Before we get into feedback and your gymnastics training plan, let’s begin with a golfing scenario!
You are standing at the driving range, with your golf club in hand and a few balls at your feet. Chances are unless you are in training for the next PGA Tour, you will spend the next 30 minutes or so just ‘hitting a few’. And that’s perfectly fine, but let’s assume you have a qualified professional coach by your side.
Someone who is determined you will master your driving shots and make good progress during each and every session you have with them. After all, that is what you are paying them for…
A return on that coaching investment is not a lot to ask for, so how much information would you expect to receive from them by way of feedback on how your game is (or isn’t) improving?
Probably a lot, right?
Feedback is a wonderful thing, but just as with a comedian playing to a tough crowd – delivery is everything. So would you expect that feedback to come all in one hit? Or in small, easy to digest pieces? Maybe you want constant feedback before, during and after each strike of the ball?
Finally, consider this – what if you received different feedback each and every time you hit a ball? It would be technically correct feedback, based on valid coaching points, but it would be something different each time.
How would that make you feel?
Adding Feedback To Your Gymnastics Training Plan
Let’s now move to a gymnastics training scenario, a Yurchenko vault. This is a skill that comprises several stages:
Run up > hurdle > round off > board position > 1st flight to table > strike > repulsion/flight phase > landing.
That’s a lot of technique to remember. But as with any skill like this, there can be a domino effect when changes are made to any of the phases. The net result being detrimental to subsequent phases of that skill.
From a coaching standpoint, the logical thing to do would be to tackle the skill from beginning to end. Make mastering the early stages of the skill a priority and the learning process for the latter stages will become easier.
However, in reality this is difficult to do and bad performance habits can become ingrained if the latter stages are being performed poorly.
In the end, coaches resort to coaching all of it, all at once.
Let’s look at an example:
‘Lucy’ is performing the Yurchenko skill in training:
After Repetition 1 – It’s only the first rep and therefore she is not fully warmed up, but the gymnastics coach gives her feedback anyway to help her in the next vault: ‘don’t step across in your round off.’
Before Repetition 2 – Lucy is thinking about ‘not stepping across in the round off’ and performs the vault again. This time the coach provides different feedback: ‘your hurdle was too low, keep your chest up.’
Before Repetition 3 – Lucy is now thinking about the ‘hurdle’ as that was the last bit of feedback she remembers. But prior to performing Rep 3, her coach provides a different cue: ‘run faster.’
Let’s STOP for a moment.
Can you see the ‘feedback frenzy’ that is occurring? In just 3 repetitions, Lucy’s coach has offered several coaching points. While they are all relevant, they are also all different.
If Lucy is attempting to improve on these points one at a time, and it is unlikely she can concentrate on all of them at once, then she is in fact learning through repetition within certain conditions, and not necessarily the feedback itself.
On top of this, there is of course, an assumption the feedback being given is CORRECT. However, even if the feedback is not technically accurate, gymnasts are still able to improve their performance over time.
The Power of Practice Within Certain Conditions
These conditions are that:
- a) the gymnast is focused
- b) the coach has a high expectancy of the level of performance
- c) the drill/exercise is a logical progression being used to help the skill learning process.
Under these conditions both coach and gymnast have an eagerness for progress, and the gymnast can self-regulate their performance by repetition, as well as trial and error.
This is different to low-performance conditions. Here there is little emphasis on technique, or a patient step-by-step progression, or attention to detail/desire to improve.
Here are a few ‘guidelines’ to follow when providing feedback to gymnasts:
- Feedback = information. For information to be retained, it should be short, sticky (easy to remember) and understood. Feedback should be repeated and reinforced, and may be delivered in different ways. There is only so much information a gymnast can consume and retain, so it is vital they can retain the important bits. Consider giving ‘tweet’ length feedback – that is feedback in 140 characters or less!
- To ensure your gymnasts are listening to the feedback you give, ask them to explain their understanding of it back to YOU. If the response is a shrug and a blank look, you may need to deliver it in a different way.
- Always use language that is age-appropriate and in line with the technical expertise of the gymnast, to allow them to understand more of the feedback. It is not an opportunity to showcase your knowledge of science and biomechanics.
- You do not always have to provide feedback, especially within the first few repetitions of performing a skill. Let the gymnast warm up and get a feel for the skill first. If an error is obvious to both of you, is it necessary to say anything at all? Perhaps providing a ‘cue’ before their next performance is all that is needed (see point 6.)
- Gymnasts will feel far more empowered and powerful if they are aware of their technical faults themselves, rather than their coach telling them. Asking them for their feedback on where a skill could be further improved, is a good way to assess their understanding and focus.
- Providing a ‘cue’ (ahead of performance information) can be more helpful than feedback (after performance information), especially with a waiting/rest time between each rep. A ‘cue’ is a little bit of information which will remind the gymnast to think about a particular facet of the skill. For example, if you were to say ‘lift your hips’ just before performance of the skill, it is far more likely to be applied than if it was said 2 minutes earlier. By the time the performance start came around it may be lost after other discussions, or simply forgotten.
- Try working on a particular theme for the session, or break it into multiple themes. With the ‘Yurchenko’ example: Running warm up, followed by hurdle and round off development, followed by 2nd flight phase. This allows you to regulate feedback and not focus on too many aspects of the skill. Look at this as a way of ‘isolating’ the technical points of the skill into just one or two areas. Drills work on the same principle, here you can focus on one or two key aspects of a skill, repeated often to ingrain positive performance habits.
- Ask your gymnast ‘what are you thinking about on this turn?’ to ensure they are listening and focused for each and every rep.
Have you ever watched a movie for the first time, but not understand the plot until you watch it again a few months later?
Or consider a book you read a few months back – how much of it can you remember? Of a book with just 300 pages, it would be surprising if you could write just a couple of sides of A4 retelling whole the story.
The point? We can only retain so much information over time…
Make your feedback ‘sticky’ and obvious. Don’t speak unless it improves on silence.
Article by Nick Ruddock, Gymnastics Club Manager’s resident coaching expert and ex GB National Coach.