The Developmental Pillars Every Coach Needs to Know

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Gymnastics Ontario Congress. Usually, I stick to my preschool world, but I wanted to change it up, so I went to a lecture all about how to teach release moves on bars. Yeah, I went WAAAY outside my preschool world!

While I did get some actual preschool ideas, the best take away was that the practitioner referred to his gymnasts as  ‘children’ and ‘child’. Normally, when I go to these events, the kids are referred to as ‘gymnasts’ or ‘athletes’. I liked that this high-level coach was calling these girls what they actually were, first and foremost: children.

After all, you’re not just a coach, right? You might also be a gardener, student, jelly bean addict, jedi ninja or a folk opera rockstar. There are many layers to you, just like there are many layers to your gymnasts.

If you’re coaching preschool, you have to coach the whole child and not just the gymnast. Gymnast’s are little sponges, absorbing new learning all the time. If you overlook the whole child and see just the gymnast, you’ll miss out on an awesome opportunity to nurture other parts of their development while they’re in the gym with you. The whole child means all aspects of the child’s developmental stages and personality, not just the physical development (the ‘gymnast’ part!)

If you remain focused on developing your children’s gymnastics skills in isolation, you miss a huge opportunity to influence the other parts of their development. If you open your coaching up to incorporate other areas of development, your gymnasts will thrive in your program (and out of it!)

There are four major areas of development to consider when coaching the whole child:

1. Cognitive

Cognitive is a fancy way of saying ‘thinking’ or ‘brain development’. The children in your classes are all at different stages of brain development. You should be using a ‘whole brain’ approach in your classes—incorporating the left (reasoning) and right (creative) sides of the brain in your activities.

When modeling what to do on each station, talk through your actual thinking process. This is called a ‘think aloud’. It may feel silly at first, but it is important for your children to hear what you’re thinking as you’re doing gymnastics.

It may sound something like this:

“I’m thinking that I’m going to stay on this balance beam the whole way while I do my butterfly arms up and down”

[OOPS! You pretend to fall off]

“Oh no! I fell off, but I know that gymnasts get back on and try again.” [Get back on the beam and finish]

Sharing your thought process through a think aloud opens up an opportunity for your gymnasts to mimic your process when they fall off of the beam. This way, kids can begin using the same thought process when they fall off of beam. It teaches them about perseverance (getting back up when you fall down) and shows them it’s okay to not to get it perfect the first time out.

2. Social/Emotional

Children have a massive amount of emotional growth happening in early childhood. They are learning how to manage, label and work through new emotions every day. Socially, children are experimenting with how to make friends, manage friendships and what to do when conflict arises.

Allow your kiddos some room to experiment with emotion in class. After all, they’re undoubtedly feeling a range of emotions when they’re with you. From separating from parents (anxiety) to trying something new (fear, excitement), to off the charts happiness (PIT TIME!!), they’ll likely feel it all very deeply. Help them work through their emotion.

You can also tap into their emotional development by getting them excited about new moves, warm ups and themes. This is as simple as over-exaggerating your teaching in a funny way (“I know this bear LOOOOOOOOVES to eat, so I’m going to feed him my toe”), or ‘hyping’ them up before they try something new (“ARE YOU READY TO TUMBLLLLLLLLLLE?”)

3. Language

The first three years of life are the most intense for language acquisition. Babies begin to pick up language patterns at 6 months old. Think about babies who babble in ways that sound like actual conversations!

However, the rate at which children learn language varies with each child. Some kiddos are not yet very verbal, but they listen to everything you’re saying. Others are chatty and will tell stories for days even though they appear to never listen.

The interesting thing about language in the gym is that...you introduce new words, moves and terms each week. Before a child has entered the gym, they likely haven’t heard the word “tuck position” or the term “push tall through your shoulders!”

To teach your gymnasts the ‘foreign language’ of a gym, make sure to use a ton of modeling, repetition and dedication. It will likely take your kids many weeks of hearing a new word in order for them to apply it and use it.

4. Movement

Alright, you’ve got this one covered, right?!

Even though movement development is kinda your jam, keep in mind that each age group has different movement milestones to hit every year. For example, two year olds may still be jumping using one foot more than the other. This is totally normal and by the end of the year, they will likely be on their way to jumping with two feet at the same time.

Be sure to keep movements within the developmental range for each age group. When you step out of the developmental range and ask a child to do something outside of their developmental ability, it is likely behavior problems will come up because the child is overwhelmed, scared, bored (what you’ve asked is too easy), or perplexed. Work within each child’s range and you will hit the preschool movement and challenge their sweet spot.

Children First, Gymnasts Second

It’s easy to view the children enrolled in your program as gymnasts first, children second. But, if you are working with children, it is your responsibility to serve them at the highest level. To do this, you have to begin to recognize and expand on their developmental abilities. This includes using the developmental milestones when planning curriculum, professional development and coaching.

For preschool coaches, taking a more holistic approach to coaching where you see a child first and a gymnast second will open the door for better coaching, better gymnastics and a more outstanding experience for the kids in your program.