This is the 11th edition of Making Connections where we take a random (illustrated) walk down tech, fitness, product thinking, org design, nerd culture, persuasion, and behavior change.
This edition is all about gymnastics, similar to Protest edition MC#005. Next week is humor edition and then maybe I’ll go back to mixing it up for a while.
1. 🐥 Why are gymnasts often so young?
Cedric, one of my inspirations for trying a new writing format (MC#002) tweeted about this a16z podcast with professional climber Alex Honnold (the guy who free soloed El Capitan). The episode explores the maturity of the training regime of different sports: climbing is fairly new, while marathon running and weight lifting is more established. Less mature sports can support older athletes because the understanding of technique is still being discovered. Plus
Gymnastics from a maturity perspective is fairly new, and equipment plays a role, which makes the youth question more interesting.
Women tend to peak earlier than men. If you look at the US women's Olympic team in Rio 2016, their ages were: 16, 19, 19, 21, 22) with the two girls in their twenties both competitors in 2012. A decade earlier, it was a different story: Annia Hatch and Mohini Bhardwaj were both 26 when they competed in Athens ('04) for the US Olympic team.
The men's Rio team was aged 21, 23, 24, 25, a29, so about a 5 year difference. As we've covered before in MC#008, we have Jordan Jotchev who competed in 6 Olympics, the last one at age 39, with totally white hair. But even more impressive is Oksana Chusovitina, who has Jotchev beat, competing in 7 Olympics (1992-2016) under three different nations and was set to compete in the 2020 Olympics (now postponed) at a breezy 45 years old.
"I've been training in this sport long enough that if I even wake up and am still breathing, it's a plus" - Oksana
Clearly it's possible to compete at a high level while older, but it's also true that it's not financially very lucrative (at least in the US) and thus wiser to parlay your success into a different career. Conversely, rock climbing is something you can do on the weekend for fun and you can acquire the equipment on your own.
Gymnastics demands more ongoing training and the equipment is expensive and must be housed. Even as a high level gymnast, if I took a week off (which maybe I'd do once a year), my first day back in the gym felt like being inside a different person's body. Nothing felt right and everything hurt.
2. 🎬 Athlete A
The youth of America's female gymnasts may have led them to be more susceptible to gaslighting and unable to respond to abuse of the verbal, physical, and sexual kind. That's one of the takeaways from Athlete A, the Netflix documentary I mentioned last edition about Larry Nassar.
I watched it recently and highly recommend it. The topic is not a walk in the park - Nassar was the US national team doctor for decades and over 500 women including 9 Olympians came forward stating that he violated them under the guise of treatment. But as much as it’s about the abuse and coverup, it’s about how he was brought to justice.
You may remember McKayla Marooney's "not impressed" face became a meme when she won Silver on vault for a performance where she literally fell. (ie she would have won easily had she landed). The sour look takes on a whole new dimension when you consider that she came forward saying Nassar molested her starting at age 13 through her retirement and USA gymnastics had her sign a confidentiality agreement preventing her from speaking out about it.
Nassar was a monster and absolutely deserves his 40-120 year prison sentence. But USA Gymnastics leadership protected him and buried earlier complaints.
That part is painful for me because I looked up to this organization as it represented what I wanted to do and be. It's hard to separate my desire to excel from the national team training camps I participated in and the warm up jackets I received from the awful truth of what they enabled.
A big part of the documentary focuses on the gaslighting of these young athletes. When you are the victim of the abuse, it can be so incredibly toxic to be told nothing is wrong.
The inimitable reporter Dvora Meyers, who does the best gymnastics coverage anywhere, interviewed Jennifer Sey, a former US national team champion and now SVP at Levi Strauss who wrote about her experience of abuse in gymnastics in a 2008 memoir.
DM: You had one of the most important insights in the movie (in my opinion at least) when you spoke about how essentially you and other gymnasts have been gaslighted, thinking you’re hungry but being told that you’re not; thinking you’re working hard but being told that you’re lazy; thinking you’re injured but being told that you’re fine. What does that kind of repeated gaslighting do to a person, in the short and long term?
JS: It’s incredibly disorienting. You don’t believe your own experience as you move through the world because you’ve been told that what you are experiencing is not only not true, it’s your fault. It is typical abuser gaslighting. Imagine a mom hits her child. She says to the child, “If you behaved I wouldn’t have to hit you.” What this says to the child is: I’m not beating you, I’m doing this because you need to be taught a lesson. This is your fault. Then the child grows up thinking any abuse heaped upon her is her fault. She deserves it. And she can end up in abusive situations because, on some level, she feels she deserves this treatment. It is a difficult web to unwind. And it starts by believing in your own experience in the world. Being able to say and know: I am being mistreated. And I don’t have to take it. I am worthy just as I am.
It reminds me of how we kept saying "This is not normal" when Trump got elected. 3.5 years later and - it has become somewhat normalized. We get used to unprecedented, inconceivable actions over time, and building the momentum for change takes tremendous effort.
The Washington Redskins are finally changing their name after decades of criticism, due in large part to Black Lives Matter. It took the courage of victims coming forward, relentless investigative reporting, lawyers, detectives, and the #metoo movement to finally end Nassar's 20 year career of abuse. And if this man could get away with it for so long at such a high level, there must be others who still out there.
That's not a particularly upbeat conclusion but I will say that the documentary highlights the heroes who did step up and fight back. Athlete A is was the “Jane Doe” name of Maggie Nichols, who’s a core part of the story as she formally reported Nassar in 2015 and kicked off series of actions that led to his demise. Nichols was punished for this report and was not selected for the Rio 2016 team, but went on to have a wildly successful NCAA career. Sey, interviewd above is one of the producers for this film and if anything, it's uplifting to see how someone could rise above her trauma and bring a spotlight to this story.
Go watch Athlete A.
3. 👩🏾🏫 Simone Biles Has a MasterClass
I feel like I can't end this newsletter on such a sad note, so here's one more thing. Simone BIles has a Masterclass on gymnastics. Is it good? I skimmed through it and I think it depends on what you're looking for.
I'm most interested in how she developed into an elite gymnast. The psychology of learning new skills, competing on the world stage. But for most of the people who are going to be new buyers of MasterClass ($90 for one class isn't cheap) I think it's going to be parents of young gymnasts.
The class includes both basics and advanced training on each of the 4 women's events. The basic training shows a young gymnast performing drills, where they break down the right way to do the drill with some nice motion graphics.
The advanced segment features Biles herself voicing over intermediate and advanced skills, and breaking down the some of her more exciting competitive moments. It's shot super well, with lots of camera angles, and helps you appreciate just how great of an athlete she really is.
There are also segments on working with coaches and developing discipline which is great but you could might hear those same ideas from any national caliber or even NCAA level gymnast. But as Adam Keesling in Napkin Math argues, Masterclass is about credentials:
Masterclass is selling the LeBron James poster we put on our bedroom wall, not the skills coach we hire to train us three times a week. And they’ve learned that adults aren’t so much different from our 11-year-old selves: we love to be inspired by the greatest humans on this planet.
It makes a difference who's giving the advice and in what context. If you're struggling with staying focused in the gym and you hear the most successful gymnast of all time share the same thing, it will probably hit home harder.
Bottom line, I assume you're not training to be a better gymnast, so maybe skip the basic drills segments, but otherwise you'll have a great time.
And that’s it for edition #011 for Making Connections. Thanks for joining this band of curious readers. Would love to hear your thoughts (just reply or click the comment button to start a conversation!)
Yours in sweat and chalk,