Something happens to girls when they hit their "tween" years. It's a painfully dramatic switch that seems to occur at that crucial moment they turn ten, eleven, twelve years old. After years and years of working with young female athletes, you'd think I'd be ready for it and yet it still never fails to shock me...one day they are nine and telling me they're going to rule the world and the next, they are ten and telling me they "CAN'T".
Last year, I started paying more attention to this phenomenon. I was coaching a large handful of girls all turning twelve and thirteen that same year. They were upper level gymnasts and all had been competing and training at my gym with me for several years. They were energetic, confident, smart, talented little girls who bounded into the gym every afternoon-- eager to train, eager to work, and eager to see what they could accomplish. They were polite, supportive of one another, respectful of me and my coaching, and the vibe in the gym---positive! Then, one day, it happened. One of them showed up wearing dark, black, thick eyeliner. The next day, another showed up with her hair falling carelessly over her eyes. And then, seemingly overnight, the conversation went from how quickly they could finish their workout and move on to elite skills to the boy that texted something to someone and now they don't like so and so because so and so kissed the other boy...etc, etc. My days went from spotting, teaching, and motivating to confiscating cell phones and writing rules up about makeup and appropriate workout gear. But even more worrisome was the shift in confidence. Suddenly, the very same girls who gloated the year before about how they could beat all the boys in their class at pushups and rope climbs in P.E. , were now telling me that they were embarrassed to have muscles! A couple of them even started slacking off during strength work because they claimed the boys thought they looked "fat" and "ugly". Wow.
It was discouraging and disappointing for me to watch these young girls fall prey to everything I DIDN'T stand for and had worked so hard to prevent in my gym. So I decided to look outside the box. I took a look at myself at that age and realized that of course, this change is nothing
new. Most of us go through this same dramatic shift in our preteen years, when the self-criticism creeps in and takes over. It's when the fearless, invincible child who can do ANYTHING, suddenly wakes up and NOTHING is same. Bodies are changing, hormones are fluctuating, and minds are racing and questioning everything about the world known before. Enter DOUBT.
One Saturday I decided to forgo normal practice at the gym and told the girls to meet me for a hike at one of our popular hiking spots in town. There was much moaning and groaning in the beginning...mostly about how early it was and how tired they were and how stupid they thought it was to have to wear running shoes with socks instead of flip flops. We got to the bottom of what some of the locals call "Hell's Hill"...an extremely difficult ascent that climbs nearly a quarter mile out of a small canyon. "Do we seriously have to hike up there?" they asked. "No." I said, "you have to RUN up there!" WHAT? Oh, but there was more. Once they got up to the top, I had something waiting for them. A challenge, of sorts.I handed out little notebooks and pens to each of them. On the first page of their notebook, I explained that they had to write down something they've always wanted to do, but were either afraid to try it or didn't think they could do it. Then, they had to leave the notebook at the top of the hill and walk back down to the base. At the bottom, they had to decide how to get back up to their notebook...and they could get up that hill ANY way that they wanted, except walk. They could run, cartwheel, crawl, hop, whatever...they just had to get there and get to their notebook. Once they got to the top, they had to write down another goal or task, head back down the hill and do it all over again for a total of FIVE ascents. At first there was apprehension, defiant remarks, whining, and an overall negative reaction to this challenge. But then it got interesting. They started to take it seriously! They got quiet, took their time thinking about what they were writing, and then got creative in the way they got to the top of the hill. One girl ran BACKWARDS up the hill, another did cartwheels, another sprinted. Regardless...they DID it. And though they
were ridiculously tired in the end, they were PROUD and INSPIRED. We talked about what kinds of things they had written...things like "skydiving", "ask a boy to the school dance", "swim in the ocean", "become a famous singer"...and the reasons that they were afraid to try these things. We talked about why getting up that hill to reach those "goals" was important in showing how possible it really is. "Did you think, at first that you'd ever be able to cartwheel the entire way up that hill?" No. But you DID. What's to stop you from anything else?
While it's true that these kinds of activities are so obviously crucial in reaching out and communicating with this age group, I realize more and more that we can ALL benefit from taking a look at what holds us back as adults from going after things we want in our lives. Self-DOUBT is something we all battle and the fear that accompanies the doubt might be even more prevalent as we get older and so set in our daily routines. I'm the first to admit...even as the self-proclaimed "Gutsy Girl" and adrenaline junkie, that I get nervous about change from time to time. And there are a LOT of things I want to do, but might be a little (or a lot) fearful to try. But here's the thing...I don't know how much time I have left on this earth. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. And I don't want something unpreventable to happen that will leave me REGRETFUL of not going after what I want. So, like my tween gymnasts, I wrote down some of those things I'd like to do. And RIGHT NOW I have all the potential to do these things. Nothing is stopping me. Except ME. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to whittle away at my list.
Where's YOUR list?