Archive for March 2010

Girls Peeling off the Bar on a Tap Swing!!!

March 26, 2010

So, during this season, I have seen about 12-15 gymnasts fly off of the bar backward while doing tap swings during a meet or the warm-up for a meet.  In 2 of those cases, an ambulance was necessary.  One of these gymnasts actually landed on her belly on the low bar and was, thankfully, okay.  Three to five of these girls were slowed down by their coaches as the coaches were standing in between the bars as these gymnasts were performing tap swings (two of these were ours).  The rest were extremely lucky in my opinion, not to get hurt.  I speak from bad experience myself with this situation as I had a gymnast break her arm many years ago when she peeled off of the bar in the back of the tap swing.  It was after this experience that I made sure that I stood there whenever my gymnasts were performing tap swings.

This, to me, is one of the most obvious cases of preventable injury that we have in our sport.  Let me first say that there are probably not many people who are bigger fans of the tap swing being included in the level 5 and 6 bar routines.  I think that the tap swing is simply, the best part of the compulsory routines on any of the four events.  Having said that, it is impossible, in my opinion, to eliminate the risk of the girls peeling off of the bar.  In fact, the better and bigger the gymnast swings, the more likely it is that the result will be a severe injury when she does peel.  The height of the swing is what puts them in that perilous position of “no man’s land”, halfway between landing on their feet and being able to flip over to their backs.  It is NOT about technique, in my opinion, but the size of the girls’ hands in comparison to the size of the rails.  I have seen plenty of girls with great shapes in the back of their swings and excellent “tapping” technique slip off just as much as (probably more than) girls with horrible technique.

For me, this is not a question of an individual gymnast’s ability level.  In my experience, the odds of this happening are the same for all of the gymnasts.  On any given day, it is just as likely to happen to the girl who has done 300 sets of tap swings and never “peeled” as it is for the gymnast who peels off once a month, in my opinion. 

I would like to note that I am not judging any coaches as I am writing this, and I don’t think negatively of people who have not stood in between the bars during tap swings.  However, I think it is time that we, as professionals who care about our gymnasts’ well-being, really start to rally around the idea of standing in between the bars for every set of tap swings that our kids do.  I know that there will be coaches who argue (Bill Sands comes to mind) about the idea of rescue spotting and reaction time, etc.  The way that our bar coach does it however (and the way I did it when I coached bars), diminishes that argument in the fact that he stands with his outside shoulder (in proximity to the athlete) right beside the low bar, and he stands as close to her as possible.  What this does is to place him pretty much behind the gymnast.  If she does peel, she is basically flying “into” the coach.  Again, the idea here is not to necessarily “catch” the gymnast in mid-air (which is what the studies about reaction time are about), but to slow her down and prevent the catastrophic injury.  Our gymnasts never do tap swings on a regular set of unevens without a coach standing in this position.  When they are in practice, we have a bar that is set up with a mat stack behind it and two wedges stacked up against that mat stack for the girls to do their tap swings.  This way, if they do peel, the elevated surface helps them to be able to land more safely.

I would really like for as many blogs and websites as possible to put this on their pages, or to at least discuss this topic.  Many of these gymnasts will never compete again in the greatest sport in the world  because of these injuries, and all we have to do is “stand in” on tap swings.

If it is not enough for a coach to do this because of the reasons I have already mentioned, it might help to think of the legal aspects as well.  When one of these girls’ parents decides to sue because of this injury, the attorneys for this family are going to investigate what other gyms are doing.  There are many gyms that already “stand in”, and therefore the attorney will want to know why this particular coach was not doing the same.  The second part of this is that when they are trying to prove negligence, the effort will be to prove that the accident could have been prevented by less of a burden than what the risk would be.  In other words, standing in between the bars is a very small effort in comparison to the many, many gymnasts who are injured on this skill every season. 

Aside from all of the legal mumbo-jumbo though, I always try to think of it in this simple way.  If this happened to one of my gymnasts and the parents or the attorney asked me why I wasn’t standing there like that other coach was, what could I possibly say?

Pak Progressions

March 20, 2010

First of all, sorry for the lack of updates.  I am not sure about Troy, but my life has been pretty hectic of late with a crazy schedule such that I am on the go very early, get home relatively late, and am just too tired to think.

With that said, I knew that I had to get something up and decided to provide you with a clip of progressions for the Pak salto.  In my opinion,  it’s rare these days that I see a good Pak salto performed.  Typically, it’s a “head-throw, flippy-thing” down to the low bar that  lacks amplitude and is often difficult for the gymnast to glide out of.

So, here’s another clip from one of my favorite coaches in the U.S. – Boise State co-head coach, Neil Resnick. (I probably have 20-25 of Neil’s lectures recorded ranging from “recreational bars” to “advanced releases”)   This is a bit old – it’s from a 2002 lecture at the Illinois State Congress.  With that said, I still think the points are more than valid and worth checking out.

I hope that you enjoy.

Note:  I pulled this from a VHS and I think that the sound quality is better than the hurdle videos from before.  With that said, I apologize if the sound quality is not ideal – if you use headphones, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty hearing.

Uneven Bars: Double Layout Dismount

March 6, 2010

Many female gymnasts who struggle with the double layout dismount off of the uneven bars do so because of the timing of their “tap.”  While many coaches have a different interpretations of the “tap,” my definition references the point at which the gymnast transitions from a hollow into an arch position at or nearly underneath the bar.  So, from this point forward, you should know exactly to what I am referencing.

I was bored and decided to analyze a couple of different double layouts.  For the past year or two, Ivana Hong has really struggled a bit with this dismount while Bridget Sloan performs it seemingly effortless.  Therefore, I decided to do a little comparison between the two utilizing their routines from the 2009 VISA Championships.  The videos are below.

First, here’s Bridget.

Next, here’s Ivana.

After stopping the video at several points, the following are the noticeable differences that I found between the two performances.

At approximately 45 degrees below horizontal, let’s look at a comparison between the two.

Ivana Near 45 Degrees Below Horizontal To The Bar

Bridget Near 45 Degrees Below Horizontal To The Bar

Notice here how Ivana has already “opened up” whereas Bridget stays more “hollow.”  By staying in more of a hollow shape, Bridget is able to create more deformation (“bend”) in the bar in my estimation.  This additional “bend” in the bar stores more elastic (strain) energy and contributes to her rotation upon release.

Now, let’s look at the two at a position directly underneath of the bar.

Ivana Underneath of The Bar

Bridget Underneath of the Bar

Notice the “bend” in the bar (a slight bit more for Bridget) as well as the more pronounced arch position as compared to Ivana’s position.  Further, in the next sequence of images, you’ll notice the early “kick” into the double layout for Ivana such that she struggles to make the necessary rotations.

Ivana Past Bottom Of Bar

Now, here’s Bridget.

Bridget Past Bottom Of Bar

Notice how Bridget holds the arch past the bottom and “kicks” later into the double layout and is able to easily complete the rotations.

So, how would I fix Ivana’s double layout dismount?  I would work very hard to get her to hollow the downswing longer, “tap” later, hold the “tap” through the bottom longer, and this would result in a later “kick” into the dismount and probably a more successful performance.

Many men’s coaches who have moved over to coaching women’s gymnastics tend to promote the early tap as the men do.  Unfortunately, the womens’ uneven bar rail is a much different apparatus and women in general, are smaller.  As a result, they are unable to produce the degree of “bend” in the rail as the men do.  This is particularly true when they attempt to perform the early, exaggerated tap that the men do.

If you notice, most of the gymnasts who swing as I am describing are performing full-in or full-out types of dismounts or something completely different such as a double front, for example.  The early, exaggerated “tap” swing mechanics for the women will give you a lot of height, but lacks rotation.  If you want your gymnasts to have a good double layout, I encourage the mechanics that I am suggesting and they will likely be a lot more successful.

Hopefully, this gives you a bit more insight into the double layout dismount from a coaching perspective.  Please feel free to share your insights or any disagreements.

Bridges – How to spare the back…

March 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, a reader asked me to drop some comments on bridges.  It was asked something along the lines of why do coaches insist that gymnasts straighten their legs and keep their feet together when bridging?

I don’t know.

As I noted in my last post, repeated bouts of lumbar flexion are believed to be a potential risk factor lumbar spine disorders such as a herniated disk.  Just the same, the lumbar spine really is not made to excessively arch or hyperextend as is seen when gymnasts perform skills such as bridges, backbends, and back walkovers.  Aside from these skills, when does a gymnast actually assume this type of a position?

Quite honestly, I cannot think of any other skills in which a gymnast assumes this position with so much lumbar hyperextension.  Some may argue that this type of bridge development is necessary for a successful performance of a back handspring.  Or, that’s an argument that I’ve heard a few times over the years.  Is it really?  Below, are three screenshots taken from Shawn Johnson’s first tumbling pass at 2008 National Championships.  Notice that she never gets into the position that we see above and if she did, she wouldn’t be very successful.

Beginning of the BHS After the RO

Flight Phase of BHS - Just Before Hand Contact

During Hand Contact of BHS

Does any gymnast ever assume the position (as shown in the bridge picture above) in a back handspring or any other skill except for bridges, back/front walkovers, etc. ?  The important factor in bridge development is shoulder flexion or often – hyper-flexion.  In other words, we want the arms to be able to be lifted up by the ears or even past without the chest/ribs poking out.

As I discussed in an earlier blog posting, there are other factors that we must consider when a gymnast has “tight shoulders.”  Maybe the issue is not flexibility at all.  Maybe the issue is too much rounding of the upper back that which places the scapula in a poor position.  Maybe it’s a matter of poor scapular stabilization or an imbalance of the scapula musculature.  The key muscles that would limit shoulder hyperflexion are the latissimus dorsi and the pec major/minor.  There are other stretches specific to these muscles that do not stress the low back.

With that said, here is a better way to perform a bridge.  I first came across this suggestion from David Adlard in an old USAIGC publication called STEPing UP.  To minimize the excessive hyperextension of the low back, elevate the feet to above shoulder height and put the emphasis of the stretch on the shoulders.

In the picture below, a trainer colleague, Becky (who used to cheer and tumble in high school) demonstrates.  Thanks Becky!  She’s a little tight in the shoulders, but now this position can better emphasize the muscles that need to be stretched without putting the low back at as much risk.  Afterwards, she even commented something to the effect of – “Wow, that really stretched my upper back…it felt good…”

Feet Elevated Bridge

What are We Teaching our Kids?

March 4, 2010

This is a post I did a year ago, and recently (going to meets this season), it has become apparent that these things can never be said too much.

These are some areas that I feel we, as coaches, are underacheiving.  I have thought about these things for the last few years while attending meets and clinics, etc., and think now is a good time to discuss them.  I guess you could say that these are my pet peeves, but I really don’t want anyone to look at this as a negative attack on anyone personally, but more of a “hey, we have a great opportunity to have a profound effect on these young peoples’ lives, so let’s work harder to accomplish that mission” type of thing.

Here they are in no particular order (I am aware of how “long-winded” I am, so please, no comments on that, haha):

1.  All athletes should remain in the competition arena until the last competitor is done competing. It amazes me sometimes when I see coaches allowing their kids to leave the competition area before all of the teams are done competing.  What we are saying to our athletes is that the only thing that is important is their performances and maybe the performances of their teammates, but no one else.  This is such a missed opportunity!  While kids today sometimes seem to have less empathy than I can ever remember, we have this great platform to show our athletes how much everyone else wants the same thing that they do.  This is the beginning of their ability to look outside of themselves and feel for what other people go through.  It can be the start of true altruism for that individual child.  And this, in turn, makes the world a better place.

We try very hard with our program to remind our kids that what the other girls are doing is just as important to them as it is to us.  We tell them that we will always remain in the competition area as long as there is a girl competing in our session.  And here is a big key to this…we, as coaches, remain seated with them (there is always at least one of us who does this).  We do not allow them to run around unnecessarily, but remind them to sit, facing the girls that are competing.  We also make it a point to our girls to go and thank teams that stay until the end if we are the last ones competing and there are only one or two teams left watching.  Unfortunately, this happens often.  It disappoints me to know that we are missing the boat on making our gymnasts more respectful and mindful of others.

2.  Athletes should put their things into their gym bags (all of their things), zip them up, and put them out of the way.  This could be under or behind the chairs that are provided for the athletes to sit, or along an “out of the way” wall.  When we allow our athletes to come into a meet and we do not remind them to put things away, we are again missing an opportunity to make them more mindful of others.  We should be telling them that they would not like it very much if they came over to sit down on the chairs and there was no where to sit because of the laziness of others (unfortunately, we are able to give them very clear examples of this at every meet that we attend).  We should also mention how they would feel if someone was walking in that area and tripped on their belongings and had to go to the hospital or missed the rest of her season because of the injury she sustained because of our bags.  I realize some people find this to be far-fetched, but I have seen some major messes at meets, and very recently.  This is unacceptable on our parts as coaches!  Kids are going to do whatever they are allowed to do.  It is our job to teach them how to behave in these situations, and this is an important one, in my opinion.

3.  There should be no talking during the presenting of awards.  This is so disrespectful to the athletes on the award stand!  I know that many coaches do not go to awards because of the limited time between sessions, and we are no different.  What we have done though, is to go to them whenever we possibly can, and speak to them about behavior as often as possible.  Our kids rarely go to awards without being first reminded of our expectations.  I, personally, am not above going up to the front where the girls are sitting to reprimand them for talking during this time.  I have done this a few times.  I feel very strongly though, that after an adequate number of times of this, and several discussions with them, that when they do have to go to awards without us, I can trust them to behave appropriately.  This makes me very proud as I know that they are learning something that many gymnasts are missing out on.  Again, it is our responsibility to help these girls become better people through the opportunity that gymnastics provides.  It is not just about teaching the sport!

4.  All athletes should stay until the last award is handed out.  This one is exactly the same as not leaving the competition area before the last competitor.  We need to make sure our gymnasts know that what they want is not more important than what all of the other girls at the meet want.  They are all there for similar reasons, and no one is better than anyone else as people, or more important.

5.  Scores at a meet are the least important thing about the meet.  I know we all know this, but putting it into practical application can be a different thing.  Scores are, after all, one of the few tangible evaluation tools that we have in this sport.  I am fairly sure that most coaches remind their athletes that the score is not the most important thing, but these same coaches (myself included) sometimes over-react to scores when they are at a meet.  If we are to truly convince our gymnasts that scores are not so important, then we have to be very careful about our own reactions to those scores.

Another thing that we have to do to help our athletes focus on the right things is to give them plenty of feedback on their performances, so they have a better idea where they stand.  I usually try to give my gymnasts a critique on their performance before the score is posted.  Many times I will tell them during this critique, that “I really don’t care what score comes up, that was the best vault you have ever done!”  It is very important, in my opinion for them to understand that one (or two or four) person’s view of their performance on one particular day for one particular routine, is not a real evaluation of where they are with their gymnastics.  What is important in this setting is how they handle the pressure, how mentally strong they are, and how much their performance reflects their training.  These are all things that we talk about when we are evaluating their performance when they are done.  It is through these discussions with them, I believe, that our athletes really do understand where their scores fit in relevance terms.  This does not mean, however that our girls aren’t proud of where they end up in a meet.  But there is always a balance, and finding it with your athletes is a very important life lesson.  We must teach them that if they are happy or unhappy about a performance, that evaluation should not change when the score is flashed.  The gymnast has either done the best she could or she did not.  A score doesn’t change that.

6.  An athlete should definitely have goals, but the process is the absolute most important thing.  For a gymnast to be successful in her sport (or any athlete in any sport), they obviously need to have goals.  Without these goals, the day-to-day training that is necessary for success would not be possible.  One of the things that is overlooked sometimes, though, is the trip to those goals.  So much focus is placed on the goal by the gymnast that she may not really appreciate what she has already achieved.  This, in my opinion, is another of our many jobs in coaching.  We have to remind our athletes of all of the great milestones in their career, and more than that, the lessons that they have learned along the way that will make their lives even better.

The reality of this sport is that most athletes will never achieve their ultimate goal, and the more intense the athlete is, the more likely she is to feel like she has failed because of this.  I really believe that the atmosphere and example we set in the gym is the determining factor to whether the gymnast feels like a failure or a success at the end of her career.  I have even seen in my career (too many times) the gymnast who actually does achieve her ultimate goal and feels more relief than happiness.  I think this is a little bit of a tragedy, and more than that, I believe it is preventable.  The whole point of this incredible sport is to build stronger, happier, more successful people.  How can we do that if our athletes come away feeling like they have wasted a good many years of their lives, because they didn’t achieve ultimate success (Vanessa Atler, anyone?)?

We try very hard in our gym, as I know many other gyms do, to actively search for small successes on a daily basis.  We want to remind our athletes as often as we can all of the great things they are accomplishing, so that they feel successful more often.  Trust me, they are going to beat themselves up plenty, and we are going to criticize them plenty as well, but I am always looking for that genuine opportunity to let them know that they are succeeding.  It can be anything from “I am so proud of you for coming into this meet after being sick, and doing what you did today,” to “There are lots of athletes who would have given up way before this if they had to deal with what you had to.”  We all know things like this, but I think we all have to do it even more often.

7.  Athletes on the award stand should congratulate the athletes on each side of her.  This is something that we just started requiring of our athletes this season, and I feel like it is so valuable.  It really makes the girls remember that they are not the only ones trying to achieve their goals.  It opens their eyes to the feelings and realities of other girls, and I can’t think of many things that I would rather have them learn.  I strongly suggest that we all have our athletes do this.

8.  A great athlete learns to keep reactions on a fairly even keel.  This means that they should never get too high or too low about what is going on (especially in reaction to scores).  One of the biggest examples of this, to me, is when an athlete begins her warm-up on a particular event, and it doesn’t go well.  We have to teach them, and ourselves, that this beginning of the warm-up is not more important than it is.  It is not enough though, for us to say to the athlete that “your warm-up is not a reflection of the gymnastics you are going to do.  What you do the majority of the time in the gym is what is important,” and then we turn around and get frustrated or angry at a gymnast for blowing a turn in warm-up.  This has always been a tough one for me.  I can remember many times getting very nervous when an athlete was not doing in warm-up what I had seen her do in practice.  We, as coaches are human after all, and while my motivation is almost 100% in the realm of wanting her to do well for her, there is a little piece of all coaches that desires success for ourselves.  We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have that longing.  So, I would get aggravated when those things happened, and that frustration would show through to the athlete and then they began to doubt themselves, and then their performance was very likely to be affected.  I’m not promising that I didn’t get frustrated a little over the last weekend when we hosted our St. Louis Classic, but the difference now is that I am more aware when this happens and the result that can occur, and so I hide it and turn it around.  I remind myself that they will always fall back on their training if I can help them to control their emotions and wandering thoughts.  What I have found is that, if the training has been done the right way and the athlete truly is prepared for what she is doing and she isn’t stressing because of this or her coaches reaction to it, then the “crappy” turns that happen in warm-up from time to time really don’t have an effect on the performance of the athlete when she competes.  This was an awesome discovery for me, and I hope that all of you can use it!

By the way, when I talk about controlling reactions, I don’t mean that we want our athletes to never get excited or disappointed about things.  That is what humans do, and there is a time and a place for each.  We shouldn’t really expect our kids to have the desire necessary to put in the amount of time and hard work that this sport requires if they could not express their excitement when they actually accomplish these things.  And we should not expect them to spend that energy and time and heart, and then be bubbling over with joy when they fail at the goal they had set for themselves.  Our job is to teach them the things that are okay to react to and the things that are not, and what to do next.  This takes things from a reactive state to a pro-active state.  Now, we are going to do something about the negative situation, or remember what we did to accomplish the positive and repeat it.  A great example of this “right time and wrong time” scenario is when an athlete is not doing what they need to in the gym and then cries because they fail at the meet.  I, personally, try to use this (as I try to use every situation) as a teaching opportunity.  I let them know two things – – the first is the fact that they can do something about this situation by changing their behavior in the gym – – the second is that they have not earned the right to cry when they have not done everything they can to keep this from happening.  In other words they contributed to this, and I tell them that it is like pouring water on your own head and crying because you are getting wet.  I use this time as an opportunity also to inform them that if they calm down, then the first time is okay, but the second one is not.  They are told that they will have to leave the meet and go and sit with their parents.  I have only had to send a girl out of a meet for this once in over 25 years.  Most of the time, if the athlete knows that you will follow through, and you are doing your job in the gym to continue this lesson, this warning is all that it takes.  Sometimes, the athlete changes their training habits, and sometimes they don’t, but they most always change their reactions when this approach is taken and is consistent with the team and philosophy of the program.

9.  Support and cheer for the other teams in your rotation.  This one is a lot like the awards stand, but even more personal.  If we encourage our athletes to go and meet the girls in our rotation and root for them, then they are not only learning empathy, but social skills as well.  They are finding new friends that have similar experiences, and maybe even friends that they will have contact with for several years.  We can’t possibly know what the future holds for that friendship.  Could one of them donate a kidney to the other one someday, or something simpler, like saying the one thing the other needs to hear when losing a loved one?  This dynamic is again, a very much underappreciated aspect of our job as coaches.

10.  We can set an example for our athletes by helping each other out as coaches.  This includes, when possible, blocking time together when a team has only 2 or 3 athletes.  Even making the offer to a smaller team by a larger team really shows the athletes what is important.  Our athletes look up to us like almost no one else in their lives.  They emulate us without really even knowing it.  When they see us helping out others, they will respond by doing the same in their lives.

11.  We control what we can control, and don’t worry about things we can’t control.  The judges are not in our control, and therefore it does us absolutely no good to worry about what they did or didn’t do.  Our athletes have to believe that they can do enough to change anything.  That means that, even if they have been underscored, they can get back in the gym and train even harder and do such great gymnastics that it will be impossible for someone to deny them.  The greatest athletes have to believe this is true!  Notice, however, that I did not say that it is completely true.  If an athlete wants ultimate success, though, this has to be their mantra.

In closing…

I think that it is extremely important that we remember how valuable an opportunity we have with these children.  What we are teaching in respect to skills and routines is important, but this only occupies about 1/7 to 1/5 of the athletes’ lives.  We have to remember that the lessons they can learn from the sport can help them with the rest of their lives.  What a great gift that can be!

Thank you and I hope this is helpful to all of you.

Do we really need to be doing sit-ups & crunches?

March 4, 2010

Dr. Stu McGill from the University of Waterloo in Canada has strongly advocated that repeated lumbar spinal flexion (i.e. rounding of the low back) may ultimately lead to a disk injury.  The question that remains unanswered is how many will it take to lead to injury?  That’s probably a question that is HIGHLY variable depending upon the individual.

Nevertheless, I have pretty much stopped doing crunch/sit-up-type exercises.  I feel that you can achieve the same effect performing core stabilization exercises such as planks.  The closest that I come to a crunch is a reverse crunch, which I feel is a lead-up to performing a candlestick/lever raise on the floor, hanging on a bar, on the rings, etc.

With that said, here’s a study that was conducted on US Army recruits comparing a sit-up training program vs. a core stabilization program on performance of the US Army Physical Fitness Test.  What was found was that –

“….there was a small but significantly greater increase in sit-up pass rate in the CSEP (5.6%) versus the TEP group (3.9%).”

CSEP = core stabilization exercise program

TEP = traditional exercise program

Effects of Sit-Up Training Versus Core Stabilization Exercises On Sit-Up Performance

Medicine & Science In Sport & Exercise. 41(11):  2072-83, Nov 2009.

What are your thoughts?