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Friday, November 15, 2013

Your daily dose of gymnastics: Jackie Bender

Jackie Bender of Canada was never a superstar in the gymnastics world, but her amazing handstands put her in a class all her own. I'd seen her remarkable one-arm handstand mount (with arch and rotation!) in clips before, but this footage of her doing every conceivable handstand skill in clinics and practice is mesmerizing. And creepy. The grainy TV! The uber-flexibility! The bluesy music!

At 5:29 in the video, I'm not sure I've ever seen faster press handstands. And as she mentions in this interesting interview, her record was 67 in a row. Also interesting: she says her back was not naturally flexible! I shudder to think of the stretching got her from inflexible to creepy-flexible.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some gymnastics coaches create champions--but who's teaching the REAL kids?

I've just dipped my toe back into the waters of gymnastics coaching after a 9-year hiatus. That's the amount of time it takes to have a few kids and get them old enough to bring them along for the ride once a week.

I've been coaching preschool gymnastics for a year, but in all honesty, that's a job more akin to teaching actual preschool than it is to coaching gymnastics. But for the past month, I've been helping out with recreational classes and level 1s. It's really fun and, more than that, a great challenge. I love trying to think of ways to get a child to learn a new skill, when what's been done before hasn't worked.

And nine years ago, what DIDN'T I have at my disposal? YouTube. What a wormhole.

Now, YouTube was already a wormhole for me, and really the basis for this blog--I wanted to just occasionally offer my opinion and memories of gymnastics, but mainly give quick links of memorable performances to people that might not have been paying as close attention as I was throughout the late 80's and 90's. But now that I'm trying to brush up on my coaching skills and remember the many drills and techniques I'd almost forgotten, I realize that gymnastics coaching videos are another wormhole altogether.

At night when I finally relax on the couch and turn on some mindless television, I surf my ipad for coaching drills. I've already gotten some great ideas--my favorites are by JAOVideos, such as this one showing various drills for teaching casts to little ones:

Not only are these videos good reminders of exercises I'd long since forgotten-- or never thought of in the first place--but the videos are concise, well-edited, and usually without any awkward talking or commentary, making them infinitely more watchable than some others.

When you search these videos, however, you'll realize an annoying trend. There are many "professional" gymnastics coaching videos. They show drills that magically work! Look at this tiny child perform this drill--now look at her perfect cast handstand! (It's the gymnastics equivalent of the cooking show, when the chef puts one dish in the oven to cook and immediately pulls out the finished product). The suggested videos that will follow are peppered with this sort "AMAZING 6 year old gymnast has incredible front tumbling!" "8 year old Jenny working her double backs!"

Both the coaching videos and the show-off-gymnast videos are frustrating to me, because I'm coaching the real kids. The problem with the drills and skills videos is that the girls featured are typically the most gifted, the most ideal, the tiniest, and already fairly advanced. Similarly, the "Incredible 7 year old working optionals!" is not the norm, she's the exception. Her coach was just lucky that her parents wandered into his gym.

Now, it DOES take a good coach to develop an already-talented gymnast, don't get me wrong. And the best coaches do have a mind for clever drills and an eye for technique. How do you get a Gabby Douglas or a McKayla Maroney or a Simone Biles? You take a very gifted child to a very knowledgeable coach. But where does that leave everyone else?

No gym has a sign that says "Child Prodigies Only." The vast majority of the kids in a gym are just "average." Or even below average! But they, too, deserve special drills and careful attention. They want to achieve their maximum potential, whatever that may be. Their parents are paying good money and would like to see some results.

When videos show only the most talented young (VERY young) gymnasts, it's detrimental in a few ways. First of all, it's not realistic to coaches who teach REAL kids. A second grader, nearly as tall as I am, just wants to land a cartwheel on her feet. A stocky 8-year-old can do everything else in level 1 but can't get past that stupid pike-to-roll-up mount because her body type just isn't ideal for that odd skill. A 70 lb. third grader wants to learn a back hip circle, but even if she could hold a tight position, she's too heavy for me manually paddlewheel her around the bar like some drills suggest. Where are the coaches who want to offer tips on how to spot the most challenging beginners? They are demonstrating "beginner" drills with more advanced gymnasts to make themselves look good.

Secondly, these boastful videos of very young gymnasts doing outrageous difficulty are frankly, detrimental to the sport. As a coach, my slogan has always been, "I love gymnastics, and I want you to love it too." If we truly want as many kids as possible to participate in the sport we love, we can't pick and choose only the most naturally gifted or the tiniest or the youngest. That sends a message to girls who are only 8, 9, 10 years old--"You are too old. You are too big. You are too clumsy. You are wasting your time."

When coaches focus all of their attention on the remarkable ability of a very select few, they are telling the "average" kids and the recreational kids that they don't matter. If a kid enjoys gymnastics, whether she is 6 or 14, it is a coach's job to help her improve and have fun. And even if the 6-year-old is working back tucks while the 14-year-old is struggling with kickovers, they are both equally deserving of the coach's time, energy, and respect.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Science of Gymnastics

I really like how this video compares the power and speed of gymnastics to other sports. I think putting gymnastics stats into familiar terms--for instance, showing how her tumbling is high enough to clear a racehorse-- can give non-gymnasts an appreciation of the athleticism necessary for these skills.

Unfortunately there's a flaw in their whole assessment of the tumbling pass. Can you catch it?

Watch more video of 2012 London Olympics on gymnastike.org

That's not a double twist.

I understand it can be hard to count rotations when a gymnast twists so fast, but it should be pretty obvious that when someone takes off facing backward and lands facing forward, you're dealing with halves. It's a 2 1/2 twist. That's 900 degrees.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Your Daily Dose of Gymnastics: Layout Double-Double!

I saw on International Gymnast  that Victoria Moors (Canada), who I love-ity love love, is now performing a layout double-double, or double-double straight, as the Canadians say when they want to sound more British and less American.

But then, I noticed, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, that there is another, even better layout double-double happening in Arizona! Mykayla Skinner (can you read that without saying "My Kayla?") actually looks better to me--more height and less pike, but it may be the camera angles.

Here's Mykayla Skinner:

Wowzers, that music certainly grates on the nerves. So turn down the volume when watching the skill repeatedly. 

Here's Victoria Moors for comparison:

Mykayla Skinner for the win!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Your daily dose of gymnastics-- Vanessa Atler

Another great "total package" floor routine, courtesy of Vanessa Atler, perhaps the most memorable American gymnast of the late '90's. Love that first tumbling pass, and the fact that they didn't skimp on the choreography. This is one springy routine.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

American Cup 2013: Artistry versus Uglistry

Between the American Cup and the Nastia Liukin Cup, I've been really pleased with the level of artistry in general.

Gabrielle Jupp was just lovely:

Katelyn Ohashi and Victoria Moors can both count me as a big fan. Not my absolute favorite choreography--and that's what sets Jupp apart--but such beautiful form, expression, and presentation. 

On the other end of the spectrum we have Elisabeth Seitz, whose dance is so cringe-worthy even clueless Al Trautwig took notice. The music is hardly music at all--no wonder the choreography is so bad.

That sounds a little mean, a little snarky...and that's something I truly do try to avoid (really!). I respect the hard work and dedication of all gymnasts. I do feel that it's justifiable to criticize this routine, however, because the blame lies not with Seitz, but with her coaches. A veteran elite athlete should not only be held to certain standards, but also provided with the means to achieve those standards. You have the best gymnast in Germany, and you can't call in a professional choreographer? Or spring for some decent music? If you are an elite gymnast, you shouldn't be level sixing your dance anymore than you should be level sixing your vault. (And for the record, I've seen much better dance and presentation from most level sixes). Elisabeth Seitz is a fantastic athlete, and she deserves better.

I couldn't help but notice that  Nastia Liukin, bless her heart, was providing very pleasant and informative commentary, until Trautwig remarked on the bad dance. She couldn't do it! She couldn't critique what was clearly an embarrassingly subpar performance. I don't think it's in the best interest of the sport to let that go. Good thing you have me to point it out.

USA Gymnastics: March 2, 2013 - Competition &emdash; Katelyn Ohashi
Katelyn Ohashi: Artistic expression from her fingertips to her toes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nastia Liukin Cup: More exciting than the American Cup!

USA Gymnastics: March 1, 2013 - Competition &emdash; March In

I've mentioned before how much I love the way my DVR records everything I need to see since I input the key word "gymnastics." The annoying part is that sometimes it records things I don't want to see, like every episode of American Ninja Warrior, and it also gets my hopes up by telling me it recorded things on channels that I don't subscribe to. Lucky for me, it DID record the American Cup, and unlucky for me, it lied and told me it had recorded the Nastia Liukin Cup, which airs on Universal Sports (a channel that DirecTV cruelly removed from my lineup).

But, great news! You can view the Nastia Liukin Cup in its entirety right here! In many ways I enjoyed watching this meet more than I enjoyed the American Cup. With Seniors in black leotards and Juniors in pink, it was fun to get a glimpse of the next generation of NCAA athletes and the younger hotshots that will soon give those seniors a run for their money. 

The announcers made the biggest deal, and rightfully so, of Sydney Johnson-Scharpf. That's a familiar name in the world of gymnastics--she's the daughter of Brandy Johnson, who my 13-year-old self worshipped as, like, the coolest gymnast ever. Sydney is possessed of a very natural and mature quality of movement, which makes her stand out so much more than so many of the other competitors, even those with more difficulty. It helps that she has choreography to match her exuberance--check out her floor performance here:

Although actually, I really prefer her Level 9 floor routine, shown in this montage:

Well heck, while we're at it, here's Level 8, which is equally fantastic (and contains some of mom's signature moves--gymnastics dorks like me can recognize these things) :

So if the gymnastics thing doesn't work out, looks like Sydney's got a future on Broadway. It's super hard to teach rhythm and movement to young kids; hers is just a natural ability. The choreography is so smart; it's engaging, difficult, intricate, and even comical at times. This should be a challenge to all gymnasts--no, to all COACHES. Performance matters. Choreography matters. Invest the time and effort. 

Clearly, Sydney grew up in the gym--a point I had to repeatedly emphasis to my own third-grader who, when I showed her the video, wavered between delight in seeing a cute young girl do amazing things, and sadness in feeling that there's no hope for a not-yet-pre-team 9-year-old when 12-year-olds are stealing the show at Level 10. I wish I could adequately convey to her how I know exactly how she feels. What motivation is there for all us non-child-prodigies? I guess we just have to get by on love of the sport. But that's another discussion for another day. 

More to come later on the other fine gymnasts at the Nastia Liukin Cup and the American Cup!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Childhood Obesity--Mysterious Health Crisis or Parenting Failure?

Just say no.
So I was watching Our America with Lisa Ling--this is the sort of program that purports to tackle the hard-hitting issues but often throws in some sensationalist garbage for shock value. For instance, one show featured couples who broadcast their own internet porn from the comfort of their homes to make ends meet (sensationalist garbage). But often there really ARE important topics and the one that made me stop and listen was a feature on the childhood obesity epidemic.

I'm not going to go into all the details, you can watch it yourself. But the child that stood out was a four-year-old who weighed in at 100 lbs. Are there disorders that make children gain enormous amounts of weight? Yes. Are they common? No. This child had ONE problem, and that is his mother.

If your four-year-old weighs one hundred pounds (almost as much as I weigh, at 36 years old and 5'1"), look in the mirror and take responsibility. This mother was visiting a children's hospital to see an entire team of doctors, psychologists, nurses, nutritionists, and therapists, on YOUR dime, taxpayer. And in the end, the root of the problem was not a mysterious disease, it was a mom who couldn't say no.

I'm no doctor, but I can offer this child a prescription.

No, you may not have another cookie.
No, you may not have a snack, we just ate breakfast.
No, you may not have a snack, it's almost dinner time.
No, you may not sit in front of the TV all day.
No, you may not have Coke, you may have water or milk.
No, you may not have two hamburgers; you are only four--one is more than enough.
No, you may not have an entire candy bar; that's too much for a four-year-old.
No, you may not play video games; go outside and run.
No, you may not have 5 cookies; you are only four--have 2 cookies, IF you eat all your dinner.
No, you may not eat more.

I'm convinced that most instances of childhood obesity aren't a result of poverty or genetics or ignorance or depression. It's poor parenting, plain and simple. If you go to the zoo and your child repeatedly asks to be thrown over the wall to go pet the lions in their habitat, wouldn't you say no, again and again? If your child repeatedly asks for more cookies, more cookies, more cookies, you MUST say no, again and again, because it is YOUR JOB to keep him safe and healthy and well.

When I worked the office at the gym, I was privy to the eating habits of many families. There was the mother that rolled in with Happy Meals, three days a week, for her kids' after school snacks. There was the parent who routinely gave his one-year-old a full size candy bar at dinner time. I have no doubt that these parents love their kids. I know that parenting is not always easy or convenient. But that's lazy parenting. Feeding your child junk is so effortless that it's an easy routine to fall into. If your kid starts to dart toward a busy street, wouldn't you jump to your feet? Part of parenting is taking action and making an effort and teaching your kid NOT to always take the easy way out.

But sure, everyone is guilty of at least a few lapses in parental judgment. Case in point: the traveling toddler snack. When Kid A and Kid B were toddlers, I quickly discovered that the best way to ensure that I could pleasantly meander through the grocery store (or the mall or Target) was to keep plenty of Cheerios (or Goldfish or Gerber puffs) on my person at all times. And you can't have a snack without a sippy cup to go with it.

Kid C comes along, and bless his little heart, his developmental delays mean that he is completely unable to chew or hold a cup. Long story short, you CAN make it through Target without leaving a trail of cereal for the employees to clean up. You CAN leave the house without the threat of apple juice pouring out into your new birthday Coach bag. Kid C and I were in the audience of a school program, sitting next to a lady with very sweet, smart, and well-behaved three-year-old twin girls. So why did she feel the need to haul in a large bag and, without provocation, start handing out enormous sippy cups of chocolate milk and bags of crackers? Food is not entertainment, and food is not discipline, and food is not necessary to shut a child up.

So ditch the traveling snacks. Leave the sippy cup at home. Use common sense. Don't feed a small child the same portion size as an adult. Cut down on fast food. Teach your child that YOU are in charge. Don't tolerate a demanding child. Don't give seconds on dessert. And even if they beg, SAY NO.

Augustus Gloop never heard "NO."

Friday, January 11, 2013

That '70s Routine

I just can't get enough of 1970's bars. Every routine is so different and quirky. It makes bars look so fun. As much as I like to see Beth Tweddle or Gabby Douglas fly and float, there's something really intriguing and oddball and about movement on, around, and between bars set close together. If it hadn't already been done, Cirque du Soleil would do it.

Here is Kim Chase in 1972:

And Roxanne Pierce:

Kim Chase also has a nice style on beam. I like her style because it's just ever so slightly sharper than other competitors of the era.

By comparison, the more famous Cathy Rigby has the very dated flowing slo-mo style:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fitness Isn't a Size, It's a Feeling

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." Occasionally I see this mantra attributed to a model-perfect celebrity or emblazoned over a photo of a hot brownie with ice cream on top or, conversely, captioning a poster of a sweaty, muscle-bound chick in yoga gear.

That slogan is garbage. And not just because brownies are awesome. It's garbage because skinny doesn't mean fit. Or healthy. Or strong. Skinny just means skinny.

Some skinny folks don't exercise at all. Perhaps they're genetically waifish, or perhaps they actually find meals of kale and green tea to be perfectly satisfying (keep on telling yourselves that, health nuts).  That's all fine and dandy, but what good is skinny if you get winded walking around the block, or you haven't got the energy to play with your kids in the park, or you can't lift your own suitcase?

I spent much of my childhood putting in thrice-weekly three-hour gymnastics workouts (of course that's pocket change by gymnastics standards, but I digress) and coming home to balanced, home-cooked dinners. In college, I usually made it to the rec center three times a week for an hour-long workout or a miserable run (I hate running). Despite a steady diet of blueberry bagels, buffalo wings, and Mr. Pibb, I maintained a physical condition decent enough to continue to play around in the gym and do a handful of impressive tricks. That's just youth and genetics. I've always been a small gal.

Then ten years go by.

I worked four or five different jobs during that period--including at gymnastics facilities--yet, for about a decade, I had NO regular, routine fitness plan. Sure, I was skinny. I had two babies, each with a 45-lb weight gain, and each time I returned pretty quickly (six months or so) to my normal size. But it was when I was hugely pregnant with my third, lumbering through the Y to watch my two girls take swimming lessons, that I realized I was itching to be able to move and jump and hop and just feel energetic. (Nothing saps energy like pregnancy. You tend to make a lot of "never again" statements when you get to those last several weeks.) 

When Kid C turned three months old, he was old enough for the nursery at the Y, and I started exercising again. I managed twice a week, and soon worked up to three. Sometimes I work out four times a week, even if one day is a bike ride or some exercises at home. That's not easy, but it's so worth it. Why? I feel great--after ten years of not even realizing that I DIDN'T feel great.  

Here's where I go all infomercial:

I have so much energy. I can jump on the trampoline with the kids. I can play around with them in the yard. I bounce around the house. I have absolutely no shame when it comes to playing Just Dance. I used to have back pain; it's almost never a problem now. I've been teaching preschool gymnastics (the most exhausting age group to teach, because it involves the most physical demonstration and enthusiasm) when I used to just want to work with the older girls who didn't require so much hands-on physical activity. I'm 36 and I feel 20. 

I'm in so much better shape than I was ten years ago, even though, according to recommendations, I didn't have any weight to lose. But now I know: skinny isn't everything. Skinny is a smokescreen. If you're skinny, that's swell, but how do you feel?

Exercise isn't always about size or weight. It's about feeling healthy. If you're 170 lbs and you're eating reasonably well and exercising and, above all, feeling good, you're probably more fit than the 100-pounder who's living on sips of Diet Coke between mouse clicks. If you want to lose some weight and you're thinking of starting a workout plan, don't be intimidated by someone smaller than you--they may be out of shape too. Fitness isn't a size, it's a feeling. 

Here are my own personal workout rules. They might work for you. They might not. You and I, we're different. 

  • I need a plan, and I need someone to force me to execute the plan. So I do fitness classes--usually a cross-train style class with a prescribed list of exercises to complete, or a high-intensity kick box class. I won't get even remotely as good a workout if left to my own devices. It's worth it for me to pay for the pricier gym ($59/month) with lots of classes rather than the cheapo fitness center ($10/month) with only equipment. I don't have the self-discipline to NOT join a gym. 
  • I work out a minimum of two days a week. Often three, with a (usually unfulfilled) goal of four. If you are just beginning to work out, don't just go one day a week. Start with two. Make it a must-do part of your schedule. What's 3 hours in the grand scheme of a week?
  • Workouts involve a significant bit of torture and often leave me completely sore. I subscribe to the old "if it hurts, it's working" adage. Disclaimer: If you are an adult, you should be able to differentiate between "good" hurting (an exhausting workout) and "bad" hurting (an injury).
  • I never thought I'd actually be the person taking my tennis shoes on vacation. But I do, because I know that when I get back to my regular routine, I won't be set back as much. So even though I hate running (have I mentioned that?), even just one quick run makes a difference. This might be in my head. But, lots of things are. 
  • I fuel myself for exercise. I drink my coffee in the morning and have a small breakfast. About an hour or so later I work out, and I recently read that drinking coffee an hour before a workout is great for energy! Turns out I've been doing something right all along! 
  • Find the workout you like. I'm a little lot jealous of the many options available to those in large cities, but I've found what I like, even in my small town. I won't suffer through a long daily run or watch the clock for an hour in a step-aerobics class; that would only make me less motivated to go exercise. I only use the treadmill when a good class isn't available. As I mentioned, I hate running. For me, running is sometimes part of a workout, but not THE workout. (If you can tolerate running, you have a gift. Don't take it for granted.)
  • Push yourself. If you haven't exercised in a long time--or ever--it will be very hard at first. But it WILL get easier. This I promise you. Don't select a fitness class because it's easy for you. If you want to duck out of aerobics before the hour is up, stick around and keep moving, even if you can't keep up with the instructor. If an exercise is too difficult for you, ask the instructor for a modification. Try, try, try. 
  • Find ways to exercise at home if you can't get to the gym. There are days I just can't do it. But I bought a bike after a 20-year lapse, and I love it. The kids got a trampoline for Christmas, and it's a fantastic workout. Lots of people swear by workout DVD series. A long walk is better than nothing.
  • Energy begets energy. After a while, you'll notice something: you won't avoid stairs, you won't get tired playing with kids, chores will become easier, activities will be more fun.  Force yourself to work hard, and you'll notice a change for the better.