Staff Education

December 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

When the competition season is over usually we try to reorganize the classes and some of the children move up in level.

Whenever you have new gymnasts join your group you hope that they don’t have any pronounced weaknesses, particularly in the basic areas.

However, we often find technical flaws in basic skills that prohibit the gymnasts from learning necessary skills they need for the next level. If that is the case you need to put some time into re-teaching basic technique, which sometimes slows down the improvement of the entire group.

Ideally this should not happen if the previous coach has done a good enough job at that level. When this starts to happen often enough we need to start paying attention to educating the lower level team staff members.

At least the coaches of the upper level need to pay attention to the gymnasts who are immediately below your group, because the next new team members you will have will be coming from the level below you.

It will be a good idea to talk to the coaches of the level below you and communicate often. In that way you are familiar of the gymnasts and their problems if they have any. And of course, help the coaches to solve some of their problems when you have some spare time.

Generally, this type of problem (technical deficiency in basics) occurs when the gymnasts make the transition between the compulsory level to the optional level, namely from level 6 to level 7.

If you have enough numbers of new gymnasts who are moving up you simply put them together and create new level 7 groups. This way the effect of a few weak gymnasts may not be as crucial to the whole group as opposed to a few weak gymnasts joining an existing optional group.

In order to avoid this situation all together it makes sense to have an in-house staff education program for the compulsory staff periodically.

There are a number of ways that you can organize clinics, but all the focus needs to be placed on the desired technique for all the basic skills.

Following is an example of the skill list (just for tumbling) that I would use to explain the details of the body positions and technique, as well as the progressions, in the staff clinic.

Tumbling (floor exercise) session
Pre-tumbling skills
Handstand body position, pirouette, straddle press to handstand, straight leg forward & backward roll, front walkover, back walkover, cartwheel (block cartwheel), arched dive roll, back extension roll to handstand

Basic core tumbling skills: single skills (Floor or tumble track)
Headspring, front handspring, fly spring, round off, back handspring, running front tuck

Tumbling skill series: (Floor or tumble track)
Front handspring step out to front handspring
Front handspring step out – cartwheel – front handspring
Front handspring – fly spring (& series)
Round off – back handspring (& series)
Round off – back handspring – back tuck
Round off – back tuck

Trampoline basics (place 8” skill cushion or resi-pit behind)
Series of bounce then stop the bounce
Small bounce to back tuck
Series of back handspring &/or back tuck
Small jump to front tuck & pike
Small bounce to back layout

This session needs to be done on the other events as well, but this way all the coaches will understand the same technique for the basics skills and open up communication among the coaches in your club.

Have fun coaching!

Some Thoughts on Warm Up

October 31st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

We have used the traditional type warm up for our program for many years. The traditional warm up consists of various running drills, callisthenic exercise, typical stretching exercises and a few balance hold movements.

The warm up was aimed at mainly preparing the body for the gymnastic activities and it is not intended for any learning technique or improved body positions.

In our current program, we have some team members that cannot come to the gym on time for the 3:30 pm starting time, because they get out late from school. So they need to start the practice from 4:00 pm.

However, there are numbers of gymnasts who could come to the gym by 3:30 pm and just wait for the starting time. Therefore, we decided to offer tumble track instruction to Level 7 to 10 gymnasts who are just waiting for the practice to start.

They usually stretch quickly and start the tumble track within a short time, but they do extended stretching and flexibility later in the warm up at 4:00 pm.

We noticed that the gymnasts who work this extra tumble track for 30 min. 4 days a week (Mon, Tue, Thu & Fri) are greatly benefitting which is evident in the floor exercise in the later session.

When all the team girls are able to start the program together in the morning during the summer months, we do a totally different type of warm up. We combine the warm up with some basic tumbling and flexibility exercises along with the physical conditioning exercises.

We allocate about 60 min. for warm up and conditioning 4 days (Mon, Tue, Thu & Fri) and the other 2 days (Wed & Sat) are combined with some dance drills as well as extended flexibility exercises.

Those 2 days (Wed & Sat) that are dedicated to dance and flexibility work consist of a combination of hard stretching, ballet work, floor jumps & leaps, conditioning, as well as some plyo-metric exercises.

At certain times, we also offer the trampoline as well as air awareness development program (such as mini-tramp & tumble track) combined with the warm up.

This program is usually offered to home schooled gymnasts who are working toward advanced to elite level gymnastics.

During the trampoline work the gymnasts are to do the stretching as well as some strength and conditioning exercises while they are waiting for their turn.

Ideally, every minute they spend in the gym should be used as effectively as possible and the warm up should not be any different. All the exercises they do in the warm up should be done with some intent and done with good quality.

Mixing the warm up with some exercises hopefully will make them realize what and how they should be doing all the movements even as they do the warm up.

Hopefully the gymnast’s productivity will improve as they realize that the warm up is just as important as the skill work.

Have fun coaching!

Young gymnasts and their development

October 2nd, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

Whenever you see a child with the natural physical abilities in your program, it will give you an excitement. Generally the types of physical attributes catch your eyes are fast running speed, good physical strength, flexibility, agility and a good coordination.

However, it is very difficult to tell whether she is going to be a good gymnast or not until she is in the program for a while and start learning the skills.

Usually when the child is around 6 to 8 years old and in the compulsory levels, we will start seeing more of a separation among the children. By this time, the children have most likely developed their personality, some characteristics as well as the desire to learn and improve gymnastics.

Once the child is introduced to the competition, we can see the whole picture of the child and we can easily tell which girl is really talented for gymnastics.

If you can find enough numbers of children with similar abilities and is able to create a group, this is the ideal. Then, you can offer a program that will be catered toward their ability and you can make them move faster.

Most of the talented gymnasts will go through the compulsory levels very quickly. The problem is that the compulsory routines include very limited amount of basic skills that are important for developing the good optional gymnastics.

By this time, these talented gymnasts who want to be on the fast track need to start learning vast area of basic skills on each event.

As they work more on the basic skills and become efficient in some areas, they must start learning some complex skills. Also the development of the air (spacious) awareness will add the new dimension to their gymnastics.

They need to start working on the trampoline, mini-tramp or tumble track to gain more air time in the air so that they can start twisting or flipping more in the air.

Even around this stage, the physically talented gymnast will show the separation among them in learning speed as well as the quality of the executions. However, the mental attributes starting to weigh more around this stage of their development as well.

For example, the fear could interfere or slow down their learning speed a lot. Also, the intensity of training (quality of each turn) will start affecting a lot more than before. A child who is not mentally tough, will not be able to keep up with the other’s learning speed especially when they are attempting unfamiliar skill.

Also the competitiveness of the gymnasts will make the difference in learning speed. For example, the teammate is making the skill successfully will motivate more for the competitive girl. The competitive girl always wants to learn the skill first or do it better than the other girl.

When you are able to create the environment where all the similar ability gymnasts are together in a group, or talented young gymnasts are part of the older and better gymnast, they tend to excel more.

They are constantly wants to be challenged and they need to feel that they are continuously improving themselves. It is very exciting to work with such gymnasts.

However, it is very difficult to find many young talents like them. Have you had a chance to find the talents like them in your program?

Have fun coaching!

Gymnastic Improvement Maturity

September 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

Our optional team consists of girls who are between 11 and 17 years old.

When girls are very young we need to guide them more and tell them what to do most of the time. Otherwise, most of their valuable time and energy will be wasted with aimless turns and non-focused activities.

When they are young, their power and strength have not been developed yet so the events that require more power are harder for them to improve on rapidly.

However, they can improve quickly on the events that require precise technique and timing. Also, they can develop good basic skills and technique on all the events, because they have so much energy.

They tend to learn skills quickly and make corrections easier simply because they can repeat the skills many times and also can take many turns to fix their mistakes.

Additionally, they have another distinct advantage, they can be hand spotted easily when they are learning the skills. Hand spotting is a very safe way to repeat skills many times and it is not physically demanding for the coaches due to their size.

Also, most of the gymnasts still are small and do not weigh much so, when they fall from the apparatus, it will not be as dramatic or as taxing on their body.

Generally, girls who are pre-adolescent girls will listen well to the coaches and they will follow the guidance of the coaches without much doubt or complaint.

However, it is hard to find young gymnasts who are talented and at a high enough skill level to take advantage of all that I mentioned above.

Once they become a teenage they think much more independently and we need to start treating them differently.

The verbal communication becomes important when they are older and they need to understand the logic of the proper technique. Therefore, when they make mistakes they need to understand why and how they need to make their corrections.

Perhaps, asking the questions on their mistakes is a good way to make them start thinking about what is going on with their body and the technique.

Sometimes, corrections may take a great effort to make or it could present some fear. However, if they understand how it will work it should ease their fear and help them make the critical step.

When they become a teenager outside interests, other than gymnastics, grow. Sometimes, the outside interest disrupts their gymnastics and may lead to a lack of focus.

They will be more affected when they start growth spurts and their skill development temporarily slows down. The rapid growth in height and weight will affect the timing of the skills as well as their speed and the power.

Some of the skills that were easy for them to make, becomes harder and sometimes they completely loose skills. Around this time, they can develop bad work habits as well as a bad attitude. They have a hard time finding the success in their training.

Some gymnasts go through this stage quickly and start developing power as well as physical strength in a short time, but some of them really struggle with it for a long time.

This is the most susceptible time for most girls and if we are not careful some of them could lose interest in gymnastics or fall far behind the rest of their teammates.

When you recognize this type of problem, it might be time for them to re-access their gymnastics and re-establish their goals as well. If they can define realistic goals that are attainable in the near future they might get excited about their gymnastics again.

When they pass through this struggling stage while they gain some physical strength and power, perhaps their most rewarding time of development awaits.

They will have a much better understanding of technique for most of the skills they are working and they can achieve a higher skill level than previously.

Hopefully, they feel like they are reaching their potential or close to it and have some success in the competitions as well.

Perhaps the most rewarding and satisfying feeling for us is that when they leave our program with a big smile and appear happy to have been part of our program.

Have fun coaching!

Dealing With Old Bad Habits

August 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

As in many other sports, gymnastic skills must be repeated many times after you learn them. Performance of a new skill may not be smooth or technically precise at first, but as the gymnast repeats the skill, it gradually becomes efficient and is easier to execute.

As the refinement of the skill improves the movement also becomes more fluent and even greater amplitude can be attained with dynamic speed.

When you are learning a skill for the first time, going through a proper progression is essential. However, gymnasts may not to be able to execute a skill correctly some times due to a limitation in their background.

Lacking good basics as well as having a limited range of motion (lack of flexibility) or having poor body positions could be prime reasons for developing an inefficient technique or a bad habit.

One reason for developing a bad habit is rushing through the steps without mastering the proper technique at each step. This will also cause a compensating (inefficient) technique to complete the skill.

Because we repeat skills so many times the technique soon becomes semi permanent. If we don’t work to correct this inefficient part of the skills time to time, it will become a bad habit.

Once the gymnast becomes comfortable doing the skills a certain way, even if the gymnast knows the technique is not ideal, it is very hard to go back and fix it.
This is how many bad habits are developed.

Ironically, when I look at our gymnasts more than half the team girls came from various clubs and someone else has done most of their skill development.

This means that the same skill is done with a slightly different technique. When these girls are using a similar technique to you teach a skill, it will not cause any head aches, but if not, you may need to spend lots of time fixing them.

I find myself re-working or fixing inefficient technique on the daily bases.

The basic approach I take is: first, to analyze where the root problem of the inefficient technique is, second, I need to determine whether I should work on the skill itself or work on the basic skills, or third, work on the skill leading into the main skill.

For example, if your gymnast is having a problem making a full twisting front layout from a front handspring, which part of the skill do I need to work with her to fix it?

If the problem is in the twisting mechanics she may need to spend more time on the trampoline or tumble track. But her problem could be in the lack of height or the rotation in the front layout itself. Then, she should be working on the refinement of the front handspring to front layout.

Sometimes, you also need to look at the efficiency of the technique on the front handspring. The basic skill, such as the front handspring, could possibly be causing the break down for the entire sequence.

When she learns an efficient front handspring technique it may fix the amplitude of the front layout and even help to complete the full twisting front layout better.

If you run into a very severe technical problem and determine that it will take too much time to fix it, perhaps you should look for a substitute skill or sequence and start anew. Sometimes, it is faster to learn a new skill than to try to fix an old bad habit.

I know that dealing with old bad habits is a never-ending project for all of us, but I hope you are having success with it.

Have fun coaching!

Some Thoughts on Summer Training

July 3rd, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

What should we emphasize the most in the summer time training?

In our program, we would emphasize the area of training that we cannot do much during the school year.

The air awareness development is one of the areas we greatly emphasize during the summer time. The trampoline, mini-tramp and tumble track are the major pieces of equipment used to develop air awareness. Therefore, we do lots of tramp, mini and tumble track during the summer.

However, the only way for all the team members to take advantage of using this equipment is to spread the workout time throughout the day. Therefore, the gym is practically used for the whole day, from 8am in the morning to 8pm in the evening.

The summer time is always a good time to learn a new skill that will take a longer process to develop.

Some skills are very complex and it will require a breakdown of the skill to many progressive stages. Also, some of the stages must have a special station set up for safety reasons and/or for the big number of repetitions.

Some stations, such as the shoot over the low bar or the vault timer station can be left set up for daily use. That way we can eliminate the set up & take down time for daily. The landing area is built up to the bar height or table height and left there for the various groups for their use.

We also emphasize the different type of strength and conditioning exercises. We normally add more plyometric exercises so that the speed and power can be developed. Hard plyometric exercises are limited to an every other day interval or more for recovery from fatigue, but we try to emphasize the exercises that develop more speed or power for this time of the year.

The parking area out side of the building could become a running track in the summer time particularly when the outside temperature is cool in the morning. Developing the leg power and the running speed are the main focus on the outside activities.

Around this time of the year, we will use more variety of exercises for conditioning just to break the monotony of exercises that are used through the year.

The coach who works on the area of dance and flexibility loves the summer time training because she can take extra time to work on the basic drills and the much needing flexibility work. This is also the best time to do some basic ballet work if we don’t have the time to work during the year.

The beam event is no different from the other events. There are so many skill break downs and progressions we can do to improve the learned skills or learning the new skills.

The summer training should be lots of fun and full of excitement simply because of the above mentioned factors. When gymnasts are excited and interested in learning, they become more productive.

Therefore, our roll is to provide a well planned training program and take full advantage of this summer time.

Have fun coaching!

Edited by Dan Connelly

In-Bar Moves; Clear Hip Circle, Sole Circle & Stalder Circle

June 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

The clear hip circle, sole circle and Stalder (straddle seat) circle are the most common skills used as in-bar moves on Uneven Bars.

The clear hip circle is the most popular move worked first by all gymnasts.
The reason for this, is that the progressive skills such as back hip circle is used in the low level routines and all the gymnasts have an opportunity to work on the backward hip circle more frequently.

On the other hand, the sole circle and the Stalder circle are much harder skills to learn for most beginner gymnasts. The basic circle on the sole support or straddle seat support requires much more strength and body control to go around the bar.

Technically, starting from the handstand and finishing in the handstand is equally hard on all three skills, but due to the familiarity of the skill and the frequency of work on the progressive stages, many more gymnasts will learn the clear hip circle to handstand before the other two skills.

In order to develop the other two skills the gymnasts must spend some time working on the progressions for the sole circle or Stalder circle.

The gymnasts who are talented will learn the clear hip circle to handstand or near handstand relatively quickly and will start working on the progressions on the sole circle and the Stalder circle. All these skills are best learned them on the strap bar.

The details of the technique and the progressions for these skills will be discussed in a separate issue, but the process of learning is very much the same for sole circle and the Stalder circle.

There are many skills that can be developed from these three in-bar skills once you learn them and become proficient.

For example, if you add a blind turn to these 3 skills each skill will be called different names i.e. clear hip blind, sole circle blind or Stalder blind. Each skill will be listed in a different box and the gymnast will have 3 more skills in her repertory of skills.

Naturally, each skill will be different to learn, but once you have mastered one skill the other 2 skills will easily be mastered as well.

Some of the common moves added to these in-bar moves are Tkatchev (straddle, pike or layout), blind full, bar change low to high bar as well as hop change to under bar grip.

This is quite a list of skills that can potentially be developed once the gymnast learns the in-bar moves well enough.

However, I should mention that the sole circle is a more popular skill to use for the Tkatchev since the consistency of the flight is very critical for the big release move. Using the sole circle seems to give the gymnast better control of the speed and the power to make a consistent Tkatchev.

Among the elite gymnasts all the in-bar skills are quite evenly used in various skills and combinations.

So, the development of these basic in-bar skills should be a high priority for the gymnast who aspires to develop a strong optional bar routine.

Have fun coaching!

Mid Season Break Down

May 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

We are in the final stretch of the JO Competition season now and this is the most crucial part of the season.

This year, we lost 3 level 10 gymnasts because of serious leg injuries and illness even before the season started.

We started with a total of 13 healthy gymnasts, but at the end of the season we have only 2 gymnasts left, who are healthy enough to train hard without taping or icing and some type of rehabilitation.

This year’s rate of injuries was definitely off the norm so we have examined why this has happened this year and carefully looked at the situation.

The most areas of injuries were from 2 main areas: legs (ankles & knees) and the lower back.

Also, many of the injuries were chronic type injuries, so they could train, but working with some aches and pains. Some injuries require the support of athletic tape or supporter during the training and constant rehabilitation work.

Some girls need to cut back the repetition of routines and correction turns due to pain, so they are somewhat lacking consistency.

As we traced back their injuries we realized that most of the injuries were caused by technical errors and some were coming from a lack of physical preparation. In other words, all injuries were possibly preventable.

Some of the lower back injuries came from repeated rebounding somersaults that were done from a tilted body position and also the tilted landing.

We also have a few very flexible gymnasts who have a weak core and a natural sway in the lower back. They tended to overuse the lower back arch to execute many skills that caused constant pressure on their lower back area.

Many other problems were caused by poor technical execution, particularly in the basic skills. For example, a weak round off back handspring often caused a short landing for double backs as well as on multiple twisting somersaults.

Repeated short landings and tilted landings caused great stress on the ankle as well as the knee joints.

We can trace back most of the injury and find that it was related to a deficiency in technique on basics which we neglected to fix in the pre-season.

All those gymnasts who had to deal with an injury need to realize that correcting the basic technique will help for preventing some of the injuries.

However, the most important aspect here is the desire of each gymnast to fix her own problem. Unless this desire to improve comes from each gymnast, the effectiveness of the program will never be realized.

When we are all finished with the competition season, we need to evaluate the season with the whole team and these problems need to be discussed and pointed out to them.

It might be a good idea to have each gymnast write out their problem areas and ask them how they intend to solve each problem.

The main focus here is making them realize their problems and have them come up with their own solutions. Also, have them commit themselves to fix their own problem areas.

Have fun coaching!

Some Thoughts on the Tap Swing Technique for the Back Giant

April 1st, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

I have discussed the technique on the back giant in a recent issue. I mentioned in the article the importance of the tapping action in the giant and how it will affect the execution of various skills.

In this issue, I would like to discuss where the tapping action should start under or over the low bar in the back giant.

The majority of girls who are doing a back giant use straddled legs to clear the low bar. Otherwise, taller girl’s feet will reach the low bar and the feet will hit the low bar. However, young and short gymnasts need not worry about reaching the bar with their feet. Therefore, they can keep the legs closed throughout the giant.

Occasionally, you will see taller girls who keep the legs closed and use a hip pike to miss the low bar. However, the timing of the tapping action will be very difficult to make correctly with this technique. So, you will not see very many done this way by taller gymnasts.

I attend the Women’s National Team training camp 7 or 8 times a year as one of the staff members and noticed more than half the national team girls uses both technique in their giants.

Some girls use over the low bar tap on every giant and some girls use over the low bar tap only prior to big moves such as release moves or dismounts where more power is required.

In our club, the majority of the girls use the under the low bar tap. This is because, the timing of the tapping action will be the best if they pike their hips slightly with straddle and miss the low bar under, then do the tapping action through the bottom.

If they start tapping over the low bar, at this stage, they will start kicking the legs forward too early and they will never make the giant to the top. Generally, most of the girls who just start to learn a giant are not strong enough to hold a long arch, then kick their legs at the proper time.

Once they learn to do a giant with straddled legs and tap under the low bar, they can generate enough power and the speed to do most of the necessary skills for JO routines. Therefore, it is not a big factor to change the giant technique for most of them unless they are adding a big dismount or high difficulty skill.

In the recent international Code of Points, it is advantageous to have a more difficult routine to score high in the elite level. Therefore, all the gymnasts are trying to put as difficult a routine as possible together to get the highest start value for their routine. In order to put a very difficult routine together, it is essential for them to make all the skills with little effort. The extra power of a giant is a great help to give the gymnast more power and the speed to make the skills with greater amplitude and ease.

It is extra work for the coach as well as the gymnast to learn the timing of the tap over the low bar. When you tap over the low bar it is important that the feet not hit or clip the low bar which can change the timing of the tap through the bottom of the swing.

When the gymnast taps over the low bar the shoulder extension and the upper chest arch must start earlier to generate more powerful and longer kick through the bottom.

This extra power could be used to create more airtime for release moves or dismounts so that you can add more twist or flip to elevate the skill value.

We try to teach this technique to the gymnasts who are working toward the elite level and also to the JO gymnast who aspire to put higher value skills in their routines.

Have fun coaching!

Edited by Dan Connelly

Neutral Head Position and the Visual Cue

March 8th, 2011 by Mas Watanabe

Air awareness development is one of the most important aspects in coaching gymnastics, because gymnasts will be flipping and twisting in the air in so many different skills.

When we are working on the backward somersault it is important to keep the head in a neutral position instead of thrusting it backward to facilitate body rotation.

When the gymnast keeps the head in the neutral position she will be able to see a certain spot and immediately can detect where her body is in relation to the ground at that specific moment.

Our head normally stays in line with the body and this is the most natural position for the orientation of our body. When you keep your head in a neutral position during the somersault it is much easier to orient yourself whenever you spot something.

When the gymnasts keep the head in the neutral position while doing a multiple somersault she will find the landing to be much more stable and easier to control. However, if she thrusts her head backward to gain rotation her head needs to be adjusted back to the neutral position before landing, otherwise her landing may be unstable.

Also, when the gymnast is twisting during a somersault the head should not deviate too much from the neutral position as well. If she is twisting to the left she should simply move her head to the left side without lifting up (backward).

When we teach air awareness to the gymnasts we often use a visual cue to facilitate orientation of the body in a specific moment.

For example, I would tell the gymnast to look for the foam pit before she starts twisting the second half twist when doing a half in half out somersault off the bars. This is true for teaching the half in half outs on any apparatus.

When the gymnast finds where the ground is in the air it is much safer and also easier to sense when to start the second half of the skill.

Furthermore, the visual cue could be used to stabilize the head in a neutral position.

Some times, I tell the gymnast to look at the front wall before she starts a backward full or double full. This will help her neutralize her head instead of thrusting the head backward as she starts the backward twisting.

A visual cue could also be critical when the gymnast is doing a release and
regrasping a skill on the bars. Visually seeing the bar before she regrasps it will make catching the bar more consistent.

We try to use as many visual cues as possible during our coaching and it is a very helpful aid in teaching skills and correcting technique.

Surprisingly, many gymnasts are not using visual cues even though they are seeing things during the skill. Sometimes they are not aware of it even though they are using the visual cues subconsciously.

Whenever we notice that a gymnast could use a visual cue to develop consistency or better timing for a skill we encourage them to use it as much as they can.

Have fun coaching!

Edited by Dan Connelly