Saturday, June 30, 2012

Developing America's Next Generation of Gymnasts

Men's gymnastics has come a long way in the United States, and our international performances should only get stronger--if we raise the next generations correctly. After watching 4 days of competition and many a tumbling exhibition, I decided to compile a list of ways that we can help our youngsters develop.

Follow in the footsteps of Paul Ruggeri, or, at least, his Deltchev.

The crowd went crazy for Paul Ruggeri's Deltchev, or, as I've heard spectators call it, his "straddle thingy." A skill that requires both strength and flexibility, Ruggeri's Deltchev renews my hope in the future of American gymnastics, and the crowd's reaction proves that spectators enjoy the rare moments when male gymnasts put their flexibility on display.

This is important to remember because I've seen coaches overlook their gymnasts' lack of flexibility. For whatever reason, some believe that female gymnasts should have splits that stretch well beyond 180 degrees, and the men--well, we will take whatever wen can get. But the truth is that we cannot become complacent with our little one's flexibility.

By reminding you that a split is vital for the most basic tumbling skills--from a roundoff to a front handspring, I'm not saying anything new. Yet, the importance of flexibility has not truly been instilled in male gymnasts. If we were to look back at the high bar routines from today, we would see that most of the jams--when the gymnast pikes his body and thrusts his legs between his hands--were executed with bent knees. Not only does this point to tightness in the gymnast's hamstrings; it also costs him valuable tenths and is an unnecessary deduction.

Don't watch the elite men warmup.

Before competition starts, the men chuck their bodies through unidentifiable saltos. Sometimes, they wildly straddle their legs. Sometimes, they bend their knees into a froggy position. In a strange way, it makes gymnastics look effortless and fun, but it also sets a bad example for the young ones, who are still learning the proper technique on the most basic of skills. So, little boys, close your eyes, please.

Then again, it's not just the little ones who could spend more time on the basics. I'll admit that it is hard to scrutinize the men's performances because their skill level is mind-boggling. Yet, if we suspend our awe so that we can look closely for just a second, we will notice that some of the men could stand to go back to the basics. Hollow-body handstands were few and far between on rings. Blocking through the shoulders seems to be a forgotten art on vault. (In Orozco's case, blocking does not happen at all.) Even some of the scissor elements on pommels were labored after unnecessary brushes with the horse.

Speaking of horse, become a pommel and rings expert.

Pommel horse and rings are hard. Duh. Being good at both is even harder, but that is no excuse. As the early 90s t-shirt said, "If gymnastics were easy, they would call it football." Nonetheless, there is a culture of permissiveness that exists in the sport. For example, when Brandon Wynn mounted the pommels today, a rather insightful spectator remarked, "It must be difficult to do pommel horse with those shoulders."

While those shoulders are the very asset that helps Wynn perform on rings and while those shoulders may make it difficult for him to compete on horse, we need to keep pushing our gymnasts to improve on these events. After all, it's not impossible to excel on both. In 2004, for instance, Hiroyuki Tomita qualified for both the pommel horse and rings event finals.

As I stated in my previous post, Team USA struggles on both pommel horse and rings, and if this struggle continues, a youngster who is good at both events could very well become a future Olympian.

(Stay tuned for my post on The Execution Double Standard.)


  1. Some other guys who are/were good at both SR and PH

    Prasanth Sellathurai
    Tim McNeill
    Kohei Uchimura
    Chris Cameron
    Chen Yibing (sort of)

    Maybe looking at their routines could give some kind of clue what types of skills are "transferrable" if a guy were to concentrate on becoming good on both.

    Maestas is on his way. He's already great on SR and has potential on PH. His current horse routine is just weird. If he finds the right one he should be OK.

  2. I love your commentary on this entire site. Insightful as well as irreverent, gotta love it! I haven't competed all around men's gymnastics since the late 80s and I haven't coached men since the early 90s and have only sporadically coached women since 2001. The one thing I have noticed in every level I've seen from beginning tumbling classes through international elite in both men and women, is that there is a serious lack of teaching how to do a proper roundoff. Last year I subbed for a friend who had to have shoulder and knee surgery at a local hole in the wall cheerleading and tumbling facility. I walked into classes with girls doing every which kind of roundoff. My favorite (because it was the easiest to correct and showed the most immediate improvement on the rest of their tumbling was the high hitch (diver's) hurdle. I had girls who had been unable to manage a roundoff ff back in two years, correct their roundoff and be throwing the pass without spot by the end of the class. No more loss of momentum. At Nationals and Trials this year, almost every out of bounds tumbling pass was due to they gymnast placing his/her lead hand across their body instead of lined up with their dominant lead leg. Then there is Mr. Ruggeri. That single arm circle is one of the most distracting, strangest and power robbing roundoff quirks I've ever seen.

    My whole point is as a coach, no matter when you get a gymnast, make sure the most basic skills are sound and not robbing them of success or safety.

  3. Paul Hamm, Yang Wei