Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Swinging in the States



Watching podium training at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships, it is amazing how only the faces change from year to year.  In a Pre-Olympic year, the same storyline exists among elite gymnastics that existed back in 1991: the Americans have powerful girls with a weakness on bars, the Romanians are conditioned within inches of their lives and look solid despite a weakness on bars, the Chinese girls have wonderful flexibility and finesse and are hoping to get through the power events, while the Russians pull off tumbling that their girls don't look capable of merely looking at their bodies.



A country's success in gymnastics comes down to training techniques, conditioning, innovation and ultimately... selection.  The very girls coaches select to focus on and prepare for the elite ranks ultimately determine the country's success eight or nine years later.  Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Carly Patterson, Shawn Johnson and Jordyn Wieber all know what it is like to be at the top of American gymnastics leading into an Olympic Games.  They are also all stereotypically powerful gymnastics hoping to compensate for a natural weakness on the uneven bars compared to their other three events.  The Romanians are known for the bar weakness and much of that is believed to be technique-driven.  If one looks at the girls selected in the US, it becomes apparent that coaches decide to focus on that level 5 or level 6 capable of a double back and capitalize on their natural power.  The girls on the American team tend to look like they were all selected along with Hilary Grivich for the Karolyi's Hopes Team back in the youth.  Note that Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin, the Americans with the most international success, were both scouted and/or developed by Russians.  Shannon Miller was not a natural powerhouse winning the pull-up competition alongside Jordyn Wieber.  Soviet coaches spotted her innate talent and Steve Nunno just happened to be there paying attention.  None of the girls Steve selected on his own ever amounted to much.  Wieber's muscled routine is exactly the type of routine one would envision the Karolyi six-pack trying to luck out on should they have competed under the current code.



There is even a very literal Romanian quality to the way American coaches train the girls and compose their routines.  It is amazing how the Russians and Chinese all pick girls who lack the noticeably-bulky musculature of Team USA.  It is also amazing how their gymnasts are able to connect skills on bars and beam through skill, technique and success, rather than muscling through bars or powering through a beam routine like Wieber, Sacramone and Raisman.  There is not a single American competing in prelims whom one would say has a gorgeous natural swing.  When one looks at the Chinese and Russians on bars, it is evident their girls spend considerable time on front giants, back giants, eagle giants and circles.  Their girls are able to connect releases, turns and transitions with ease.  Their composition is also considerably better.  Sabrina Vega is often said to have a beautiful body.  Looking at Vega, one would imagine she is a gorgeous bar worker.  It is interesting that her Romanian coaches have taught her a number of releases, yet they can not compose a routine with decent enough difficulty or execution to score well.  The number of kip-cast-handstands in her routine is laughable and begging for deductions.  It is startling that the Americans are not connecting shaposhnikovas, pak saltos, low bar skills and transitions to the high bar in our to earn respectable D-scores.  It is as though we never learn.  The only series of giants practiced in the US appear to be power giants winding up for double-double dismounts.  It is enough to make Kathy Johnson Clarke cry herself to sleep at night.



Viktoria Komova is returning from ankle surgery and is showing her full difficulty for the first time in a year.  It is important to note that Komova is performing all of her tumbling passes despite only competing double tucks and double fulls at the recent Russian Championships.  Their coaches focus on technique and timing rather than the literal skills and pounding of Team USA.  Their focus on timing, technique and feeling for the equipment is also why the team members are able to look disastrous one day and find gold medals draping around their necks the next.  The Russians are six girls with strongly-conditioned cores who are able to use their technique to perform amply on all events.  They may not standout as 'floor champion' the way a powerful American tumbler does, but they are able to execute skills and earn high enough scores to keep themselves in contention.



No matter how much changes in the sport, the teams' strengths and weaknesses remain the same.  When perpetual bridesmaids lose titles year and year one would think they'd do something about it.  Anna Li is relegated to the alternate position due to her injury and inconsistency.  Should the bar judges have their way with the American girls in Ivana Hong-Stuttgart fashion, don't be shocked to see Anna subbed in for finals.

23 comments:

  1. As an athletic trainer, the rule is always to focus on your weaknesses, not your strengths. I am puzzled why there has not been a full court press within USAG to promote, educate and develop American bar skills more to bring that up to a commensurate level with the other events. While there are notable exceptions such as Bross, Caquatto and Li, it would seem to me that coaches with aspiring young athletes would want to try and fill that skill area and more likely gain selection to upper level competitions.

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  2. Note that Bross is coached by a Russian, while Caquatto and Li have Chinese coaches.

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  3. not that Bross has great technique; she jerks herself around the bars.

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  4. I don't know, Nabieva is a pretty muscular girl. The difference is, of course, that she actually knows how to swing bars. I think looking at body type is just an excuse... Look at Beth Tweddle! Not the greatest swing obviously, but nobody can deny that she's a great bar worker. And then look at the twigs like Maroney and Vega who suck at swinging bars. It's not body type as much as it's technique and a natural ability to swing.

    I'm seriously worried about what the scores will be if the judges really judge bar routines strictly here. That free hip full Wieber does is usually so out of handstand, it's not even funny. Who even knows who we are putting up for the 3rd spot on the event. It will have to be whoever is least awful in prelims.

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  5. AJ is right that it is body type, conditioning and basics. Most of the good bar coaches in the US have retired.

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  6. This is one of the smartest assessments of the historical strengths and weaknesses of the top WAG teams I've ever seen. There's room to agree and disagree on the finer points, but I just wanted to say thank you, well done.

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  7. No bar worker is without flaws. Many of the Chinese girls have struggled with something as simple as kip cast handstands. He Kexin cannot do stalder elements. The Russians' bar composition is not great... Komova does a useless giant half turn in her routine. But as a whole, those countries are definitely developing bar workers much better than we are, yes.

    I think Vega may be our best bet for Team Finals with her whopping 5.9 d-score, and she's capable of scoring an ELEVEN on bars when things go wrong, so let's hold our breath.

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  8. Johnson has a Chinese coach. Patterson had a Russian.

    I think the issue with bars is the very peculiar code, which dramatically values a certain grip. When they fix that and emphasize releases more and eagles less, the emphasis on hyperflexibility will be reduced.

    Also...you still have athletes like Memmel, Seitz, Tweddle with great bars sets and not looking like androgynous twinks.

    And look at high bar. There are a lot of athletes of very different body types (consider Cassina and Horton) that do well there. And we don't have all this crap about how they look rather than perform. The only one who fits the Nastia code whore twink role there was Zou Kai. Crap form too...just like Nastia-frog.

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  9. I actually don't think the US lack that much depth on bars in the 93-96 quad. Think Miller, Dawes, Chow--all world or olympic medalists on the event--and Phelps was a two-time event finalist. Also, there was considerable depth in the 2001-04 quad--Memmel, Vise, Heenan, Kupets, Humphrey, all world and/or olympic medalists.

    In fact, almost quite the opposite in 2003 and 2004. Annia Hatch was brought on just to vault in 2003-04. And Bhardwaj mostly to vault in'01 and '04 even though she filled in on other events during qualifications and finals.

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  10. Patterson was not developed by a Russian coach. AJ is talking about the all important formative years. Patterson was primarily selected by Debbie and Dina. Alexandrov was there for part of the time but was a drunken mess and didn't give a shit. This is why Nina Kim and Carly both had bar weaknesses. Carly really improved under Evgeny but was always trying to relearn her technique in time. She was not great on bars when she got to WOGA. The work with Alexandrov did improve here.

    So many of you are missing the point. Johnson became an elite primarily because she was powerful. Johnson's technique on bars and beam is actually better than her tumbling technique. Much of her gymnastics revolves around natural ability.

    When the Americans did compulsories, they were doing more bar basics and had better bar workers. They stopped doing the same amount of basics on bars after that and the difference does show.

    MLT was a decent bars coach along with her assistants who did a lot of the work, but many of her girls came to her that way. The girls she has selected and developed herself aren't actually that great on bars.

    Kelli Hill was a good bars coach but has retired. Most of the elite coaches out there are not that great on bars right now.

    AOGC looks like it should have better bar technique than it does. They also need better beam.

    If one looks at where the girls develop at levels 6, 7, 8, 9, etc, there is a weakness on bars that needs to be addressed with basics, swing, selection and the type of skill progressions taught.

    The loss of Kelli Hill and Evgeny Marchenko at the same time hurts the team. Evgeny's head and heart isn't in the sport. He was an asset to the national team.

    Back through 2004, there was a difference in terms of how good one's technique needed to be. The open-ended scoring really made it difficult for many gyms and coaches to contend on bars. The skill and technique of the coach and athlete need to be greater. Girls need to have strong cores and flexibility in order to excel on bars. If not, the coach needs to be really creative like Beth Tweddle's. This is a problem that the American team has overall. It is difficult for girls to ever catch up when they enter the elite ranks with a sizable weakness on bars.

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  11. Well that fat christina tanella was coached by a russian. She sure is not competing much at Georgia, maybe she could train and actually compete for the usa!

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  12. Anon @ 322, you are hateful! I'm not sure why you had to bring Christa Tanella into this, but that was way harsh and unnecessary.

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  13. He isn't saying that every girl coached by a Russian will be amazing. Tanella has more actual bar technique than Alicia or Aly, but has minimal talent and certainly doesn't maintain her condition in college.

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  14. In my exp. coaching rec you usually get 2 types of bar workers. ones that are crap on bars but ok/great on everything else. or one that are great on bars but crap on everything else

    Bross has gotten better on bars over the years she used to scare the crap out of me. like she was going too fast and couldn't control what she was doing.

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  15. I have experience coaching all levels from the early rec classes to college level. Bars is generally he hardest and last event for kids to get. I think the USAG system places too much emphasis on the musclehead type gymnasts in their early years. Strength is rewarded over swing, where they barely start to swing until level 5. I think if the US wants to improve their bars, they need to start there. It's rare that I get a kid on my college team that's good on bars AND on one or two other events (Mind you this is D3) They either do bars or they do the other events. Ugh.

    Though I have to agree with the earlier post- the 96 and 04 crew had some pretty badass bar workers- we won a lot of medals on bars in those years... mind you most of those coaches are now retired. Can USAG bring back Kelli Hill to bootcamp our team?

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  16. Did Amy Chow's coach have any other elites? I really find her and Marcia Frederick to be the best bar workers the US has ever produced.

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  17. lizzy - DEAD ON! That was exactly what I was thinking. When I coached, bars was always the event the kids dreaded and that the coaches wanted to spend the least amount of time on, and with girls, we spent all of our time training them on the UB rather than HB. If we started them developing swing first rather than KCHS and releases, the outcome at the elite level would be way different.

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  18. What a great and well put together historical analysis. Thank you.
    (and who is the awesome chinese girl on beam??)

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  19. This is coming from a comment above, but the US has produced some pretty great bar workers with excellent swing/mechanics: Frederick, McNamara, Dawes, Miller, Moceanu, Ray, Kupets, Memmel, Vise, Liukin, Johnson, Li. I wouldn't say that's a list that would relegate the U.S. to "countries who can't swing bars." Yes, we have a major lack of good bars composition, but the talent is there. We just don't train them the right way.

    I see tremendous potential in Douglas. Her elements are very clean, she works with her hands very close together and she has a tightness to her bodyline. All of the essentials are there. She just needs a coach that knows bars. Then take someone like Maroney. She has the body for that event, but her composition is awful. If her coaches were smart, they would fly Kelli Hill to CA just to scrap the current routine and start over. She has the body for that event and they should be capitalizing on it.

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  20. Anna Li has never accomplished anything to be put on your list of great bar workers. Dawes was overrated. Her form was gross.

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  21. And Mary Lou Retton. She had that flip thing! YEAH!!!

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  22. Has Mihai had any good bar workers? Even at L10?

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