I recently posted on The Chalk Bucket asking if there were any particular topics people would like to see me cover. Chalk Bucket Member Nicki responded:
“I would be interested in a column about blocking, how to block, exercises for learning and improving block technique, etc.”
I was originally going to address this as part of a broader discussion of vault, but since the concept of blocking also applies to floor and beam, I think I’ll do an entire column dedicated to a discussion of blocking.
So what is a block? A block is a quick bounce off the hands, and it occurs in all correctly-executed vaults, as well as in handsprings and roundoffs on floor and beam.
When the shoulders are fully extended and the body is tight, there is a natural spring action that occurs. This comes primarily from the shoulders, but the whole body plays a part – quite simply, the more rigid the body, the more efficient the block. Block is often (though not always) accompanied by a sort of “tapping” action – that is, a snap from hollow to arch, or vice-versa. Theoretically, the most powerful block should occur in the middle of this transition, when the body is completely straight (in practice there is some slight variation, depending on the skill). Any pronounced angles in the body line will generally decrease the efficiency of the block.
WARNING: EDITORIAL CONTENT AHEAD; for such a relatively simple concept, there is a surprising amount of debate within the coaching community about how best to teach block. I’ll outline my own views on the matter, derived from my own experience both training and coaching, as well as with a number of discussions with other excellent coaches; be aware, however, that these do not represent any sort of consensus among the coaching community.
The question of what can be done to improve block doesn’t have a straightforward answer, due to the nature of blocking. I view block not as something that you do, but as something that happens when everything else is done right. If the gymnast has correct body position and trajectory when she contacts the floor/vault/beam, block will occur. With this in mind, generally the most effective way to improve a block is not to focus on the block, but to focus on the part of the skill leading up to the block.
To give a concrete example, let’s take a look at a front handspring on vault. A gymnast who does not achieve sufficient block will be in contact with the table too long and will have insufficient amplitude in the height and distance of the postflight. What exactly is the best way to correct this? Well, it depends on the rest of the vault. There are a large number of things that the gymnast could be doing incorrectly which will cause her not to block; most of these are caused by the gymnast leaning too far forward on springboard contact. This often causes the gymnast to pike and/or close the shoulders (ie introducing angles ot the body shape). In cases like these, I would focus on making sure the gymnast is hitting the board correctly, and correcting any errors in preflight body position. However, while this is the most common cause of a weak block in a handspring vault, it is certainly not the only cause.
While the specifics of improving block will vary from skill to skill, there is one skill which will help with just about any skill that involves a block; this skill, of course, is the handstand. By practicing a straight and tall handstand with the shoulders fully extended, the gymnast is practicing the body rigidity and shoulder extension necessary to correctly execute just about any skill involving block.