Interview with Steve Sassone, Part 2
As a preschool/recreational director, you were responsible for creating an entire year's worth of weekly lesson plans which included girls events, boys events, rhythmic gymnastics (preschool), and dance elements. You also trained multiple preschool and recreational coaches throughout the years, and developed a very impressive testing system for older recreational students. Besides your own experience as a gymnast, how did you educate yourself to include such a wide variety of skills and their progressions in your lesson plans so effectively? Was part of your preparation studying childhood development?
I always had childhood development on my mind but when I took those classes, it really didn’t help much, honestly. There were a couple of things but really there was a focus that was in a different realm than physical development. There was a little bit of it but because our physical development is so varied, they couldn’t delve into it as much as we required in terms of mid-line crossing, development skills and spatial awareness and how that affected their ability to run fast, hit a vaulting board, make contact with the horse, fly through the air, and negotiate a landing. Gymnasts are kind of anomalies outside the realm of normal childhood development because they exceed quickly past what’s normal development, when they’re getting specific training. So the child development part was more about the social development in terms of their requirement for getting along with each other and working together as a unit and their understanding of language and how we put together multiple complex directions for them, combining the verbal, auditory, kinesthetic, and spatial learning modalities, and how we would apply those to our instructions. Those were influenced by our observations of a child’s ability to grasp various levels of information and complexities of information. Some kids could advance very quickly because they could learn from all those modalities easily. Other kids had to either see it over and over again, or they had to practice it multiple times, or they had to hear the directions repeated several times. The rapidity with which kids could learn was based on their maturity in those different learning modalities. So I was informed by that. By observing it and getting feedback from other coaches. And the other great part was we coaches would often gather on the floor after a class and we would just talk about what happened in the class. Either it was a behavior issue or it was coaching progressions that we were trying out and what worked or didn’t work. And there was a lot of sharing and stealing.You’d steal as much information as you could from watching each other’s warm ups. There was a sense of who could do a better warm up. It was almost a competitive thing, but not really. You wanted to do the best warm up that you could and make the kids have the most fun and get the best prepared and it made you be really creative and think of new things. That creativity and sharing of information made us all better coaches. I was using all that information that I gathered from being so in it all the time. Teaching six to seven hours a day, you’d start to get a wealth of knowledge that you could apply to what’s working and what’s not working. It became very reality based. It was about what’s going to work with kids actually on the floor and not just on paper and that was our baseline.
How did you break the progressions down to the baby steps for preschool students?
A coach once told me years ago that if you see something going wrong with a move, like a round off, back handspring, back flip, go back to the earliest point of departure of perfection, where everything was going right. Let’s say you noticed that their toe pointed to the inside on their round off. That’s the first point where you say, ‘Ah, straighten your foot out on your step,’ and all of a sudden you’ve corrected a whole series of snowballing mistakes that happen after that. You take that principle of starting at the earliest point of departure and apply it to progressions that you‘re teaching preschoolers of fundamental gymnastics skills. You try to give them the earliest progression that you can of a skill that they can be successful at and then you build from there to the next level that you think they can do. It was always a game of what next step could I give them that they can be successful at that’s moving from where they are closer to where we’re headed. You have to have a vision of where you’re headed and then create a step that will get them closer to that. Sometimes, when you’re first learning about progressions, or when you’re first a coach, you try to take giant steps, then you find that the kids are missing a few pieces so you have to build smaller steps in between. After you’ve been coaching for a while you’ve got a ton of steps. You might have ten things that you could teach between standing still and doing a forward roll, and some kids just need all ten steps, where other kids don’t need as many. But that also gives you points of success where you can say, ‘Look, you learned level one, now you can learn level two.’
Is that what you based your recreational student testing system on?
The testing system was based on progressions and where we could find success skills that we felt we could teach the kids in the space of about two months. We figured we’d be able to present this many practices on that event. What we thought we could accomplish for a basic level kid to be successful and earn his or her ribbon on that level so that after he or she had been at the gym for two years if he or she passed all the levels each time, then they would be up to a highest level where they could see progress. If we could keep a kid progressing over a two year period, that was pretty good retention for keeping a kid that’s probably not going to be on team, where they might be around for ten years.
So you created attainable goals for them?
We tried to help guide their goals in their gymnastics because they didn’t really know what their goals were. We tried to give them a picture of what was possible. And the added piece of having our team kids working out at the same time as our recreational kids meant they could see what was possible by watching them. That gave some kids further inspiration. We could say to them, here’s what you have to do to get there. Some kids did make it to team that way and it was really exciting for them.
What are some of the most important benefits (social, physical, mental) gymnastics has on a developing child?
I feel like the social, physical and mental benefits kind of go together. So many young gymnasts do well in school because they have to be organized, especially if they’re on the team. They have to get all their homework done and get good enough grades to be allowed to continue being on the team because their grades come first. So they have to be mentally pretty sharp to grasp all these movement concepts and physically manage it. They’re athletic and have to be really fit and tuned up, so to speak, and that makes them feel good about themselves. And then socially that confidence translates into positive social interactions. They’re not always trying to prove themselves to others because they are proving themselves to themselves and among their peers every day in the gym. They know they don’t have to put anybody down. They can be a positive force in their social circle because they feel good about themselves. They learn how to support each other as a gymnastics team member to become better gymnasts. In a positive gymnastics environment that’s how it is, you support each other. In Kid Power, we ask, ‘Is it easier to learn when people support you or when people put you down?’ So we try to create that supportive environment because what happens is the better the people around you get, the better you become as well. You learn to support each other and then you feel the support from other people coming back to you and then you start to realize that that’s a great way to experience life and to be with your peers.
What about for very young children who aren’t old enough to have team experiences?
Well, to me that’s where it all starts. Because for the toddler, they’re just exploring and they need to be given opportunities to explore safely and to feel that they can have a goal. ‘I want to climb up on this ladder. I want to get up on this block. I want to climb up to that slide.’ They’re inspired to just naturally do these things. We have to give them opportunities to be successful. As adults we learn how to support them. For instance I would always tell the parents, ‘If your child is trying to get up to the top of the step by climbing a ladder, don’t just pick them up and put them on top, help them problem solve. Give them an extra step if the step is too high. Guide their hand to the railing so they can grip on. Hold their hand on the railing to help them feel squeezing it. Remind them to put their foot up here. Give them the support they need to be successful.’ Then they can then say, ‘Oh, that’s what you do’, and then they learn how to be successful themselves. They start problem solving on their own at a very young age and that problem solving gives them the tools to be able to figure out how to be better movers. Because so much of their sense of who they are is wrapped up in their physicality. We want to give them all those opportunities to be physical because that builds their confidence. I had twin students once, years ago that were being raised by their grandparents, who were disabled. They never went out and never got to climb or jump or run. When they came to us at age 4, they looked like toddlers. They were barely past the crawling stage and they were scared of everything. We put them in with younger kids so they could go through those developmental steps along with the younger kids. Once they started getting exposure to all these different movements they started blossoming because they were becoming physical. They learned by being able to be physical. When I saw that, it really impacted me.
Please watch for my next post, Interview with Steve Sassone, Part 3, the conclusion of this interview in which Steve talks about the qualities of a good coach, his involvement with Kid Power, and his current gymnastics business, Flying Angels Gymnastics.