the gym is never going to be the same as competition?

I think I could get through the routine. But in an all-around competition, there’s a next routine, and gymnasts have to somehow put egregious errors behind them and come back from that. Some can; others spiral.

But if you fall in a world championship, that memory is with you forever. No matter where you go, you’ll always have that. I can’t imagine any gymnast thinking, “Oh, well I did okay on the next one, so that one fall doesn’t count, doesn’t matter to me anymore.” Especially in gymnastics, where perfectionism is practically a requirement in the sport.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe gymnasts are better adjusted to failure. But I think that’s really where the toughness comes in: the knowledge that you have, sometimes literally, only one shot to seize everything you want, and only you can mess it up. That the odds are in favor of reality never matching either your training or your dreams. That no matter how good you were, someone was better, or other people thought they were better. That you will have to live with that one moment for the rest of your life.

And going out there and doing it anyway. 

On a completely unrelated note, as much as it can frustrate me, one of the most wonderful things about the writing process is that you have the chance to edit.

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