Mastering Gymnastics: Non-Attachment to Outcomes

When I took my first gymnastics class at 18 years old I was told that it would take me 10 years to learn the basics: front and back flips, front and back handsprings. I gave up ever trying them again after a life-threatening injury in my twenties. Here’s me doing front and back flips today:



I’ve trained gymnastics 62 hours over the last 11 months. I began at nothing. Here’s where I am today (September 2012).


They aren’t perfect… I’m not quite ready to try my front flip over concrete. And I’ve learned all this in less than 2 hours each week, in less than 1 year. I’ve actually gone back and counted and I’ve spent 62 hours training gymnastics between November 2011 and October 2012. When I returned to gymnastics last November I was petrified of front and back flips (having broken my neck attempting them in 2007), simply couldn’t do a front handspring, and could do a back handspring only with the help (and muscles) of a spotter.

Nearly at the year anniversary of my very successful return to gymnastics I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what factored into this remarkable learning experience. There are many factors: enthusiasm – I’ve dreamed of excelling at gymnastics since I was 5 and a background in a variety of physical activities. And the single biggest? Non-attachment.

When I watch my colleagues train gymnastics I see many of them attempt the same activity over and over for months, often with very minimal improvement. I see a man attempting a new event (for example: the high bar) and working himself to the point of exhaustion. I recognize it because I’ve been there too! I have been so dead-set on accomplishing a goal that I’m beat to pieces – and still haven’t gotten it.

When I’m most successful is when I am not attached. Let’s start by looking at what happens when I am determined to get something specific.

Instead of training with determination I find it most productive to train with curiosity and interest. When I don’t get something on a first try my initial response is “Neat! Why not?” followed by “How could I do that differently?” These questions lead to profoundly different results than the statement “I can’t get this” (said with frustration).  My questions create a profound flexibility that contributes enormously to the end outcome.

Stepping away from gymnastics for a moment I have also found that not being attached to outcomes is essential in working with children with autism. As an exceedingly brief synopsis, kids on the spectrum tend to exhibit “stims” or “isms,” self-regulating behaviors that are regarded as distinctly not normal by most of society. One of the big efforts of parents of these kids to get to their child to stop stim-ing and to fit it. I don’t see a problem with wanting a child to fit in with his or her peers. But how these children are taught are startlingly similar to how my peers (and often me, too) train gymnastics – the end goal is the only goal.

Have you ever while riding a bike or driving a car seen something in the road and – intending not to hit it – gone straight into it? By saying: “I should get my front flip now” or “This kid oughtn’t to behave in that way” or “Don’t hit that object in the road! Don’t hit it!!!” we head directly at that which we say we want to avoid!

So what’s the solution? What might we do instead of aiming at what we’d like to avoid? For a start, ask questions. Instead of “I get that [expletive] back flip” or “My child isn’t keeping up with his peers” let’s try changing these into actual question:

  • “Why have I, thus far, been unable to do a back flip?”
  • “Why isn’t my child doing like her peers?”

As soon as contextualize these questions without the frustration and judgment the solutions become much more clear. When I start to inquire why I haven’t done a back flip I realize it is because I’m scared, or because when I’m upside down I loose my sense of direction. Asking that question in working with an autistic child leads to a whole variety of possible explanations, which help me to get closer to her.  It isn’t that I want the back flip less, but I do need it less. It isn’t that I don’t want the child to learn but I’m no longer tied to that outcome happening now right now. I no longer upset myself for that thing not having happened yet.

I’m not enlightened. I’m actually really impressed with how much I can improve at gymnastics even when I’m determined to get it now; at how much an autistic child can function even while being judged from all sides for behaving differently. (As an amusing aside: I’m absolutely not pushy with the kids I see even when I’m still frequently need an outcome in gymnastics.) Long and short: what we do works – well enough. But when it comes to improving high performance, learning skills in record time, and training the unattainable (most people believe that autism is forever, I know otherwise.) not being attached to one specific outcome in the moment results in much larger leaps in learning over time. I am going to continue practicing gently. What have you found that works?