Gymnastics is a Series of Habits

There are many ways to look at, analyze and plan the gymnastics learning process. One of those ways is to understand how gymnastics skills and other complex physical movements really are is a series of physical habits. In general learning terms, people have “one-track” minds. They can concentrate only on learning one new thing at a time effectively. Each step, therefore, must be thoroughly learned before proceeding to the next step or something new. This is just normal progressive training technique.

Physical/Gymnastics Habits are Neural Pathways in the Brain

But physical movements, including gymnastics skills, and patterns are really, either carefully built, or random accidental neural pathways in the brain. Repetitive movements begin to build neural pathways – habits – automatically. If gymnasts are performing movements well and constantly refining and improving them, the neural pathway becomes and remains a positive habit. If skills are done, without the close coaching necessary to ensure they are the correct pattern, then the neural pathway habit is most likely to become a bad habit.

Neural Pathways/Habits are Built, On Purpose or Accidentally

Either way, once a much repeated movement is initiated and begun, it naturally and automatically triggers the habit pattern down the neural pathway that has been developed, without voluntary control over the rest of the pattern. The ingrained pattern simply takes over and the pattern is executed, whether it is a good or bad movement, gymnastically. This is also why habits are so hard to break, once formed. Any initiation of the movement falls immediately into the neural pathway habit and defies change.

Memory Positions

I often use the term, memory positions, in my writing about gymnastics. Memory positions are physical positions for gymnastics skills, that can and should be firmly locked into muscle memory. This process can, should and does start as early as preschool gymnastic classes. Positions, like the tuck position, are often a part of a preschool curriculum. Most preschool programs do not, however, usually include all of the basic gymnastic positions on all of the events.  They should.

Muscle Memory

The concept of muscle memory is that gymnastics body positions should be so firmly locked into memory and the neural patterns, to get into and hold them, should be so firmly locked in, that the mind is free to concentrate on other things, like landing and sticking skills. The entire collection of memory positions for all events should be imprinted into muscle memory. Mirror, visual and video training are all effective memory position training supplements.

Training Muscle Movement Patterns

The next phase of building successful gymnastics habits is to build muscle movement patterns. One of the first movement patterns to establish is moving in and out of the previously learned gymnastics memory positions. For example, gymnasts will need to be taught to move quickly, correctly and efficiently in and out of a tuck position. That training will involve floor or mat training, tuck jump training on a variety of equipment and surface and, eventually and ultimately, tuck technique on somersaults and double somersaults.

Event and Skill Movement Training

Training event skill movements correctly often involves building a series of habits that will combine in order to produce an individual skill done correctly. For example, if you are teaching a young gymnast kips, you will want to break down the kip into habit phases and teach and imprint each phase. In many cases like kips, you may teach some or all of the phases separately and independently, but you can only combine them one successfully-mastered-phase to successfully-mastered-phase at a time.

Spaced Repetition

One of the basic precepts of building positive gymnastics and physical habits is spaced repetition. Spaced repetition does not necessarily involve doing numerous repetitions on the same day. It involves doing one or a small number of correct repetitions on a daily basis. Practices on each event or aspect of an event (like tumbling for floor) should be a review of each tumbling skill they are already doing, checking it to make sure it is being done correctly. If it is being done correctly, gymnasts immediately move on to the next skill in the progression and coaches check it. If it is not being done correctly, coaches help the gymnasts fix it (or improve it to the best it can possibly be done for that day) before moving on.

Spaced Repetition Practice Planning

If you are teaching a young gymnast kips, you should have plenty of time to plan to spend three weeks to a month on each one of the phases of learning the kip. The reason for that is that science tell us that spaced daily repetition for about 21 days is the minimum time for developing a habit (good or bad). Since we want to develop a good glide habit, before we concentrate on and add phase 2 – the “toes to bar” habit, we will spend sufficient time to master and imprint the glide. This means that a comprehensive plan to teach a kip would have a minimum of 21 days (or practices) devoted to mastering all aspects and performance of phase one -the glide – and the same amount of time for each and every other phase of the kip.

Don’t Ever Tell Gymnasts To Go Learn Kips on Their Own

This is not to say that work on the next phase of the skill, in this case – toes to the bar – which involves leg lifts to the bar (perhaps even with ankle weights) should not or are not being done concurrently, but putting the phases together before mastering the first phase, the glide, is a huge mistake. The worst scenario would be to have gymnasts trying to do the whole kip movement) without having broken it down into phases, visually taught it, explained the phases, practiced and mastered each phase before moving on and practiced without close coaching and supervision. In other words, just telling gymnasts to go practice kips on their own until they get their kip is the worst possible coaching and learning approach. You are almost guaranteed to develop bad habits, which will take 21 times longer (Japanese scientific research) to break and correct.

Build Gymnastics Mental and Physical Habits Carefully and In Order

Gymnastics skills and physical actions, are in a brain sense, all subconscious mind and mental habits. The best process for building technically correct habits is to learn one habit thoroughly first and then add the next habit. Jumping progression to add the next phase before allowing the first phase habit to be imprinted and starting onto the next phase too early can negatively alter the first phase and sabotage progress on both phases.

What are the Implications for Gymnastics Coaching and Training?

  • First, the early and initial training of young potential gymnasts should be done by instructors, who know the implications of neural pathway habits and who have a well-defined training system to ingrain the correct and beneficial gymnastics movement habits.
  • Gymnasts, from the very beginning of their training, need to be closely coached.
  • Early training systems for young gymnasts should be position and movement pattern oriented. That is, they should be designed to correctly build in positive gymnastics patterns into neural and muscle memory.
  • True skill progression also includes the basic skill patterns involved in doing individual skills, not just the order in which skills are learned.
  • The choice of trainers for young gymnasts in training should be carefully considered.
  • The choice of the first gym for their young gymnasts by parents is often a critical one. The “I’ll take them to this inferior (program name deleted) gym until they get older and then I will take them to the best gym” mentality is a huge mistake.
  • Gym owners should make sure their staff for young gymnasts are trained to correctly pattern young gymnasts.
  • Use a spaced repetition training system.
  • Do daily reviews of skill progressions to ensure continued correctness and that skill training neural pathways are not being negatively altered.
  • Daily practice, even if shorter (and more inconvenient for parents), is the best kind of practice to build correct gymnastics habits using spaced repetition.
  • Gyms should have a correct habit-building training system beginning at the lowest levels of their program.
  • Gymnastics training systems must be scientifically designed to build correct habit upon correct habit.
  • The early gymnastics training system should move from memory positions to memory movements to skills. More advanced memory movement training can then move on to skill combinations and then routines.
  • Movements and patterns must be given time to create neural pathways and to be set into muscle memory, before proceeding on, to ensure their integrity.

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