When I first started this blog, I said that I would be writing to help inform non-coaches why we do what we do. And I have addressed this with regards to a few specific skills, but I have not addressed this with regard to the greater picture. So this week, I’m going to take a step back, and address the question of why coaches do what we do on a grander and more philosophical level. And I think the following video provides a perfect demonstration.
The first four seconds of this video show a full-twisting layout Yurchenko on vault as viewed by an observer.
The rest of the video shows it as viewed by the gymnast. And as a former gymnast and coach, I could watch this on repeat for hours.
At 0:06, she starts the roundoff. This is the point of no-return. One way or another, she’s going over that table. Head-first. And backwards. The adrenaline level rises, and time seems to slow down for her. Any sounds, smells, even thoughts about the rest of the world, anything that doesn’t immediately affect this vault, fades into the background. It is irrelevant, and she can’t spare the focus to even allow her brain to process the existence of the outside world. As far as she is concerned in this very moment, the beginning of time was about a hundredth of a second ago, and the entire universe consists of her, the runway, the springboard, and the table.
At 0:07, her feet contact the board. Every ounce of muscle she has is straining to flatten the springboard and get off it with as much power as possible.
At exactly 0:08, she is performing the most terrifying part of the Yurchenko, the preflight. She can see neither the floor, nor the table, and is therefore flying completely blind. There is nothing she can do right now except wait for her hands to hit the table, perhaps while contemplating the fact that if she hasn’t gotten the correct angle coming off the springboard (and for this terrifying split-second, she has no way of knowing), she may well be carried out on a stretcher.
Her adrenaline is through the roof right now. Time has slowed to a crawl.
A fraction of a second (which feels to her like a century) later, she blocks off her hands and glimpses the landing mat. She has made it through the first terrifying phase of the vault, and gets a couple thousandths of a second to breathe a sigh of relief. After this, she drops the left arm while slightly raising the right elbow, causing her to start twisting.
Another fraction of a second later (keep in mind these lass three paragraphs have all taken place in less than a second, and we have not yet reached the 0:09 mark), her twist causes her to once again lose sight of the landing mat. She has enough experience doing this vault that she knows she’ll make it past her head fine, but it’s still quite disconcerting, and does nothing to slow the racing of her by-now-thundering heartbeat.
At 0:09, she once again sees the landing mat. She can now accurately guage how high she is and how fast she’s rotating. Despite the fact that she still has anadditional salto plus half a twist to perform between here and there, the finish line is in sight, and if all goes well, she’ll be able to continue watching it until she gets there. To her, the journey to reach that finish line has already been an adventure which can only be described as epic, and she is now on her way back home to planet earth.
Time, which has been crawling at a snail’s pace, begins the process of returning to its normal speed.
At 0:10, she loses sight of the floor again. Something’s a little bit off — she twisted a little too early. Having drilled this vault for years and trained it a million tiems into the pit before ever throwing a mat in, she knows she’s going to make it, but just the same, time once again slows down…
A fraction of a second later, she sees the landing again, and is about to land on it safely. Finally, she can breathe a true sigh of relief. Time returns to its normal pace. She may even begin to be aware of the thundering of her own heart, or of the existence of things other than the mat she’s about to land on — I wouldn’t bet on that yet, though.
About a quarter-second later (we still haven’t reached 0:11), her feet contact the mat and she rolls to her back. This moment is a catharsis the likes of which some people go their entire lives without experiencing. She has emerged victorious! She has performed an intricate dance with the laws of physics. She has conquered gravity, but even more amazing, she has conquered her own fears and doubts.
And what will she do next? What will she do after facing challenges both physical and psychological which would cripple or kill most mortals? She will casually walk back to the other end of the runway and do it again.
I am unashamedly weeping as I’m writing this. Weeping at how amazing this young lady is to conquer such obstacles, weeping at the sheer beauty of the strength of the body and of the mind displayed in skills such as this, weeping at how wonderful it is to be a part of a sport that can be used to help people build such strength.
This is why we coach.