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Leading Introverts into the Light
By Lainy Carslaw

Some coaches make the mistake of thinking that confidence and presentation are natural gifts awarded only to those with good genes, and cast off the others as too shy or awkward to ever be a beautiful performer or strong competitor. But just like learning a back-flip or a cartwheel, many eager and receptive athletes can learn and we shouldn’t give up on the shy or introverted gymnasts.

A few years ago, on the television show, So you Think You Can Dance? one of the contestants shared a story that helped shape her career. As a young dancer, she had told her instructor she was too afraid to go on stage. “I’m just to shy,” she had said.

“Do you want to be a dancer?” her instructor had asked.

“More than anything.”

“Then being shy can’t be an option.”

To some, this might seem like radical advice. Isn’t it considered bad form to tell a child that she can’t be who she is? Or to try to change her? Well, yes. Maybe. Unless her character traits are preventing her from being the best gymnast she can be. And most likely, if she is shy, nervous, or doubtful—then they are. Bottom line: you will not be a good performer if the audience senses that you are nervous or shy. Is it okay to feel these things? Sure. You just have to learn how to hide them.

Here’s an appropriate saying, “Fake it until you make it.” We teach our gymnasts to act confident in difficult situations because if they can at least act it, then maybe they might start believing it. If they act nervous or defeated, then they might believe that, too. And if we, as coaches are nervous for a gymnast when they are about to compete or try a new skill, we can’t show our doubt or voice our apprehension, we have to say, “you can do it,” or, “you got this.”

These are three simple words that can take us far in this life. You. Got. This. We should try to buy into them and the more we practice them, the more likely we will.

How can you practice confidence, you might ask? How can you teach presentation? Try to start small:
  1. Have your quiet gymnasts assert themselves by asking for a spot from across the gym. They may need to shout to get your attention but this is good. They are learning to speak up.
  2. Ask a question and make all your athletes share their opinion. Be sure to validate them for their answers. It only takes one derogatory comment to send a shy snail back into her shell. Lead her out by showing her a safe space to share.
  3. Go through easy presentation exercises. Example: Take three steps with your chin up and hit and hold a beautiful champion stretch with your eyes off the floor. Or, do three kicks into a sharp pose—don’t forget to end with a smile. Starting with basic steps will help them implement presentation into their own routines.
  4. Have them practice a mental routine in stressful situations including slow, deep breaths and positive cue words, like You Got This. Fear might still be there, but positive talk will help suppress it and keep them focused on their goal. If they want to succeed, they will have to allow their desires trump their fears.
When it comes down to it, confidence and assertiveness are not just things that will help them succeed as athletes. They are characteristics that will help them compete for a job, handle themselves with calmness in stressful situations, speak up to make things better, or create change when others around them are too shy or afraid to use their voice. We need to be teaching our athletes that if they can learn to harness their own power and shine their own light, it will be a beacon for others to bask in, well into their adult lives.

And as far as you as a coach: you are going to have to do things that scare you, too. (If you are an introvert, these things can be extra nerve-racking.) You might need to give a speech in front of a large audience, you might get asked to present at National Congress, or you might have to coach an athlete who is up last on beam at Nationals. All of these situations involve confidence, self-belief, and bravery. Even if you don’t feel those things—act like you do. Be a positive example for your gymnasts. Don’t let fear or doubt hold you back. Put a smile on your face. Tell yourself, I got this. Puff your chest out, just a little and lift your chin with pride. Hopefully, you’re a good actor and no one will even know the difference—not even you.

Lainy Carslaw is an essayist, fiction writer, and gymnastics coach who lives in the North Hills of Pittsburgh with her husband and three sons. She has been coaching full time and helping run the Pittsburgh Northstars Gymnastics team for the last twenty of its fifty years in existence. She holds an MFA from Chatham University, a poetry degree from the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of Unexpected Light: essays on gymnastics, motherhood, writing, and never giving up.