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Coach like a Coach, or Coach like a Judge

… from 2 feet to 2 feet

The Olympic declaration that athletes should strive towards “CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS” - faster, higher, stronger, does not sit well with many of the Olympic sports.

The aesthetic sports are a typical example.  Not for us the tape measure or stop watch. Our winners are determined principally by five execution judges using a set of aesthetic standards as the yardstick.

This can create a serious distraction for us as coaches when assessing our performer’s progress in training.  We feel under pressure to apply the FIG judging criteria when working with our trampolinists, thereby running the risk of coaching with a judge’s eye rather than a coach’s insight.  My firm belief is that we must resist this pressure and concentrate our observation, analysis and instruction on the technical, psychological and physiological aspects of performance.

Of course, the effective coach must be aware that the ultimate evaluation of the gymnast will be against a set of criteria conceived by a committee, but this awareness should be in the background rather than driving force behind the coach’s thinking.  I am motivated to write on this subject because I believe it to be a widespread problem among well-meaning coaches who are ultimately hindering the progress of their performers.  My experience as a coach educator working with many of our ambitious young coaches, has convinced me that a high percentage concern themselves primarily with what they can see during the airborne phase; they critique training performances in “judging” terms.

We are all aware that during the recent period of judge validation, a new set of guidelines have been issued by the FIG.  These make stricter aesthetic demands on performance at international level but coaches would be unwise to try and satisfy these with younger age group performers who will certainly have to compromise fundamental techniques in order to comply.  This would be a short term approach, bound to hinder their long term development. Let me quickly stress that the views I express in this article come from my role as an international coach and not as an international judge.  Having said that, I made a point of attending the international judge revalidation course in order to gain a full understanding of the FIG guidelines.

The crucial difference between a coach and a judge is that the judge assesses outcomes while the coach is concerned with the inputs which produce those outcomes.  To quote from “The National Technical Priorities for Aspiring World Class Coaches and Trampoline Gymnasts” (NTP’s — which I produced with my colleague John Beer٭).  “Aerial aesthetics must be regarded as a secondary issue when developing skills with World Class potentiaI”.  The document continues, “Good form is the eventual outcome of biomechanical efficiency during the bed contact phase.”

Let us consider what the execution judges deduct marks for: 1) Loss of height; 2)Travel; 3) Form breaks.  It is interesting to note that the order in which these are listed is totally in line with what we as coaches should be prioritising from a technical point of view.  My coach’s interpretation is as follows: - Firstly the performer must establish height and remain as close as possible to that established height for all ten moves in the routine. Secondly there should be a minimum of travel/cast/gain on every element within the routine.  There is a crucial link between these first two requirements.  If the gymnast travels/casts/gains any element, he/she is bound to suffer a consequent loss of height.  Simplistically, some of the force which should have sent the gymnast upward has been redeployed to cause travel/cast gain, hence the loss of height.  The third area for potential loss of marks, form breaks, is also closely linked to the first two requirements.  If you lose height on a given move you immediately cut down the time available in which to perform it.  Not only is this likely to cause a form break on that move, it immediately puts the next move under undue pressure thereby increasing the possibility of a further form break.  The NTP’s state “Trampolining is a game of consequences where each skill performed leaves the gymnast with either a reward or a penalty.  We must ensure that the linear direction of each move results in a vertical descent thus providing the “reward” of a perfect first contact as the starting point for the production oft he next skill.”  It should be clear therefore that the most likely cause of form breaks is poor technique during the bed contact phase rather than a lack of aesthetic appreciation on the part of the gymnast.

I am privileged, through my role with British Gymnastics, to have the opportunity to work with our best senior performers (usually in the company of their personal coach).  Without exception, the drill work we do concentrates on height attainment, height maintenance and control of travel/cast/gain.  Rarely do we focus on “form” factors such as kick-outs and yet the whole purpose of the work is to put the trampolinist in a position to achieve the form requirements laid down by the FIG!  I repeat:-The coach should concentrate on inputs and leave the judge to assess the outcomes.

Let me summarise some of what I understand the recent FIG guidelines to require.  The judge is looking for a vertical rise from the bed into the move followed by a clear display of the declared shape (tuck/pike/straight). Tucks should be tight with the hands grasping below the knees and pikes folded with the body in close proximity to the legs.  Failure to achieve a vertical rise from the bed will automatically prevent the tight closure of the shape as well as contribute to loss of height.  As previously outlined, this is likely to cause a break in form during the aerial phase.  That sounds like “lose, lose, and lose” to me!  The prime requirement must therefore be as much vertical direction as possible as the bed rises from full depression.

Following on from the requirement to show vertical direction and well defined shaping, the judge wants to see the somersault(s) — (single/double/triple) appear to finish between 12 o’clock and 12.05.  It is within this segment that the full body extension should be shown.  If coaches focus their attention on this element they are missing the point, because the straight exit is entirely dependent on the first two judging requirements being fulfilled.  Remember; trampolining is a game of consequences!  Finally the straight body shape is expected to be held until 3 o’clock after which the performer may “prepare for Ianding”.  There is no requirement to maintain a straight body until bed contact. This would be a ludicrous requirement and totally at odds with efficient biomechanics.

If correctly interpreted, I view the FIG guidance for judges as being totally in line with the correct technical work we should be doing as coaches.  If we focus on achieving “top” as a priority starting from basics, this will enable the performer to achieve well defined form shapes and provide sufficient air time to develop clean exits.  In the case of somersaults (single/double/triple) the vertical direction with minimum torque during bed contact provides the benefit of tight shape closure, thereby maximising the acceleration needed because of the small input of rotational force.  Depending on the number of somersault rotations, the shaping will have to be early after leaving the bed and extremely dynamic if double and triple rotations are involved.  All of the foregoing will result in fast acceleration to enable the full body extension required to slow the rotation during the descent from the “top.”

We must regard the FIG “form” guidelines as a firm pointer for coaches to concentrate on sound biomechanics with a particular emphasis on the period from first contact to full depression (the landing phase) and full depression to last contact (the take off phase).  The accomplished performer in any sport tends to exude style and elegance as they perform with an ease which belies the complexity of the skills they are displaying.  They do this as an incidental by-product of their main objective which may be to run/cycle/swim faster, jump further/throw longer, lift more or overpower their opponent - CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS.

The best trampolinists produce good form as defined by the FIG simply by applying correct biomechanics and, like the smooth flowing, stylish 400 metre hurdler, the quality of movement can appear to be an incidental by-product.

Let me leave you with two thoughts.  Make ALTIUS your top priority and COACH LIKE A COACH!

٭ The National technical priorities document was designed as a blueprint for the development of World Class trampolinists. It has been presented to all squad and cluster sessions as well as the BG Technical Congress.
The authors intend that it should be available to all interested parties and it can be downloaded from the BG Website - World Class programmes.

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© Jack Kelly