At what age and how did you get involved with gymnastics?
I started when I was 8 years old in Bulgaria. The coaches from the local gym had come to my school to select kids for gymnastics. They did a little bit of testing and then they asked us if we could come to their gym to try out. They chose about thirty-five kids from that second testing and about half of us signed up for the club. I stayed in that program for many years until I finished high school, and then I did gymnastics in college, too. So I've been involved with gymnastics for the majority of my life.
How do you feel gymnastics impacted your personal development?
It helped me a lot. It makes a difference in many aspects of my life. It made me more organized and helped me build discipline. This is a sport that teaches you how to love the movement of your body with the activities and the physical challenges. There's flexibility, strength, and many other challenges that only gymnastics can help you with. It's a very fundamental sport for anything that you want to do later in life. I became a circus acrobat for about a year and gymnastics was actually the foundation for that.
When did you begin your coaching career?
I started coaching as soon as I finished college when I was about twenty-four. I coached in the club that I used to compete for. I did that for two years then I needed a little more income so I started coaching aerobics as well. I had two jobs for about two years and then I came to the United States.
Were you coaching boys and girls at that club?
Yes, I was coaching both. In Bulgaria my girls team was very successful and it was a very strong program for us. We had national team members and most of the girls I worked with later on went to the 2001 World Championships in Ghent, Belgium. But at that time, I had already moved to the United States.
Was that very satisfying for you?
Yes. As a gymnast you help each other with the skills but as a coach you just have to actually play chess games. How can I trick (in a good way) that gymnast so she's going to fly in the air? It's super scary but you make it exciting for them so it's kind of like telling them that this is so much fun and they can do it. And I always find a way to connect with people. I like to talk to people and that's what gets me in the game because you challenge them and help them get stronger mentally, as well.
What value do you place on the gymnast/coach relationship?
It's a very unique sport when you think about it. It's challenging but it's in a very creative and fun way to accomplish skills that average people can't do. It's very creative because we have all the trampolines, all the mats, all the tools that we can use. One of my favorites is the bungee system on the trampoline. When I put the bungees on and they bounce and the bungee takes their weight out and they flip, they feel like an astronaut. It's the funnest thing ever! That flip stays with them and they feel confident. Then they do it on the bars, say a double flip, and it's a whole different ball game. That's how I did it with Titi (Bogi's and Mimi's youngest daughter). They're bouncing all the time and playing with that and having fun. Then they feel like they can do it. As soon as they believe in themselves, that changes everything. They start believing and that will then change their internal language of “I can't do it” or “I'm afraid” to “Wow, this is fun. I can do this.” As soon as they get that, they're on your side and that's how you build the trust. But you've got to be very careful when they open up and say they can do a skill. You need to be one-hundred percent positive that they can do it without hurting themselves because if they get hurt, that trust is going to be broken. They're not going to trust you again. I'm very good at spotting so I spot on a lot of skills and when I spot them I know they're going to be safe. When I spot them on a fly away, for example, and they rip off early, I'm expecting that to happen and I save them because as soon as they get scared a little bit and out of their comfort zone, it's going to be hard for them to pull back. It's going to be hard for them to think “I get to explore.” Kids think gymnastics is a fun sport. They look at it as if it's a game and they're playing on a playground. It's kind of like a roller coaster but the kids need to stay on the track. They can't just get loose because then they'll get hurt. You don't want them to go out of control when it's absolutely scary, they're feeling under pressure, or if they're uncomfortable. There's no comfort in flipping on a four inch wide beam. And when they slip, which eventually they will, it's going to be a hard lesson to learn. They learn that they need to be one-hundred percent focused in the moment when they do skills like that. You build the small steps before that. You start with very small steps like first on the floor, and you do a lot of numbers. Then on the low beam and you do a lot of numbers there, too. Then when they've got the muscles memory ready, you work on the mental aspect. On the mental aspect you need to spot them one-hundred times. They need to do the numbers until it becomes a playful skill and they feel like they can do it on the real beam. A lot of coaches don't have that patience. They just see the skill. For me, every single drill is almost as exciting as the skill itself. When you look at the drill portion of it as being fun, you can see part of that skill in the drill by the way they accomplish it. When you can see a clean forward roll with their legs together, that's your front flip. But when kids are rolling with their bodies out of shape that's going to be a potential fall when they flip on the tramp, the floor, the mats, the beam, whatever it is. They need to control their body. That control is so cool because it's like getting a superhero costume. You need to train the small steps before that but as soon as you do they put on their superhero costumes and when they do that skill for the first time, it's so fun for them. You know, as a coach sometimes you have your five minutes of magic. When you start working on a new skill they have no confidence. They're struggling because they're trying to do it and they don't believe that they can. So when they finally accomplish it, they're on top of the world! It's so cool, I love that feeling. It never gets old for me and I've been coaching for twenty years in the United States, hardly missing a day. To me, the gym is like a play ground. Gymnastics is a wonderful way to build self-esteem and confidence for kids at all levels. I think it's very important, especially these days, to have the kids interact with each other. Because of technology, people kind of sometimes lose that sense of touch and camaraderie and playfulness, and the gym can provide those things. Kids really need that because some schools have closed their P.E. programs and a lot of kids are also home schooled. So the gym provides the extra curricular activities like jumping, running, climbing, and rolling. These are the bases of any sport and they can all be provided through gymnastics. And kids are interacting with their peers in a playful and safe way plus their parents are spending time with them, as well. I love those little ones. On Saturdays I still have my lessons but I watch them all the time. They're fun for me to watch because when they look at the big kids flying in the air, for them it's like a touch of magic. I can see it in their eyes and it's so much fun for me because I think maybe one day they're going to do that, too. Their going to spread their wings in a few years from now.
What are the most consistent benefits you see gymnastics offers to kids of all levels?
Gymnastics is a unique sport that teaches kids to love movement and physical activity. That's what it is. And there's no better way for a child to gain strength, coordination, speed, and agility. Gymnastics is a wonderful pathway to confidence and self-esteem for kids at all ages and sizes. I really like to emphasize that. The kids who aren't necessarily talented for team but they get into it for the fun, they're still going to get confidence and that's something that's very valuable for them. Later on they're going to maybe be a dancer, cheerleader, diver, or play soccer, etc. They might become something else because they got involved in gymnastics at an early age. You can start when you're 3, 4, 6, or 11. Your age and size don't matter. It's absolutely valuable for the kids to get touched by their experience in a class and doing a structured activity early because it builds self-esteem. I see a lot of kids before they join a class. They're very shy, very introverted, they don't want to talk to anyone, and they don't want to leave their parents. But after fifteen minutes on the floor with a very good coach you can see that they loosen up. At the end of the practice, they're doing donkey kicks and cartwheels like this is their game. We're talking about a major transformation from “I don't want to be here” to “This is so much fun and I'm enjoying myself.” And that feeling of enjoyment is something they can use. It's like planting a seed that tells them physical activity and sports are good for you. Because through the sport you can organize yourself, you have goal setting, you can discipline yourself, you can get stronger physically, you can build stronger character, and you can overcome difficulties. Those challenges are pretty much doable even in the smaller skills. The kids don't have to do the big skills right away. If they can't do a pull-up, they can do an incline pull-up. If they can't do a pullover alone, they can do it with a spot. As soon as they do the pullover, they think it's fun. So you give them the portion they can handle. But it's very important to introduce it to them early. You don't want to wait too long. If you do it's not as playful for them. When they grow older, they are more judgmental with themselves, which makes it harder to learn things. When they're younger you can give them the perspective that this is a game and you can tell them not to worry about expectations or what other people are saying, and that helps take the pressure out of it.
What's the main message that you want your students to walk away with?
I want them to feel like they can be champions in their every day lives. If they can handle gymnastics, let's say for a year, they're definitely different than before they started it. Gymnastics stays with them for the majority of their lives. If you look at social media pictures of a gymnast, you'll see pictures of them doing cartwheels and handstands on the floor, in the backyard, on vacation, etc. It stays with them and becomes a part of them. Once a gymnast, always a gymnast. Honestly, I'm 51 years old and still doing it. If you look at my Facebook page, half of the pictures are of me doing a handstand somewhere around the world! And it has nothing to do with needing to practice, it's just I see through a different language that it's a way of expressing myself. Kicking, cartwheels, flipping, it could be in a pool or the soccer field or jumping from a parachute. Whatever it is that feeling of accomplishment comes from gymnastics. That's what I want for them. It's a unique way of building their self-esteem which is like teaching them to say “I can do that.”
The magic is in them believing that they can do more now that they've done gymnastics. This is what it is. They get in a class, they work whatever the level is for whatever time it takes, and they leave the sport with a feeling of confidence that they can do a lot of things in life because gymnastics was hard and challenging and they overcame and accomplished so many things. That's the best they can get out of it. And their coaches helped build that self-esteem for them because they believed in them, too. The coaches are telling them they can do stuff that as a kid they don't believe they can do. There's always a next level with gymnastics. It's like a game. When you play a game and you're a level one, then with more time you're a level two. Then if you become extremely passionate about it you become a level ten one day. With gymnastics, the more time you spend with it, the better you're going to get. It's never ending. You can always get better. That's what I love about it. It's actually building on what you did before and it's a spring board for the next year, next sport, or next challenge.
I really believe that the sport builds stronger character because without struggle you're not going to get better. Without mistakes you're not going to learn and get better. All of those trial and error moments are actually life skills training. The bigger the challenges, the stronger you get. I'm so glad that I went through those challenges as a kid because that's what makes me who I am today. When I'm faced with a challenge where I know it's going to be hard for a while, I know it's going to work out eventually and be good at some point for a long run and that's a healthy and positive outlook. I get through the hard times easier because I believe I can do it since I've done it so many times in so many different aspects of my gymnastics career.
Every new level you struggle a little bit. When you're a level three and you get a medal at the state championships and you're in the top eighty percent, you feel like you're a superhero. Then you move up to level four and you're now in the lower twenty percent and you're an awkward level four because it's harder. Then you go to level five and you find out that you're not a superhero at all and realize you need to work harder to succeed at level five. Then you spend that extra time, you're committed to it, and you put all the effort into it and become very good at that level and before you know it you're looking at level seven, which is now optionals, and guess what? It's even harder. Gymnastics gets harder but you get better as you go. That's why you spend that extra time and it builds that ladder of success and confidence which is absolutely valuable and will help you later on in life. It's exciting because you know that you overcame so many challenges when you were coming up through the levels. You then believe you can reach as high as you want to go. The sky is the limit because of the sport.
Thank you so much for sharing your coaching experiences, views, and wisdom with us, Bogi. There's valuable information here for parents, gymnasts, fellow coaches, and anyone who loves the sport of gymnastics and believes in the many benefits it offers at any level. We wish you continued success at Gymnastics Zone and many more years of influencing so many of our young children – our most treasured gifts - in such a positive and helpful way. Our gymnastics community is blessed to have you and your family be a part of it.