Broadway Gymnastic School teaches discipline of body and mind
Story By Christina Campodonico | Photos by Shilah Montiel
Tumbling down the length of a four-inch strip of wood with no safety net in sight would be a terrifying experience for most people.
Not so for 2016 Junior Olympic National Beam Champion Evan Pakshong, a college-bound gymnast at the Playa Vista-adjacent Broadway Gymnastic School.
“I feel safe on the beam,” the 18-year-old says. “It’s not something that I’m scared of. Some of the other events, I may have some fears sometimes, but with the balance beam I’m confident and I know I can do it.”
Pakshong is a Level 10 gymnast — one tier below the Elite Level from which Olympic gymnasts spring — and a balance beam specialist who has been training in gymnastics since she was six years old. This fall she’s off to The College of William & Mary in Virginia on a scholarship to compete on the university’s NCAA women’s gymnastics team.
To get her there, Pakshong’s coaches at Broadway Gymnastic not only had to train the young athlete’s body to perform at a highly competitive level, but also her mind.
“Gymnastics is probably 90% mental,” says Broadway Gymnastic Head Girls Coach April Brandon. “There’s a lot of fear involved, a lot of hurdles to overcome, so we feel like we’re psychologists as well as coaches.”
To train her students, Brandon relies on mental techniques in addition to physical ones.
“You’d be surprised how many, when they start, see themselves crash or see themselves fall. So it takes training and practice even just to get their brain to be able to see [themselves doing] it perfectly as well,” says Brandon. “We do things like deep breathing to help them learn how to relax and control their nerves at a meet. We teach them things like cue words — one thing that they might say to themselves before they do the trick to remind them what they need to do to stay on, or get it right. And then we also use mental imagery where they learn how to close their eyes and picture how to do that skill perfectly.”
“The cup is half full. It’s never half empty at Broadway,” adds Broadway Gymnastic owner Michael Cates.
Head Boys Coach Douglass Johnson picked up similar positive mental techniques from training with a physical therapist and competing for a spot in this year’s Olympic trials, and he uses them to teach his students how to grapple with the scary parts of the sport — big jumps, flips and tumbles.
“Fear is a big factor,” says Johnson, talking about how he assuages those fears. “The first thing I would do is determine if it’s a rational or irrational fear. If it’s a rational fear — if they’re afraid of hitting the bar, or afraid of falling and landing on their head — that’s an easy fix: Let’s put a bar pad in between your hands, so if you do hit the bar it won’t hurt,” he explains. “You provide
a situation where it makes complete sense that things are safe. You convince the brain that it’s safe.”
And convince it that it is capable of processing more information than we think. Working with his physical therapist, a masseuse and acupuncturist during his attempt to make it to
the trials, Johnson learned how he could train his body to inform his brain with eye exercises that strengthened his visual acuity, skin massages that stimulated scar tissue from previous injuries and affirmation mantras that nurtured a positive mindset.
“It’s like doing a research paper,” says Johnson, who studied aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and competed on their NCAA championship teams. “You want to have a lot of information and correct information in order to be able to sift through the data and provide a very, very succinct research paper. If you have one or two sources and you don’t have a lot of input, you’re not going to have a good research paper. It’s the same thing for your brain. The more input that you have, it provides your brain enough information to know how to output, how to function.”
Bringing these various mind-body exercises together was a revelation for Johnson as an athlete and a coach.
“The older you get, the smarter you become about your training. The more you understand the skills. Things kind of just click,” says Johnson, who now focuses on “coaching the mind” as well as the body and the connections in between.
“What I’ve discovered from my experience in gymnastics is nerves can be interpreted as fear or as excitement,” says Johnson.
The real trick, he says, is forgetting the fear in order to fly free.