By Julie Gooderick (MSc, BSc Hons, ASCC)
Gymnastics and Dance a sport for pansies right? Prancing around in lycra, making pretty shapes to music? No, there are many good lessons to be learnt from gymnasts and dancers when developing an athlete, even for the most meathead coaches who assume you’re doing something wrong if you’re not lifting a barbell every day. The focus of early training for young gymnasts and dancers is building solid foundations of strength, flexibility and proprioception, with the aim of maximising movement efficiency.
One of the main lessons to be learnt from gymnasts and dancers is their ability to elicit strength at end range. Gymnasts and dancers focus on gross, whole body movements from an early age due to the requirements of the sports. Being strong with your own bodyweight is a focus, and these sports demand a high power-to-weight ratio. Strength is developed throughout entire movements rather than just at the initiation of movement. This results in a greater ability to control movements and greater proprioception throughout a range. Therefore, their strength developments are rarely imbalanced, strong at end range, and ultimately this produces strong and robust athletes.
Different gymnastics and dance skills demand multidirectional movements. Athletes’ are required to train in all planes of motion, and different skills require then to hold their body vertical, horizontal, with rotation, and so on. These different challenges develop sound co-ordination of the entire kinetic chain, and develop whole body strength and control.
Strength also plays a factor in injury prevention. How many times have you been watching a football match, and watched someone pull a hammy kicking a ball or sprinting, because they don’t have enough eccentric strength in the end range of their leg extension?
Compare that to how many times you’ve seen an elite gymnast sprinting up to the vault, then pulling up holding their hammy… never? No, me neither. The reality is that injury statistics for gymnastics compared to football (non-contact) or rugby are substantially lower and full range strength and proprioception plays a significant role in the prevention of non contact injuries.
At an early age, gymnasts and dancers are taught how to absorb force. That means from an early age, they are challenging their eccentric control and joint stability. This is something all junior athletes should be taught, yet teaching landing mechanics is an area frequently forgotten in junior programmes.
When looking at strength statistics from the Royal Ballet, most of their athletes score lower than most other sports in terms of absolute strength levels. Yet dancers at the Royal Ballet record vertical jump scores only beaten by elite basketball athletes. So why is this?
What they do have which most other athletes’ do not, is excellent movement efficiency (as well as good plyometric ability and genetically good elasticity). There is no energy loss in any of their movements due to the fact they generally have no imbalances, are strong throughout a full range and have good motor control throughout a full range.
A thorough screening process should be commonplace for most coaches. But how much is your screening process telling you? Does it let you know where the energy leakages in your athlete are?
Make sure you use a screening process which not only assesses static movement in the gym, but also looks at how your athlete performs movement during competitive play. Noticing any imbalances or restrictions should give you an indication of how you can maximise their movement efficiency. These imbalances may be missed in a static movement screening. It is commonplace in the Royal Ballet to use multiple screenings including a form of functional movement screen as well as motor pattern/efficiency profiles in many different dance skills.
How to implement these ideas into your programming
Now I’m not suggesting abandoning all traditional training methods and produce a gymnast or dancer. The reality is, the demands of their sport are conducive to the way they train; the demands of other sports are not. However, there are plenty of lessons from gymnastics and dance that we can implement in order to produce stronger, more robust, more efficient athletes, and ultimately ones that have longevity. The earlier this kind of training can be introduced the better, however, from experience, athletes of all ages enjoy these training challenges.
• Teach landing mechanics – Athletes need to learn how to land safely, and how to absorb force in a controlled way on double and single legs.
• Introduce stability work throughout entire ranges – This will develop greater dynamic stability during competition and increase proprioceptive and kinaesthetic awareness throughout a range, rather than just at one end of the range.
• Teach athletes to become strong with their own bodyweight first – Too often coaches of juniors are too keen to get going with traditional strength training. Nothing wrong with that, and traditional Olympic lifts are brilliant. However, when they become the sole component of a junior athletes’ development, you are missing out on a few key factors. Take your time with your athletes’ strength development.
• Train multi-directional movements and rotations – Most sports do not happen in a single plane and athletes should be exposed to strength training in all directions. I appreciate you can challenge rotary stability by overhead patterns with a barbell, or by using uneven loading challenges. However, using body weight movements is just another tool, adding some variety to programmes, and will also allow juniors to develop kinaesthetic awareness in different planes, without the added challenge of manipulating load. Try using different types of rolls, handstands and cartwheels. You will be amazed how many athletes cannot do a forward roll and stand up on 2 legs or a single leg.
In summary, there are many skills we can borrow from gymnastics or dance to use in the building process of any athlete. Do not be in a rush to get your athlete performing high end strength training using only barbells or dumbbells. If you are working with a junior athlete they will soon get bored of this and it will become a predictable stimulus for them. Gymnastics and dance skills develop strength, co-ordination and kinaesthetic awareness, and will provide a valuable building block in the programmes of developmental athletes.
• Nick Allen- “Men in Tights”. UKSCA conference presentation, 2009.