A small sample set

Later today, my daughter will compete in the US Gymnastics Association state championships for Massachusetts, as she has done for the past two years.  She qualified for the state championships in her first year as a gymnast — a bit of an accomplishment — and has qualified again each following year, each time at a higher level (although thanks to the confusing reworking of the rating system two years ago, this means that technically she repeated a numerical level when they renumbered nearly all of the skills).

Most parents would probably wait until they see the scores come out later today before they decide whether to boast about their child’s performance, or whether to let it pass without mention on facebook and other venues where modern parents share the triumphs and travails of their children.  I’m not like most parents, however.  I think I have a lot to be proud of already, even if she stumbles during her routine or the judges give her a low score for faults that are invisible to my non-expert eyes.

Competitive gymnastics is set up like most sports: at the beginning levels, almost everyone goes home with a trophy or a medal, sometimes for doing little more than showing up in a leotard.  The notion is that the competitors will be discouraged if all they ever do is lose.  It doesn’t help the sport if you have a competition with 50 kids and 49 of them feel bad at the end.  You need those 49 to feel enough encouragement to stick with it long enough to see whether they can improve.  If nothing else, the girl who won the blue ribbon needs to have those 49 other girls nipping at her heels, to challenge her to continue to improve.

The ranks start to thin out quite quickly, however, particularly at the older age groups (and my daughter, at 12, is one of the older girls at her level in the league).  It gets harder to win a medal at each level, and it gets harder to qualify for the states.  Two years ago, I think everyone on her team at her level qualified; this year, only about a third of them did (by my guess).

When I was a kid, I did competitive swimming, which is very different from gymnastics in some important aspects.  For several years — virtually all of my competitive career — I swam the same races.  I got stronger and I learned new techniques, and as a result I got faster, but the description of the events never changed: dive in and swim a certain number of lengths of the pool, using a particular stroke or combination of strokes.  Gymnastics is different; at each level, you need to master a new set of skills.  You don’t just do the same routine at each level — it’s different each year.  Doing the same routine as you did last year will get you disqualified.

That’s why I’m proud of my daughter.  Last year, she had a hard time doing a kip, and now it’s second nature.  A year ago, she couldn’t do a cartwheel on the beam, or an aerial, or a back handspring tuck, but now she can.  It wasn’t always easy, and she struggled with some of these skills, and the conditioning was hard, but she kept going, working toward her goals.

Whether she does well today is almost beside the point.  Her performance on a given day, and the scores awarded by a small number of judges, is a small sample set.  If she scores well, that’ll be nice, but it doesn’t capture how much progress she has made.  By showing up at every practice, working hard, and sticking with it, she’s already accomplished everything I could ask of her.

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