The Lure of the Elite

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Recently we've experienced quite a detour along the comfortable road we had been traveling.  It's been not a little distressing at times, as detours so often are.  I'll start with the dance detour.

You might remember our plan about a year and a half ago, to help Honour set goals for her Highland dancing.  This had been coming along well.  She had come within two weeks of reaching her graduating-to-intermediate-level goal, which was still great, and she managed her own personal goal of winning a trophy, as you might have seen here

Last fall saw a bit of a stall with dance, as she began to have pain in her feet, just after reaching intermediate level.  I was suspicious that it was due to all the new dances she had to learn for intermediate and the different stylings they employed.  As the end of the summer neared, we decided to get some help as the pain was not going away.  Honour's teacher recommended an osteopath in Hamilton and so we went to see him...2 appointments later, I was not impressed and nowhere near convinced that this was helping.  She took a couple weeks off and it wasn't any better.  The family doctor had thought it was likely plantar faciitis, so next I tried a massage therapist in town who was also nearly done her osteopath work.  I liked her a lot and Honour had about 6 sessions, this time taking more time off--I hadn't felt that the previous break was nearly enough for her body to heal. She was off for well over a month this time and went back just before Christmas.  Physically, things seemed improved.  Just in time for the mental side of things to plummet....

Honour has always been my sensitive one.  Add to this, a teacher who tends towards the 'no-nonsense' style of teaching and you have a recipe for occasional rough spots.  Usually when Honour came home from dance class bummed because her work wasn't noticed, or she was reprimanded unfairly, I would encourage her to toughen up and deal with it.  A fact of life.
However, one night in February proved to be that famous breaking straw.  I won't go into details, but she came home more than bummed...fighting tears (and sometimes losing) and distraught until far after her bedtime.  I decided that a face-to-face with the teacher was needed.  A few days later, I stopped by her house to get a sense of the situation from her perspective.  And I learned that sensitive or not, sometimes you need to stand up for your kid and remove them from a situation beyond their ability to handle.

At first we considered another studio and contacted a couple teachers.  Over the weekend that followed however, Honour allowed her mind to consider an exciting prospect...a new activity.  She asked a few days later if she could try swimming instead of dance.  She'd done it for nearly 5 years...I realized that it was really not a terrible thing for her to try out a new sport.
So I looked into a couple clubs in Hamilton and she tried them out.  One club won out for a few reasons and now she's been going to a once a week 60 minute practice and really enjoying it.

I already look nostalgically at her kilt and Aboyne costume in my closet...and at her dancing pictures and videos.  Maybe she'll go back sometime...maybe she won't.  But I'm trusting that God is behind this move and accepting that he is perhaps finished using dance in her life to accomplish his purposes. She's got nice strong legs for swimming now!

This all might have been a little easier to manage if a similar thing hadn't been happening with Verity at the gym, at nearly the same time.

Last summer/fall marked the start of Verity's 6th year in gymnastics.  She would have been 4 years old when she started with a one hour daytime class once per week.  I remember how quickly she picked up all the beginner skills and each year after that saw her progressing quickly through the rec and pre-competitive classes.  She tried out for the competitive stream at some point...I can't remember quite when, and with no difficulty started the longer classes. By the time we moved out of Hamilton, she was going once a week for a 2 or 3 hour class.  It sounds a little long, but they always stopped for a significant break (often I sent essentially a meal for Verity to eat halfway through) and considering that they had to fit work on 4 elements (beam, bars, floor and vault) I could see why it took so long.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013.  We had moved Verity to a gym closer to our new home and she had made the transition well.  She had a nice group of friends all around her age (8 years) and level of skill, and she was up to 3 practices a week for 4 hours a shot. Again..sounds like a lot compared to your average childhood activity that meets once per week for an hour...but having been involved in this sport now for 5 years, I knew that the amount of time Verity was spending was nothing compared to gymnasts at the provincial or national level...or beyond. 18 to 24 hours a week was not unheard of, and if Verity actually went as far as Olympic level, she'd easily be training as much as your average part or even full time job. I know, Olympics? Sounds a bit crazy...but I wasn't about to underestimate my middle born daughter...she has a competitive streak a mile wide, and had confidence and fearlessness in the gym to match.  Her coaches were confident of national level competition in the next few years.

By the next summer, she was up to 18 hours and we were looking at a total of 9 competitions for the following season, including 3 provincial qualifiers.  The first was scheduled for early December. She now trained with a small group of girls who were anywhere from 2 to 4 years older than her.

About 2 weeks before this, Verity came home from the gym to tell me that she'd fallen while on the beam.  Just the thought of this made my toes curl.  She seemed fine however, and hadn't seriously injured least not physically.  I called her coach and got the low-down on what had happened.  She'd been attempting a move on the beam that had her reaching backwards (not sure which, she had a few backwards moves on the beam at this point) and that was when she'd fallen. Her coach explained that she'd given her a bit of time to process and deal with it, sit out for a bit, try the move on the floor, and then slowly got her back up on the beam.  It seemed like a good strategy.
But it didn't work.
By the time the qualifier rolled around, Verity's routines had had to be altered.  Her coaches removed a few elements that she was now too scared to try.  She was developing a block.  We assumed time would heal this, and that by the next qualifier in February, that she'd likely be back to "normal".
But it didn't happen.
She went off to an invitational in January and had better results than the qualifier, bringing home a few medals.  She was thrilled with this and I was sure it would kickstart her back into her usual fearless self at the gym.
But it did not.
We reached February and the second qualifier.  With each day that passed, Verity became more and more distraught.  Each drive home from the gym was now filled with frustration, anxiety and self-disappointment over skills she was unable to do.   She was certain her coaches were disappointed with her, certain they were angry.  I spent much time in conversation with her head coach and knew this wasn't the case, knew that they were not angry, but I could not convince her. "Coaches are different when parents aren't around, mom", she would say.  I was left speechless at this comment.  I trusted her coaches; I trusted her.  How could I put their word above hers? But how could I put a child's perceptions above these professionals?
The week leading up to the qualifier was far worse.  She was not sleeping, not eating right, complaining of headaches, stomachaches, having nightmares.  When I woke her up in the morning, she would have a pinched, panicked expression on her face. "I can't do my back walkover on beam, mummy, what am I going to do?!", she'd gasp.
Finally, 2 days before the meet, I'd had enough.  My 9 year old daughter was going to have a breakdown and I refused to allow it. I grasped her shoulders while standing in the mudroom and with a little shake, told her that she was not going.  She was not going to compete that weekend.  Truthfully? It was reverse psychology.  I was sure that if I said this, she would relax, she would calm down and soon be back to normal.  As the day and evening wore on, she would think and muse on the situation.  She'd realize that she just couldn't not go to the meet.  By the next day she'd come to me and say, "I'm ok now mummy, I'll go to the competition".
But she did not.
In fact, the next day, we took her to a sports psychologist.  We had started looking into this a few weeks earlier, and this happened to be the day of the first appointment.  I was hopeful that the psychologist would be able to see exactly what was ailing her, have some words of wisdom; a pep talk of sorts, and boom, Verity would be alright and raring to go the next day.  This ended up being the farthest thing from reality.
The psychologist, a woman working in the sports department of a nearby university spent some time talking with Verity on her own, and then James and I and Verity together.  It quickly became clear that all would not be returning to "normal" anytime soon.  We had one very sad and upset daughter on our hands.  The psychologist agreed that her not competing the next day was a good thing, and in fact included a ban on all future competitions for that season in her recommendations to us. Cutting back her hours was another. We were dismayed, and I was terribly glad James had decided to take time off work and join us that morning.  I would have dreaded the prospect of going home and trying to explain all of that to him.
We talked to her coaches and made the changes.  She would go back down to 12 hours of training and re-join her group from the previous year.

Everything would be better now, right?

A few weeks later, we went to see the psychologist for a follow up appointment.  I had hardly given it any thought; we had fixed this, right? We'd pulled her back and eased her stress load, and she was going to be fine now, right?
So wrong.
Again Verity spend some time talking with the professor in her office, and then I joined after a few moments. It was not enough.  She was still not ok.  More changes needed to be implemented.  The psychologist assessed Verity and diagnosed her with a "textbook" case of burnout.  I was stunned. We'd been long aware and wary of this dreaded evil of elite sport; burnout.  We'd read articles and journals on the topic; my husband had done a fair bit of research in the name of being forwarned and therefore forearmed...but it hadn't been enough.  It had slunk in undetected despite our best intentions and efforts. The recommendation was now a total and complete severing of Verity from the gym. This was what she wanted and this was what needed to happen if we valued her mental, and even physical, the psychologist said, health.

How can a parent choose otherwise in the face of such possible extreme consequences? Yes, she'd loved it since she was a small child.  She had lived, eaten and breathed it for nearly 70% of her lifespan.  She could hardly keep herself from doing flips, cartwheels and tucks all over our home (even after 4 hours at the gym) and anywhere we went during the day.  She was known to all our friends and family for her constant need for gymnastic movement, for this incredible gift of physical talent. It gave her immense confidence...(sometimes a little too much confidence...) and I recognized in her the same sense of identity as a gymnast that I felt as a child, being known for my singing.

But now it was all over.  James and I were heartbroken, confused and even a little angry.  Why was this happening?  What could God possibly be doing through such a shocking turn of events?
We still don't have answers.  We're still not sure why it all happened.  What we do know is that Verity has undergone a huge change.  She no longer runs into the living room and flips onto the couch.  I don't enter her bedroom to find her standing on her head, or draped over the edge of her bed in a lazy back walkover.  She has completely lost her joy and love for gymnastics, and that's been the hardest thing to understand and accept of all of this.  I read through a book the psychologist recommended: Little girls in Pretty Boxes, an expose of sorts about gymnasts and figure skaters.  It was pretty shocking and disheartening.  It did make me re-evaluate why I could possibly have wanted my daughter anywhere near such an industry. But I know that it's to be taken with a grain of salt; it's also American and I know that we have some significant differences in Canada.  We also became familiar with a set of developmental building blocks that the psychologist gave us a copy of.

More information on these levels here

Verity has been quite content, if not even happy, to be done with the gym.  We termed it a "break", just to give her that option of returning if things should change.  But it's been nearly 7 months now, and her attitude is no different.  I also know that she feels she couldn't return to the gym now, because of what the other gymnasts would be thinking or even saying about her having quit for so long.  She remembers what they would all say about others who quit previous to her.  It's a sad, but inevitable reality.

So our detour has become, seemingly, permanent.  James and I still question if we did something wrong...perhaps we shouldn't have involved her in this sport at all...perhaps we shouldn't have let her ease up into 18 hours of training over the years.  Or on the flip side, perhaps the psychologist was wrong and we just handed our daughter a horrible life lesson; that's it's ok to quit when the going gets tough.

For now, we trust. There's a song that I return to when things get hard and confusing.  When James and I had broken up (when dating), when we experienced marriage difficulties, when Jairus was born, when we buried our second son.

I will trust you Lord, when I don't know why
I will trust you Lord, 'til the day I die
I will trust you Lord when I'm blind with pain
You were God before and you'll never change
I will trust you...


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