“I cannot imagine that I wouldn’t be jumping on a trampoline,” Rudy Van Daele replied when asked what his future plans are. As a gymnastics coach, he has made a lifelong commitment to providing children with the opportunity to play, which he feels is a crucial part of their development. The Queens native remembers always being outside as a youngster and wants the same experience for the youth of today. “That’s what the gym is about, because it changed so rapidly,” he said. “The gym is about restoring those opportunities.”
The gym Van Daele started in 1984, LifeSport, came about after changes were made to the gymnastics program at the Walden School, where he was coaching at the time. The parents there actually found him a location at West 83rd Street and Central Park West at Temple Rodeph Sholom. “We started with 125 kids who I had been working with, and by the end of the year we had 250 and by the fourth year, we were up to about 500,” he explained. As the years went on, the gym was housed in different places, mainly on the Upper West Side. The Church for All Nations on West 57th Street was their last location, until the church closed. While he searches for a new home for LifeSport, Van Daele is giving classes on Sundays at The ROC Network for Learning on East Second Street.
What got you into the coaching profession?That’s a good question because it very much tells the story of what the gym’s about. It starts with really good parenting. I had very good parents and lots of affection and attention. Given those circumstances, I had a lot of time to play and know myself very well. And I know when I’m being supported. And those are the two most important things in developing, and I had that from the beginning of my life. I just loved climbing trees, swinging on branches, jumping over mailboxes and swinging around poles. This was a very common thing when I was growing up. This is what kids did. You wrestled each other; you rolled down hills. We had a lot of time outside. The most common expression you would hear when I was growing up was, ‘Get out of the house; go out and play.’ The gym is about creating an environment where that will be stimulated. To play with absolute freedom. To be free of distraction and desire. To be so free you don’t have to think anymore. And that condition is a human condition. It’s the most natural thing we do.
Before you started LifeSport, you were teaching gymnastics at the Walden School’s afterschool program.I was at the Walden School, and at that time, gymnastics was taught as a theater program for higher levels of competition. You get the kids in, you warm them up, you take them through a course of different exercises, you cool them down, you send them home. Coming from my background, and I was only hired as a substitute so I had a lot of freedom, I started to pay attention to the kids not for their athletic abilities, but for who they were. And once you do that, you develop a completely different relationship. And then the kids start to do things on their own. And if there’s time to do that, I realized that a child who’s doing something on their own will continue to explore it outside the gym. The kids in my class were developing skills more rapidly than the kids in the other classes, except for competition. And those kids would bring their parents into the gym. And then it’s just like family and you and the parent are marveling over what their child can do. When a parent says, ‘You’re a really good coach,’ I flip it and say, ‘Well, you must be a really good parent because your child is happy and focused and brings you into the gym. You must be doing something really great at home.’
You consider the trampoline to be very beneficial. What are its benefits?The trampoline is grossly misunderstood. It’s a marvelous device. People think that you can fall off it and hurt yourself. But if you think about it, it’s a surface that bounces. And you decide how much it’s going to bounce. So that’s why it’s so safe for very young children. Little ones, like a year or two years old, you supervise them because they might run off the end. The trampoline brings you back to giving attention to yourself. My role as a coach is to assist you in doing that. Anyone I bring on the trampoline, first I tell them they can jump a little or a lot, and then I tell them when they get a good feeling, to stay with that, and everything else will happen automatically. Once you relax and feel it, you will feel a little bit lighter. If an adult comes on a trampoline, I’ll stand on with them. We’re looking at each other face to face. I put my hands out; you rest your hands on my palms. And I’ll move the trampoline very gently and watch your face. And when you smile, I’ll move it a little bit more. And if I don’t get the smile, I’ll move it a little bit less. The trampoline is restorative; it’s good for rehabilitation. It puts gravity on all the cells of your body. It’s a total workout.
I read that some of your staff consists of your former students.William Maldonado started at the gym at 5 years old. He came to the gym and started running all over the room. He still does that to this day. He’s now 25 and he’ll come in the gym the same way. When I see him walk into the gym it’s like the biggest party that’s ever happened. All the kids get really excited like the circus came to town. Then he’ll get up on the trampoline and start throwing beautifully executed tricks.
What are your future plans?The first thing is to find a location on the Upper West Side and continue working with the kids and families that I’ve been working with. The future plan, beyond that, would be to spread the basic idea of the program, of creating a situation where a child can give themselves a lot of attention and then you could know the child through that attention they give to themselves and see what you could use from that. To get that idea out in as many forms as possible, like documentaries, books, workshops. To get the message out that every one of us has to maintain the integrity of self-learning and playing. We all have to play. It’s for our mental health. It’s for our development. It’s for the health of our society.
To learn more, visit www.lifesportgym.com