So, how did we go from the first one; wobbly, shaky and unstable to the second; stable, smooth, and controlled? By making the complex; simple. Or at least, simpler.
First, we needed to isolate the problem. This is a process of elimination. We need to look at the main elements of this trick and work out what is working, and what isn’t.
For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with Sylvia’s handstand. So that wasn’t the problem. Katie is more than strong enough to achieve this skill, so we’re able to rule that out. Their tempo is consistent and Sylvia’s jump to handstand is spectacularly smooth. So we can cross those out.
What Katie was having trouble with was creating stability through her trunk and hips when trying to do standing hand to hand. Something many people struggle with, even if they don’t know it.
Now we’ve found what we can’t do, let’s look at how to make it something we can do.
Katie and Sylvia aren’t 100% confident in their standing hand to hand, they’re still in the learning phase. This means that her brain and body are concentrating on doing the major parts of the trick correctly; the tempo, balancing the flyer, absorbing the flyer, the grip angle, and the foot position.
She had too many things to concentrate on which meant there wasn’t much brain power left for her to try and do what I was cueing (instructing) her to do:
“squeeze your ass” / “brace your stomach”
The environment she was in, standing hand to hand, was too complex for her to be able to make any meaningful changes. So, what we did was make the environment simpler by removing some of the complexities mentioned above.
Firstly, we needed to make sure she fully understood what she was being asked to do. So I had her just stand there, without a person on her. Just to check that she understood it at it’s most basic level.
Katie was having some difficulty turning the words coming out of my mouth, into a physical response in her body. This is extremely common.
The road from words, to brain, to body is one with a million potholes. An incredibly useful tool when trying to cue activation of specific muscles or groups of muscles is to provide some resistance or haptic/tactile feedback, which is just a fancy word for touching.
One key part of bracing the stomach is pushing the abs and obliques out, not sucking the belly in as Pilates may have told you, and so by placing my fingers on her abs and saying “push my fingers away” it gave us a very black and white marker of success or failure, of her physical understanding.
Did she push my fingers away? Yes. That’s a clear sign she’s performing the bracing correctly. Was she able to replicate that muscle activation without me poking her? Yes. It’s very clear at that point that she understands what is being asked of her.
All it took was a little poke here and a little poke there. Here-a-poke, there-a-poke. Everywhere a-poke-poke.
Once that was clear, we climbed up from a box top to reverse foot to hand.
Reverse foot to hand is an incredibly useful position to fix things in for the base; as the overall principles, demands and body positions are exactly the same as a hand to hand. Barring some, slight, differences in how and where the flyer is being held, but not as many as you would think.
In this position, the flyer is naturally much more stable, as they’re on their feet rather than their hands. So we’ve already removed one complexity for poor little Katie’s brain. As well as that, we no longer have to tempo to arrive in our position. So there goes another complexity.
Katie’s brain is suddenly much freer to listen to, and more importantly, understand and perform what I’m trying to get her to do. In this case; create stability through her hips and stomach through some very specific muscle activation.
I gave her the same cues as earlier, except now she has less to concentrate on so she was able to give a greater level of focus and thought to what was being asked of her.
With our new and improved understanding that we just found on the floor, coupled with a less busy brain; she was able to perform what was being asked of her significantly easier.
We instantly saw a difference both in Katie’s physical position compared to before, but also in how stable both Sylvia and Katie felt.
We did that a couple more times until it was clear it was burned into her brain. Then we made her environment a little more complex, we did regular foot to hand. We still don’t need to tempo to get there, and the flyer is still upright.
Except in this position we’ve upped the stability demands and complexity for Katie by putting her in a position where she can’t gain stability by resting the weight on her shoulders. She now has to work just as hard as before to create stability through her hips and stomach, if not more so as she now also has to stabilise through her arms.
This is not a position Katie finds easy and is one she’s been working on for a while. But, in the video you can hear her say:
“This is so much easier when you squeeze your bum”
As much as I’d love this post to be about the importance of proper bracing, it’s not. But I can’t ignore this ‘Eureka!’ moment. Bracing is important folks.
We did this a couple more times until it was clear she was able to achieve it consistently in this new slightly more complex environment. When it was, we went back to our Hand to Hand. With our new understanding firmly cemented in our head.
And this was the result:
We were able to achieve this improvement with minimal adjustment to their Hand to Hand, Handstand or Tempo. There were some specific cues I gave them. Although they were mainly to do with a very specific movement of Sylvia’s shoulder and was a fix for her rather than them as a pair.
This approach works, and it works well. Never be afraid to make something you’re struggling with; easier.
In acrobatics, you can always isolate a problem and attack it as a single piece rather than trying to solve three problems at the same time. It’s an important skill to be able to look at something you’re struggling with, and be able to break it down and understand exactly what it is you’re having difficulty with.
My recommendation is to video yourself performing a skill you’re struggling with, watch it back, and try and isolate the element that’s either causing you problems or causing you to fail.
Then; try invent a drill to change what we don’t want to happen, into what we do want to happen.
This can be as simple as an instruction given and practised when stood on the floor a couple times, or it can be as complicated as creating an entire exercise to help change a can’t into a can.
Try whatever you’ve invented a couple of times, then perform the skill again.
Did you see an improvement? If you did, great. If not, invent and try something else. Don’t let yourself get frustrated trying something over and over and making no progress.
There’s always a breakdown. There’s always a way to make the complex; simple.
You just have to find it.