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Myths and misconceptions - let's mention tension

My last article in GymCraft, “Myths and Misconceptions” certainly had the desired effect and made a lot of coaches think about the accuracy of their coaching advice.  Credit and criticism have been received in equal measure, but most importantly there has been a strong reaction.  This suggests that my words acted as the stimulus I was hoping for.  Let me make one thing very clear; I write these articles with apparent missionary zeal but I don’t think I am always right.  Neither do I wish my words to be followed with disciple-like dedication.  My goal is to stimulate thought and debate about our sport and I am happy to stick my neck out to this end.  One thing I truly believe is that I know enough about trampolining to realise how little I know!

A well known coach in another sport once told me “You know, I never think I am doing a good enough job.”  He was producing world ranked performers in his field and yet was constantly critical of his own efforts, evaluating and adjusting because he realised that there was so much more to discover.

Whether you were enraged, encouraged, confused or concerned by my last article, I hope you were at least made to evaluate your understanding of technique and how you communicate it to your trampoline gymnasts.

Of course I understand that as coaches we may make comments for a whole range of reasons; descriptive, critical, motivational, corrective or analytical and they don’t always have to be bio-mechanically accurate.  It may be totally appropriate to tell the performer, and I quote one of our leading coaches, “Jump first and somersault second.”  This is of course, bio mechanical nonsense but designed to give the gymnast a mental picture of the desired end product.  I have no problem with this but I would be very worried if I thought the coach really believed what they were saying.

I would now like to address another popular misconception. Coaches at all levels are fond of telling their performers “You need more body tension”, “You lost body tension”, “Try to maintain body tension longer” to quote a few I hear on a regular basis.  The comment may be totally appropriate, but I rarely hear coaches explaining when the tension is required, how much tension is required, which body parts need to be tensed and for how long.  Equally I have never heard a performer reply. “OK Coach but when do you mean? Before I hit the bed? On the way down to full depression? On the way up to last contact? Immediately after leaving the bed? During the mid flight phase? During the exit phase? At the first contact ready for the next landing phase? Or do you mean keep tense all the time?”  How would you reply? What did you mean? Have you thought the matter through and have you a clear picture of the required process?

When I was drafting this piece one of my colleagues said “But I often tell performers to increase body tension and usually it makes for an improvement.” Herein lies the problem.  Talented performers will often interpret broad instructions in an amazingly successful way, filling the coach with the satisfaction that they have “coached” an improvement.  This can lead us to use these broad statements like magic spells which transform poor performance into brilliance.  Of course they will often work, but coaching to world class levels must become more sophisticated than that.  The base must be the coach’s deep understanding of the skill and the physical requirements to achieve it.  Add to this the experience to know when to issue the broad instruction or become far more detailed and we are beginning to be effective as coaches.  I urge you to arm yourself with the depth of understanding which enables such an approach.  What follows is an attempt to stimulate your thoughts on the matter of body tension in trampolining.

Full body tension is the isometric contraction of both agonist and antagonist muscles throughout every joint in the body.  When asking for full body tension we must therefore be expecting a tense, rigid shape incapable of movement.  Is this indeed what we want when we say “You need more body tension”? How appropriate is this in trampolining and when might we require it?

It may well be appropriate during full depression when we want a total power transmission from the bed to the gymnast, i.e. the bow and arrow syndrome.  Even so, insufficient research has been done in this area for us to be absolutely certain.  I don’t think we need the scientists to tell us that relaxation at this point would be disastrous.  In the period prior to full depression and as the bed is rising full body tension would be undesirable as during these phases there needs to be a fluid controlled rearrangement of body parts to convert the power of the bed into the right amount of height and rotation.

So at the most, full body tension may be required for an instant during the process of landing and taking off but most of the time what is required is an optimum level of body tension.  The essence of all physical skill is the ability to employ the right level of muscular tension in each joint complex at the appropriate stage of the movement.  By the same token, skilled movement requires the right level of relaxation in the antagonist muscles in each joint complex at the appropriate stage of the movement.  It is reasonable to assume that during much of the bed contact phases a high level of isometric contraction is required in the trunk muscles.  The arms however require what Morehouse and Gross٭ call “dynamic relaxation” as they work to assist balance and direction.

Full body tension is desirable during periods of the flight phase but remember we are talking about a tense, rigid shape incapable of movement.  It would be ridiculous to require this level of tension if we want the performer to move fluidly into and out of tucked and piked shapes during the flight.  On the other hand it is precisely what is required when showing a straight body shape at various stages of the flight.  It is unlikely that even the best performer in the world needs to maintain full body tension for more than two seconds during the flight of a straight double back.  Full body tension is therefore a transient quality and should not be ever present.

I have merely scratched the surface of this very important topic but let me finish by looking at a practical example most coaches have to deal with.

Your trampolinist is performing a straight back somersault but is breaking form during the flight. It would not be unreasonable for you to ask for better body tension in order to prevent the unsightly form break. When do you want that improved body tension to start?  During bed depression, at full depression, during bed recoil, early flight, mid flight or all the time?  OK so I’m being ridiculous.  You will want improved body tension throughout the flight phase which is what the judges will be scrutinising.

After several attempts there are still significant form breaks.  The feet may be loose, knees slightly bent and the back arched.  Several sessions go by and there is little or no improvement despite your best efforts to get improved body tension.  You may conclude that this gymnast is either not trying hard enough, is basically a sloppy performer or has no feeling for form.  You could be right because performers like that do exist.  It is much more likely that the pupil has failed to create a sufficient blend of vertical and horizontal forces of the right magnitude whilst in contact with the bed.  No matter how much feeling for form or determination to remain straight the trampolinist may possess, they will never keep full body tension during flight if the somersault is too slow.  So the problem is not one of body tension but poor power application during bed contact.  Ironically, your exhortations to improve body tension may have caused the performer to create too much body tension at the wrong time leading to a mistimed take off and a feeble flight phase.

I hope I have given you more food for thought and that you will investigate the “when” the “how much” and “which muscle groups” instead of trying to get improved body tension per se.  Even if you don’t want your performer to be burdened with such detail I believe that you as a coach should be pursuing a deeper understanding of the true function of body tension.

٭ Laurence K. Morehouse and Leonard Cross. “Maximum Performance.”

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© Jack Kelly