There are many ways to look at, analyze and plan the gymnastics learning process. One of those ways is to understand how gymnastics skills and other complex physical movements are a series of physical habits. In general learning terms, people have “one-track” minds. They can concentrate only on learning one new thing at a time effectively. Each step, therefore, must be thoroughly learned before proceeding to the next step or something new. This is a normal progressive training technique.
Physical movements, including gymnastics skills, and patterns they are either carefully built or random accidental neural pathways in the brain. Repetitive movements begin to build neural pathways – habits – automatically. If gymnasts are performing movements well and constantly refining and improving them, the neural pathway becomes and remains a positive habit. If skills are done, without the close coaching necessary to ensure they are in the correct pattern, then the neural pathway habit is most likely to become a bad habit.
Either way, once a much-repeated movement is initiated and begun, it naturally and automatically triggers the habit pattern down the neural pathway that has been developed, without voluntary control over the rest of the pattern. The ingrained pattern simply takes over and the pattern is executed, whether it is a good or bad movement, gymnastically. This is also why habits are so hard to break, once formed. Any initiation of the movement falls immediately into the neural pathway habit and defies change.
Memory positions are physical positions for gymnastics skills that can and should be firmly locked into muscle memory. This process can, should, and does start as early as preschool gymnastic classes. Positions, like the tuck position, are often a part of a preschool curriculum.
The concept of muscle memory is that gymnastic body positions should be so firmly locked into the memory and the neural patterns. They should be so firmly locked in, that the mind is free to concentrate on other things, like landing and sticking skills. The entire collection of memory positions for all skills should be imprinted into muscle memory. Mirror, visual, and video training are all effective memory position training supplements.
Training skill movements correctly often involves building a series of habits that will combine to produce an individual skill done correctly. For example, if you are teaching a young gymnast kips, you will want to break down the kip into habit phases and teach and imprint each phase. In many cases like kips, you may teach some or all of the phases separately and independently, but you can only combine them one successfully-mastered-phase to successfully-mastered-phase at a time.
One of the basic precepts of building positive gymnastics and physical habits is spaced repetition. Spaced repetition does not necessarily involve doing numerous repetitions on the same day. It involves doing one or a small number of correct repetitions daily. Practices on each skill or aspect of skill (like tumbling for the floor) should be a review of each tumbling skill they are already doing, checking it to make sure it is being done correctly. If it is being done correctly, gymnasts immediately move on to the next skill in the progression. If it is not being done correctly, coaches help the gymnasts fix it (or improve it to the best it can be done for that day) before moving on.
This is not to say that work on the next phase of the skill, in this case – toes to the bar – which involves leg lifts to the bar (perhaps even with ankle weights) should not or are not being done concurrently, but putting the phases together before mastering the first phase, the glide, is a huge mistake. The worst scenario would be to have gymnasts trying to do the whole kip movement) without having broken it down into phases, visually taught it, explained the phases, practiced and mastered each phase before moving on, and practiced without close coaching and supervision. In other words, just telling gymnasts to go practice kips on their own until they get their kip is the worst possible coaching and learning approach. You are almost guaranteed to develop bad habits, which will take 21 times longer (Japanese scientific research) to break and correct.
Gymnastics skills and physical actions are in a brain sense, all subconscious mind and mental habits. The best process for building technically correct habits is to learn one habit thoroughly first and then add the next habit. Jumping progressions to add the next phase before allowing the first phase habit to be imprinted and starting onto the next phase too early can negatively alter the first phase and sabotage progress on both phases.
Reference Gymnastics Zone – Gymnastics is a series of habits