A Medal-Deserving Routine: Thoughts on the Coaching Relationship

Neviana Vladinova is currently one of the world's top rhythmic gymnasts. It has been amazing to watch Neviana grow and step out with even more risk and with more expression and show great class. But she competes in a sport where, much like in figure skating, somewhat subjective scores are assigned and where rules change often. I could not understand why she did not win a medal with ribbon during the Pesaro World Cup event in early April in Italy, but I would like to comment on the wonderful attitude her coach Branimira Markova has been showing.

Although gymnastics scoring has always been subjective, recently, it has become particularly difficult to predict how routines will be scored under the new Code of Points. The hardest part in gymnastics may not be finding someone talented and training her into a superb athlete, but actually motivating gymnasts who are already good to stay in the sport. I think that the desire to stay in the sport has to come from a lot more than the scoring and even the appreciation of the audience. You need support from the people who see how hard you work and those are, primarily, the coaches. What you learn from a coach is more than technique, of course, it is attitude. That's why I find it particularly encouraging to see Neviana's coach smile next to her and remain very optimistic even when their expectations may not have been met.

Of course, all gymnasts work very hard and we know, every single time, that only 3 gymnasts will get medals. But disappointment may come not from the actual placement among the top 8; the greatest disappointment comes when you feel that you have not met the expectations of those who spend their time and energy discovering and improving your skills. Coaches are already in the position of pointing out mistakes while remaining encouraging and supportive. That is already difficult enough. But to have to explain why a certain score is lower even when the performance was clean? How does one approach this issue without feeling pushed down into a feeling of helplessness? You can't stand in front of someone and tell her she made a mistake when she has not. But to have to tell her that even when there are no mistakes, there is still no recognition?

I think the best way to address this might be to look at the routines realistically, but also to see the coaching relationship as one where the gymnast should at all times feel how much you believe in her. How we show such belief and support is different for each person, but sometimes an encouraging smile and some silence feels stronger than words. While every competition is a new chance to do better, with human relationships, we sometimes do not get many chances to be truly understanding and supportive of each other. If you miss the moment where you really need to show care or if you overreact at a difficult time, it is hard to rebuild a feeling of trusting optimism later. So, you can drop the ball in a routine and do it better next time, but, in a human relationship, dropping the ball once may make it impossible to recover.  To remain calm at the right moment and to consider what to say next is crucial because, even if the scoring at one competition is not objective, you still want the gymnast to step into the next day of training with confidence.