One of the most frustrating things about tumbling is that developing new skills can take a lot of time and effort. While a handspring or a standing tuck might come easy for one person, it can take years of practice for another. Once you graduate to advanced tumbling it can become even more difficult. Many people spend years working on their full-twisting layout without ever making significant progress. So why can it be so difficult to improve tumbling, and how can you blow past blocks and barriers? There is a secret to improvement which no one wants to hear; to go forward, you must often go backward first.
Establishing Proper Skills Progressions
Some tumbling skills take more power, others take more technique. As a result, sometimes athletes and their coaches will skip steps on technical skills and focus on power skills. While this often allows athletes to get to certain skills more quickly, it can cost them in the long run. For example, a standing back tuck requires a lot of strength and courage, but the skill itself is mechanically simple. Some people learn the skill in just a few minutes. However, a back handspring is considered a less advanced skill than a tuck, but has significantly more mechanical complexity. It is easy to just skip the back handspring and focus on the tuck, but not having a handspring means that most skills beyond a standing tuck are now unavailable.
In order to get to the highest-level skills in the fastest way possible, it is important to establish a proper progression of skills, each of which is a stepping stone to more advanced ones. Working on forward rolls and backwards rolls might seem like a waste of time, but the control and coordination needed to cleanly execute those skills transfers over to later, more advanced ones. Only by firmly establishing skills progressions can you move on to the most advanced skills safely and quickly.
Perfection Before Progression
Once you have established a skills progression, it is important to perfect each skill before working on the next ones. You might already be able to do a cartwheel, but a handstand is a skill that must be mastered before moving to a cartwheel. Taking the time to work on that handstand will improve your strength and balance and lead to improved control, stability, and power for a skill like a back handspring.
It is easy to skip steps, it is easy to say “I can already do a round-off, so I don’t need to work on a handstand.” However, making the decision to skip steps or rushing through them before you have perfected them will cost you in the long run. You may move quickly into walkovers only to plateau, or you may skip walkovers and end up working on a back handspring for years because you never mastered the fundamental skills that lead to the proper execution of a back handspring.
The Real Secret to Advanced Tumbling
The secret no one wants to hear about improving tumbling is that when an athlete plateaus on a skill, they need to move backwards. The most common issue that keeps someone from consistently landing a round-off back handspring back tuck is not the back handspring or the tuck: it is the round-off. Issues with gymnastics fundamentals – the inability to hold a handstand, or do a front walkover – often lead to persistent issues later in tumbling progressions which cannot be fixed until the fundamental skills are remediated.
No one wants to hear they can’t land their full because of their round-off, yet fixing a round-off is frequently the solution for an athlete that can’t land their full. It takes a lot of discipline from a coach and a willingness to say and do things that are unpopular with the athlete to convince someone to spend hours working on their handstand when they just want to land their double full. The athletes who can consistently execute high-level skills have a mastery of their fundamentals which is the result of long hours spent practicing. There are exceptions, but the athletes who can throw double fulls can almost always hold a handstand for 60 seconds as well. The relationship between the skills may not be obvious, but the correlation between the two should be.
Athletes spend hundreds of hours working on perfecting their tumbling. The progressions are difficult, and mastering each skill takes a lot of time and effort. As a result, it is easy to skip a step here or there, just to get to that handspring or tuck. While that may work in the short term, there will be dividends to pay for that decision in the long run. Only by careful mastery of fundamental skills can an athlete advance to the most difficult ones. Skipping steps, to moving on before a skill is mastered will ultimately result in skills plateaus later down the line, or even worse, an injury.