Apologies for the delay, but here is the finale to my Max L-Seat hold challenge. In the month of July I packed up everything I owned and moved moved Washington D.C. from San Francisco. And that’s not an excuse, but just to say I didn’t get as much training in as I’d like.
In retrospect I should I have trained more abs. I did a lot of quads and triceps but core is what gave out first. Still, I was able to post a higher time for my L-Seat hold. About 50% more. Take a looksee.
A friend recently emailed me an old compilation video of myself as a high school gymnast. It includes clips from both training and competition and sparked a few thoughts for me that I thought I might share. Watching the video isn’t really necessary but I’ve included it below for context.
Great training > great equipment:
I switched to a new gym and a new coach in fall of 2001-02. It was my sophomore year in high school and I was working under a young Armenian coach named Levon (who I interviewed earlier this year). He really understood great gymnastics technique and extremely enthusiastic about making sure you made corrections every turn. Despite the fact that the gym was small and the equipment was old and rickety, but I improved tremendously – making the junior national team. Even after moving to a better facility the next year, and even better equipment at Stanford, I never experienced a greater improvement in my skill as a gymnast in a single year, than I did that year.
You rarely see the long road to excellence
We often see other people only when they are at their best. Presenting at a meeting, pushing a finished feature, showcasing a portfolio. Rarely do we see the struggle, the mistakes, and the preparation that came before that performance. In the video, I repeat one move on the parallel bar, where I swing up, release and land with two arms on one bar. I do it over and over again – usually with an error. But if you just watched me in competition, you’d rarely see me miss it.
Nothing beats the thrill of performing at a high level
Watching myself compete at the USA National Championships (the clips where I’m wearing a silver, red and blue uniform) bring me back to the excitement of competition and high level performance. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the concept of “flow” which he says is triggered by a “high challenge, high skill” endeavor. I think many athletes would find that a good descriptor for their experience when competing/performing. And I think this idea applies to careers as well. Finding work that you enjoy, fulfills a market need and that you can get really good at is so important – because it feels so good to succeed at something that is hard and that you are good at.
Late last month I was hanging out with some of my old gymnastics teammates from Stanford. At their apartment, there were a pair of parallettes, and my buddy Nick challenged me to an L-Seat competition. Neither of us had done one in a while and we both gave it our best shot. I think he beat me by like 10 seconds — and I wasn’t thrilled about it.
Much more than a balance exercise, the L-Seat uses chest, triceps, quads and abs to hold. I decided to make this month’s challenge an L-Seat competition and see if I can ramp myself up so next time we face off, I’ll smoke him.
Is athletic ability something that’s transferable? Deion Sanders was an outstanding baseball and football player, but Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, struggled in his short-lived baseball career.
I spent over a decade as a nationally competitive gymnast and learned a ton about performing under pressure, overcoming fear and mastering skills. I owe much of my success to my amazing coach, Levon Karakhanyan, who trained me for the last 3 years of high school and helped me earn a spot on the US Jr. National Team. (He also is the only man I have truly feared because he was … aggressive about correcting my mistakes and making sure I finished every last rep of my strength conditioning. And yes, there were serious consequences if I cheated.)
In 2007, Levon picked up golf as a hobby but quickly made leaps and bounds in his play. He is now a single digit handicap golfer (about 7.3), which puts him in the top 16% of all golfers in the US who keep a handicap, which is even more impressive when you consider that most golfers probably don’t keep a handicap at all.
And he’s done all this while being the Head Coach for the boy’s program at NESA and raising a young son. He’s now
In the interview, Levon and I discuss:
How he got started as a gymnast himself
What differentiated him from other gymnasts
Why patience was a key quality of becoming a better coach
How he found the time to practice while holding down a full-time job
Why the ratio of practice to competition matters so much
Jason: Levon, let’s start with gymnastics. You’re my gymnastics coach. When did you start doing gymnastics?
Levon: I was about six years old in Armenia.
Jason: Did they pick you up from a program? How did they find you?
Levon: My parents were very concerned about me doing all kinds of crazy things.
Jason: You were a really active as a kid so they wanted to put you in a gym.
Levon: Yes. My aunt actually had a friend who worked in a gymnastics facility, after her complaining about me doing crazy things, she said,”Oh, it looks like he might be just the right person to do gymnastics. Why don’t you bring him over so they can check it out and see if he’s good.”
Jason: So were you a good gymnast as a kid? Did you immediately …
Levon: When I came, it was a selection process. They wouldn’t pick anybody. They were impressed. They put me on the bars. I did 10 pull-ups, and they said, “Enough,” and they were pulling me off the bars, and I was still trying to do more pull-ups.
Jason: You were pretty strong as a kid.
Jason: Did you have good air sense? Were you able to pick up some of that like the skills? Did you learn skills quickly, do you feel?
Levon: Yes, relatively quickly. It was a long process from that point. Many years of training and everything else.
Jason: You liked gymnastics too.
Levon: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It was a lot of fun. I could do everything that I wanted to do instead of everybody telling me, “Oh, stop doing that.” Everybody was like, “Oh, yes. Do more.” Continue reading →
I’ve been on a tear over the past few weeks on Quora, writing a bunch of answers to questions related to gymnastics, which suddenly becomes relevant once every four years during the Olympics. This year was no exception, except now, instead of just answering questions for my friends, I can answer them for the world on Quora and my blog.
I’ve included four of my more interesting answers, which discuss the risks of competitive gymnastics for girls, the dominance of the US men’s vs women’s gymnastics teams, the experience of doing a gymnastics vault and finally a rescoring of a 10.0 vault. (This last one actually got 200+ upvotes and got reposted by the Quora team to the Huffington Post, woot woot!)
But anyway, here are my answers. Enjoy!
Q1: Why are American female gymnasts consistently dominant, whereas American male gymnasts are overall not nearly as competitive in the world stage?
Female gymnasts far out number male gymnasts.
In 2007 (most recent date I could get numbers for) there were 67,626 female gymnasts and 12,120 male gymnasts registered with USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the US. That’s already 5.6x more girls than guys. Continue reading →
Jason Shen is a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Smithsonian. He cofounded Ridejoy, a Y Combinator backed ride-sharing startup and his work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Outside Magazine, Lifehacker and more.
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