Sunday, March 26, 2017

Why gymnastics? (athletic autistic series)

My longest lasting and arguably most successful athletic endeavor was gymnastics. I took tumbling classes when i was little, messed around in the yard, took classes again, competed, coached, competed while coaching, retired suddenly and unwillingly, coached more, did 2 more meets while coaching, and judged.

I do a lot of things, I love a lot of things, but gymnastics is arguably my soul. It's been an enduring passion. And my mother hated it, but I loved it enough to keep fighting to do it.

There's reasons for gymnastics of all things. They're not the kid doing cartwheels on the playground legends you hear, but they are reasons nonetheless.

I don't look like a gymnast. Well, that's untrue actually. I'm built basically exactly like Svetlana Boginskaya, a gymnastics legend who competed in 3 Olympics. But she doesn't look like your classic 80s & 90s gymnast either. I'm legs and arms and limbs and moved like I was only vaguely aware of my extremities. But as far as my mom was concerned, I was going to be taller than 5' so I was too tall to be a gymnast, she can't touch her toes so I am not flexible enough to be a gymnast (yes, really, she said that), and basically it was the worst sport ever. My mom loathed my choice in sports until the day she died, but it was my first love.

The first thing that drew me to the gym is that it's pretty. It's so pretty. The physics, just watching, demand to be analyzed. I found that captivating. And each gymnast makes each apparatus her own. The individual nature also really worked for me. I didn't quite understand the whole team competition thing, and until you're competing for college or your country you're competing as an individual anyway. I could only mess it up for myself, not for anyone else. No one could be mad at me for not being able to do what they wanted of me. My performance was only affecting me. There were no mystical codes of how to teamwork in gymnastics like there are in team sports.

The things that kept me in the gym are numerous. I had gifted coaches--not gifted in the art of creating little gym-bots who win no matter what, but gifted in the art of meeting their athletes where they are, in finding new ways to approach challenging skills, in knowing when to push and when to stop pushing. They worked with us rather than on us. And they trained everyone as though they'd compete some day, instead of deciding some kids had what it takes and some never will early in a budding gymnast's career. In one of those gyms I'd have been done very quickly, as it was a long process for me to develop any skill at all.

The sensory aspects are of course the thing people think of when they think of autistic gymnast, and that's true. I like crashing into things. I got to crash into the ground a lot. I don't get dizzy but I do love to try. I got to try in new and exciting ways in the gym. Things bounce, and spinning and flipping is a vestibular stimmer's dream.  As far as sensory integration goes, gymnastics was better than any sensory integration therapy available in my hometown, and more fun. But they aren't the only thing.

The thing about gymnastics is that you have never learned all of it. There's always a new skill or a new combination. And you have to adjust your physics just so in order to master it. And perfection is a goal, but it's a goal no one can actually meet, and everyone knows that. Everyone goes for perfect, sure, but it's not like when people seriously think that's a reasonable thing to expect. It was a place where I was allowed to not be perfect, because no one is perfect, and where I was allowed to not know how to do things, because no one knows everything in gymnastics. Even people who have skills named for them don't. Because there's so much to learn and some things just won't ever work for one person and that's ok, you can try something else and that may work better. Being allowed to find things that worked better than the little box my mom and school and everyone wanted for me? That tasted like freedom.

Granted, freedom tastes like sweat and blood and pushups and mats the smell like feet. But it turns out I like pushups and don't mind mats that smell like feet, when my abilities and inabilities are taken into consideration. When my fears are seen as rational. When failing is met with the assumption that I tried my hardest and just couldn't, rather than with the assumption that I am defiant and noncompliant and need to be punished or ignored. It was the first place where I was allowed to not be able to do things without it being treated like I was unable to do them at someone.

Because my failures were treated as part of the learning process instead of as me being a butthead, I learned from them. I was this awkward weak little kid, right? I was made of rubber but seriously just rubber. I was not a naturally strong kid any more than I was a naturally graceful kid. Autistic kids, disabled kids in general really, tend to be treated like anything we can't do on the first try is a thing we will never be able to do, but gymnastics isn't like that. If you can't do the skill, you do more drills, you condition more, you stretch more, you try again. You fall? Try again. You can do it 10% of the time? Try again and then it'll be 20% and then 40% and then 98%. That 2% of the time you can't do the thing you can totally do? That's not because you are autistic or because you are being difficult, it's because no one is actually 100% on anything. Very close yes, but anyone can miss something that they basically have mastered. It happens. It's a thing. Your failures may be vanishingly rare, but anyone can mess up and that's life.

So I found my body parts by finding them over and over and controlling them in gymnastics. Because everyone was learning mastery of their bodies...I learned mastery of my body. And learning to do a backhandspring is way more rewarding than touching nose. When you can do backhandsprings you get to do back tucks. And then back layouts. And then twisting layouts. And on and on and on. When you touch nose you get to listen to other boring orders. The corrections in gymnastics actually mean something. No one was telling me to do things so they could control me. They were telling me to do things so that I could control myself, at greater velocities or amplitudes. Implementing what they told me was rewarding, intrinsically, for me. It didn't earn a token. It meant I did this ridiculously hard thing that I wanted to be able to do for myself. In a world where I was expected to do the things everyone else wanted me to do, it was all about the "do this because then you can do this and that's awesome".

And once I found my body parts? I found poise and confidence too. I was good at something, not because someone built me from raw parts (no more than any other gymnast) but because I did the work. You can't hand over hand all those push ups. Muscles don't work that way. It was a success no one else could claim. Those trophies were mine. Those oohs and aaaahs at the spring show were mine. I learned to cover every inch of ground I walked on, and that I deserved to. It was a place to be proud instead of being ashamed that I care about things. Gymnasts can be intense. It's not a liability to be single minded when you're attacking a new skill.

As I got too injured to continue, I still got to pass on the sport, too. And I get to judge. People never think of autistic people as being good at these things, but we can be. The devil is in the details and gymnastics is all details. Analyzing what is going wrong, conveying it as a coach or quantifying it as a judge, that's totally an autistic-friendly thing to do. Details. Yes I will tell you, young person who wants to fly, every detail. And we will work them out together, and you can defy gravity too.

Gymnastics is why I can do so much of what I do now. It's why I can do the athletic pursuits I still pursue. It's why I can present--and where I learned to own the stage while doing so. It helped me find the edges of my body when early intervention sought to teach me they didn't even exist, that I was just an extension of other people. Gymnastics may very well be why I am still here at all.

So fuck yeah gymnastics.


2 comments:

thethirdglance said...

From one former high-level autistic gymnast to another, this is perfect. All of it. Thank you for articulating it so well :)I have very little to add, except that for me, I grew up with a team of girls, who were actually really my friends - we all worked hard in the gym, we all cheered each other on, and because it was an individual sport, we all wanted each other to do our best. Gymnastics taught me how to be part of a team, without the awful of "team sports".

(I tell this story of my first and last ever soccer classes - everyone in my hometown played soccer, so my mother signed me up when I was in kindergarten. The first day was great - we all had our own balls, and learned how to kick, dribble, stop, and pass the ball. The next week, they took away everyone's balls and made us all chase after one. I suddenly ceased to see the point and refused to continue on.) Anyway, thanks for writing this, it's awesome :) --E

Martin said...

Thank you for an interesting post. This reminds me of my experience with classical Japanese martial arts. Everyone in the dojo wants to learn and you learn together with them, but the journey is your own. No one is ever finished and the masters are quick to laugh and disavow you of the notion that a belt of some color or other will mean you're perfect.

Except for the dojos that wanted to do competition. That quickly escalated into a completely different beast.