What is the most difficult skill ever performed on floor? Perhaps the triple twisting double back, that whirlwind of a skill performed by such greats as Kohei Uchimura? Or perhaps it is the triple back, the holy grail of tumbling, first performed by Valeri Liukin?
In my opinion, the hardest and most complex tumbling skill ever performed is the humble roundoff. The complexity of the movements and the precision of timing required for a roundoff is greater than any other tumbling skill I am aware of. While a skill that is recognizable as a roundoff can often be performed by beginning gymnasts, the amount of time that must be spent refining and perfecting the skill surpasses that of any other skill on floor (or, for that matter, any other event, with the possible exception of the double-leg circle on pommel horse).
To illustrate this point, we’ll look at a high-difficulty tumbling pass common in upper-level floor routines: roundoff-backhandspring-double back tuck. This pass consists of three skills; we’ll look at them in reverse order.
Double back: the gymnast must punch with an extended body, tuck, and then pick the right moment to extend out of the tuck and land.
Back handspring: the gymnast must snap from a hollow to an arch, then back to a hollow.
Roundoff: the gymnast must hit a low lunge with a deep knee bend while bringing her hands down to the floor while taking care not to allow any bend in the shoulders. The gymnast must wait until the last possible moment, then execute roughly a 1/4 turn through the shoulders, while simultaneously pushing off of first the back leg, then the front (the relative timing of these two elements is crucial). Then, she must push through first one shoulder, than the other as the hands contact and block off the floor. While this is happening, she must begin the process of bringing the legs together. As the hands leave the floor, she must continue to turn such that she executes another 1/4 turn before her feet contact the floor. During this time, she must bring her feet together and snap aggressively to a hollow position. The gymnast must do all of these things not only in the correct order, but with extremely precise timing of each element relative to the rest of the skill. And the whole thing happens in about a quarter of a second.
The roundoff is by far the most complex skill in this sequence, and it requires by far the most precise body movements. By my estimation (based on anecdote and observation – I am not aware of any formal studies on the subject), the amount of time elapsed between a gymnast’s first attempted roundoff and the achievement of consistent and technically flawless execution typically ranges from 5 to 10 years – sometimes even longer than that!
The continued acquisition of bigger and better back tumbling skills is little more than a collateral effect of the eternal quest for the perfect roundoff.
EDIT: Also, a side note: I’m nearing the end of my list of already-planned/written columns, and I welcome any questions/requests that I can cover in future columns. Feel free to comment here or e-mail me at jeremy (at) apexgymnastics (dot) com