Gymnastics has long been associated with muscle strength, flexibility, and the drive win.
But for one gymnastics school, their athlete’s psychological growth and development is just as, if not more, important.
LIC Kids Gymnastics has been in the New York City area for over 9 years and is currently making large strides in the development of the minds and bodies of the athletes in its program.
Leading the development of these athletes are Morgan Lennon (Director) and Natalie Fuertes (Assistant Director).
Over the past couple of years, in conversations with staff and program families, it has been mentioned that the empowerment of the young girls in their program should be a focus and priority.
In response, Morgan and Natalie have brought in guest speakers and created activities to nurture the development of their female athletes to be more confident and strong in who they are.
They also have observed a need within their program to support their athletes who identify as LGBTQ or who are dealing with their gender identity.
GBC: One of the things you prioritize in your program is the empowerment of young girls. How or why did this become a priority for your gym?
LICKG: For us, the empowerment of young girls wasn’t even a discussion or a choice, it was a given. In the right gymnastics environment, the empowerment of young girls seems like a natural byproduct of what you’re doing in the gym. We tell them it’s ok to want to be strong AND pretty, and we provide them with positive examples of women that they can emulate. More than anything, we want to bolster their self-confidence so that they can define what beauty and strength means for them.
GBC: What are some things you do within your program to support this empowerment?
LICKG: LIC Kids Gymnastics recently enlisted the help of a sports psychologist to help ensure our coaches, gymnasts, and parents are all aligned in our effort to create a positive environment for our athletes. Our gym’s philosophy is based on positive coaching, wherein we value being a good teammate, supporting one another, and working hard to achieve your goals, more than we value banners and medals. This isn’t to say that we don’t value a competitive spirit either! Our athletes constantly shine at competitions and bring home plenty of banners and medals. It’s just the path that we take to get there is one that is full of a lot more smiles and high-fives.
GBC: You recently created two videos, “#girlchampions” and “#girlchampion Minis”, that highlighted your girl team members. What was the purpose of these videos?
LICKG: We created those videos as part of a larger celebration of girls and women in sports for our “Brunch of Champions” fundraiser. The videos were a conscious effort to present girls with positive images to counteract the more traditional media images they are bombarded with daily. We wanted to remind girls that they are strong and powerful and beautiful, and these messages need to be as prominent as the other negative images they may see. Plus, let’s be honest, they loved seeing themselves on YouTube!
- “#girlchampion minis” video will be our Featured Video for April
GBC: Tells us about the “Brunch of Champions” that you recently held in conjunction with National Girls & Women in Sports day?
LICKG: The goal of the event, the Brunch of Champions, was to celebrate the accomplishments of women and girls in sports, with a focus on gymnastics. We wanted to highlight the positive influence that sports can have on the lives of girls by creating a community that encourages and celebrates girl champions. It turned out to be a great celebration, filled with lots of families, brunch, a fashion show, a presentation by former UCLA gymnast Sophina Dejesus, and lots of prizes. Sophina spoke to the children about the adversities she faced as a young gymnast.
GBC: You have great community and corporate support for your “Brunch of Champions”. Tell us about some of your community and corporate sponsors.
LICKG: The event led to some great partnerships. We worked closely with Athleta, Gap’s athleisure brand, who’s mission “to ignite a community of active, healthy, confident women and girls who empower each other” aligns very closely with ours. With their help, we hosted a fun fashion show featuring their Athleta Girl line that our gymnasts were more than happy to model. JetBlue was gracious enough to fly Sophina in, and Z Hotel, a local hotel in Long Island City, NY, hosted her stay. In addition, we had a ton of local businesses provide us gift certificates for our raffle, and some larger businesses, such as GoGo Squeez and Kind, provided us with items for our goody bags. We are so appreciative of all of the support we received!
GBC: The event was also a fundraiser for a great organization. What organization did you choose to support?
LICKG: While we wanted the event to be a fun celebration of women and girls in sports, we also wanted to use the opportunity to raise money for a great organization, Girls Inc. Their mission to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold really resonated with us. Their NYC chapter serves girls from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds with programs that help them lead healthy lives, learn how to manage money, navigate social media, and build an interest in STEM related fields.
GBC: In addition to empowering girls, tell us about your mixed gender classes and the purpose behind that.
LICKG: If a child is trans or gender non-conforming, it can be difficult because gymnastics is a sport that deals with their body and their physicality, and muscle mass and hormone levels are all factors that impact their ability to perform. In addition, there’s also limited clothing and the status quo dictates that “leotards” are only for “girls” and “unitards” are only for “boys”. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.
For example, when you get in a leotard, people can see your “body” regardless of whether you feel that body reflects who you really are. And that feeling can be overwhelming. Ultimately, we want “gender” to be a non-issue for our gymnasts. We want the athletes to feel safe and welcome and not have to think about gender while they’re here. They should just be here to have fun, support their team, and practice a sport we all love.
GBC: You are considering the possibility of a mixed gender team that will compete under the JO Girls Program rules. Why?
LICKG: Why wouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to compete? An athlete should get to compete in the gender that they identify with. Period. The presumption is that boys are stronger than girls. So if someone is biologically “male” and they participate in a “female” division, the belief is that they would automatically win because they are stronger, faster, and better. Who says that’s true? We have plenty of girls on our team who can out-run and out-perform their male counterparts (including some of the dads). Our priority is the well-being of our athletes, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. And we will do everything in our power to make sure all aspects of their well-being are supported.
GBC: Tell us how you are also considering adapting your facility to accommodate children dealing with their gender identity.
LICKG: Today, our bathrooms are gender neutral. As we expand, we are also planning to offer boys, girls, and gender neutral locker rooms. In addition, we are planning to offer a class specifically for trans kids, creating an opportunity for them to explore and practice the sport in a safe and welcoming environment.
GBC: How do you plan to implement and what is your time frame for all these initiatives?
LICKG: We’re in the process of exploring a second location, so these enhancements will be part of the construction.
GBC: You will shortly be celebrating “Pride Week”. What types of things did you do in your facility to celebrate?
LICKG: We are celebrating “Pride Week” in June. We’ll be decorating the facility, creating handouts and arts & crafts projects about different families centered around the theme “Love Is Love”. In addition, we are planning for an outdoor family friendly event as part of the larger “Pride Week” celebration.
GBC: With your facility being progressive in support of your community’s youth, how do you plan to deal with any possible backlash from those who may not support the direction of your program?
LICKG: We’re here to protect and nurture children, and if an adult cannot wrap their brain around that, then this isn’t the place for them. Our job is to ensure our athletes are safe and happy and loved. We’re not responsible for making an adult feel comfortable.
GBC: What would you say to those individuals who may not agree with the philosophy of your gym?
LICKG: This is an opportunity for people to see that these aren’t big, bad, scary ideas. It’s just a six-year-old who wants to be themself. We don’t understand how someone can hate that. We hope that it will lead to increased tolerance because these issues (i.e. “gender”, “sexuality”, “identity”, etc.) will no longer just be philosophical notions and talking points. The issues will be humanized. And folks will simply start to see a tiny human who could really use your love and support.