Chapel Hill Gymnastics’ “Well of Positivity” During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Header image featuring a well pulling up the Zoom logo.

Edited by Allie Long

This article is based on interviews I conducted with two members of Chapel Hill Gymnastics’ staff, Vahid Moavenzadeh and Hunter Brake.

Due to the pandemic, many of us have been hunkered down in our homes for over three months now. If you’ve been living with roommates or family, you’ve probably gotten to know one another in new — perhaps surprising — ways, and maybe you’ve even settled into a comfortable routine. Still, whether your isolation is self-imposed or government-mandated, one thing is for certain: The pandemic has been a trying time for us all.

Even veteran non-commuters like my fellow Medium writer Gillian Sisley have reported higher than usual stress levels and exhaustion. She has been working from home for the better part of three years, but the “constant negative messaging” permeating the airwaves coupled with the “subconscious, unique worries that we’re each personally carrying” has led to increases in fatigue and feelings of melancholy as well as a decline in overall mental health.

Wired science writer Matt Simon describes this sensation as “crisis fatigue,” brought on by elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Under normal circumstances, cortisol is an integral part of your body’s natural survival response, but as Matt explains, sustained, elevated levels of cortisol can lead to serious negative side-effects:

“There’s a reason why your body is prepared to ride out a high-stress, highly fearful state of affairs for a short time — when you’re super alert, you’re better able to detect and evade threats. But over the course of weeks, high cortisol levels wreak havoc on the body, resulting in problems like anxiety and insomnia.”

Members of Chapel Hill Gymnastics (CHG), however, have reported a starkly contrasting quarantine experience. While gyms across the country experimented with Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook and Instagram Live workouts to sustain themselves and their patrons, CHG embraced a more holistic approach to using these platforms and maintaining their community remotely.

I spoke with Chapel Hill Gymnastics’ Team Director, Vahid Moavenzadeh, about the gym’s culture and how he has personally benefited from this “ready-made community.”

“It’s like this well of positivity that already existed before quarantine, you know? There’s plenty for everybody. But if we’re not contributing to it, and we’re only drinking, then it’s going to dry out because at some point there’s going to be nothing left.”

CHG was Vahid’s first foray into the world of competitive gymnastics. Six years ago, he started coaching summer camps and recreational classes. Now, he coaches three competitive boys’ and girls’ teams in addition to his administrative responsibilities as team director.

“Without question, it’s something that has sustained me,” Vahid told me, referring to his experience coaching during the quarantine. “Just having some meaning and a daily purpose has been really powerful.”

I also spoke with CHG’s recreational director, Hunter Brake, about his experiences during the pandemic as a coach. Before the gym closed its doors due to the impacts of COVID-19, Hunter had been following the trajectory of the virus closely via the news and social media channels.

“Did you think it was going to impact Chapel Hill Gymnastics?”

“I had been following some news and obviously seeing snippets on social media, but I don’t think I’d envisioned it shutting stuff down as significantly as it did.”

For the staff at CHG, the events surrounding the gym’s closure unfolded in rapid succession. Similar to weather-related closures, CHG was taking its cues from the Orange County school system. They were already scaling back their classes and programs, but the decision to close came via a “decisive phone call in the middle of a training session” on a Monday afternoon in early March.

“So it was quick?” I asked Hunter.

“Yeah. It was as rapid of an announcement as the development that went with it had been.”

It’s safe to say that COVID-19 blindsided everyone in North Carolina to some degree — everyone except maybe Sen. Richard Burr — but Hunter confided that he was not “shocked” by the closing. In his words, the full-time staff members “were wondering when we would get this news, not if.”

Following a week to two-week hiatus, the gymnasts and coaches reconvened in cyberspace.

“I got the idea off of Instagram.” Vahid said a California-based gym that he followed had posted about using Zoom to continue practices, inspiring him to do likewise. “I was like, ‘that seems like the next best thing probably.’”

“I remember the first day we went to do it, obviously it was pretty weird,” Hunter recalled. “We had no idea what to expect, and we’d already accepted that this will feel very different from regular practice.”

“What were you most worried about going into this transition?” I asked Vahid.

“Well, something early on [that] was genuinely a concern was the SafeSport’s stuff.”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport is “an independent nonprofit committed to building a sport community where participants can work and learn together free of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and misconduct” that releases guidelines for gyms to follow in order to ensure the safety of its participants. “There are pretty strict parameters that we all want to follow and observe about outside communication, interaction outside of the gym, and things like that.”

Demotivation presented another hurdle that they would have to overcome. Even for the coaches, the disconnect between the images on the screen and the gymnasts they knew proved to be difficult to reconcile.

“It seems very remote and removed,” Hunter reflected. “You’re just watching a bunch of kids do something on a screen, and it’s hard to remember who they are as people. It’s hard to immediately recognize them for a kid you worked with in person.”

Understanding that this would be an issue for the kids as well, Vahid said they were focused on “anticipating what is going to demotivate them and why, before it happens.”

“There [are] very few kids that [are] showing up 12–15 hours a week because they just want to do conditioning,” Vahid laughed. “But what we’re left with right now is that. We’re not working on new skills. We’re not getting the other motivat[ing] factors–so much of it is stripped away.”

Gymnastics is a fundamentally community-driven sport. Although the competitions focus on a single gymnast at a time, the lion’s share of the work is done as a group. The comradery makes grueling conditioning bearable as the team trains together to perfect new skills and hone their chops.

“All we’re left with is conditioning. The utility of the conditioning is so that we can stay strong, fast, powerful, and maybe build on that a little bit, so when we go back in the gym, we can progress as we would like.”

When you take away that communal space, something beyond the utility of the equipment is lost. Much of what Vahid is describing probably resonates with anybody working from home right now. I won’t romanticize the worker’s plight, but the office does represent something beyond the mechanical tools it houses. You could say the same of a coffee shop; there’s a sense of togetherness as individuals work independently in a shared physical space.

“It serves [these] ‘ends’ that we don’t really have access to right now. So, we’re just living in means, not ends, for eight weeks.”

Besides the issue of motivation, there are logistical challenges that coaches must overcome. Coaching gymnastics is hands-on, so the added distance encourages coaches to get creative with their training.

“You couldn’t actually get hands-on and assist them,” Hunter explained. “That was the biggest difference.”

And of course, technology doesn’t always cooperate.

“You have problems with internet connections or someone going out-of-screen mid-skill, so you couldn’t actually observe everything they’re doing.”

And when you’re trying to do gymnastics at home, there are some furry obstacles that you might encounter as well.

“People will have their cat come into the frame and mess them up in the middle of something, which we never saw in the gym obviously,” Hunter joked.

The pandemic has affected everybody differently; however, certain communities have been hit significantly harder than others. Data reported by the CDC suggests that racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus’ spread due to living conditions, work circumstances, and access to healthcare — conditions that also impact anyone living with fewer means regardless of race. Diminished access to communal resources exacerbates any preexisting socioeconomic obstacles to gymnasts’ growth.

“I’ve seen videos of girls under the age of 10 with a full competition set of uneven bars in their backyard,” Hunter recalled. “So they essentially never left the gym, whereas other kids might struggle to have 30 dollars for a pull-up bar.”

Hunter said that it was “upsetting” to witness the growing disparity of opportunity, and acknowledged that “gymnastics is an expensive sport to begin with.”

“For your part, how have you worked to level the playing field?”

“We’ve been getting creative…”

One example he shared addressed the pull-up bar predicament: By tying knots in old clothes or towels and closing them into a door, he fashioned a makeshift bar. Hunter expanded on the idea in a video he released for his students, showcasing a host of repurposed, household items that could be used for at-home practices:

From homemade parallettes to strap rings hung in trees, Coach Hunter’s home equipment segment demonstrated how his athletes could recreate the gym in their own backyard. In this video, he strived to capture the “same fiery energy that coaches show in the gym,” something he felt had been missing in previous videos.

Beyond the equipment, gymnasts also need access to a device in order to join an online practice. In some homes, kids might be competing with siblings and parents for use of a “family computer,” Vahid pointed out. With parents working from home and practice taking place during business hours, gymnasts have to make compromises based on their familial situations.

“We did have a conversation about family once,” Vahid shared. “These times are calling everybody to behave differently. Your parents are having to behave differently; they’re having to adjust their behavior and their lives to the situation.”

“That obligation also falls on you,” Vahid explained that this might mean kids would have to step up and take on new responsibilities in the home, such as making dinner for the family, or perhaps more trivially but no less difficult, being kinder to a sibling. “If you have a parent who is working from home, trying to figure out schooling for their kids, and now feeding everybody three times a day — and the kids are screaming at each other? You can do something to alleviate that.”

Vahid said the kids were receptive to the conversation and appeared to “take it to heart.”

At the time of these interviews, Hunter and Vahid had been coaching virtually for eight weeks. They didn’t know when their next competition would be or if there would even be another competition before the end of the year.

“It’s enough to make somebody just want to not show up,” Vahid admitted.

Despite the prolonged period of “means without ends” and the aforementioned challenges the coaches and gymnasts must surmount, Vahid reported that attendance has been surprisingly good during the online practices. In his Xcel group of 60 gymnasts, he counted only two absent girls. Given how intensive the practices can be, and the fact that nobody knows when or if the continued training will pay off in competition anytime soon, why are the students still showing up?

Vahid credits this success to the gymnasts’ community, and the culture of caring they’ve worked to cultivate.

“We’re getting closer to each other. The way that we’ve talked to each other–the language has evolved in this eight weeks and developed in a way where they care about each other a lot more deeply than they did before.”

From what Vahid can tell, this motivation has sustained the gymnasts beyond driving them to continue with their practice.

“That’s motivation for them in their individual lives. It’s not for me as much about [wanting] them to stay in gymnastics–of course, I do–but I also want them to thrive as humans.”

A moving example of CHG’s culture in action came when Vahid decided to get ahead of the issue of extended screen time.

“For our older kids, we knew that screen time was going to become somewhat of a crutch for them.”

Liberated from the usual restrictions imposed by schools, parents and the kids themselves were left with the task of moderating their own phone usage. Even in his own life, Vahid noticed a sharp uptick in time spent scrolling, reporting accompanying feelings of demotivation, reduced attention span, and diminished short-term memory. Half laughing, Vahid told me, “It really messes with you in some bad ways.”

In the second week away from the gym, Vahid decided to tackle the issue head-on with the girls.

“We’ve had conversations about it before, so there was a precedent to talk about that.”

“I fessed up first.” According to his iPhone’s weekly report, his screen time was up by about 40 percent. “I said, ‘I’m going to put my numbers in the chat,’” and he sent the results of his weekly report into the chat. The team girls followed suit.

“It was astonishing for them. It was silly and felt funny, but it was also like, ‘OK. So, this is something that we’re all struggling with, and we’re going to figure it out.’”

“One girl said she was averaging 10 hours a day,” Vahid explained that this was due in large part to her leaving FaceTime on in the background while she did other things — not every waking hour was spent staring into her phone screen.

“Other kids said they were up in the 50–60 percent range — it was a lot. So, we put that on the radar right away.” They had a discussion about the psychological impact phones can have, and Vahid feels like it was beneficial for the girls to know that everyone is struggling with the same problems.

“They acknowledged that yes, there is a problem with [their screen time].”

At the end of every virtual practice, gymnasts and coaches participate in an open discussion centered around one topic. Since everyone besides the coach is muted during practice, these discussions give the kids a chance to socialize and learn more about each other just like they would’ve done had they been in the gym.

“In the gym, we had endlessly more time and opportunity to banter,” Hunter recalled, remembering the back-and-forth he used to share with the kids during practice. “We don’t have that over Zoom. But what we do have is an open discussion at the end pretty much every day.”

Contrary to the quips and banter shared during regular practices, these open discussions provide a look at who the gymnasts are outside of the gym. Recently, they started centering them around ethical dilemmas, such as the infamous “Trolley Problem.” Of course, not every discussion is a knockout.

“Obviously some do better than others. Others totally flop. One that I was at, most of the group stayed for a full hour just discussing their ideas […] on an ethical dilemma, which was amazing.”

“What were some of your favorite answers to the ethical dilemmas?”

“The one successful [discussion] that we did was a thought experiment where you are a teacher, and a very successful, likeable student has been struggling recently and end[s] up plagiarizing a final project.” In broad strokes, the students could choose to report the student for plagiarism, thereby ruining her chances at going to a good college; give her a chance to redo it; or accept it as her own work.

Hunter’s favorite response came from a girl the team has always recognized as being “a kind person and a wonderful teammate.” Her answer entailed talking to the student face-to-face, sitting her down and giving her an opportunity to explain why she plagiarized her final project. Ultimately, she chose to work with the student to find an alternate avenue that didn’t involve failing her or accepting her stolen project.

“Most of the other answers were concerned with the black and white, right and wrong.” While the other kids were focused on laying down the law, Hunter was very impressed by this gymnast’s empathetic approach to the quandary.

For now, CHG is doing their best to live in the moment. Even prior to the pandemic, Vahid told me that they were trying to “devalue scoring as a currency for success,” instead “orient[ing] the kids toward process.”

Initiatives like “Feel Good Friday,” where the kids would share a “good news headline” from the week to boost morale, or movie nights via Netflix Party, have helped gymnasts connect outside the gym as well. The coaches also initiated the formation of online interest groups based on the kids’ hobbies by connecting gymnasts with common interests. Group organizers were chosen among the gymnasts, and the coaches set them loose, leaving them to pursue their common interests together. These community-building exercises have helped alleviate some of the existential tension that members of CHG might otherwise have been facing.

“I think that was another thing that coronavirus took away from people is the feeling of accomplishing something,” Hunter explained. “Whether it’s their job as a cook, or their job as a cashier, or their job as a journalist — whatever it may be, when you hit that point of ‘why am I doing this? Does it even matter?’ Stuff gets really scary and dark.”

“Personally what […] has been a saving grace for me is I started a very, very large garden,” Hunter continued. “It feels like I have a workload for me every day, things that need to be done or these living plants will die. I established something for myself to physically care for and nurture in the place of students.”

“I’m realizing I’m more fortunate than I’d considered,” Vahid said. “Because I feel very thankful to be employed, and to be able to continue doing something that I enjoy, even though it’s not the exact format that I want.”

Reflecting on the virtual lessons, Vahid admitted that “on the human connection level, it’s very powerful.”

Although Vahid and Hunter have both benefited themselves from Chapel Hill Gymnastics’ well of positivity, they’ve also contributed a lot. These two coaches have persevered and continued searching for innovative ways to train their kids remotely, along with the rest of the gym’s staff. Together, CHG has created a community that has buoyed its members’ spirits during these tumultuous times.

In closing, Vahid emphasized the strength of the young gymnasts in this historical moment.

“Young people are so much more adaptable and resilient than older people. They’re so open to trying new things, they’re extremely compassionate–and I always knew that. But […] the specific resilience in kids that are used to having a lot and now don’t really have anything, they just have themselves and their families–I’ve been really moved.”

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Zachary Turner

I write about the environment and climate change from Raleigh, NC. 🍁 🌳 ☀️