Ahh the back handspring…It’s funny isn’t it. For some, it seems to come easily, like second nature. For others, they struggle for years to understand what about the skill is causing them so much grief. And still for others, they “had it” at one time, and then a bad experience (whether a coach who missed a spot or a slip on the football field) sent them back to the beginning, leaving them overcome by fear and doubt.
One thing I can assure you of, no matter who you are, is that the back handspring IS NOT A NATURAL SKILL. So whether you’re looking at some crazy tricker on Instagram pulling BHS’s out of nowhere, or you’re a novice yourself struggling with “where do I start”, the fact of the matter is that we all deal with the same emotions and feelings about the BHS. This is because we all have brains that have had thousands of years to develop feelings about things it deems “unsafe” to its existence. That’s right, the brain has a “default” mode, and it’s only comfortable with those things that it feels are safe or natural. And guess what…the back handspring…it’s not natural.
I’ve taught hundreds of athletes how to do their back handsprings. But more importantly, I’ve taught hundreds more how to approach the skill safely without hurting themselves. Over the years, I’ve developed a 5-step system for teaching the skill. In this post, we’ll go over those 5 steps by revealing the opposite of those steps that you’ve most likely been taught or taught yourself to do, and how you can fix them TODAY!
So let’s jump right in shall we?
1. Sitting as opposed to “bending”
I’ve covered this quite extensively in a previous post, but it definitely bears repeating. There’s much more to this step than a rhetorical faux pax. The rhetoric we use in coaching and understanding skills plays a HUGE role in how our athletes execute their skills. The brain takes in WAY too much information daily for it to process at full power like we’d like it to. Heck, we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity, so what do you expect. Don’t get me wrong, the brain is an amazing super computer that God created, but it still gets overwhelmed. Therefore, it takes shortcuts and recalls information it’s learned before to help us make faster, informed decisions. These are called “schemas”, or mental shortcuts, which cut down on processing time and make memory easier & faster. So word association and rhetoric become increasingly important in decision making. This is why I’ve changed the way I call out directions during tumbling skills to my athletes. If you want them to execute the way you expect, you have to give proper direction right?
If I tell you to “sit” right now, what are you going to lead with? You’re going to drop your weight into your bum and lead with that. When beginning your back handspring, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure by leading with poor technique. This technique has been taught by cheer and gymnastics coaches for decades. I’m not saying it’s “wrong”, but I do believe it’s fundamentally flawed.
If you fix your approach, stop sitting and start bending to explode through your knees and toes, I guarantee you’ll see a significant improvement in your standing BHS technique TODAY!
2. Not “falling”…because let’s be honest…who wants to do that!
Our brains have 1 function: self-preservation. We’ve been told our whole lives not to fall, be careful you don’t fall – heck, that’s why we practice “trust FALLS” for team building exercises. The brain HATES falling because it’s not safe. Falling back into your back handspring takes trust. Your brain has to trust that you know what you’re doing, and you can convince it of this by practicing proper technique.
Again, rhetoric plays a HUGE part in how our brains communicate with our bodies and it only benefits you to be as specific as possible when playing the mediator between the two.
Likewise, you have to stop telling yourself the wrong things to do. It’s not “sit”, it’s bend; it’s fall; it’s “reach” instead of throw; it’s “hands” instead of arms; it’s “stand through your toes” instead of “jump”; it’s “arch to hollow” instead of “snap to the ground”. Physics is a remarkable thing, and the role it plays in tumbling gets downplayed A LOT. A back handspring should not be a difficult skill if we (1) change the way we teach it and (2) change the perception of its execution.
3. Throwing your head and arms from the shoulders, not leading with your hands
When you have a lesson with me and hear me yell “reach” after you’ve bent and fallen, you know that I mean to (1) “snap” your arms from your shoulders and (2) lead with your hands. You want your hand placement in a BHS to be on point every time, so why are you focusing on your arms? When we throw something, is it not true that we’re more focused on the object being thrown than the arm that’s doing the throwing? I get it, us coaches say “throw” your arms to signify the speed with which we want your arms reaching back. But check this out. When we say “arms”, our brain’s default association goes straight to the bicep, that’s what we think of when we say arm. “Oh, my arm hurts” is something we hear when we see folks grabbing from the elbow up, not their wrists. If our wrists hurt, we say wrists. If our elbows hurt, we say elbows.
Now, check this out: what’s at the end of your arms? Your hands. What’s closer to your shoulder: your bicep or your hands? Exactly. So when you have to get your hands from down by your hips all the way to above your head in a split second, what has the farther distance to travel? Your hands! So, when you’re thinking about reaching into your BHS, don’t think about throwing your arms. If anything, think about throwing your hands! So it’s not unlike throwing a ball now, where your main focus is what’s being thrown. Since it’s our hands that have the farther distance to travel, we’ll subconsciously work harder at getting them up and behind our ears than we would had we just been focusing on our arms.
4. Not “standing” into your skill all the way through your Big Toes
That’s right, stand! Throughout this article, we’ve talked a lot about word association and the role having good rhetoric plays in the understanding and proper execution of a skill. When we say “jump”, your brain thinks of a full bodied motion. But in BHS’s, we want tight, controlled motions that focus on explosive, centralized power. Case in point, at this point of your BHS, your legs are bent, your weight is in your toes and your hands are behind your ears. For you to do a full bodied jump at this point would cause you to drop your bum, put your weight BACK into your heels and drop your head back looking “up” for the ground. In other words, you’d have horrible technique that would put you at greater risk of injury.
Again, this is where rhetoric comes in. If I tell you to stand as fast as possible to get yourself off the ground, and make sure you stand all the way through your toes – you’re still inherently “jumping”, but it’s a much more focused power. That’s the type of take-off you want going into your BHS.
5. Snapping down through your lower back instead of changing your shape!
Ah the “snap down”. How many of you have been tossed aside and told to practice these off a panel mat? I admit, I used to have a lot of girls doing this while I focused on another group during tumbling class and I kick myself for it now. Haha! Well, here’s my issue with snap downs. When you’re performing them by yourself, when you haven’t had the proper training for your upper body and core strength (and let’s face it, most novice all-star or MS/HS cheerleaders haven’t), snap downs get practiced poorly. The focus becomes less about “snapping” properly and more about getting your feet to the floor. The snap down drill off a panel mat causes athletes to (1) use their lower backs for power and support (which is horrible for your lower back) and (2) teaches them that the “snapping” motion comes from the hips, since most will pivot at the hips to get their feet to the floor. In some bad cases, it causes athletes to use their knees to initiate the snap. ALL WRONG, haha!
This is why I’ve once again changed up the rhetoric and tell my athletes to snap from “arch to hollow”, using their “bum and tum” the whole time.
Again, physics is remarkable. We forget that when we’re in the arched position coming out of our skill, we have a ton of momentum helping us over. We don’t have to finish the skill entirely on our own. We have momentum, force, motion, Newton’s Laws to help us finish the skill, haha. If we simply focus on snapping our bodies THROUGH OUR CORES from an arched position (which is an “allowed” position, not a forced one) to a hollow body, we can literally coast through the rest of the skill!
These five key problem areas are the foundation upon which I’ve built my 5-Step Process for teaching a back handspring. These are the 5 most common mistakes athletes make in approaching the skill, and the 5 most poorly explained motions by coaches. Learning anything new takes time, consistent practice, and the reinforcement of proper skill and execution. However, we can truncate a lot of that practice time by focusing on key problem areas and breaking the movement down into easily digestible fragments. This is the core of what Tim Ferriss teaches in his books, podcasts, and TV show!
I stand by my coaching technique wholeheartedly. If you make these 5 key changes in your technique, I guarantee you’ll see a significant improvement in your training right away! What’s more, you might even finally be able to get that last piece of the puzzle and conquer your back handspring!
Remember, no skill should be performed without the supervision of a qualified coach. Do NOT try these techniques on your own. I hate to say it, but it’s necessary these days, but Coach Lain is not responsible for any injuries that result from reading this article and trying these steps, either alone or with a coach.
All the best to you in your training! If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me below or what’s better, book me to come to your team or gym and show you these principles in person!