Sarah Greenlief is a former competitive gymnast and a much loved recreational coach at Redwood Empire Gymnastics, in Petaluma. She’s also a mother of three children, ten-year-old twins, Jake and Jasmine, and six-year-old, Violet. Her two daughters currently do gymnastics, so she now has a unique perspective from the parenting side of gymnastics. In this interview, I invite you to get to know Sarah. Among other things, she shares with us the value that gymnastics has had in her life, and what she feels her young students and her daughters can learn from the sport.
When and how did you get involved with gymnastics?
When I was nine years old, my best friend, Tamarin, was a gymnast. I would watch her do gymnastics at school in the field, and on the bars on the school playground, and she would try to teach me some skills. I also went to watch her do her classes. I was doing ballet at that time but I had so much energy all the time that it was hard to contain myself at ballet. After watching Tamarin, I remember thinking that I wanted to do gymnastics too, so I asked my mom and she said yes. I went to my first class and I immediately loved it! I fit right in and started going all the time, as did my brothers. It was a family sport and we were all really into it. It brought us together and was a staple in our household. When they were older, my brothers moved on to other activities, but still used what they learned as a gymnast and applied that to other things in their lives. I stayed with gymnastics through my senior year in high school.
Were you a competitive gymnast? Did you have any favorite events?
Yes, I was a competitive gymnast. Today, young gymnasts start competing at level three. Back then, we started competing at level five. I started at level five and went through to level nine. When I went to college I stopped competing.
My favorite events were bars and floor. I loved bars because I liked the feeling of swinging, and doing the release moves over the low bar. It was so cool being in flight, then catching the bar again. My favorite thing to do on bars was using the straps to swing giants. That was so much fun for me! My best event was floor. The combination of dance, tumbling, and timing the routine to the music was something I really enjoyed.
How do you feel being involved with gymnastics impacted your personal development?
For me, gymnastics was a positive energy outlet. When I was at the gym it was like nothing else existed so I could focus on just my gymnastics. If I had a bad day at school, and then got to go to the gym, I was there with all my friends and getting out my energy. School wasn’t that easy for me but gymnastics came very naturally, so that was great for my self-confidence. I learned to trust my coach’s knowledge. When I listened to his instructions, followed them correctly and tried hard, I discovered that I would eventually get the skill he was trying to teach me. It also taught me social skills, how to be a good team member, and how to be supportive of my teammates. Finding a place where I really belonged was very important to me. Each event had its own lessons for me, too. Vault taught me about power and timing. On floor, by the time I was getting to the end of my routine, I was exhausted, but I persevered and always pushed through to the end. That taught me self-trust. Beam was not only about balance, but mental toughness and mind over matter. I would say to myself, ‘Yes, this is scary, but I can do it.’ And then when I did it, I was proud of my accomplishment. Bars taught me how to focus on my upper and lower body simultaneously. I was using my upper body strength, but still had to be aware of what my lower body was doing and be aware of my form.
When did you begin your coaching career?
The high school I attended required students to fulfill community service hours, so I volunteered to do gymnastics coaching during my high school years. When I went to college I stopped coaching. I earned my degree and did social work for a year. Then I got married and started a family so I was a stay at home mom with my twins for a while. When they got older, I joined the Redwood Empire Gymnastics adult class with coach, Mark Olson. The recreational director there at the time, Steve Sassone, approached the adult class one evening and said they were looking for a coach for the younger student’s recreational classes, and would anyone be interested in teaching. I felt that would be a lot of fun and a good fit for me. Steve hired me and I started coaching for a short time until I had my third child. Then I took some time off again but eventually came back when my daughter got older.
You’re a mother of three children and your daughters are gymnasts. How does it feel to be on the parenting side of competitive gymnastics?
I understand much better now what my parents were going through when I was a competitive gymnast. My mom would get so nervous at my competitions. She would write down the scores and do the math just to keep herself busy and focused on doing something. Now when I’m video recording Jasmine’s routines, I catch myself holding my breath because I’m a little nervous for her. I want her to feel confident, happy with her routines, finish on a good note, and feel good about herself. I think that’s my main focus for her. Even if she doesn’t have her best competition, I want that to be something she can learn from. I want her to know that sometimes we’re going to have a good day, and sometimes we’ll have an off day, but it’s all part of life and it’s okay. Maybe on Jasmine’s off day, her teammate might have her best day, so she can be happy for her teammate and congratulate her on that.
Do you ever give your daughters coaching tips from your own personal experiences as a gymnast?
No, I try not to coach them. I let their coaches be in charge of all their gymnastics. I don’t want to interfere with the way their coaches are teaching them. The only thing I find myself doing is using their experiences as life lessons and supporting them. I try not to watch their practices, either. I want them to have their own time and place in the gym, like I did.
What value do you place on the gymnast/coach relationship? What kind of relationship did you have with your coaches?
My gymnastics coach was so important to me. I followed him when he switched gyms. He was a father figure and mentor to me. I feel like he really cared about me and my teammates as gymnasts and as people. I was with him five days a week for four hours a day. He coached me through fears, emotions, happiness, getting skills, not getting skills, and helping me find my strengths. I also had two other coaches who helped me and I put all my trust in them. They were very important to me and my gymnastics. They helped me find where I shone and gave me self-confidence.
As a preschool and recreational coach, what is your goal or main message you try to send to your young students when working with them? How do you want them to feel at the end of their class?
I want to share my positive experiences as a gymnast with them. I want them to have a place where they can feel safe and free to jump, swing, play, laugh, hear music, and make friends. Also, I want to help them work through things, like a fear about a skill for example, in a safe way and gain self-confidence. The main thing is I want everyone to feel good about themselves and to be physical, feel happy, smile, and learn. I’m a kinesthetic learner so for me being physical was very important when I was a child. With regards to the right and left sides of the brain, when we do activities where we cross the mid-line, it connects the two sides of the brain so they communicate better. Gymnastics has a lot of activities where crossing the mid-line occurs. Climbing, swinging, sliding, building strength, and all those types of things are actually good for your brain development. It’s really important for children’s physical and mental health, and over-all growth to have a physical activity they regularly participate in. For me and my family, that activity has been gymnastics. For this reason, gymnastics is very special to me. And I’m happy to share my love of the sport with my children and my students and their families.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your wisdom and personal gymnastics story with us! Redwood Empire Gymnastics and its students are lucky to have you as their coach. We wish you continued success in your coaching career, and the best of luck to your daughters in their second-generation gymnastics adventures!