If you’re currently practising Hand to Hand, Handstands or potentially some higher level acroyoga, you will spend the majority of your training time without a coach or instructor. This is an unavoidable reality. Unless you’re in a full time programme, or are able to afford daily private classes, we can’t escape the fact that you and your partner are stepping out into the great acrobatic wilderness without a guide.
And that’s ok.
As long as you don’t fall down a ravine. Or get eaten by a lion.
There are two main benefits to having a coach; they (hopefully) have a wealth of experience and knowledge to pass on to you, and they have eyes. Combining these two things is what makes coaching so effective. You get specific feedback from someone who knows what should happen, and is able to see what exactly is happening, or isn't happening.
I want to make it clear that this is a guide to help you further the training you’ve started under the instruction of a competent coach, and allow you to keep making progress without them present. While it’s true that these techniques make it possible to learn something brand new, I do not advise or endorse it. You should only be training in dedicated training environments with appropriate safety equipment. This means no parks. No yoga studios. No living rooms.
Understanding, Breaking Down, Analysing & Correcting Acrobatic Technique.
All acrobatic technique can be boiled down to one very simple concept: “move from one shape, to a different shape”
Understanding ShapesA ‘shape’ is just a specific position. Bird is a shape, side star is a shape. Each shape is built up of certain anatomical characteristics. Understanding shapes is the key to understanding acrobatics. A great example of this is Handstand. A ‘handstand shape’ can be defined by a couple of characteristics:
- Arms straight
- Hands, elbows, shoulders, hips, wrists in line.
- Hips in posterior pelvic tilt
- Legs straight and together
Shape Changes & Sections
If a ‘shape’ is just a position with specific anatomical characteristics, a ‘shape change’ is simply when we see a change happen to those shapes. This consists of any joint movement from either the base or the flyer. Shape changes can be as simple as your legs bending, or as complicated as piking for a front somersault. We consider a 'shape change' to have been completed when we have arrived in a new shape.
Despite the fact we’re working as a duo, shape changes are individual. One person can definitely affect their partner's shape, but they aren’t in control of it. Whenever we see the pattern: shape, shape change, shape, we can label it as its own ‘section’. A trick is built up of multiple sections and sections are built up of shapes and shape changes. This allows us to look at and work on the whole trick in separate, smaller chunks rather than dealing with something large and complex. Being able to break down and distinguish the individual components of a trick is one of the key skills in being your own coach, and in fact one of the key components to being a coach at all.
Let’s Get Real
Let’s take bird pop to throne as an example. This trick consists of moving from one position; Bird. To another; Throne. Within that we have a number of sections that we must pay attention to.
Let’s find our first section. We have our first shape; Bird. We then see a joint change as the base initiates the tempo and begins to bend their leg. Once that transistional movement has been completed, we have arrived in our new shape: the bottom of our tempo. We went from one shape, to another through a transition and then it has a clear moment of pause. We can label this in our heads as “Section 1”
Next we’ll see a movement from the bottom of the tempo to the top of the throw. If you're analysing a dynamic trick, it's always a good idea to 'create' a section whenever the base and flyer are disconnected and the flyer is moving while the base waits to catch. The bottom of the tempo position to the end of the throw can be labelled “Section 2”.
The flyer is now in the air and has to undergo a shape change of their own irrespective of the base. They move from a shape of global extension (arch), to a shape of global flexion (hollow). This can be labeled ‘Section 3’. We see a clear starting shape, a transition, and then a new shape that the flyer maintains.
The base's catch and subsequent leg bend can be thought of as ‘Section 4’.
Our final section, Section 5, is ‘Throne’.
What we now have is five very distinct sections we can look at. More importantly though, we have five sections we can train, work on and improve that are separate from the actual ‘trick’. This process works for everything in acrobatics. From the simplest of movements, to the most complex. This is what I call; ‘Breaking down technique’. It’s not a new or novel concept by any means, it’s the foundation of all acrobatic and gymnastic coaching.
Apples and Oranges - How to Create Drills
We’ve now broken down the trick into ‘Sections’. In the example above, we have five component parts of one trick. We can now look at each of those individual sections and treat it as its own trick that needs to be trained. This is partly what people mean when they talk about ‘progressional learning’. This is where the magic happens.
Sometimes it’s obvious how you need to train a section. In the example above, sections one, two, four and five are all very simple. They can all be trained just as they are; you can work on moving from Bird to the bottom of the tempo position, then to the top of the ‘throw’, then you can practise the base's catch, and Throne positions. What about Section 3? The moment the flyer is in the air? This is our missing link. We need to find a way to isolate Section 3 from the others so that we can work on it by itself. This is where you need to get creative. You have to look at that section and think of a way, as best you can, to replicate it in an isolated environment.
It doesn’t have to be a ‘like for like’ replication to be useful. You can replicate t
he shape change. You can replicate the change in orientation. You can replicate specific muscle activation, or specific movements involved. You can’t make an apple an orange, but you can at least genetically engineer it to taste like one.
Succeeding at failing - Understanding key moments, and potential mistakes
We now have all the tools we need in order to break down, isolate and work on sections of technique. The last piece of the puzzle is how to correct mistakes we see in each of these sections. Partner acrobatics may appear wildly exciting and mysterious, but in reality it’s tame and tangible. Every trick is different, and every section of every trick is different, but across the board there are constants. We will always see at least two of the following moments in some capacity within each ‘section’:
1. Initation of MovementThere will be a clear moment where a movement ‘starts’. Taking an example from above, in section 2 our initiation comes from the base leg drive.
2. Initation of RotationRotation can happen across all planes of movement; sagittal, frontal or transverse. Rotation is created when the flyer receives a push from anywhere other than directly underneath them, if they receive two separate pushes at slightly different times or if they make a deliberate effort to rotate.
3. Increase in speed of movement or rotation - Normally a shape change or a specific action from either base or flyer.If a trick requires rotation, it also likely requires that rotation to be sped up. This is commonly done via some kind of shape change, or by giving a direction in the final release of contact.
4. Decrease in speed of movement or rotation - 'Catch' - 'Finish' - 'Transfer'All good things come to an end. This is quite simply the final moment that we begin to arrive and, potentially, find balance in a new shape. This could mean ‘side star’ if you’re looking at the first section of a washing machine. Or ‘handstand’ if you’re doing a Hand to Hand trick. We may completely stop here, or we might continue back at step 1 as we begin the next section. Each of these four moments have four things that can go wrong. You can be:
- Too fast / strong
- Too slow / weak
- Too early
- Too late
It’s important to understand that too fast and too early are not the same. Continuing with our previous example; the base needs to push fast because the push needs to be powerful enough to impart energy into the flyer in order to throw them high enough to be able to complete the trick.
But if the base pushes too fast too early, that power and energy is going to be wasted as the flyer won't be in the right position to recieve that energy or for it to help them rotate. It’s possible to be too late and too fast at the same time, as it is too early and too slow.
So if we imagine that within each section we have a potential of four moments that can go wrong, and each one of those four can go wrong in, at most, four different ways and then that each trick is made up of multiple sections, that’s a lot of potential ways for things to go wrong and only very few for it to go right.
Just to complicate matters even further, bases and flyers each have an individual responsibility.
For the bases it’s: “Am I underneath?” and for the flyers it’s “Am I tight and allowing myself to be balanced?”
A big thank you to the wonderful Matt Fields-Johnson (@theacrobear) and Elizabeth Overton (@theacrosquirrel) for filming the video examples for me.