Gymnastics at Home: Part 1

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.

Also, big thanks to Sigmadog for the new banner!

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Wanted: Topic Requests

No real update for this week — send in your questions, topic requests, etc!

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Bars in Depth: Casting

The cast is one of the first skills many kids learn on bars. It is absolutely crucial in the development of back hip circles, clearhip circles (and any backwards in-bar skill, for that matter), and giants. This week, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at this skill, its development, and the various techniques used for it.

There are some important differences between the way male and female gymnasts train casts. However, for both male and female gymnasts, the eventual purpose of a cast is the same: to reach a handstand.

Generally, male gymnasts spend less time on casts than female gymnasts, for two reasons. First, male gymnasts, generally having stronger shoulders, can usually learn a cast to handstand more easily than female gymnasts. Second, once a male gymnast makes it to the upper-levels of the sport, the cast becomes all but obsolete. Elite level men’s routines frequently do not contain a single cast.

Unlike male gymnasts, female gymnasts will make heavy use of this skill in their routines regardless of their level. Bar-to-bar transfers tend to leave a gymnast with very little swing, requiring a kip and subsequent cast in order to make it to handstand.

Female gymnasts have the option of doing their casts either straddled or straight. Male gymnasts may only do them straight.

In a straight-body cast, the gymnast must swing up to handstand with the body fully extended and the legs kept together. This type of cast requires much greater strength than a straddled cast; however, a straight body cast has the distinct advantage that it allows a gymnast to initiate a pirouette on the way up, rather than waiting until she reaches a handstand – this in some cases makes it easier for the gymnast to finish the pirouette in handstand, and therefore easier to connect other skills directly out of the pirouette.

In a straddled cast, the gymnast separates the legs and bends at the hips as her hips leave the bar in the cast. This allows her to much more easily get her hips above the bar, putting her in a position to then press the rest of the way up (just like a press handstand on floor). This method requires the least strength, though it requires greater flexibility and more precise technique. However, pirouettes performed from this type of cast require much more precise balance, as the entire pirouette must occur in the handstand.

WARNING: EDITORIAL CONTENT AHEAD.

There is some debate among coaches over how best to teach a straight-body cast. Most agree that the gymnast should be in a slightly-hollowed position as she hits the handstand. Many (though certainly not all) also agree that the gymnast should initiate the cast by kicking to a slight arch (to allow force to be applied through the greatest possible range of motion). There is much debate, however, over exactly where the transition should occur between the arch leaving the bar and the hollow at the top of the cast, and on how the gymnast should train this transition. Some (including the writers of the lower-level women’s rules) prefer to teach this transition to hollow immediately after the gymnast’s hips leave the bar; others prefer to first emphasize the heel drive and teach the transition to hollow as the final step, occuring as the gymnast reachs a handstand.

I fall in the latter category. In my opinion, a straight-body cast should first be taught with the tight, slight arch maintained all the way up, and the transition to hollow should occur just as the gymnast reaches handstand. This technique emphasizes a strong kick at the beginning of the cast, and in my experience allows for a much easier and more natural cast to handstand. As the gymnast develops a stronger cast, she can then work to execute the transition to hollow earlier in the cast in preparation for pirouettes.

 

And with the publishing of this column, I am officially out of already-written material. If you have any requests for topics you’d like me to cover, please don’t hesitate to ask! You can comment here or you can email me at Jeremy at ApexGymnastics dot com.

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Vault in Depth: Hurdle Entry vs. Roundoff Entry

This week, we’ll look at two different categories of vaults.

The colossal majority of competitive vaults fall into one of two categories: hurdle-entry vaults and roundoff-entry vaults (also known as Yurchenkos). I should note that there are two other categories of vaults (hechts for men and front handspring entry for women), but both are very rare in competition, and for good reason. This week, we’ll be looking at the two common vault categories.

The hurdle entry is the simplest in concept. In the USAG JO program, all competitive vaults up through level 7 for girls and level 8 for boys come from this category (or are progressions towards vaults in this category). The gymnast hurdles to the board, contacts the table with the hands, and the feet continue over the top as the gymnast blocks off the table. This category can be subdivided based on preflight turns. The vault can be done with no turn between the board and the table (front handspring variations), a ¼ or ½ turn (Tsukahara and Kazamatsu variations), or even a 1/1 turn. Gymnasts can further add to the difficulty of these vaults by adding twists and/or saltos in postflight. These vaults are generally a good choice for powerhouse gymnasts; they require a lot of power, but give the gymnast a bit of leeway with regards to precision of technique.

Yurchenkos – that is, handsprings from roundoff – are fairly common at the upper-levels (especially for female gymnasts). The gymnast performs a roundoff onto the board, allowing her to approach the table backwards. As with the first category, this can also include up to a 1/1 turn in preflight, although it is most commonly done with no preflight turn at all. These vaults are generally a good choice for more technical gymnasts (especially those who are strong back tumblers on floor); they require more precise technique than hurdle-entry vaults, but a gymnast does not need enormous power to do them well.

As always, I welcome comments, questions, and ESPECIALLY topic requests, as I am once again running out of already-written columns.

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Vault in Depth: Legend of the Vaulter

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be discussing various aspects of vault. We’ll start by looking at the various components of a vault.

The anatomy of a good vault mirrors, to some extent, the anatomy of a good narrative. So, in the interest of keeping myself and my readers entertained, I will explore the vault as a great tale of a hero’s quest.

Run: Our story begins, and our characters are introduced: we have our hero (the gymnast), her journey (the runway), her special weapon (the springboard), and her arch-nemesis (gravity). Our hero sets out on her quest…

This part is pretty self-explanatory. There are two things the gymnast must accomplish in this phase. First, she must maximize her speed, particularly at the end of the run. Second, she must arrange her steps in such a way as to put her the proper distance from the board as she reaches the end of the run, allowing her to correctly perform the next phase.

Board Entry: Our hero sees her nemesis, and it is quite formidable. She cannot possibly defeat it equipped as she is, so she must acquire a weapon capable of vanquishing her nemesis. Fortunately, she comes across a great and legendary weapon, the springboard; now, she must seize that weapon for herself.

This is the transition between the run and the board contact. The entry will consist of either a hurdle to the board or a hurdle followed by a roundoff to land on the board (technically, upper-level female gymnasts can also perform a front handspring to land on the board as well; however this entry is a fairly recent addition to the Code of Points and remains very rare in competition). This is arguably the most crucial part of the vault. This is to vault what a roundoff is to back tumbling on floor – it is the most crucial part that will determine how much power the gymnast has available for the rest of the vault, and the part that takes the most work to perfect. This is true whether the entry consists of a hurdle or a roundoff (or, I’d imagine, a front handspring).

Board Contact (PUNCH!): The hero acquires the weapon and prepares to take on her nemesis!

Again, this part is pretty self-explanatory. The gymnast should simply attempt to get as much power as possible from the springboard while ensuring the correct rotation and trajectory for…

Preflight: Our hero enters the lair of the nemesis with grim determination. There’s no turning back now.

This is the transition during which the gymnast is briefly airborne between the board and the table. The quicker, the better – a short, fast preflight will translate into a more powerful postflight. (Though the terms “preflight” and “postflight” are, as Just Another Opinion pointed out, misnomers).

Table Contact (BLOCK!): Our hero and our nemesis prepare for battle! Perhaps they exchange a few witty remarks, or perhaps they simply look each other in the eye and draw their weapons.

As the gymnast’s hands contact the table, she pushes through the shoulders while (usually) snapping the feet over top. The goal in this phase is to generate the maximum possible amplitude for….

Postflight: This is it: the final climactic battle. Everything our hero has done to this point has been to prepare for this moment. She must face the nemesis alone; all she has is her own courage, training, and determination. Should those fail, there will be no deus ex machina.

Everything the gymnast has done up to now has been to set up for this phase. Once the gymnast’s hands leave the table, there is nothing she can do to add height, distance, or rotational momentum; she must make the optimum use of her available momentum to perform whatever saltos and/or twists she wishes to do before…

Landing: Our hero is victorious! She has accomplished her goal and survived her battle with her nemesis. The nemesis has been pushed back; however, it remains alive (very important to leave the nemesis alive; after all, if we get filthy rich from selling this narrative, we want to be able to write a sequel, right?)

The gymnast completes the postflight and, as her feet contact the landing mat, she bends at the knees, hips, and ankles in order absorb all momentum, allowing her to stick. Because it involves so much speed and power, vault is arguably one of the hardest events to stick – however, a stuck landing creates a stunning visual impact!

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Other Resources

This week, rather than cover a specific topic, I’m going to share a few links to other great gymnastics resources on the web.

GymnasticsCoaching.com is a blog maintained by Canadian coach Rick McCharles. It is probably one of the best gym-related blogs on the web, frequently updated with great links, videos, images, and commentary on everything from technical matters to political matters related to gymnastics. Rick also covers other acrobatic sports, such as X-sports, parkour, cheer, etc.

The Chalk Bucket is a gymnastics forum for gymnasts, coaches, parents, judges, and fans. It is an excellent place to ask questions, exchange advice, swap stories, and generally talk about anything gymnastics-related (please note, though, that you must be 13 or older to join). Also, it is a well-known fact that the moderators on the chalk bucket are paragons of intelligence and attractiveness.

YouTube is actually one of the better gymnastics resources available. Want to know what a certain skill or compulsory routine should look like? Looking for videos from a recent major competition? Looking for videos of college gymnasts in training? Search for them on YouTube. FIG and USAG have their own YouTube channels, as do many college gymnastics teams.

Gymnastike is a video website dedicated specifically to gymnastics. This site often has fantastic coverage of many major gym meets that don’t get shown on TV, as well as interviews with many of the top elites in the country. In addition, it has a series called “Workout Wednesday” that features workout montages filmed at some of the top gyms in the country. Check out Gymnastike’s coverage of the recent World Championships!

Full Twist Blog is another excellent gymnastics blog.

There are a multitude of other great resources available for anybody wishing to learn more about this sport; these four are my favorites, but follow FullTwist or GymnasticsCoaching.com for a week or two and you’re likely to find links to at least a half-dozen others.

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Block

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.

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