Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Underswing 1/2 to Handstand or Bail to Handstand

Last week I came across a good discussion on about the underswing 1/2 turn to handstand on bars (also called a bail to handstand). There were a couple good videos showing two very different teaching methods.  I think you can find the video on also.  Both methods seemed to have created good results for the coaches using them. One was called the one arm drop drill. This is similar to the way I teach this skill.  I actually use 4 progressive one hand release drills. Each is mastered very quickly. Using these 4 drills for a few weeks before doing an underswing has helped my gymnasts get a good feel for the skill, understand how easy the skill is to perform, and easily go to handstand without a leg separation. I'm including a brief description of each step. Some look so simple you'll wonder why they're necessary and will want to skip them. DON'T. Each has its purpose.

Step 1: Getting the proper shape, understanding that when you let go with one hand before the other your body will turn, and learning where to look, are the goals of this drill. Have the gymnast look at the feet of the spotter (since there is no low bar to look at). I do this on the low bar to save time. You can do 6 or 7 girls in a minute, and the girls can learn to spot each other if you choose.

Step 2: Same as step 1, but on the high bar. Now there is a low bar to look at and the gymnast can get a real feel for the skill. I don't let the girls spot each other on this one.

Step 3: This is the step where you reinforce the one hand release to initiate the turn. My experience has been that when the girls start swinging into the drill they want to turn their body from the toes or hips. Don't let them. The beauty of the one hand release technique is that the gymnast has to do very little work to make the skill happen. Because releasing one hand at a time turns the body, there is no tap necessary, no torque on the lower body, and therefore less possibility of the legs separating. A tight gymnast simply lets her swing rise, releases one hand, then the other and FALLS to the low bar. If you spot lightly or a little later, you will find out if they are turning before releasing the hand. Push them up without turning them to see if they are trying to turn from the toes or hips.

Step 4: I only do this step a few times. As you can see on the video, the swing back down from the one hand release could get a little crazy. The purpose of this step is to make sure the gymnast can cast into the one hand release drill with the same technique as they used swinging into it. Once that has been established, there is no need to continue doing this step. I tell my gymnasts that it's easier to actually do the skill than it is to do this step. They usually agree.

Here are some notes to help you learn from my mistakes teaching this skill over the years.

- Teach this skill to a handstand. An underswing 1/2 to horizontal is a completely different skill than one to a handstand. So, why teach it twice?

- My girls believe this is the easiest skill of its value in the code of points (because that's what I tell them and because it is). Girls who compete this skill reinforce that point for the girls who are learning it. It takes very little physical effort to perform it properly.

- Do the skill over and over from a small cast before increasing the cast height or going from a giant.

- When it's time to do the skill without a spot, I use a mat over the low bar and/or have the girls do the skill to a padded deck.

- Don't have the gymnast tap or try to turn their body (all they need to do is let the swing rise, release one hand at a time, see the low bar and be tight).

- The arm doesn't drop away from the body on these drills (or on the underswing). Arms stay by the ears, where they will be in the handstand.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Goal Setting and Motivation

A sense of accomplishment increases motivation.  Success and accomplishment are relative to past performance and current goals.  Therefore, choosing appropriate goals plays a key role in consistent motivation.  I use a simple flow-chart I call the Progressive Motivation Cycle to remind myself and my staff of the relationship between setting goals and motivation.

The Blue Cycle is the preffered cycle.  When our athletes are rolling along in the blue cycle, life is great.  Accomplishing one goal is followed by training for the next goal, completing that goal successfully and repeating the process over and over. 

I don't want to delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts of goal setting except to say that goals should be:

*Written, so all involved understand them clearly.

*Measurable.  "I want to be a better free throw shooter" is not a measurable goal.  "I want to make 65% of my free throws this week in practice" is measurable and objective.

*Goals should not be too hard or too easy. 

*Goals should be progressive.

*Long term and medium range goals should be set by the athlete.

Choosing appropriate goals will keep our athletes in the blue cycle more often than not.  It is critical that the athletes set their own medium and long term goals.  I see it like this.  With good information, the athletes decide where they want to go in the sport and the coaches guide them to that point.  The athlete's decide where to go, the coaches decide how to get there.  The athletes get input from coaches and other sources to help them set their medium and long term goals and the coaches get input from the athletes to help them set the day to day, hour to hour, minute by minute goals for training.  As an athlete grows and matures, the overlap of these roles increases. 

Young athletes will easily set long term goals.  "I want to go to the Olympics."  "I want to compete in college."  "I want to qualify for the state meet."  Coaches should fill in goals between where the athlete is in their current development and the athletes nearest goal (qualifying for the state meet).  Coaches should also be developing goal setting skills in their athletes.  As these skills improve, there will be less and less "in between goals" for the coach to write.

Coaches can use these "in between goals" as a tool to keep their athletes operating in the blue cycle.  Write small progressive goals that will create a string of successful accomplishments.  Beware of goals that are too easy, but use as many small challenging goals as it takes to reach the big goals. 

Goal discrepancy simply means the outcome of the performance didn't meet the standards set in the goal.  This is the black level of the Progressive Motivation Cycle.  Since none of us, athletes or coaches, are perfect, all of us will venture into the black level.  What's important is how we react to our goal discrepancies and how we teach our athletes to react when goals aren't met.  The black level creates opportunities for education.  Look at the difference between the actual results and the goal.  Decide why there's a discrepancy.  Set a new goal and make plans for how to accomplish that goal.  Maybe the goal attempted could have been broken into 2 or 3 goals to make the learning process move along more smoothly and with more focus.  Maybe a particular training technique wasn't as effective as you'd hoped.  The old saying "learn from your mistakes" applies to this level. 

An innapropriate response to goal discrepancy will take an athlete (or coach) into the red level of the Progressive Motivation Cycle.  Frustration is usually the kick-off point for the red level.  Good coaches and mature athletes will learn to recognize frustration or dissapointment early.  This skill will help coaches pull athletes back from the red level before they decide to drop out, or begin misbehaving.  Athletes will usually follow the coaches lead in this process.  So, coaches remember, the behavior you model when a goal is not met will very likely be accepted as the most appropriate behavior by your athletes.  You may be frustrated or dissapointed, but you must get to WHY the goal wasn't met, WHAT the next goal will be and HOW you and your athlete will accomplish that goal.  As soon as those things are done, you are back in the blue cycle.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Me and My Gymnasts. Sometimes I'm teaching them. Sometimes they're teaching me.

Awhile back one of my best gymnasts seemed to be lacking intensity at practice. She was typically a hard worker and had been very successful the last few years. But, for a few weeks she had been hard to motivate. She was still getting a lot done during her training time, and doing well at competitions (high 37’s and low 38’s). But, she wasn’t her usual self. So, of course, I was trying to figure out why. Maybe she’s bored, I thought. She’s been a level 10 since eighth grade (she’s now a junior). Maybe she’s getting a big head, a case of over-confidence. She has had three very successful seasons in a row and has committed to a top college. Four local TV stations have done pieces about her, with interviews. Maybe she’s just getting lazy.  Or, maybe because of her immense talent and successful competitions, she thinks its okay to coast along.

One day I casually mentioned to her that we needed to step up the intensity and get it back to where it used to be. Several days later when things hadn’t changed, I called her over and talked to her a little more in-depth about maintaining her standards, setting appropriate goals, and that while she was coasting, other gymnasts were improving (typical coach-talk).

Her reply didn’t surprise me, but the emotion that came with the reply did. The content of her response was “I’m trying the best I can. I’m doing everything you ask me to do. I’ve got three honors classes that are keeping me up late. I’m training twenty hours a week. I almost never miss practice. I’m taking extra classes to graduate early.” The emotion in her reply seemed to say “why don’t you believe me. This conversation is upsetting me.”

My response to that was something like “it’s not going to get any easier in college. Your professors and college coaches aren’t going to listen to reasons why you aren’t getting things done, they’ll just expect you to get them done.” I should have immediately slapped myself on the forehead and said “duh, good response coach.”

I spent the rest of that night and the next day thinking about how poorly I had handled the situation. A week later, I can still see her face and feel the emotion from when she said “I’m doing the best I can.” And, I now believe she was. Maybe she should have said “listen old man, you’re not seeing the whole picture here.” She would have been right.

Some of the points I was trying to make were valid. College is not always easy and college athletes need to be organized, prepared, and diligent in their effort to succeed in their sport and in the classroom. There was no doubt that her intensity had dropped off a bit. But, dealing with those things weren’t the lessons that needed to be taught at that moment. The lesson that needed to be taught at that moment was delivered TO me, not FROM me. I’ve coached this gymnast since she was six years old. I should have trusted her. All I needed to do was ask her why things had changed over the last few weeks. The best solution would have come from good communication, not accusation. If her intensity in the gym had dropped off a percent or two it was very likely that she had stepped it up a few percentage points in her schoolwork.  The balance between those is not always perfect.  The two tend to ebb and flow together.  An important lesson that she is learning.  Unbeknownst to her, her emotion-filled reaction in this situation was a good lesson for me. I hope I learned enough to get an “A”.

This gymnast did graduate from high school early.  She left Wichita in December to join the University of Alabama gymnastics team.  In April, three of the twenty scores used by the Alabama team to win the NCAA National Championships were hers.  In May, she walked with her high school class at graduation as an NCAA National Champion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Never Give Up on a Child

Coaches, teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors should never give up on a child. Children need and want guidance. They may not act like it, but they do. They may not overtly accept the bits of wisdom given to them by the adults in their lives and they may not act like the role models in their lives, but they are learning from both.

Many times after practice I have thought there is nothing more I can do for a child because (any of these reasons):

She doesn’t want to be here.
She doesn’t listen.
She can’t make corrections.
She doesn’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish.
She’s lazy.
She’s easily distracted (and, therefore, becomes a distraction).
She’s afraid of her skills.
She’s given up on herself.

I’ll admit. There have been times when I thought some of my gymnasts should give up the sport and do something else. Then I came to my senses and asked myself WHY some of the things on this list may be true. Why doesn’t she want to be at practice? Why is she easily distracted? Why is she not progressing?

There are a lot of variables that play a role in an athlete’s success/failure and persistence/dropout. I like to visualize these variables on a bar graph, each variable with its own level of competence. If an athlete is frustrated, unmotivated, and just not having fun, the cause is likely rooted in one of the areas represented by a low bar on the graph.

I’ve heard these thousands of times (and I’ve said them myself), “she just doesn’t listen” or “she just isn’t flexible” or “she’s lazy” or the one that inspired this blog post “I just don’t know what to do for her until she fixes (insert weak area here).” Whoa, stop the presses, rewind. “until SHE fixes”? Do we really want to tell our athletes “when you’ve fixed your problems, come to me and I’ll coach you.” Of course we don’t. It’s our job to look at the bar graph and help our athletes be competent in all areas. An extra amount of time and effort should be given to the lowest bars on the graph. After all, those are the variables which will most likely cause frustration, practices that aren’t fun, and dropout. The greatest gains will be made in the areas of least competence. A gymnast who improves her flexibility from 90% competency to 95% will benefit from that, but not near as much as the gymnast who improves listening skills from 20% to 40%.

As coaches, we get frustrated with our athletes. At that point, we can give support or give up. If you’ve found this blog, I’m sure you’re the “give support” kind of coach. Look at your mental bar graph for the athlete in question and find solutions to make those lower bars grow. A coach who pulls a kid back from a near dropout to watch her succeed over and over in the future is a well rewarded coach. It’s okay to ask yourself “what if I’d given up?” I hope none of us ever have to ask ourselves “what if I’d tried a little harder?”

(as a level 5, this gymnast was the slowest runner on my team.  Give up?  I don't think so.)

One more note. If we applied the bar graph idea to ourselves as coaches, what would it look like? What variables would be on my list and how competent am I in each? I’m not sure I want to look that hard at my coaching abilities (and lack thereof). But, I’m going to do that right now and see what I learn.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments and please visit again.

Photo courtesy of Mark Baldwin, 2010 Folger's New Year Invitational

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Why do babies poop in their diapers? Babies poop in their diapers because they lack self-discipline. At some point they will realize that dirtying diapers is not fun, smells bad, and can be quite uncomfortable, leading them to learn the discipline necessary to visit the little boys room or little girls room when necessary.

My point here is that self-discipline is something we learn, and like sports skills, it will improve with practice, training, analysis, goal setting and goal attainment. Can we as coaches and parents teach children self-discipline? Of course we can. We potty-train our children, teach them how to hit a ball off a tee, turn cartwheels, run a post-pattern, and we can teach them how to be self-disciplined.

You may argue that SELF discipline means doing what’s right whether someone is watching you or not, and you’d be right. The Encarta Dictionary describes self-discipline as “the ability to do what is necessary or sensible without needing to be urged by somebody else.” Some people may think that standing over your children and telling them right from wrong, what’s necessary or sensible will not teach them self-discipline, after all, that word “self” is a key component of the phrase. Those people would be wrong.

We don’t give our four year old a bat, ball and tee and say “here you are, figure out what to do with these.” And, we don’t send our children out into the world and say “go learn right from wrong.” Before our kids can choose to do what’s right, they must know what right is. That comes from education. Education from parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, family, friends, and people they trust. We can’t confuse matters by throwing the word “self” into the education and skill development process. Self-discipline is not self-taught, it is only self-administered.

Youth sports are an excellent environment to teach self-discipline. It creates opportunities to teach right from wrong and gives children experience with decision making where the consequences of a poor decision are not life-threatening or life-changing. With proper focus from a coaching staff, a child can clearly learn the benefits of being self-disciplined in a youth sport setting. Experiencing those benefits will hopefully encourage them to continue their education and skill development in this endeavor into adulthood.

Coaches, if we can put time and effort into setting goals and teaching sports skills that will diminish and possibly disappear with age, shouldn’t we also put time and effort into setting goals and teaching self-discipline skills that will last a lifetime?

When talking to my athletes about self-discipline I always refer to three points I’ve taken from a philosophy presented by Lou Holtz about creating a positive self-image. I believe they apply to self-discipline as well, because having strong self-discipline plays a key role in having a positive self-image.

1. Always do what’s right. (If you’re not sure what’s right find out from someone you trust.)

2. Always do your best.

3. Always treat others as you’d like to be treated.

Coach Holtz explains how doing these three things will answer some important questions that significant people in your life will ask about you. First, “Can I trust you?” The only way to earn trust is to do what’s right all the time. Next, “Are you committed to excellence?” Show the people whose lives are touched by yours that you are committed to excellence by always doing your best. And, last, “Do you care about me?” Living by The Golden Rule covers this one.

All of us are born with very little self-discipline and as our lives progress, we become more self-disciplined. It is a never ending process of education and skill development. We should be teaching those whose progress is below our own and learning from those whose progress is beyond ours.

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