Have you ever wondered what it was like to attend a National Team Camp?
Did you ever want to know what types of things go on during a camp or if the pressure was so intense that you could feel it?
Jenn Camps Larsen, Program Director and Coach at Tigar Gymnastics in Wheat Ridge, CO, also had these questions until she was able to attend her first National Team Camp a few weeks ago.
As one of the coaches for Tigar’s two Junior Elites, Jaymes (Jay Jay) Marshall and Lauren Letzsch, Jenn had the opportunity to coach at a Camp with Jay Jay.
GBC sat down with Jenn to talk about coaching at the Elite level and attending her first National Team Camp.
Q: How does the pressure of coaching JO athletes compare to coaching Elite athletes?
A: In JO you get an off season or recovery/training time. This allows the athlete’s time to learn and progress new skills at their pace. JO athletes can be successful without having the biggest and newest skills out there. In elite, there really is not an “off season”, every day is another opportunity to be better than you were the day before. Every day, someone in the Elite world gets a new skill. You have to keep up with everyone else to stay in the game. So you are constantly training upgrades and new skills year round.
Q: Did you feel any pressure coming into a gym where the athletes are making their way up the ranks of the Elite level?
A: Yes. The expectation is high from my partner coach, the parents and even from the athletes. Athletes at this level know when a coach is good or not. They know if you can make them better or not. Parent pressure can be much more because they want to know that their athlete is in good hands and that a knowledgeable and experienced coach is going to help their kid be successful. My partner coach, Marcelo, adds his own level of pressure because he has so much experience and knowledge. He pushes me to be the best coach I can for our girls.
Q: How did your athletes get to attend the National Training Camp?
A: Jay Jay and Lauren have been attending Developmental team camp. Valeri and the national team staff believed that Jay Jay’s skill level and developmental progress had reached the point that they wanted to see how she did at the National Team Camp.
Q: What type of preparation did you need to do leading up to the National Training Camp, for yourself and/or your athletes?
A: The National team staff provides us with guidelines and expectations for camp. So we adhere to what they are asking us in preparing for camp.
Q: What type of emotions did you feel as you made your way to the Camp?
A: WOW! So many emotions especially on the way out to camp.
Pride in myself for helping an athlete reach this level and also pride for reaching this level of my professional development. Self-doubt that I was not good enough of a coach and that the national team staff would think I was not worthy or good enough yet to be at this level. Worried that I would get in the way of Marcelo or other coaches. I would say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Nervous for Jay Jay to verify on her events, had we done everything we could to prepare her. Nothing is worse as a coach then the feeling that you could have done more to aid your athletes! Joy, just pure joy.
Q: Once you were there, describe the atmosphere of the first day of training and as the Camp went on?
A: It carries a level of intensity but was definitely a lighter mood than I expected. The national staff is all very friendly and really wants to help us get the best from these athletes. They don’t scold you or your athlete for mistakes, rather they use the time to truly teach both of you how to be better. The work out is fast pace and you do have to keep up. There is only 1 speed and that is “GO”!
Q: At this camp, what were the expectations of the athletes by Valerie Liukin?
A: At this time he (Valeri) is expecting the athletes to be training half routines and/or full routines with dismount separate. Athletes verified on all 4 events and he was looking for consistency from the previous camp.
Q: What did you learn or what advice did you get, if any, from some of the top coaches in the country while attending this camp?
A: There is so much information I could fill a book. “Details, details, details”… concentrate on the small stuff is what I heard the most from the staff. Do not neglect your basics, strong basics help with the details and technique. The details keep you consistent and at this level they want to see you hit the routine 10 out of 10 the same way. They want to know that when you salute the judge nothing will change.
Q: How much coaching do the athletes receive from the National staff?
A: The National staff work with both you and your athlete, so if one of us is getting a correction then both of us get the correction. They want both the coach and the athlete to be informed, it’s a team effort.
Q: What type of “homework” do you and the athletes receive leading up to the next camp?
A: We receive a list of expectations for the camp with our invitation letter. Your homework, usually comes in the form of “what did we not do well on at camp?” the previous time. So if your athlete struggles on beam, you know you need to get back in the gym and work on your beam.
Q: Now that this camp has ended, how are athletes invited or not invited back to the next training camp?
A: Valeri and the national staff review the athlete’s work at the previous camp and make a determination for the next camp. How they decide, I do not know but I believe that mystery is a part of what makes USA gymnastics the best in the world.
Q: Looking back at your first National Team Camp, what do you pull away from this experience?
A: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming… No dwelling on mistakes, just learn from them, make the corrections and move on to the next thing. The world of elite gymnastics is hard. There is not a single athlete at camp that is not working their butt off. No one is out there existing on talent alone and that includes the coaches.
It was so great to see how humble all the other coaches are. Some of them have produced several top elites and even Olympians but they were still right there next to me in the trenches learning and doing everything they can to be better for their athletes. It reminded me to never be done learning, you are never that good that you cannot learn or improve. It’s obvious that those coaches are at the top of the sport because they never think they have it all figured out.
Q: Any exciting experiences you would like to share with us while you were at camp?
A: I had a few exciting experiences while at camp.
First was getting to watch my athlete nail her beam routine in verification. She did an amazing job and even though there is always work to be done, it was a moment I will never forget. Both of us took the biggest sigh of relief as soon as she finished saluting.
NEXT, I finally got to meet my childhood idol, Kim Zmeskal. She is my all-time favorite gymnast and is the nicest and sweetest person you will ever meet.
On the first morning of training I was standing off to the side a bit shy and intimidated by the whole thing (and that’s saying a lot because if you know me then you know that I am not shy.) Kim saw me and walked over to introduce herself (as if I didn’t know who she was, LOL) and welcomed me to camp.
The other amazing experience was attending the small Christmas party and getting to meet THE Bela Karolyi. I walked into a room where everyone else had either been coached by him, or had met him on several occasions. They got a good giggle out of me when I stopped dead in my tracks, my mouth fell open and I just stood there completely in awe. Bela could totally tell I was a bit star struck so he walked over to take a picture with me.