Odds are if you’re a parent and you’re reading this blog, your kid probably loves gymnastics. He probably practices at home. Perhaps you, like my parents, signed your kid up for gymnastics because he was already vaulting over the sofa. But to what extent should gymnastics be practiced at home?
There are certainly some things that kids can safely do at home, but there is also a long list of things that they should not. We’ll start by looking at gymnastics coaches’ archnemisis, the backyard trampoline.
In a perfect world, I would forbid any of my students from playing on backyard trampolines at all. Here in the real world, however, I suspect this would be about as effective as banning alcohol on college campuses, so I don’t bother. However, if gymnasts are going to jump on trampolines at home, there are several very important rules that should be observed.
Trampolines with a net are preferable to ones without, trampoline use should always be supervised, and there should never be more than one person jumping at a time.
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should gymnasts do skills at home that they have not already perfected in the gym with a coach. And I want to emphasize “perfected.” Not “done once or twice,” but “perfected.” If a gymnast practices a skill with incorrect technique hundreds of times at home, it becomes nearly impossible for coaches to fix those errors, and that process will often take years – even on skills that otherwise would have taken only a month or two to learn correctly from scratch.
A very common skill for gymnasts to attempt to teach themselves at home is a back tuck/layout/whip on trampoline. A self-taught back salto typically takes years to correct. Under no circumstances should gymnasts who have not already learned a strong back salto at the gym be permitted to even try the skill on a trampoline at home.
So what should gymnasts practice outside of the gym?
Flexibility is always a great choice. Splits, closed pike, shoulder stretches, any of the solo static stretches they do at the gym can safely be done at home (and will help kids significantly in the gym). Simple strength work can also be safely done at home (within reason – we don’t want kids to show up to practice already sore and worn out from at-home strength work). Handstands can be practiced at home as long as the gymnast has developed proficiency at the skill in the gym, and as long as there is enough room to avoid running into any furniture – just remember that the goal is not to hold at all costs, but to hit the straightest possible body line. One great drill that is to some extent self-correcting is handstands with the stomach against the wall. In this drill, the gymnast should strive to get her hands as close to the wall as possible without falling (this is effective at reinforcing a straight body line). Another good challenge is for the gymnast to see how high on the wall she can touch her feet in a handstand (this is effective at reinforcing good extension through the entire body). More advanced gymnasts can also practice press handstands.
Competitive-level gymnasts sometimes get at-home equipment, such as floor beams for girls or mushrooms for boys. This is not by any stretch necessary, but nor do I see any reason to discourage it, as long as the gymnasts abide by the same rules I mentioned above for trampolines. They should stick only to simple and basic skills which they have already perfected at the gym.
A couple of caveats for parents with regards to at-home training: I reccomend against actively pushing your kid to do any of these skills at home, even the basic ones. While a bit of practice at home can help if the gymnast is internally motivated to do them, the most important thing for a gymnast’s long-term development is that she enjoy the sport. Gymnastics should not be homework, it should be a liesure activity. Anything that turns gymnastics into a chore should be avoided. I also reccomend against spotting your kids on any skills at home, or pushing them down in any stretches. These things should only be done by experienced coaches.
As always, questions, comments, and topic requests are welcome. I will probably go into more depth about at-home strength and flexibility training in future columns.