By Gina Paulhus
Cori Cunningham is a pioneer in the adult gymnastics world. She started a class well before it became more commonplace, and over time has only further honed her craft. Whether you’re a coach looking to start an adult gymnastics class or improve one you already have–her wisdom is invaluable. If you’re an adult gymnast you will also find this interview fascinating as it gets into the psychology of learning and motivation when it comes to adult athletes. I believe you will enjoy Cori’s sound, logical advice which she is so well known for both with adult gymnasts and also the children she coaches. I am an adult gymnast who has been fortunate enough to have Cori as a coach. I am happy to have this chance to share her wealth of knowledge and experience with you. Let’s get on to the interview!
What is your full-time job?
I manage the JO Team and the Xcel Team at Atlantic Gymnastics in Portsmouth, NH and I am out on the floor coaching almost every level, every day.
What led you to start an adult class? How long have you taught one?
I started my adult class 20 years ago. I had some free time on Saturday mornings between two team groups and I was trying to figure out what I could put in there and then I had an adult interested in a private. The private turned into a semi private. The semi-private turned into an adult drop in class that has been running consistently for 20 years!
Did you have another adult coach to model after, or did you have to come up with how it would work on your own?
I was 25 years old when I started teaching the adult class and I did not know of any coaches coaching adults prior to that. I did come up with my class format all on my own and honestly 20 years later it is still very similar! It starts with a 15-minute active conditioning style warmup. We do flexibility work for 10 minutes. We do basic tumbling and basic dance skills and work our way up to higher level skills for the bulk of the class. Then the last few minutes consists of a conditioning station or two and some cool down stretching.
What makes coaching an adult different than coaching a child?
There really isn’t a huge difference between coaching an adult and a child. In fact, I would say that coaching adults is a whole lot like coaching elementary school age kids. Both age groups LOVE doing gymnastics and they soak up every suggestion and correction you give them! Both age groups are usually so thrilled to be doing gymnastics that they smile often and get excited about just about everything!
What is your favorite thing about adult gymnasts? I love coaching adult beginners – people who have never really done gymnastics before. I have had people walk into class, not knowing how to do a handstand or a forward roll, come out knowing how to do standing back tucks, front tucks, and round-off back handsprings a year later! Adults are also very thankful for feedback and for the opportunity to do gymnastics.
What is the hardest thing about coaching adult gymnasts?
Adults tend to be unable to allow themselves to make mistakes. I find some people get so angry at themselves for making a mistake that they cannot progress. They are so busy being angry at themselves for what they consider “failing “that they have trouble accepting my praise or believing that they are learning anything. I teach my young gymnasts that I need them to fail over and over again so we can locate the good parts of new skills and get rid of the parts that don’t work – but we cannot discover that unless they take a lot of different types of turns. Somehow adults find it utterly embarrassing to make a mistake and they have forgotten what learning is like. Thankfully once they realize that the gym and my class is truly a safe place to make mistakes they can relax and go through the process more successfully! I hope some of them take that lesson out into the rest of their lives!
How do you deal with a class of all different levels?
My class often has a mix of true beginners, intermediate level adults who have learned some skill through taking my class, and former gymnasts who can still do many of the gymnastics skills they did as youngsters. I have a big age range as well. The ages range between 15 years old and 55 years old. The beginning of class anyone can do. It is basic motor skills and the stretching is good for everyone. During the basics across the floor I will typically name a skill and then each individual does that skill across the floor at their level. For example, if I say “handstand walking” the beginners will be instructed to do a needle scale or a small handstand and “walk” 3 steps on their feet before the next one. The intermediate folks will attempt handstand holds and walk on feet or attempt to move a hand forward. The more advanced gymnasts will walk all the way across on hands or they will do part forward, backward and sideways. I quickly run through the beginner, intermediate, and advanced choices for each direction I give. I do exactly the same thing for the stations we do so each individual is working at their level.
Do you feel that adult gymnastics is dangerous?
Any sport that an adult participates in has a degree of risk. Any gymnastics done without proper warmup, direction, or progressions is dangerous. I tend to be a very conservative coach and I will make sure that my gymnasts of any age are well prepared for whatever skill or drill I ask them to do. We talk often about how to do things safely and I am constantly asking people to think ahead and figure out what is likely to happen when they execute a skill. For example, an adult who only comes to class twice a month who knows how to do a front tuck into the resi pit might need to be reminded each time the proper technique for taking off and landing, and they need to be reminded about how to keep their knees, their face, and their back safe while performing the skill. I also encourage my gymnasts of all ages to really listen to their bodies and stop when they notice an increase in an ache or a pain or if they notice they are getting too tired to make their body listen. Gymnastics becomes very dangerous when a gymnast is fatigued or not able to use all of their body parts right!
What seems like a good length of time for an adult class? My class is 60 minutes for some and 75 minutes for others. 60 minutes is the perfect amount of time for beginner and intermediate level adult gymnasts. I am very efficient with time and everyone tends to feel like they have had a productive practice after an hour. The folks that stay 75 minutes use the last 15 minutes to work independently on something that they are working on. If you are focused you can take a lot of turns in 15 minutes!
What are some benefits that can be gained from coming to adult gymnastics class?
Strength, body awareness, and practice at “how to learn” again 🙂 A fourth really cool thing is hanging out with other adults who appreciate doing gymnastics. There are many people who have made connections with like-minded people in my class and the camaraderie is a lot of fun!
Do you have mostly ‘regulars’ in your class?
My class is always a mix of regulars and folks who truly “drop in” (meaning they come one time, skip a month, then come three times, then skip a month, etc.). At least twice a month I have someone new try class and about 50% of the time they become fairly regular and 50% of the time they never return.
If an adult who used to do gymnastics is thinking about trying a class for the first time, any words of advice?
I say go for it and listen to your body! Everything in moderation is the best practice for all adults! The first two times back to class a lot of things may still feel a bit weird to do but by the third time you will be amazed at how good your muscle memory is!
If an adult who never tried gymnastics before is thinking about trying a class for the first time, any words of advice?
I say go for it and, for real, no one is watching you! Beginners always balk at coming because they are afraid that people in the lobby or other gymnasts are going to look at them and think they are crazy for trying something they don’t know how to do. It is fantastically awesome to take on the challenge of doing something that you don’t know how to do! Many coaches teach beginners and we have every drill and baby step in our coaching repertoire, so we can actually teach you how to do something you don’t know how to do!!!
If a coach is thinking about starting an adult class, what are some tips?
Find a time where you have lots of space on the floor. Pretty much any plyometrics, running, core, conditioning activities you do with your team kids or rec. kids will work for an adult class. It is also important to take the time to go through basics every week even though your regular higher-level adults may balk at that. Having the strong foundation to fall back on keeps them safe and keeps them moving forward in their upper level skills. Lastly, point out all that is good – adults have a hard time doing that for themselves!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I have met some of the most interesting people I know in my adult class! It is incredibly fun for me to learn about people and understand why they like to come to gymnastics. I have had dancers who want to improve their upper body strength, former gymnasts who want to just feel the way they used to feel, cross fit folks who need to learn handstand walking and muscle ups, and lifeguards who want to learn back tucks so they can do them off their chairs on Hampton Beach. I’ve had parents who want to understand what their children are doing so they come give it try. I’ve had a hoola hooper who was a trying to learn new skills for her act, and an equestrian acrobat who wanted to learn how to flip better so she could do it on horseback! I also have many people who never got to do gymnastics as a child and have always dreamt about learning a cartwheel or a back handspring who will join class to fulfill those types of dreams. My adult class is always interesting!
If you’d like to learn more about joining Cori’s class: