Wednesday, February 20, 2013


   Have you ever wondered if toe shoots (sole circles) may be easier for some of your gymnasts to learn than clear hips?  Do you have talented gymnasts who struggle with free hips?  My personal experiences would have me answer yes to both of these questions.  I have talented gymnasts on my team that seem to struggle with understanding the technique required to perform a good clear hip, which leads to poor performance of that skill.  Over the last few years, I've increased my efforts to teach sole circles and stalders.  The results have been good and I now believe, without a doubt, that some girls are destined to be more successful with toe shoots and stalders than with free hips. 
   The new competitive structure for the 2013-2017 cycle will create more opportunities for gymnasts to use these skills earlier in their career.  As coaches, we want our athletes to be successful.  Including toe shoot and stalder training along with clear hip training will create more chances for our gymnasts to succeed in the mid-levels of our sport and to carry stronger in-bar skills into the higher levels.  To help with that effort, I've posted some of the drills and progressions I've been using for these skills.  Feel free to use the ones you like and please post comments about what works for you.

You'll notice that a large portion of these progressions involve using straps.  We take advantage of a low strap bar and a high strap bar (if I had space for two or three of each I would put them up).

Step into "Monkey Giants" in straps

This is where it all starts.  The girls love to do these.  Fall with a tall body (straight legs), bend legs to circle faster on the upswing.
Cast into "monkey giants" (straddle entry)

Cast into "monkey giants" (split entry)

Jump into "monkey giants" (split entry)
When the girls learn to swing faster, they will make these stoop circles with straight legs.  At that point it is time to teach them how to get their feet off the bar properly.  A word of warning:  a gymnast will never learn a backward sole circle to handstand by circling to a stand on the bar and jumping off (just like they will never learn a press to handstand by jumping to a handstand).
The best advice at this point is to take small steps.  The goal is not to get to a handstand (yet).  I use the term "glut shoot" (referring to the gluteus maximus) instead of toe shoot so the girls understand the importance of opening the shoulders and getting their hips up, rather than shooting their feet up and maybe leaving their shoulders closed, which is a weak position (picture a head stand with straight arms).
Glut Shoot from a cast (split entry)

You may have already noticed that I prefer the split entry.  My girls seem to like this entry best and have had the most success with it.  They have transitioned well into stalder work even after doing split entry for sole circles.  Here are two stations I use to help them learn the split, late drop.  What generates a fast circle is keeping the back leg as far from the bar as possible for as long as possible.
Split Entry Drill on panel mat
Split Entry Drill on low bar
Multiple Glut Shoots in a row
I like to have the girls do these before allowing them to go to handstand.  It has helped with straight arms and better shapes.
Multiple Sole Circles in a row

Giant, split entry to "monkey giants"
Giant, split entry to sole circle backward
We've been working hard on this gymnast's shapes, therefore, I'm not allowing her to go to handstand yet.  She has a tendency to shoot her toes early and not get her shoulders open, causing bent arms and an arch.  Focusing on the finish shape rather than the handstand is helping.
Cast glut shoot on low bar
Video to come later
Cast sole circle to handstand on low bar
Video to come later
Cast to multiple sole circles to handstand on low bar
Video to come later
Giant, split entry to "monkey giant"
This gymnast splits a little early on this turn.  Ideally the giant should pass the handstand before the motion for split entry begins.  I tell my girls to "cross the top before you drop."

Giant, sole circle to handstand, giant (with a spot)

Giant, sole circle to handstand
This is the gymnast who has been working hard on her shapes coming out of the sole circle.  You can see that she isn't opening her shoulders early enough, causing bent arms and an arch.  She's getting close to what we want, but it still has too many deductions to compete.
 If a gymnast has gone through the progressions for a backward sole circle to handstand, she will most likely have success with a backward stalder providing she has these two pre-requisites:
1.  Good flexibility
2.  The ability to do multiple press handstands in a row
Stalder drop in from "monkey giant"
Ask the gymnast to put their heels over the bar on the downswing and compress through the bottom.  The noodle is a target for the glut's to hit, teaching the gymnast to lead with the hips on the upswing.
Cast to stalder drop in with wedge for target.
Stalder to stand from "monkey giant" (multiple)
I like this turn.  The girls can do a lot of rep's in one turn and staldering to a stand reinforces the technique of opening the shoulders before the hips.  This will help with straight arms and better shapes in the end.  I come back to this drill when the gymnast has problems with her stalder.
Stalder circles in a row
Giants to stalders on strap bar
These videos show two different levels of proficiency.  The second girl has had less experience with the skill and is dropping in too early, making a handstand at the end of the skill difficult.  But, I prefer her current shapes over a bent arm, arched handstand.  She will eventually have a stalder that looks more like the first gymnast.

Stalder circle to clear front support
Stalder, Short blind
A few more notes
*We spend approximately 75% of our time working sole circles and stalders in the straps. 
*If the skills can't be performed well in the straps, there is no need to try them on a regular bar. 
*Straps allow for lots of repetition with little wear and tear on the gymnasts hands. 
*From a coaching standpoint, seeing 3 or 4 toe shoots or stalders in a turn on the straps is better than seeing 1 per turn on a regular bar (at least in the learning phase).
*When we run into problems with these skills on the regular bar, we always go back to the strap bar to fix them.
*We begin working "monkey giants" on a low strap bar at level 4.
*The girls in these videos are level 7, 8 & 9.
An option for level 5 bars (2013-2017)
A sole circle backward to clear front support, stalder circle backward to clear front support or clear hip to clear front support are the 3 choices available in the first half of the level 5 compulsory routine in the new 2013-2017 structure.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Poor Ebenezer Scrooge, he’ll always be labeled the bad guy.  “Don’t be a Scrooge.”  We’ve all heard it.  Maybe it’s been said to us.  But have we ever been told to “Be a Scrooge?” probably not.  Sure, there are many characteristics in the pre-Christmas Ebenezer that we should not emulate, but what about the lesson he learned from his visitors?  Don’t we all benefit from learning the same lesson?  Shouldn’t we all look at the world as Scrooge did beginning that Christmas day?

Go ahead, be a Scrooge.  Use your strengths, your assets to benefit others who are lacking in those areas.

Be a Scrooge.  Learn from those you thought were less fortunate than you. 

Be a Scrooge.  Take advantage of your opportunities to do some good.

Be a Scrooge.  Learn that fortune doesn’t always lie in wealth, skills or intelligence, but sometimes resides in the heart.

Be a Scrooge.  Disperse kind greetings to your friends, neighbors and acquaintances.

Be a Scrooge.  Do kind deeds anonymously.

Be a Scrooge.  Show that you care.

Be a Scrooge.  Let your emotions be seen.

What were Charles Dickens’ intentions when developing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge?  Was his intent to create the image of a bad man or was his hope that we’d come away remembering the changed Scrooge, the new and improved Scrooge?  I believe it was the latter because doing so will help guide our own lives, making his lesson complete.  And, for that reason, I say

Go ahead
Be a Scrooge

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


                There are many variables that have an effect on an athlete’s motivation.  Many of those can be influenced by a coach.  This influence should be applied with the intention of improving the athlete’s sports skills and life skills.  In no particular order, here are several factors that influence our athlete’s motivation and some thoughts on how coaches can make the sports experience more rewarding by understanding the effect they have on an athlete’s emotional state.
                SUCCESS – I know I said “in no particular order”, but this one has to be at the top.  In the big picture, there is no greater motivator than success.  But, we must also understand the opposite of this statement.  There is no greater frustrater than failure.  Multiple successes will lead to progressive motivation.  Multiple failures will lead to progressive frustration.  It is critical that coaches help their athletes define success in a broad way (continual improvement) and in ways specific to a task (goals).  Success should be based on accomplishing things that are largely under the control of the athlete and should involve a comparison to past performance and current goals.  This makes goal setting critical to repetitive success and continued motivation.
                COMPETENCE – Coaches must understand the differences between actual competence and perceived competence.  Actual competence is an athlete’s real ability to succeed.  Perceived competence is the athlete’s belief in their ability to succeed.  In the world of motivation, perceived competence has the greater effect on an athlete.  The ideal situation would be for these to be the same.  We’ve all evaluated athletes as lacking confidence or being over-confident.  These terms refer to the difference, positively or negatively, between actual competence and perceived competence.  We all want confident athletes.  I will argue that we should try to keep our athletes’ perception of their abilities close to reality but that the most confident athletes are those who perceive their abilities as being slightly better than their actual ability (perceived competence is higher than actual competence).
                FEEDBACK – Many times athletes, particularly young athletes, look at the reaction of others to help them interpret results of their performance.  In sports, feedback comes from many directions (coaches, teammates, parents, officials, spectators and the performance itself).  As athletes mature a larger percentage of their feedback will come from self-evaluation.  But with children it’s critical that coaches provide positive feedback that guides the young athlete’s evaluation of their performance.  They will be looking for it and the coach is the best place to find it.  99.9% of performances have some good in them.  Find it and comment on it first, then make corrections.  Tie the corrections to the good points in an effort to help create a complete picture for the athlete.  In that rare occasion when nothing goes right I suggest laughing it off with an “oops” or “let’s pretend you didn’t take that turn.” 
                GOAL SETTING – Setting good goals is a skill that improves with practice and education.  Either formerly or informally coaches should be teaching the goal setting process to their athletes.  Good goals lead to repetitive success.  Repetitive success increases motivation.  Goals should be progressive, creating many small steps to help an athlete reach a larger goal.  Each step is an opportunity to experience success and celebrate.  Goals that are too hard or too easy are not motivating.  If you have an athlete that consistently chooses very easy or extremely hard goals, you have an athlete with a confidence (perceived competence) and/or motivation problem.  As coaches, it is our job to help this athlete get back on a goal-track that is nearer to reality so they can experience meaningful success.
                These are four key factors that affect an athlete’s motivation.  As you can see, a coach can and should influence these factors in large ways.  A master-motivator will monitor each athlete’s emotional state, consider these factors and many others and take steps to increase the athlete’s motivation and to teach life skills that will lead to continual motivation.
                I can’t finish this post without a warning.  A coach who uses motivation as a tool to produce results simply to inflate his ego (or bank account) is a great manipulator not a great motivator.  If our own motivation isn’t anchored in doing what’s best for our athletes we should choose to do something other than coach.

Monday, December 10, 2012


     The world of education could learn a thing or two from the gymnastics community.  While the system we use to progress our athletes in the sport may not be perfect, its structure is one that would be well suited for our education system.   I recently returned to graduate school for the second time, this time in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction.  The stories I’m hearing from teachers in the master’s program are puzzling and somewhat troubling.  But, they make me thankful for the evolution of our industry to what it’s become today.
     We all know that gymnastics is taught in a progressive manner.  That every skill has prerequisite skills and once a gymnast has learned a skill, there is always a more advanced skill to accomplish.  Progressions are at the core of what we do as gymnastics coaches.  Our national system is wisely set up based on progressions with few restrictions due to age.  It is a mastery teaching system.  Perform a skill with reasonable proficiency and move on to the next skill.  It’s such a simple and right concept.
     Contrast this to a typical student in the education system.  This student is most often moved up a grade level in every subject, every year with minimal concern given to whether they are over-prepared or under-prepared for the next grade.  Teachers face classrooms full of students with huge variance in knowledge and skills.  Many people in education are trying to fix the system with innovative curriculum, national standards, mandated teaching methods, scripted curriculum and the like.  There is a lot of great information available to help teachers teach our kids and there are many terrible ideas out there as well. 
     Is it futuristic dreaming to think that a system can be developed with subject paths that contain multiple levels of mastery appropriate for the subject, like we do in gymnastics?  For example, could there be forty eight levels of national norms for math?  If the schools offered five, nine week sessions a year, giving students the option of enrolling in 4 or 5 of those sessions, each student would have between 52 and 65 sessions in a thirteen year education career to complete forty eight levels of math and however many levels are deemed necessary in other subjects.  For example; 48 levels of math and science, 32 levels of social studies and English, 16 levels of composition, etc.  Progress through the levels would be based on mastery allowing faster progress in a student’s strong subjects and slower progress when needed.  Students would have the opportunity to pass a level in each session.  If mastery isn’t reached, the student would enroll in the same level for the next session.  Is there anything wrong with a student’s morning class schedule looking like this?

First period:                 Level 7 math
Second period:           Level 10 composition
Third period:               Level 9 Social Studies

Or, even this?

First period:                 Level 5 math
Second period:           Level 5 math
Third period:               Level 10 Composition

     How great would it be for a student who is weak in a subject to be able to take the same class two periods in a row?  What an advantage that would be over the current system where a student who falls behind quite often never catches up.  How great would it be for teachers to have every student in a class at or near the same ability level?  How great would it be for students to have the option of accelerating their education by attending five sessions a year instead of four?  When the required curriculum is mastered in each subject, the student would receive a high school diploma.  For some that may happen at the age of fourteen.  For others it may happen at the age of twenty.  But, whatever the age of completion, all diplomas would represent a mastery of the skills required, giving high school diplomas consistency and meaning that they don’t currently have.  How great would that be?
     While I listened to a teacher explaining how her math curriculum was scripted by a curriculum design company and that every teacher in town was expected to read the same script, ask the same questions and engage in the same activities as every other teacher in that grade level, I became very thankful that our industry is guided by a national curriculum, but allows coaches to coach, individualize our instruction, be creative and do what’s best for the individual child.  Progress is based on mastery and assessments are ongoing and meaningful as opposed to a single letter grade every 9 weeks.  These comparisons could go on and on, but I really just wanted to make two points.  First, we in the gymnastics world are getting it right (not perfect, but right).  And second, if mastery learning and progressive education is such a simple concept, why is our education system still clinging to an antiquated and ineffective structure?

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Recently, I’ve had two occasions where I wished I could have done more for a gymnast of mine.  The cases for these two girls are similar.  The relationships went deeper than just coach/gymnast and were layered with siblings and parents.  Good families, military, both Fathers officers in the U. S. Air Force.  In both cases, circumstances were governed partially by injuries.  In both cases, I came away feeling as the beneficiary of our relationship.  If I was an accountant, I would say that the credits and debits didn’t balance out in either case, and that I came out ahead in both instances.
One of these girls is leaving the sport.  Injuries not necessarily due to gymnastics but compounded by training have finally reached a point where it’s time to stop.  Maybe, in time, she will be able to return.  That’s still an unknown at this point.  If the only factors in this decision were grit and determination, I would expect her to walk through the door sometime in the next several months.  Unfortunately, there are other factors that have a higher priority (as they should). 
The other gymnast’s Father was re-assigned a few months ago and the family moved to another state and another gym (as military families quite often do).  This gymnast came to us after a shortened season, due to injury, with her team in Hawaii, where the family was previously stationed.  She had a complete season with us and made tremendous progress.  In her second season on our team she was peaking at precisely the right time.  After scoring over 38 all around in early March, landing on the edge of a skill cushion took her out of the state meet only two weeks later.  The injury required surgery and the following season was in jeopardy.  To make a long story short, SHE made the season happen and was a key player in her team’s victory at that year’s state meet.
Like most coaches, I spend a lot of time thinking about my gymnasts.  I know stories similar to these happen all the time, but these two seem to be on my mind a lot.  Perhaps because I wished I could have done more for these two gymnasts and now the opportunity has passed.  Perhaps because I still wonder how, after being dealt the hands they were dealt, they came through smiling and happy.  Don’t get me wrong, accepting their fate was tough.  Persisting through a second comeback from injury in one case and persisting against an immovable opponent in the other case created some heart wrenching moments.  But through it all, they have become young ladies who most parents would like to have their children look up to as role models.
As I’ve thought more about this, I’ve come to realize these two gymnasts are living examples of the old saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  The words honor, integrity, service, commitment, courage, resolution, honesty and excellence are words that get thrown around a lot in the sports community, their meanings becoming diluted due to over-use or misuse.   But, these same words are the FOUNDATION of the military spirit.  For these families, they aren’t just words on a poster or a coffee cup.  Their meanings are taught and modeled by the Fathers/Officers, their wives and their children.  These words aren’t simply part of their vocabulary they are a way of life.
I’ve always believed a coach’s job is to give.  What I gained from these families involvement with my gym is more than I will ever be able to give back.  I wish I could have given more, but I’ve accepted the fact that in these cases I’m the receiver, not the giver.  And, for that, I am thankful.


Sunday, July 22, 2012


What is gained by badmouthing opponents?  Do we get better by making our opponents appear to be bad?  The answers to these questions are “nothing” and “no”.  Yet, some people believe this is part of sport.  That being competitive means you must talk trash about the people you compete against.  

I’ll admit, it’s more easy to be critical than complimentary.  But, if we all enjoy receiving compliments, why aren’t we more willing to give them?  Our skills don’t improve by bad-mouthing our opponents.  Our skills don’t weaken when we compliment them.

If it’s unacceptable to physically hurt an opponent, then it should be unacceptable to verbally damage an opponent as well.

If we, as coaches and parents, model behavior that’s complimentary and respectful of our opponents, our children will learn to do the same.  If we stop listening to those who badmouth, they will no longer have an audience for their misguided comments. 

Developing friendships is one of the greatest benefits of participating in youth sports.  It’s conceivable that we could double that benefit for our children by modeling a healthy attitude toward their opponents.