Gym coach raises bar to new heights

It may come as a surprise, but renowned gymnastics, tumbling and acrobatics coach John Palmer was never a gymnast.In fact Palmer, who is the founder of the popular Palmer’s Gym, was a soccer coach when he opened the gym’s doors in Bendigo almost four decades ago.However, despite not learning the skills as an athlete, Palmer has proven that he has the energy, drive and enthusiasm to create some of the region’s best gymnasts, tumblers and divers.Before his time in Bendigo, Palmer travelled the world as a FIFA soccer coach, heading up teams in the United States, Switzerland and Japan, but it was when he returned to the UK that he developed an interest in gymnastics.“I went back to England for a couple of months and at that time all the kids were doing gym, which was in Windsor – the home of gymnastics,” he said.“I thought, gee these kids can flip and twist and my dad was a gymnast, but I’d never done gym, but I was really interested.“I then decided that when I came back to Australia I would start teaching kids gymnastics, because it wasn’t being done properly.”However, teaching gymnastics properly proved to be a difficult task for a soccer coach, so Palmer called on the help of some people in the know.“When we bought the uneven bars they sat there for six months because they came with no literature,” he said.“So I phoned one of the girls who represented Australia in 1956, Barbara Cunningham, and asked her to come up and work with the kids, and in 12 months we were unbeatable on bars,” he said.“I just sourced the people I needed. I have always had a connection with China so I got in touch with a mate of mine who was a master of sports acro in Shanghai and had since moved to Melbourne. We got him to come up every month to work with the children.”Palmer believes not being a specific gymnastics coach works in his favour, because it allows him to view the sport from a different perspective, which he said was the beginning of his success.“You are a much better coach when you haven’t done it before because you ask yourself the questions, how can we work better on bars, and how can we do that better on beam,” he said.“You are able to look at it from an outside perspective and it worked.“It paid off. After about four years, we had three kids on full-time gymnastics scholarships at the AIS in Canberra.”Palmer formed a working relationship with the AIS and was recognised as one of the best suppliers of quality gymnasts at the time.Palmer sent a number of students to the Institute, but his dealings with the AIS drew to a halt when it turned one of his students away.“The institute asked me to send up my next best girl, so I sent a girl up with her dad, and she was better than the previous three,” he said.“Her dad was tall and the Eaglehawk full forward and they said to her she didn’t have a future because she was going to be a tall girl.“They brought her back to Bendigo and her dad was furious. That was on the Monday and by the Friday I’d sold every bit of gymnastic gear.“We sold the bars, the beam, everything, because I was never going to put a child in that situation again.”Palmer decided to create a new identity for his gym, and became dedicated to the idea of never turning away a child who wanted to learn, after his dealings with the AIS.With the skills he had in place and the relationships he had formed, Palmer transformed his gymnasium into a centre for tumbling and acrobatics.“I knew I still loved teaching movement and I thought about why kids wanted to do gymnastics.“It was usually because they wanted to do a cartwheel or a somersault.“I started doing tumbling, diving and sports acrobatics and that became magical.”Palmer was elected as national president of acrobatics, which resulted in him holding a place on the Australian Olympic Committee following the Sydney Olympics.The hype of the Olympic Games meant parents and teachers were coming to Palmer, asking him to make their kids into champions.One of those children was Olympic gold medallist Chantelle Newbery, who was referred to Palmer by her school principal.“We started to get divers as well and Chantelle Newbery’s principal called me. He was from Castlemaine and he said he had a really top girl,” Palmer said.“The girl he sent along was talented, but always upset so I asked him to send his toughest girl along, and he sent Chantelle.“One of my girls was back from the institute and she was rolling doubles into the pit, and Chantelle, who couldn’t even do a cartwheel, started to do doubles, and I said to her mum and dad they had a world champion.“She then went on to win a gold medal in diving.”Following Chantelle’s success, Palmer’s Gym received international interest, with coaches and athletes from the other side of the world wanting to know Palmer’s secret to success.“Once we got a gold medallist we had phone calls from around the world, from the Chinese and from the Polish coach, saying well done,” Palmer said.“The thing is, I’m not a diving coach, but the kids who came and worked here were divers, and why? Because we teach them how to fly.“We became a magnet for parents who wanted their children to fly.”Palmer’s success continues today, with the sought-after coach working with world-class tumblers Bronte Boils, Haylee Wellard and Jaclyn McAliece, who are all making their mark on the world stage.Palmer said the key to his success was his ability to understand how children learned and how those lessons could be applied to everyday life.“I teach skills, but I coach children,” he said. “You have to read the mind of a child and the longer you teach, the more you’re able to do that.“Learning a backflip is all about overcoming things and about bouncing back from things.“It’s a closed skill, but it’s the same as learning how to bounce back from something like a job rejection or a poor ENTER score.”After almost 40 years of teaching, Palmer said he still wasn’t ready to call it a day.“One of the things about being a teacher or a coach is that you are teaching the same age group of kids while you are getting older, so you need to keep the same enthusiasm and energy,” he said.“The second day that I come in and don’t want to coach is the day that I start looking for something else.“The day that I don’t get a buzz about seeing a child improve is the day that I stop.”

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