I was on a beach in Costa Rica recently, jumping and spinning, when the teacher gathered us up to look at the break down of an aerial cartwheel. She showed us how the head moves down while you jump up with one leg behind you, replacing the stationary leg with the jumping leg.
I recently wrote a post for #thinkmovement which opens with a story about practicing the most basic regression of aerial cartwheels on a beach in Costa Rica. @ruffolous wrote back, “any chance you filmed a snippet of the breakdown?” Here is me figuring out how to move my body through space with a low level of proficiency, because #learningbydoing .
As we practiced, I found myself a little bit surprised that a skill as complex as an aerial cartwheel could be broken down enough to make it accessible to someone like me, a 38 year old with no formal childhood gymnastics training.
As an adult, I have learned how to freestyle swim with semi-decent technique. I began to regularly get up in a handstand two years ago, and my handstand line continues to get better as I gain flexibility, strength, and confidence upside down. I can cartwheel on both sides and hold a deep squat, skills that were elusive to me in my 20s. I continue to learn and grow my movement tool box through practice and patience.
One of the most interesting things about learning skills as an adult, at least for me, is I don’t try and muscle through it like I did when I was younger. Since I had no formal athletic training of any kind as a child, save for a little bit of softball in my elementary school years and one year of high school soccer, all of the movement skills I have acquired have been learned as an adult. In the early years of learning, what I lacked in flexibility, I made up for in strength, and what I lacked in patience, I made up for in will power. I forced myself into positions I really had no business being in and, surprise surprise, I was unable to develop a high level of competency in those early years. I chalked it up to my age, as though at 26, I was too old to learn or master anything new and since research shows you achieve peak muscle development at age 25, I was doomed to a life of never realizing my true capabilities.
Fortunately, Youtube and Instagram exists, and I watched as people older than I acquired physical skills, improved mobility, and developed power, strength, and coordination that rivaled the physical abilities of most teenagers. I began implementing a variety of techniques and I changed my mindset, realizing anyone can learn almost anything if they are willing to put in the work.
Learning skills as an adult is a little bit harder than learning them as a child since things like fear and past experiences can limit the desire to try. However, along with the experience of age comes the willingness to listen and the general understanding that in order to accomplish anything worthwhile requires consistency and work.
It also requires pushing the limits a little bit, something that, generally speaking, is easier for children than it is for adults. Children are less afraid to fail or be judged for their inability to do something. They are also closer to the ground and don’t have the same sense of risk associated with gravity that adults do- gravity always wins, it turns out. How we respond to gravity is actually one of greatest lessons we can learn. Our relationship with gravity determines how secure we feel in different positions and our ability to fall in a way that accepts gravity instead of fighting against it has a profound impact on what we are willing to try (or not willing to try).
As a coach, I struggle with making sure my clients enjoy their time with me, improve strength, improve mobility, and are able to do the things they want to do, not the things I want to do. I rarely teach any of the things that are more “trick” like during my sessions because a) those are things I enjoy. Not everyone wants to learn how to do a cartwheel or a handstand and b) the steps required in order to perform higher level skills often requires a little bit of extra work or awareness on the client’s part and again, I don’t want to impart my own likes on to people that have never expressed interest in these things. I also wonder, sometimes, if I make unfair assumptions about what a person likes or dislikes instead of simply asking.
In addition, the steps leading up to higher level skills are beneficial for just about everyone, even if the skill itself doesn’t really matter at all. The ability to focus and orient yourself in space in unusual positions, as well as the ability to fall are instrumental to a sense of capability and exploration. To return to the story about the aerial cartwheel, think about what the most basic regression taught me. It placed my head in an unusual orientation and taught me how to shift my weight from one foot to another in a dynamic fashion. This is valuable, not because the act of doing an aerial cartwheel will make my life better or more enriched, but because placing my head in an unusual orientation and dynamically moving my legs improves my confidence in a precarious position. As someone who enjoys hopping across rocks and climbing trees, almost always by myself, confidence in precarious positions is good.
Probably the most important aspect to learning higher level skills is learning how to fall. When I was training for my GMB certification, my exit strategy for handstand was backbend. This isn’t the most efficient way to get out of a handstand, and since I actually don’t have a very good backbend, there was no control- gravity pulled me to the ground with a resounding thud. I was told that in order to pass, I needed to learn how to fall out of handstand (it’s done with your legs falling to the side and doesn’t require the same amount of shoulder mobility that handstand does).
Changing my exit strategy posed a huge challenge. It was scary, and I didn’t have a good sense of how to fall. I finally learned how to do it using the wall, and what it ultimately gave me was more confidence on my hands. It taught me how to shift weight and be more in control. Instead of fighting gravity I let gravity work with me.
Perhaps the most important skill we can teach our clients is how to fall from a standing position. What is it like to work with gravitational pull and end up on the ground? Parkour, MovNat, dance, and gymnastics all teach impressive looking skills whose foundations are based on the ability to go from a standing to prone, supine, or crouched position. Often these skills involve rolling along the ground with a high degree of trust that your body will respond to surface beneath it instead of fight it., reducing the inevitable sense of fear most of us have that comes along with moving through space and against the floor.
The reality of these skills is they need an entry point, and many people, myself included, aren’t always willing to break the more complex skills down to their smallest components to make it accessible to the 55 year old desk jockey. It takes preparatory work, patience, and consistency, but given the right stimulus, anyone can learn anything, regardless of age. The flip side of this coin, of course, is the strange role personal trainers are expected to play. I already mentioned I don’t like to impart my goals on to someone else, and the inevitable question arises what is a personal trainer? Is it someone that counts reps? Or write programs? Or help someone lose weight? I am not very good at any of those things. I help people explore movement, feel better in their bodies, and reduce pain. I help people find ease and fluidity, but also strength and the ability to recover from perturbations. People gain strength, mobility, and confidence along the way. It’s all a journey, without a beginning or an end, and even though people hire me for a specific reason, eventually, with the right baby steps, they begin to open their mind to the possibilities that come with more confidence.