When watching high-level gymnasts perform spectacular acrobatic feats, perhaps the most striking aspect is the extent of their control. Upper-level gymnasts will routinely perform mind-bendlingly complex maneuvers with multiple rotations around multiple axes, and land them balanced so perfectly that they do not need to take even the smallest steps to adjust their balance.
Acrobatic skills are never ever ever left to luck. A high-level gymnast does not “just happen” to land perfectly every time; rather, she makes extensive use of visual cues to judge her height and rotation, and makes minute adjustments to body position to control her rotation accordingly. While this creates the illusion of ease and effortlessness, this impression could not be further from reality.
This mastery of midair control is what we refer to as aerial awareness. A gymnast who has not developed sufficient aerial awareness for a skill will often appear uncontrolled, and will often develop a strong fear of the skill in question.
So what is the solution? Practice and patience. Particularly for a gymnast who is not accustomed to airborne rotation, it generally takes a long time to develop strong enough aerial awareness to trust her own judgment in midair. Even once the gymnast learns to make use of the necessary visual cues, she must still do the skill over and over until the necessary adjustments to body position are made not by conscious effort, but by reflex. Only once this point is reached will the gymnast be able to safely progress onward.
To put all of this in more concrete terms, we’ll analyze a few skills that require the development of strong aerial awareness by the gymnast.
First, we’ll look at the back tuck on floor. The first half of the skill is what we call “blind;” that is, the gymnast cannot see the floor. It is absolutely crucial that the gymnast develop a strong enough takeoff to trust herself to make it through this blind first half.
Just after halfway through the salto, the gymnast can make visual contact with the floor. From here, she has a split second to judge her height and rotation, and then to adjust her body position accordingly so that she can accomplish a controlled landing. It is quite common for gymnasts to close their eyes when they are first learning this skill; if the gymnast does not see the floor, this skill can be truly terrifying. This is why the back tuck is such a major sticking point for so many female gymnasts; they must learn to make visual contact with the floor in midair, and then internalize it to the point where they can then adjust their rotation without any conscious effort. While there are a few kids fortunate enough to have a strong natural sense for this from the start (and a few crazy enough not to care), most kids will require a hundred or more repetitions to master the skill. Patience is key!
Things get more complicated when we introduce twisting to the equation – however, a well-timed twist can in some instances make the skill easier for the gymnast by allowing her to spot the landing earlier in the skill. To illustrate this, we’ll look at the full-twisting back layout on floor.
As in a back tuck (or any backward salto for that matter), the skill has a blind takeoff. However, shortly after leaving the floor, the gymnast begins to twist. After about a quarter of a twist, the gymnast can spot the floor, and if she times the remainder of the twist correctly, she can maintain visual contact for the entire skill. HOWEVER, if the gymnast completes the twist too early (ie before completing at least half of the salto), she will once again lose sight of the floor. Losing that visual cue in the middle of such a complex skill is generally extremely frightening for the gymnast.
Again, patience is key – remember that when a gymnast is learning a new skill, she is not just training her body to execute the skill; she is also training her mind to confidently recognize and react to the necessary cues during the skill.