Secrets to Breaking Bad Gymnastics Habits

Subject: Back handsprings

Sex: female
Age: 14
Gymnastics Level: level 8

Ok, so I have been working on my backhandspring and my coach says that I drop my chest when I go into my sit. I have had sooooo much trouble with this and we’re seeing this problem occur in alot of my other stuff such as my jump series! I get frustrated and so does my coach! I don’t know whats to do! PLEASE HELP!!!!

How Big a Problem Is This Really?

The first decision you and your coach must make is this problem worth the work it will take to fix the situation. While dropping your chest into back handsprings and jumps may technically be an error, judges may or may not deduct for doing it. Let’s face it, there are gymnasts at the International level, who do the same thing and still manage to win medals. This is a common error at all levels of the sport. You also must realize that any changes you make to these skills can have effects on your consistency. I once had a gymnast, who came onto my team from another gym, who sat so deeply before doing her back handsprings that she literally almost sat on the beam, but she was able to do back handspring layouts on beam perfectly consistently, if not quite so gracefully.

Avoid Bad Habits in the First Place

This situation is fair warning to all gymnasts, parents and coaches that the creation of bad gymnastics habits should be avoided at costs, because the time and effort to fix them far exceeds the time it would have taken to teach and learn the skill correctly in the first place. This is one of the reasons that parents should make every effort to put their gymnasts in the best gymnastics program available in the first place. It is also why gymnasts should be closely coached to keep them from developing bad habits.

Gymnastics Habits

Since you are a Level 8 gymnast, it is likely you have been doing standing back handsprings and the other skills you are having problems with, literally for years. These skills are now firmly built-in habits, both in your body and your subconscious mind, which controls all physical movement, including gymnastics skills. The subconscious mind automates as many physical activities, including gymnastics skills, which you have done over and over again. Normally this is a good thing, but when you make technical errors in your gymnastics skills, having them automated means you have created bad habits. While by focusing your conscious mind on fixing these problem, it is possible to temporarily correct the problem, as soon as there are additional things your mind must concentrate on (such as not falling off the beam or competing), the mind and body go right back to the habits that have been built in.

The Normal Process of Breaking Bad Gymnastics Habits

Japanese sports scientist have reported that it takes approximately 22 correctly done skills to make up for every bad skill repetition habit, that athletes did to create and maintain the bad habit in the first place. When you have been doing a particular skill in one way for years , it is very difficult and time-consuming to change that habit.

Secrets to Breaking Bad Gymnastics Habits

There are three shortcuts to breaking bad gymnastics habits – word cues, change and visual retraining. Practicing and competing, while inserting skill word cues (like “Chest up!”), before doing each of the problems skills every time, can alter the mindset for the skill and help fix the problem. If a gymnast can change the beginning or execution of a skill enough, and it is different enough, then the old habit patterns may not apply and continue to occur. Since the skills that you mentioned, standing back handsprings and jumps, can be done while looking in a mirror, immediate visual feedback can serve to put the conscious mind into play and allow you to perform the skill properly under those conditions and build a new habit. Obviously, there are certain skills and certain events, in which visual training cannot be used, like bars. Those are three methods of speeding up fixing gymnastics bad habits.

Fixing the Problem with Word Cues

While I am typically not in favor of using conscious mind word cues in gymnastics, since the conscious mind often negatively interferes with subconscious physical skill processes, in this case, they can be successfully used to solve a specific problem. Always practicing and doing the problem skills with word cues (like “Chest Up Back Handspring”) can build a new habit of focusing on doing the skill correctly. Word cues are somewhat problematic in that gymnasts must come out of “the zone” in order to say them, but it can serve to fix a problem like this more quickly than other techniques.

Back Up in Progression

As always, whenever there is a problem in gymnastics, it is wise to back up in progression and/or the equipment progression. In your case, if you are talking about doing the skills on beam (you didn’t specify beam or floor), this means going back to doing the skills on a foam floor beam and then a low beam, preferably, in front of a mirror. Watching yourself in a mirror (and the beam, for safety), while doing these skills, will make you use a different part of your brain and allow you to get new habit building practice.

Still Need to Do Extra Repetitions

Regardless of the methods, or combinations of methods, used to help fix these problem skills is still going to require enough repetition to build a new habit. For example, always remembering to use a word cue or make the change before these particular skills will require enough repetitions of saying the cue to build a new habit. Time must be taken to build a new habit for all of the skills.

How Changing a Skill Can Help This Problem

The secret to quickly breaking habits is to make a big enough change to the skill, preferably in the beginning of the skill, before the old habit pattern is initiated. In the case of jumps, one solution would be to simply change to another jump, where there is no habit pattern. But if you have a habit of making all standing jumps in the same way, that may not work to fix the problem and certainly back handsprings are such a basic skill, that you will not just be able to change to some other skill. And, on beam, you will not likely be able to change the execution of your back handspring enough to bypass the habit pattern.

Pressure Can Make the Old Habits Return

And you must be aware that under pressure, like at big, important meets, that old habits have a tendency to return. As with soldiers under fire, when gymnasts are under pressure they tend to revert to their most basic level of training. In this case, this is doing your back handsprings and jumps by dropping your chest. Significant change, visual training and word cues need to be consistently used to build new habits with these skills. If you do, indeed, choose to spend time trying to change your execution of these skills, likely it is the word cues, that is likely to be the fastest and most helpful method.

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