Since my initial 2020 post, I am a gymnastics addict, I have been very lucky to keep going to the gym once or twice a week. At 50, my goal now is to maintain most of the gains that I have accomplished, and once in a while, learn a new trick or two.
Chapter 2: The road to mastery
The funny thing about gymnastics is that generally speaking, once you have completely mastered a skill, it sets in your body, kind of like walking. Think about a child learning to walk. They crawl around for a while on all fours, until they pull themselves up on the couch cushion, realize it’s much more efficient to move around on two feet, and go through the developmental process of figuring out how to balance and ambulate at the same time. It doesn’t happen overnight (though any parent of a toddler will disagree), but when that becomes the primary manner of getting around, they never look back.
Mastery isn’t about doing something successfully once or twice – it requires successful attempts hundreds of trials over years and years. Like the new toddler, who gets up, takes a few wobbly steps and falls back down again, gaining a tumbling skill is quite clumsy in the beginning. They don’t get really good at it until they’ve developed the muscle strength and coordination for their bodies to be reliably consistent. Then, to their parent’s eternal peril, there’s no stopping them. That’s what mastery at the gym is all about: having the desire to do something, the understanding of what has to happen, and the physical strength, flexibility and coordination to get it done.
There’s a saying that my original coach always said that sticks in the back of my head: once is luck, twice is coincidence, three times is skill. It’s quick and catchy, and it has been proven right on many occasions. I would add to that: a hundred times is mastery. Mastery is the place when you seamlessly integrate the checklist of things you need to think about in order to successfully, safely and consistently complete a skill. It’s the place where the fear of doing something that’s new and scary fades, and it becomes a part of your normal progressions. Of course, mastery at one time doesn’t always guarantee future success. Look at Simone Biles. At the 2021 Olympics, she got a nasty case of the twisties, due to the extraordinary pressures she was dealing with. Even the GOAT, who has mastered most every gymnastic skill under the sun (including creating a bunch of her own), can experience road blocks in her training and performance.
Let’s get back to my Geriatric Gymnast perspective. In my limited scope of gymnastics accomplishments, I have mastered a few things. Take, for example, a basic back tuck on the trampoline. Let’s look at the checklist that I follow:
- Start bouncing on the X in the middle of the trampoline.
- Keep your shoulders over hips over heels.
- Focus on the wall in front of you.
- On your last bounce, straight arms reach above your head.
- Send your hips forward, then quickly tuck your knees to your shoulders as you start the flip.
- Place your hands on your knees or hold your thighs as you rotate backwards.
- Look for the X as you are upside down and look for the wall as you finish your rotation.
- Open up the tuck and reach your hands for the ceiling as you land (try to land) on the X.
- Keep breathing throughout the whole process.
And that’s just for a simple back tuck. That’s a lot of things to think about for a skill that happens in about 2 seconds. Furthermore, when you start a new move, you usually don’t have the whole checklist at your fingertips; it would be impossible to process all of that in mere seconds. That’s too confusing and the brain pathways aren’t ready to process all of that information. When you’re an adult, the “old dog, new trick” adage often feels like it applies directly to you.
It took me years to master that one move. Sure, I could bounce and chuck my body backwards and hope for the best – I did that in the beginning, and I’d land all over the place. Once, I threw it so poorly that my leg wound up wedged in between back frame of the trampoline and the wall. Ouch. My shin was badly bruised for weeks. I can’t recall exactly how I wound up in that precarious place, but let’s just say, I stopped trying that move for quite some time after that. It took me many months to muster the courage to try again.
When I did decide to get back on the back tuck horse (er…trampoline), I was starting from the beginning. I didn’t exactly forget how to do it, but because my technique was not mastered when I got hurt, my brain went into a bit of a fear-induced shutdown for that skill. It basically goes into a self-protective mode so you don’t do more damage to your body. When that happens, you have to go back to square one, take the smallest of wobbly baby steps and start over again. I had to get into the belt, a mechanical assist where you strap a padded belt (like a corset that cuts off your lung capacity) around your waist, with two metal loops on the side that pulley ropes attach to. Your coach stands on the side of the tramp, holding the other end of the ropes, and when you throw the move, the coach gives you an assist (a lift, if needed) and prevents you from landing poorly and breaking your neck.
Working in this way for a long time enables you to develop your technique, identify problem areas that you can correct in a safer, more supported manner. One of my problems, which I eventually recognized in my back handspring as well, was that I tended to push harder off of one foot than the other on the takeoff, which would send me askew every time I landed. It was a minuscule and hard-to-detect issue, but once I became aware of it, things changed. Of course, I had been doing it wrong for years, but paying attention to that foundational mistake, I could make adjustments with each attempt. Over time, I would recalibrate the way I processed the checklist, and it straightened out the landing. Now, if I land off center, I know exactly why and the correction is easy and quick. Of course, with Simone’s twisties, I’d imagine the remedy will take a much greater effort (mental health issues are so tricky), but the theory is the same: fix the underlying, fundamental issue, then maybe the problem will correct itself.
Of course, at my age, mastering a new skill becomes tricky. With my brain in ongoing protective mode and my rotator cuff in varying degrees of wellness, I am very cautious when I try something new. Because mastery requires so much time in trial, error and repetition, my body takes a bit of a beating and the risk of re-injuring my wonky shoulder is pretty high. Since I have no interest in having to step away from training for any length of time, I am pretty selective with new skills I will work on. If it develops strength or flexibility (which I really need), I’m in. If it requires too much force in the wrong direction, I steer clear. It’s really a matter of training smarter, not harder. Ample recovery is also an important piece of this puzzle.
I think what has helped me to learn these skills is that being a teacher, I think of issues the way a teacher does. Analyze the problem so you can break it down into its smallest, most fundamental parts. What do you really need to know and do in order to move forward (or flip backward)? What is missing, or what is extraneous? What knowledge do I need to apply so I can be safe and avoid a mental shutdown? Do I have the physical fundamentals to land on my feet? When I put my teacher hat on as a learner, I think smarter, more efficiently, and make better use of my time and effort. Even if it takes a long time to develop new skills, working in this way keeps me from breaking my neck, and helps me to keep others safe as well.
One last thought: one of my favorite hashtags, second only to #sisterswithsimonebiles, is #progressisntlinear. It is a truism that reminds me to tolerate backslides and trust the mental and physical training I’ve developed over many years.
The road to mastery is long and has many obstacles along the way. I’ll be talking about those and lots of other topics in future chapters of this Geriatric Gymnastics series. I hope my stories help you see parallels in your own experience, and can help to inspire you meet new challenges no matter how old you are.
Read more about my Geriatric Gymnastics escapades in Chapter 3: Managing Fear