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What Gymnastics Taught Me

I Was a Gymnast For Over a Decade — Here's How Striving For a Perfect 10 Taught Me to Embrace Imperfection

Gymnastics Taught me

Gymnastics is all about striving for perfection. I loved and still love it, but it's kind of like riding a merry-go-round in the hopes that you'll actually get somewhere: the task at hand is near impossible because the sport is a) subjective and b) set on tearing you down when you perform. With judges searching for the smallest of deductions — a flexed foot, the slightest wobble, a tiny toe shuffle on a landing you swear you stuck — it's hard to look at yourself as anything but imperfect. It took me some time after leaving gymnastics behind my freshman year of college, but eventually, with some retrospection, I realized just how much the sport taught me about seeking the unattainable.

With the exception of the elite level where scoring surpassed the perfect 10 in 2006 and different leagues that have varying rules (I competed in the Jersey Optional Gymnastics Association, or JOGA, for many years, where your numbers tended to be lower because you scored up instead of deducting down), a 10.00 is most gymnasts' idealized number. And sure, you can get a perfect 10 — Katelyn Ohashi has received a handful of them this NCAA season — but another judge out there could deem that your perfect 10 was actually a few tenths lower. Plus, there's this constant pressure to do better even if your scores indicate you've reached your peak; it's a lot to handle.

"I guarantee you, if you talk to Katelyn Ohashi, she'll say, 'I know what I'm going to be doing when I go back to practice on Monday to make this even better,'" Jennifer Roitman-Seamans, MA, a coach in the field of sports psychology with over 20 years of experience supporting gymnasts and other athletes through mental blocks and performance anxiety, told POPSUGAR. "There's always something to strive for. And while the judges might say you're perfect, you might ask yourself, 'OK, well, if I'm up here and on top, what do I need to do to keep myself up here?'"

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I get that. Throughout a decade of competitive gymnastics, I would always be the last person to finish my conditioning at the end of practice because I needed to do every single leg lift, hollow hold, and pull-up exactly right or I couldn't move on. If I fell on beam at a competition (ask any gymnast and she'll tell you it's almost always the easiest skills, like the dreaded full turn, you'll mess up), my whole world would seem to come crashing down. It was hard for me to stop beating myself up enough to focus on the little successes I might have accomplished — the successes I couldn't see because failure was too crippling. Then, it translated to other parts of my life. I held myself to almost impossible standards in school (an A- was an F) and at home (a fib to my parents meant I'd punish myself for weeks with guilt). It's safe to say that, while the gifts gymnastics gave me — structure, persistence, confidence — have stuck with me to this day, the self-deprecating perfectionist I'd been sculpted into was someone I needed to shed for the better.

Jennifer tells her clients to try to focus on success outside of numbers. "They have to get a certain score to qualify for States or for Regionals or for whatever it is, so I'm not telling them to not think about scores," she said. "But if they put forth their best effort and they have a great attitude regardless of what happens, then their performance is going to get better. And a better performance means a better score." Jennifer wants gymnasts to remind themselves that "any progress is good progress." Life, she stated, is about challenges, but at the same time, setting goals that you know you can achieve is satisfying. "So when somebody is feeling like they're a failure, I'll question them and say, 'Well if you didn't fail, what did you learn? If you're not failing something, how are you going to make something better?'" she explained, adding that she wants gymnasts to look at these failures as perfect because they're able to grow from their mistakes.

Jennifer continued, "Even in failure, you can pull from that what we call 'perfect' because it's perfect for the situation. Even though it's not great, we can turn it into something good because it's a lesson we're taught for the next turn, a lesson we're taught for the next day." And that's what I learned looking back: that practice makes progress, not "perfect," and that's OK. Chasing a 10.00 in gymnastics (and in life) may result in positive self-discipline, but it's more about how you strive for your successes without becoming caught up in the demand of that goal. Even still, like Jennifer said best, there's perfection in everything you do; you just need to get out of your own way to find it.

Image Source: Getty / vgajic
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