One of your principal teaching duties is to reward positive effort or behavior—in terms of successful skill execution—when you see it. A gymnast properly performs a back walkover on the balance beam, and you immediately say, “Beautiful back walkover! I especially like your lunge at the end. Great job!” This, plus a smile and a thumbs-up gesture, goes a long way toward reinforcing that technique in that gymnast. However, sometimes you may have a long dry spell before you see correct techniques to reinforce. It’s difficult to reward athletes when they don’t execute skills correctly. How can you shape their skills if this is the case?
Shaping skills takes practice on your athletes’ part and patience on yours. Expect your gymnasts to make errors. Telling the gymnast who performed the proper back walkover that she did a good job doesn’t ensure that she’ll have the same success next time. Seeing inconsistency in your athletes’ technique can be frustrating. It’s even more challenging to stay positive when your athletes repeatedly perform a skill incorrectly or show a lack of enthusiasm for learning. It can certainly be frustrating to see athletes who seemingly don’t heed your advice continue to make the same mistakes.
Although it is normal to get frustrated sometimes when teaching skills, part of successful coaching is controlling this frustration. Instead of getting upset, use these six guidelines for shaping skills:
1. Think small initially.
Reward the first signs of behavior that approximate what you want. Then reward closer and closer approximations of the desired behavior. In short, use your reward power to shape the behavior you seek.
2. Break skills into small steps.
Before performing an entire skill, a gymnast needs to understand how to do each step within the skill using correct form. For instance, in learning a proper back walkover, one of your gymnasts has good flexibility and completes the skill nicely, but she doesn’t keep her body tight and fully stretched at the end, which affects the ending of the skill and makes it difficult for her to stay on the beam. Reinforce the correct techniques of the back walkover, and teach her how to keep her muscles contracted throughout the entire skill and keep her arms tight against her ears at the end so that she stays on the beam. Once she masters this, shift the focus to getting her to finish in the proper lunge position while remaining on the beam.
3. Develop one component of a skill at a time.
Don’t try to shape two components of a skill at once. For example, in vaulting, gymnasts must learn to run and hurdle onto the board, rebound from the board, and perform a skill over the vault table. Gymnasts should focus first on one aspect (run and hurdle), then on another (rebound), and then on the remaining components of the skill. Gymnasts who have problems mastering a skill are often trying to improve two or more components at once. You should help these athletes isolate a single component.
4. Use reinforcement only occasionally, and only for the best examples.
By focusing only on the best examples, you will help athletes continue to improve once they’ve mastered the basics. Using only occasional reinforcement during practice allows athletes to have more active time instead of having to constantly stop and listen to your instructions. Gymnastics skills are best learned through a lot of repetition, such as drills and competitive activities, and you should make the best use of team practice time by allowing the athletes to have as much training time as possible.
5. Relax your reward standards.
As gymnasts learn a new skill or learn to combine two or more skills into one action, a temporary deterioration of previously learned skills may occur, and you may need to relax your expectations. For example, a gymnast who has learned how to perform a rebound straight jump off the vaulting board is now learning a jump to handstand (onto a raised mat surface). While learning the new skill and getting the rhythm down, the gymnast’s execution of all components may be poor. A similar degeneration of skills may occur during growth spurts while the coordination of muscles, tendons, and ligaments catches up to the growth of bones. As a coach, you need to remain patient as a gymnast is learning something new.
6. Go back to the basics.
If, however, a well-learned skill degenerates for long, you may need to restore it by going back to the basics. If necessary, have the athlete practice the skill using a low-pressure activity. For example, let the gymnast practice with a lower mat stack, and raise the height only when the gymnast is comfortable with his technique.
Coaching Tip For older age groups or athletes with advanced skills, you can ask athletes to self-coach. With the proper guidance and a positive team environment, athletes can think about how they perform a skill and how they might be able to perform it better. Self-coaching is best done at practice, where an athlete can experiment with learning new skills.
Read more from Coaching Youth Gymnastics.