Edited by Allie Long
For many parents, enrolling their child in an extracurricular activity seems like a no-brainer. Organized sports can teach discipline, foster self-confidence, and even improve a child’s relationship with their family. Or for the more musically minded, taking lessons boasts cognitive dividends beyond simply improving their ability to read notes. Research has shown that playing an instrument boosts the brain’s ability to process language and can have a positive impact on their test scores in other subjects. In either case, your child doesn’t have to be the next Tom Brady or Beethoven to reap the benefits of a holistic approach to education.
But knowing how best to support your child once they’re enrolled is another matter. Here’s Hunter Brake, a gymnastics coach with Chapel Hill Gymnastics:
“It’s our job as coaches to demand perfection, but it’s also our job as coaches and as parents to be a cheerleader and remind kids that it’s fun.”
Hunter and I used to work together at Chapel Hill Gymnastics. In reaching out to Hunter, I wanted to ask him not only what kind of gymnast excited him most as a coach, but what parents can do to encourage their child to invest in their own learning.
Being Your Child’s Personal Cheerleader
It’s easy to clap, whoop, and carry-on when your child does the prettiest cartwheel in all the land. But what about when they do the most mediocre summersault in the kingdom?
“Be really, really excited about the outcome, but be equally excited about the process and the importance of working towards [a new skill]. More importantly, teach kids to love the process, to enjoy the feeling of almost doing something right or slightly improving something or even falling.”
Even when they fall, Coach Hunter said, it’s imperative that parents outwardly recognize their child’s commitment to practice.
“Remind them to […] step back and see that […] they are always improving in very small steps. Kids can get disgruntled and want to quit when they’re hyper-focused on a specific outcome or skill. Remind them that the enjoyment is in working towards [the skill]. Remind them to celebrate small victories.”
Celebrating small victories hints at something larger. In the gym, Hunter regularly receives children with aspirations to become the next members of the Final Five, competing alongside idols like Laurie Hernandez or Gabby Douglas. The reality is that the road to becoming an Olympian begins as early as preschool and no later than 1st or 2nd grade, but while the eight-year-old gymnast who’s still learning her cartwheels might not be a contender for Los Angeles 2028, far be it from Hunter — or anyone else — to crush the dreams of a young athlete.
“Find a way to harness all of that excitement […] and push it forward.”
Ultimately, teaching children about the value of process over results can bring a lot of value to their lives, not just in terms of their hobbies and interests as kids, but farther down the road as well.
“That’s just it: reminding kids that there is kind of a buy-in to success and the rewarding feeling of doing a really fun skill. You have to work for it. And I think that will set kids up to be much more successful in anything they do, be it school, or college, or jobs later on.”
The Language of Encouragement and Support
In addition to speaking with Hunter, I interviewed my former piano instructor, Wendy Martelli, to get another perspective on a parent’s relationship to their child’s practice. Wendy has been teaching voice and piano lessons for 46 years and runs her own studio out of her home in Cary, NC.
“What is the optimal role a parent plays?”
“Encouragement and support,” Wendy began, “Positive reinforcement–‘that part sounded so good, I wonder if you can make the other part sound as confident as the first part.’”
You don’t have to be an expert to offer meaningful words of encouragement and affirmation. As a parent, you can tell whether your child is confident in their work, and oftentimes, it’s simply a matter of “being engaged with them” as they learn.
Many parenting blogs have framed this as a dichotomy between offering praise and offering encouragement. Bernadette Rosanski writes, “Praise keeps your child dependent on the authority figure to feel good about himself. On the other hand, encouragement allows your child to focus on how she feels from the inside out.”
Using phrases that concentrate on process, such as “you seem to like that” or “how do you feel about it,” encourage students to develop their relationship with the material, whereas emphasizing praise keeps students dependent on external forces for validation, which may not always be available to them during practice.
In a TEDx Talk on growth mindsets, Dr. Carol Dweck provided a poignant example of praise that can negatively impact students in the long run: test scores. When used as the sole barometer of academic worth, test scores motivate students to produce good grades while not necessarily engaging with the material. In some instances, Dr. Dweck reported, students were willing to cheat in order to obtain a higher grade because that’s what they needed to do.
I asked Wendy what she thought motivated students to take charge of their own learning.
“Some people say ‘I need to sing.’ […] I think that’s what you’re born with. The other part is learned: ‘Oh, I learned that if I can do this, then it’ll sound good.’ But they don’t need to do that. They just want to do that.”
Wendy explained this to me in terms of drive. Whether it’s something they bring with them to the lesson or something that they learn later on, at some point the student will be driven to improve because they want to — not because they need to. For parents, encouraging their children to frame their goals in terms of wants — not needs — can help to foster that drive.
Keeping the Ego Out
Another toxic side effect of praise is ego inflation. Coach Hunter lamented instances when a student’s journey became “more about the prestige of gymnastics than the actual refinement of it.”
According to Hunter, parents and students will sometimes express a form of “entitlement” regarding their class placement. When a student’s whole experience has been defined in terms of superlative — I’m the best, my cartwheel was the prettiest, I had the best handstand — then it follows that their perception of their own abilities might be inflated.
However, as Coach Brake notes, “if you want to be at this level, you have to do all of these things.” That student might very well have the prettiest cartwheel in all the land. But if they can’t do a backward roll, well, guess what?
“This skill they don’t have — that skill gets harder. We do a much more advanced version of that skill, and [the student] is only going to continue to fall behind, they’re not going to be ready, and they will fail.”
Ultimately, in gymnastics — as with piano and most anything else — your child’s progress will be defined by their weakest skill. Not their strongest.
When I asked Hunter if he had any prescriptions for parents with respect to how they talk to their kids about training, he replied “I would ask that parents work on keeping the enjoyment in it and the ego out of it.”
“It’s hard to coach a kid into having the perfect mindset. I think a great gymnast is incredibly proud of what they can do, but incredibly humble about all the things they can’t.”
One implication made by many superlatives is that the recipient of praise is superior to their teammates or fellow students. This attitude is problematic for many reasons and ultimately detrimental to the long-term success of the child.
“I’d want to emphasize comparing themselves to… themselves,” Hunter reflected. “Or even to their own goals.”
Part of the language of emphasizing process over results entails setting a premium on personal achievement within the context of a student’s personal goals. It’s their progress. Their achievement. Measuring your student’s progress against the progress and success of others isn’t sustainable; rather, it’s a fast-track to burnout and stagnation.
“You should always be trying to achieve your goals, and if you do, set a new one.”
For Coach Brake, that’s part of the appeal of gymnastics.
“Gymnastics is a fun sport because there are always people pushing it beyond the limits.”
He’s not wrong. Just last year, Simone Biles posted a video of her workshopping a triple back pike for National Gymnastics Day. Had Biles settled for simply “better than everybody else,” she would’ve stagnated, but because she strives every day to be better than Simone Biles was yesterday, we may soon see her put that triple back pike on the floor.