A Balancing Game: How Gymnastics Taught Me to Manage Proposals Gracefully



Growing up, I dedicated an inordinate amount of my life to gymnastics. To excel in gymnastics, or even do moderately well, you have to spend a lot of time practicing—and so I spent a lot of time in the gym.

I was a decent gymnast. I had some natural talent, but I had to work hard to get by. I wasn’t naturally flexible, nor was I particularly graceful. I spent what seemed like endless painful eternities being stretched by my coaches so that my legs looked straighter, my shoulders opened farther, and my splits split wider.

I endured countless ballet and dance classes aimed at making my moves on the floor and balance beam less stilted and awkward. I eventually became pretty good at the sport—but my point is that it took a lot of work.

So What Does This Have to Do With Proposals?
As I reflect back on my experience as a gymnast, I realize that over the years, I have transferred so many of the lessons that I learned in the gym to how I deliver in the proposal room. In addition to helping me develop skills like perseverance and grit, gymnastics taught me the importance of great coaches, hard work, and failing gracefully.

Tenacity and Grit
Tenacity and grit are so critical in the world of gymnastics—and similarly so in the world of proposals. Tenacity is the quality displayed by someone who just won't quit, who keeps trying until they reach their goal. Similar to tenacity, grit describes a positive, non-cognitive trait based on one's perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal.

Tenacity and grit are something we’re all born with. If you’ve ever watched a baby learning how to walk, you’ve witnessed tenacity and grit first hand. No matter how many times the baby falls down, he or she keeps trying and trying and trying, until finally the baby has mastered the art of walking.

To learn a new skill in gymnastics takes a similar tenacity and grit. It takes breaking the skill down into pieces, practicing drills, and then falling down and failing, repeatedly, until you finally master the new skill.

To get a proposal out the door frequently takes tenacity and grit as well. We’re often faced with obstacles—incomplete capture plans, inexperienced proposal teams, uncooperative Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), challenging requirements, and more.

Tenacious and gritty proposal managers know how to overcome these challenges and work around the barriers to submit compliant, compelling, and winning proposals.

These gritty proposal managers are unstoppable, and they won’t let anything get in the way of a potential win. 

To Excel You Need Great Coaches
I was so lucky to have great coaches as a gymnast—coaches who taught me to be my best self, to capitalize on my strengths, and to work on my weaknesses. Without these amazing coaches, I could never have reached the level of competitive gymnastics that I did.

It has been no different in the world of proposals. I have been so fortunate throughout my proposal career to have amazing mentors and coaches who have encouraged me to leverage my strengths, work on my weaknesses, and continually grow and improve as a proposal professional.

Winning is Hard Work
Like with proposals, with gymnastics, to win, you need to work hard. And you need to work hard over a fairly long period of time.

It takes time to hone new skills, perfect each routine, put yourself out there, and then—hopefully—win.

Both gymnastics and proposals involve skills that you just don’t learn overnight. You have to put in the time, work hard, and keep pressing forward, even when you want to give up.

In both the worlds of proposals and gymnastics, winning takes proper practice, planning, preparation, and execution.

It’s Important to Fail Gracefully
Competitive people want to win all the time. We hate losing. But the reality is, sometimes we all fail. In life, it’s typically from these failures that we learn the most.

As with life in general, during a gymnastics competition, sometimes you are going to have an off day. That skill that you nail 99% of the time in practice, on an off day, you’ll botch—potentially sending you flying off the balance beam in a most ungraceful way.

You’ll know you’ve lost your chance for winning. You’ll want to scream. Maybe you’ll want to cry.

But in gymnastics we’re taught to hold back the tears and negative emotions and move forward like nothing has happened. We’re taught that we can’t let one mistake impact the rest of our performance. You might have missed your chance on that one event, but you still have three more events on which to excel.

It’s the same in life, and work, and proposals. You can’t let one setback throw off your potential to succeed overall.   

Final Thoughts
Admittedly, I am probably a much better proposal professional than I ever was a gymnast. Proposal skills come much easier to me than anything in gymnastics ever did—but I think this is perhaps because I have been able to transfer so much of what I learned in the gym to how I deliver in the proposal room.

Gymnastics not only helped me develop tenacity and grit, it taught me to seek out great coaches and mentors, to work hard always, and to never let one failure impede the potential for future successes.

Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)

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