SOLON– Former Solon resident Blake Kittrell is bending over backwards to help kids stay fit, accept challenges and have fun.
These days, quite literally.
Kittrell opened Kids First Gymnastics in Cedar Rapids in June, and already the gym has gained momentum as one of the fastest growing in Southeast Iowa. Kittrell merged his new gym with the well-known preschool gymnastics-on-the-big-green-bus program, Tumblebus, owned and operated for 14 years by Blake’s father, Al Kittrell. Kids First’s merger with three additional programs– Annette Rashed’s Cartwheels Gymnastics and Trampoline Club, Cedar Rapids Crossfit and Revolution Martial Arts– has transformed the gym into a single, multi-sport facility that caters to the whole family.
Collectively, Kids First’s head gymnastics coaches have over 100 years of gymnastic experience. Blake Kittrell was a competitive gymnast in his youth, but quit competing to try other things in his teenage years. He returned to the sport to help his father coach on the Tumblebus and also to coach in various other gyms in the area. Meanwhile, Blake earned his bachelor of nursing degree at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids.
It was his nursing background that inspired Blake’s holistic approach to fitness, and led him to open his own business.
“I kept wondering, how do I keep them in the gym, keep them into fitness and keep them from getting injured?” he said.
The answer is found in the 9,000 sq. ft. facility at 4601 6th St. SW in Cedar Rapids. In addition to the gymnastics programs, other siblings and parents can take advantage of the martial arts and adult fitness training available on site.
Kids First offers gymnastics for kids starting at preschool ages, tumbling, trampoline programs, competitive teams and cheer/tumbling classes. The Olympic gymnastics equipment, seven trampoline stations and custom-built preschool climbing/sliding/balancing area are all designed to give young athletes the opportunity to begin at his or her level, introducing both the physical and mental benefits of movement and fitness. If students desire, Kids First will help them work their way up to the highest level of elite competition.
“Kids First Gymnastics was started to offer an alternative type of gymnastic program, focusing on rapid progress, positive coaching, sound psychological techniques, extensive training and organization,” said Blake. Coach Mike Gillette is in charge of strength training with the gym’s rapidly-expanding competitive team, a structure somewhat unique to Kids First, said Blake.
“A lot of gymnastics is based on traditional methods that have been done for years and years,” he said. “We want to give our athletes the tools so they can be successful. Skills will come faster if their bodies are strong and in condition and ready for the next step.”
In addition to readying their muscles, Blake also trains his coaches to better work with young minds.
“Gymnastics is very psychological,” Blake said. “A lot of coaches teach physical skills and forget the mental skills.”
There are emotional aspects to any sport, as well, and that’s where Kids First employs another unique strategy. Kittrell and his trainers follow the Postive Coaches’ Alliance (PCA) philosophy that has dual goals of doing well in the sport and also learning life lessons along the way.
“A big influence on the way we teach is John Howard from the Gymnastics Zone,” said Blake, “Basically, it’s all about the kids, and it keeps the focus there. You start by finding what they are doing right.”
So instead of reminding students what they are doing wrong, coaches take every opportunity to give them positive feedback on what they do right.
Coach Shellia Price from Troy Mills said the method works well.
“We find the one thing the student is doing perfectly, and make sure they know it,” said Price. “It builds their confidence higher, and that makes them willing to push a little harder from within themselves.”
Blake said using positive coaching techniques is not used by every gym.
“It’s the harder thing to do,” he said. “It helps to create internal motivation and pushes them, but in a different way.”
It is also a successful ways to manage larger groups of kids when you reinforce positive behavior instead of calling attention to the negative ones, Kittrell said.
The interaction is not just between coach and student, either, noted Price.
“We encourage kids to be positive with one another, and celebrate what each other does well,” she added.
Camryn Christener, the first official gymnast on Kids First’s competitive team, agreed.
“It’s fun to be here,” said Camryn. “I learned a lot of different things fast, because the coaches do a good job.”
She and her fellow teammates will put that endorsement to the test this coming Sept. 22, when the team takes on its first competitive meet for the season.
The next session of Kids First Gymnastic begins Sept. 26, and enrollment is now open. However, students may join in at any point in any session, and payments will be prorated, said Kittrell.
The gym also offers at Saturday night open gym session for anyone age 5 and over, from 6:30 until 9:30 p.m., a weekly opportunity for kids to work on gymnastics skills, explore the gym, go through obstacle courses and play on the trampolines. With pizza and beverages included in the price, it is a parents’ night out and kids’ night of active fun all rolled into one low, $15 admission. Birthday party packages are also available. Kids First is open six days per week. Each student’s first gymnastic lesson is free, with no obligation.