Why do we do it?

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.
Or worse.
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.

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Alyssa Moore’s tight body drill, and variations thereof

While this blog was initially aimed at parents, I seem to have a lot of coach readers as well. So in this column, I’m going to share some drills that I’ve found to be extremely effective in training a tight body and strong aerial awareness to young gymnasts.

I got this first drill from Alyssa Moore, one of our preteam coaches at Apex.

The gymnast stands with a straight, tight body

The coach pulls on the gymnast lightly, causing her to fall forward

The gymnast maintains her tight, straight position as the coach tosses her into a salto

The gymnast lands safely in the pit

The idea is that there should be zero change in the gymnast’s body position throughout this drill. This drill teaches two things: first, it allows the gymnast to begin growing accustomed to the sensation of flipping without having to worry about the mechanics of takeoff or landing; second, it teaches the gymnast to resist the natural impulse to go loose while airborne.

As the gymnast gets a bit more advanced, variations on this drill can be used to train the awareness and positions for many other skills, including…

Back layouts:

The gymnast stands on a block with her back to the pit. There should be just enough room for the coach to stand between the block and the pit

This is a good point to stop the gymnast and make any necessary corrections to body position

The coach spots the gymnast on a back salto into the pit. Again, the goal is for there to be absolutely no change whatsoever in the gymnast's body position

Front layouts:

The gymnast stands on the block, facing the pit, in a slight arch with the head up

The coach catches the gymnast as she falls forward. Again, this is a good point to stop and make any necessary corrections to body position

The gymnast maintains her body position through the salto...

... and lands safely in the pit.

Even twisting:

The gymnast begins with a completely straight body, arms out to the side

The gymnast drops one arm to the side while raising the other arm...

...causing her to twist

By isolating the salto and eliminating the takeoff and landing phases from the equation, this drill allows the gymnast to focus specifically on airborne body control and spatial awareness, both of which will be crucial when they are learning more advanced skills.

(by the way, if any of my readers are good with photoshop and can brighten up the back layout images, let me know)

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Wanted: more topic requests

Keep ’em coming, everybody! You can comment here or you can e-mail me at jeremy (at) apexgymnastics (dot) com.

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Head Position

Hello, all, sorry for the wait. Been a hectic month, but I’m ready to kick this blog back into gear.

If one listens to coaches for any length of time, one will no doubt hear a lot of corrections that deal with head position. So why is head position so important?

In the context of gymnastics, head position affects two things: orientation and body position. We’ll start with orientation.

Much of what we use to sense ballance, rotation, etc is housed in the head. This may seem like a minor and obvious point, but the implications in gymnastics cannot be overstated. When the head rotates, the brain tends to think the whole body is rotating. Because of this, gymnasts very often initiate backwards rotating skills by pulling the head backwards, and forwards rotating skills by pulling the head forwards. This is, in most cases, incorrect, but to break this habit a gymnast must break habits formed on the most basic and instinctive level. Our brains are hard-wired to judge rotation in this manner, and breaking the resulting habits therefore takes a very long time.

The second reason head position is important is that it affects the position of the rest of the body. Generally, bringing the head forward will cause the upper back to bend forward (ie hollow), and bringing the head back will cause the upper-back to arch.

To put all this into context, we’ll look common skills in which gymnasts frequently make mistakes due to improper head position.

First, let’s look at the front handspring on floor. In the second half of a front handspring, the gymnast must arch the body (particularly in the upper-back) in order to get the feet under her as quickly as possible – the goal is to land with the hips in front of the feet. Due to the way the brain senses rotation, gymnasts will reflexively bring their heads forward as they finish the front handspring, because this makes them feel like they’re rotating faster. However, this will cause the body to pull to a more hollow position, which causes the hips to sink back behind the feet. Therefore, gymnasts must focus on keeping the head back while performing the front handspring.

Another example of a skill strongly affected by head position is the back hip circle on bars. In a back hip circle, a gymnast must maintain a hollow position (in order to keep her center of mass as close to the bar as possible) while she circles backwards around the bar. Once again, by pulling the head back, the gymnast will feel like she is causing herself to rotate backwards. However, the actual result is an arch in the back; this arch pulls the center of mass further from the bar, making the skill virtually impossible to execute smoothly. So the gymnast must fight her instincts and keep her head tilted forward even as she is rotating backwards.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned – sometime in the next couple weeks, I’ll be posting a special guest column by Dr. John Conrad on some common injuries seen in gymnastics and how best to treat and prevent them.

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I’ve had a couple requests for this topic. This is a fair bit more complex than anything I’ve covered in this column so far, but it’s also really cool stuff – hopefully I’ll be able to do the subject justice.

Twisting serves two purposes in upper-level routines. First and most obviously, twisting adds value to skills. For female gymnasts, a back layout is an A, but by adding a ½ or 1/1 twist, the gymnast can increase that value to a B. A back 3/2 or 2/1 is a C, 5/2 is a D, and so on (for male gymnasts a back layout is already a B, but the rest of those values are identical).

The second purpose is to allow the gymnast to more easily spot the landing. While it seems counterintuitive, there are some instances where twisting makes a skill easier to land consistently. One excellent example is in a Tsukahara on vault (performed here by its inventor, Mitsuo Tsukahara). A Tsuk, while not that difficult to rotate, is extremely difficult to stick, because the gymnast cannot see the landing until the last half-salto. At this point, the gymnast is rotating extremely fast, giving him a good deal less than half a second to see the landing and react. However, if the gymnast performs a Tsuk 1/1 or Kazamatsu (two similar but distinct twisting Tsuk variations – a Kaz can be seen here), he is able to spot the landing right around the beginning of the postflight salto, giving him much more time to judge his height and rotation and prepare to land. Therefore, while a Tsuk 1/1 or Kazamatsu takes longer to learn, it is for most gymnasts easier to stick once learned.

So how does twisting actually work?

First, a couple of terms:

TRANSVERSE AXIS: The axis of rotation runing perpendicular to the body’s length. Saltos rotate about this axis.

LONGITUDINAL AXIS: The axis of rotation runing through the body’s length. Twists rotate about this axis.

ANGULAR MOMENTUM: This is the amount of “rotating power” a gymnast has while airborn.

With that out of the way, let’s look at ways in which twist can be generated.

    1. TORQUE: This is where a gymnast begins to turn his upper-body before breaking contact with the floor. 

    2. OPPOSING ROTARY MOTION: This is a bit more complex, as it involves twisting without any net change in angular momentum about the axis. Without any external force, rotating any part of it in one direction causes the rest of the body to rotate in the opposite direction. This is why helicopters have a sideways rotor on the tail; without a tail rotor, the body of a helicopter will spin in the direction opposite the rotation of the blades on top. A gymnast can use this principal to twist by performing a hula-like motion with the hips in one direction, resulting in longitudinal axis rotation in the opposite direction. This is the principle a cat uses to rotate to its feet when it falls form a high place.

    3. BORROWING VIA TILT: If a gymnast is performing a salto, she already has a fair amount of angular momentum about the transverse axis. By the use of asymmetrical arm movements (ie moving an arm up on one side of the body while moving the other arm down on the opposite side of the body), she can cause her body to tilt slightly off-axis. This causes some of the angular momentum about the transverse axis to be “borrowed” to rotate about the longitudinal axis.

Coaches tend to discourage gymnasts from using torque or opposing rotary motion to twist, because both tend to interfere with other aspects of the gymnasts’ technique. A gymnast who tries to torque on takeoff will often end up sacrificing proper set technique on the salto, resulting in a low and often-underrotated salto. Similarly, a gymnast who deliberately uses opposing rotary motion to twist will be forced into a continual hula-mtion, which often makes the salto very difficult to control, and also just looks sloppy. A gymnast who twists by tilting, however, can generate twist while airborn, maintain the same body position throughout the twist, and completely stop the twist before landing. These three things make tilt the preferred focus of gymnasts learning to twist. In reality, there are a few occasions in which gymnasts must supplement their rotation with a bit of torque or opposing rotary motion, but we as coaches tend not to deliberately teach this – it tends to happen on its own anyway.

There is much more nuance to be discussed concerning twisting, and I’ve only scraped the surface. If anybody has any further questions about twisting (or anything else), feel free to ask.

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Principles of Strength Training

While strength training is an important part of just about any sport, few sports’ strength demands are as high or as specific as those of gymnastics. The goal of gymnastics-oriented strength training is NOT to simply crank out as many repetitions as possible; rather, the goal is to ensure that each individual repetition of any strength element is correctly executed, and that the difficulty of the exercise is well-calibrated to the gymnast’s strength levels. To illustrate these concepts, we’ll analyze a strength skill with which everybody is probably familiar: the push-up.

First, we’ll talk about correct execution. In a correctly-executed push-up, the body is perfectly straight or very slightly hollowed. The head should be neutral or slightly up. It is very common for gymnasts to drop the forehead towards the floor, but this is incorrect; the head should be perfectly in line with the rest of the body. The hands should be positioned just barely outside shoulder width. When the gymnast descends, her chest should stop within an inch of the floor, but not touch it. After a brief hold (about a second), she should then push back up. With the obvious exception of the arms and shoulders, the body position should not change at all during the execution of this skill. A correctly-executed push-up is a deceptively intense exercise.

Now let’s look at calibration of difficulty, which is a bit more complex. If a gymnast can crank out 100 correct repetitions of an exercise without breaking a sweat, the exercise is too easy for her to gain any real benefit from it. And if a gymnast cannot correctly execute the skill a single time, obviously it is too hard. The goal with any strength skill is to find the middle ground, where the gymnast can execute the skill correctly, but maxes out at a relatively low number; I generally like to aim to max between 5 and 15 reps depending on the exercise and the goal. Note that the gymnast is “maxed out” when she can no longer perform a flawless rep — gymnasts should never sacrifice technique in order to reach higher numbers.

So how can we adjust the intensity of a push-up? With strength skills (as with all skills) there are progressions that gymnasts can work through as they train in order to efficiently attain their goals. Let’s take a look at one push-up based progression.

FRONT SUPPORT: Also known as push-up position or prone position. Just holding the position can be a challenge for beginning gymnasts. As mentioned above, the body must be completely straight with the head held in a neutral position and the hands just barely outside of shoulder width. The chest should be caved in and the shoulder blades pulled apart, giving the upper-back a slightly-rounded shape. Often gymnasts will arch in the back, pike in the hips, or drop the forehead. All three are incorrect.

KNEE PUSH-UPS: This is a push-up where the knees are allowed to rest on the floor. DO NOT allow the hips to bend – the hips should remain straight, and all other rules concerning correct execution still apply.

PUSH-UPS: I think by this point everybody understands what these are.

PSEUDO-PLANCHE PUSH-UPS: Gymnasts whose strength has developed past the point where standard push-ups are beneficial can train pseudo-planche push-ups. Not only are these more intense (due to the increase in the proportion of weight born by the arms and the disadvantaged leverage by the shoulders), but they more closely mimic a wide variety of gymnastics skills. The gymnast should, from a front support, lean her shoulders forward past her hands to achieve a pseudo-planche, then perform push-ups in that position. (The pseudo-planche itself is an excellent exercise, and simply holding that position will help gymnasts as well.)

As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and topic requests.

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Gymnastics at home, Part 2: Flexibility

Flexibility is, obviously, a very important part of any gymnast’s training, and probably the most useful thing for a gymnast to train at home. It can be done safely with little or no equipment, and many stretches can even be done while reading, doing homework, watching TV, etc.

First and most obvious are splits. In a left-leg split, the gymnast slides her left leg out in front and her right leg back behind her to stretch her legs and hips. It is important to practice these with correct form and alignment. The gymnast’s hips should remain squared up so that she is facing directly towards the left foot – it is common for gymnasts to allow the hips to turn as they slide down, the result being a diagonally-skewed split. This should be avoided. The front foot should be rolled slightly to the outside (so the pinky toe is closer to the floor than the big toe), and the back leg should be rolled under (so the knee cap faces directly down into the floor, not out to the side. The chest and shoulders should be kept up to whatever extent possible – the gymnast should not lean forward over the front leg, but try to pull the shoulders and chest back to put more pressure on the back leg.

In a center split, the gymnast should slide her feet out to the sides. This, in my opinion, is best practiced with flexed feet until the gymnast is flat; the gymnast should flex her feet and roll them back, so the heels are the only thing on the floor. If the gymnast can go low enough to rest her elbows on the floor, she should do so.

If a gymnast is flexible enough to do a split completely flat without feeling the stretch, she can do oversplits – that is, a split with one foot raised so that she can stretch past a 180 degree split. However, this is only reccomended for gymnasts who can hit a full 180 on floor and still do not feel a sufficient stretch; oversplits do not benefit kids who can’t go flat in the first place.

Two other excellent stretches are the closed pike and the straddle pancake. These will help gymnasts to achieve a tighter tuck or pike during saltos, and will also aid them in any press handstand-related skills.

In a closed pike, the gymnast should sit on the floor with the legs straight and together, and try to bring her chest down to her legs. The legs must remain straight. This can be done either with a flat back or with a rounded back. Both are beneficial, and gymnasts should approximately equal time on both. In a round-back pike stretch (which primarily stretches the lower-back) the gymnast should point her toes and reach out as far as she can to the front; if she can reach her feet, she can increase the intensity of the stretch by grabbing her feet and using them to pull herself down. In a flat-back pike stretch (which primarily stretches the hamstrings), the gymnast should flex her feet and keep her back straight while reaching forward. While she should try to go as far as she can, she should not allow her back to curve forward to get down lower.

A straddle pancake (also known as a stalder stretch) is essentially the same thing, but with the legs straddled (this should be a fairly narrow straddle – around a 90 degree angle). The gymnast should attempt to bring the chest all the way down to the floor while keeping the back as flat as possible. There is a natural tendency to roll the feet forward in this stretch, such that the big toe comes closer to the floor. This should be avoided.

I want to emphasize again: do not push gymnasts down in their stretches at home. This should only be done by experienced coaches.

As always keep the comments and requests coming. And I wish everybody the best for Christmas, Hannukah (retroactively), Kwanzaa, Festivus, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice (again, retroactively), HumanLight, New Year, and whatever other holidays you may celebrate.

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