A Modest Experiment - By Ray Brinzer
Most seasons, I'm experimenting with something. This spring, it was the souplesse.
When I began coaching, I taught the souplesse more or less as it was taught to me: I demonstrated it, gave the athletes a little time to throw back arches from their feet, and then told them to hit it. I happened to be working with some pretty good high school athletes, so it was mostly a matter of getting them over their fear; it is not a technically demanding move, after all.
As I began to coach younger athletes, I began to see kids who apparently had the correct idea fail to execute the throw. Upon investigation, I found that if you replaced an athlete's partner (usually his own size) with another 20 pounds lighter, the problem often went away. So, power was a problem. In rarer cases, a strong athlete would throw in a very unnatural way. It took me a few minutes to figure out the first fellow who had this problem... but asking him to do a simple back bridge cleared it right up. He could scarcely lift his butt from the ground. Here we had a flexibility issue.
So, while the souplesse is technically simple (despite allowing for considerable variation), it turns out to be physically demanding. A stunning revelation, I know.
When you think through the implications, though, things get interesting. Every move must have physical requirements, after all. For any technique, you must be able to apply some force, through some range of motion, with some quickness.
We tend not to consider the physical requirments of less dramatic moves, but most coaches have noticed that some athletes struggle with certain things. At best, we try to guide athletes toward things which work for them, and chalk the differences up to "talent". On a large team, though, an athlete may receive little guidance, and it's very easy to run down a blind alley in wrestling.
When an athlete can perform a move correctly in practice, but not in competition, the problem is even harder to see.
Consider the stand-up, for instance. At the youth level, a lot of coaches prefer it to, say, the sit-out because it "keeps things simple". This is true enough; the problem is, the stand-up is far more physically demanding.
We're asking an athlete not just to stand up, but to come to his feet while driving backward into his opponent. Rather than throw his arms wide, which is the natural thing to do when keeping one's balance, we demand that he keep his elbows in, and fight for hand control as he stands. And all this is to be done with what amounts to a wild monkey on his back, trying to fling him unpredictably this way and that.
Now, in case you hadn't noticed, a lot of little kids don't have very good balance. So, the same lad who can demonstrate a perfect stand-up cannot necessarily perform one in competition. Off the whistle he'll begin the move as he was taught, lose his balance, post, and then instinctively distort the move, searching desperately for something which will actually work. The distortions often become habits which long outlast the physical limitations which created them.
So, after a lost match Dad loudly inquires, employing the appropriate profanity, how many times they've drilled the stand-up, and why the boy can't hit a simple move. His son, already upset by the loss, generally does not know that the correct answer is, "I'm physically incapable of doing that," so instead of answering he bursts into tears. This prompts more productive commentary from Dad.
Ah, the wholesome joys of youth wrestling.
Considering why an athlete cannot perform a move well can tell us a lot about the move. When we know what it takes to hit the move successfully, we can train athletes up to it, rather than demonstrate and hope for the best. But there's more to be gained than that.
The traits which distinguish an athlete who cannot hit (e.g.) a souplesse from one who can may, in part, also distinguish an athlete with an outstanding souplesse to one who can hit the move only tolerably well. This opens up a path for progress. All too often, our better athletes reach a point where they can't see clearly what they must do to improve further. Breaking things down is part of figuring out how to build better things.
So, the experiment? This freestyle/Greco season, I decided not to show the souplesse to athletes until they could successfully perform a back handspring. The correlation I'd noticed long ago: an athlete who can souplesse well can generally be taught a back handspring in a matter of minutes. It stood to reason that the correlation would work both ways.
The result was interesting: virtually every athlete who graduated to the "souplesse group" stuck the souplesse on the first try. Thus, it's a pretty good guess that the exercises gymnasts use to prepare for the back handspring are relevant to performing the souplesse.
And here we start to see the outline of perhaps the greatest tool a coach can have: a plan.