What Gymnastics Taught Me About Acquiring and Mastering Skills

This is a three part series on what gymnastics taught me about acquiring and mastering skills, overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.


In 1996, Men’s Health published an article where they used some ridiculous mathematical formula using variables such as fitness, skill, pain, brains, etc to figure out the toughest sport in the world. And gymnastics came up number one. Here’s what they said:

Male gymnasts may wear tights, but they score perfect 10’s for fitness and athletic skills, and near-perfect marks for injury potential, mental toughness and difficult conditions. Let’s see you spin in circles on the high bar, release, do a few flips and grab the bar again. Extra toughness points were awarded for the guy who survived a full-speed, chest-first plunge into the horse and for the Japanese Olympic medalist who dismounted from the rings with a broken leg.

I started doing gymnastics when I was six years old and trained for over 16 years. At age 11 I started competing and placing in national competitions at the junior and later the senior levels. The highest I ever placed in a national senior men’s competition was 15th – I was never Olympic material, but I trained with many who were. Previously, I wrote about how I blew out my knee and came back to win a national championship – this post is specifically about what gymnastics has taught me about acquiring and mastering skills.

Gymnastics is the perfect sport to teach these lessons because it’s one of the most demanding activities that you can do. Gymnasts have to master a large number of complex skills that require high levels of technique, strength and guts – and I think that with the intelligent application of these lessons, you’ll be able to learn skills in a variety of areas faster and more effectively.

Ok, ’nuff said. Onto the lessons!

Acquiring and Mastering Skills

Deliberate practice.

I hope this is so obvious to you that you roll your eyes. But seriously – the only real way to get better at something is to do it over and over again. There is no substitute.

However, what Malcom Gladwell said is right, the key is “deliberate practice“. This means being intently focused on every attempt and thinking carefully about how you can improve your performance on each turn. But in addition to practice, consider these other lessons:

Focus on the fundamentals.

A lot of gymnastics is doing the same thing over and over again. And most people don’t like doing that. After doing 50 cartwheels, you want to do something else. Ok, I can sort of do a back flip – can I add a twist now? But that mindset, of wanting to quickly progress is detrimental to acquiring new skills. The best gymnasts in the world have all spent countless hours honing on what we call “the basics”. Handstands. Core strength. Flexibility. Presentation (keeping your knees together, pointing your toes, etc). Swings on the high bar. Circles on the pommel horse.

These are the first skills you learn/develop as a gymnast. These are the skills that every advanced skill builds upon. And the best gymnasts would return again and again to work on their fundamentals. When I trained with athletes in China I noticed that up to age 13 or 14, Chinese gymnasts would often be “behind” many American gymnasts in terms of skill progression. But then a few years later, the same Chinese gymnasts would blow past the Americans because their fundamentals were so spot on that learning new skills became extremely easy while the Americans struggled to increase the difficulty of their skills.

Focus on improving your fundamentals in your areas of focus if you want to get good at what you do.

Break down the skill into pieces.

When learning a new skill, a gymnast and his coach will first break down the skill into various parts. For instance, to learn how to do a release move on the high bar like a tkachev (as shown in the video) you would break the skill down into parts.


(Featured: Paul Hamm, aged 18, at his first Olympics in 2000. He would go on to win Gold in the All-Ground in 2004. Incidentally, his coach spent a great deal of time honing his basics and he kind of exploded onto the scene a few years prior because of the exponential growth curve I mentioned earlier)

The Swing. Notice how the guy’s swing changes as he prepares for the release. We called it a “tap swing” and it would help him generate the power he would need to fly off the bar. We would get into bars where our hands where strapped to PVC pipes that swung around the high bar so you couldn’t fall off and practice the tap swing.

The Throw. See how he kicks his toes up hard and then throws the bar behind you. Again, back on the PVC pipe, we would practice the throw, while not actually letting go. But we’d understand the general motion and build the muscle memory so the two pieces became like second nature.

The Catch. So you get good enough at the swing and throw to the point where you can actually do the release. There’s still a matter of catching the bar. We would practice standing ontop of the high bar, jumping and catching the bar as if we were doing a release.

If you’re trying to learn something that’s complex, see how you might break it down into manageable piece and work each one separately before bringing it all together.

Visualization

Practicing gymnastics skills is tiring. If you get too tired, you will make a mistake and probably hurt yourself. You might do 6-12 repetitions of a skill a day before you have to move on to something else. Compare that to a basketball player who can do dozens of free throw shots in an hour.

Since you often don’t have time or energy to just practice the skill, visualization became very useful. By imagining yourself doing the skill, you got much of the benefit you’d get from actually doing it. This mental focus is also why deliberate practice is so important – if you just go through the motions, you don’t gain as much as if you carefully focus on what you’re doing. Visualization is deliberate practice in your head.

A study at Bishop University has shown that students who spent several weeks imaging themselves exercising certain muscles got nearly the same strength increase as those who actually lifted weights (24% vs 28%).

If you are trying to develop a skill and don’t have the time or equipment to practice it all the time, you can still get a lot value out of visualizing yourself doing it.

Alright, that’s it for now. Check in later on for the post on what gymnastics taught me about overcoming fear and delivering clutch performances.

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4 comments
GilHildebrand
GilHildebrand

This is fascinating stuff--and great advice, based on my experience. I've been reading a new book called Mastery which talks about these same themes. You should check it out.

George_Haines
George_Haines

Jason,

It is so refreshing to read this. So many people in education today forgot these fundamentals and I think the world needs more of you in the conversation. A few highlights for me:

-"When learning a new skill, a gymnast and his coach will first break down the skill into various parts."

-"A lot of gymnastics is doing the same thing over and over again. And most people don’t like doing that."

As a teacher, I try to make learning as fun as humanely possible for my students. As a coach I tried to do the same, but the reality is that repetition is hard work and often it is not very fun. What is fun, though, is winning because you're better because you practiced over and over and over.

-"their fundamentals were so spot on that learning new skills became extremely easy"

It takes maturity and perspective to understand that dedication fundamentals increases your ability to master "higher-order" skills in sports or the classroom. Students can't imagine creative solutions to problems or critically think about information without a broad, deep schema constructed through dedication to fundamentals. As you noted, gymnasts can't perform higher-order techniques without dedication to improving core strength, flexibility, etc.

Thanks for writing this and thanks for being you. Great job.

michaelylin
michaelylin

nice post. lots of generalizable lessons to real life. i can't begin to imagine the mental discipline it takes to be a gymnast.

that study about the hip flexors is a little incredible. 80% of weight gain can't be from mental exertion alone (on the flip side, how would you explain muscle strength from subconscious overuse of a muscle, like heart hypertrophy from high blood pressure?)

jasonshen
jasonshen moderator

@michaelylin Dude - the mental discipline of gymnastics is at least equivalent and perhaps even pales compared to becoming a doctor. But yes - visualization is about teaching your brain how to fire the right muscles and recruit the most fibers at once. Totally believe it. I visualized everyday that I was hurt and when I came back, a lot of skills returned very quickly.

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  5. [...] I find running with music really helps me push when I’m tired so I put together a special mix that was around 26 minutes – plenty of time to get past the finish line. See mix in the footnotes. I spent some time in the days before imagining the path I would run, visualizing runners along side me and my staying focused on my own pace and pushing through the hard points toward the end. Remember kids – visualization helps you master skills. [...]

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