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Handstand...The Crucial Gymnastics Skill
Inversion Leads to Everything
The basic handstand is probably the most crucial skill in the gymnastics skills list in order to progress into intermediate and advanced tumbling. Because it teaches the child to hold their weight and get comfortable being upside down, it becomes the leading source of learning to tumble both on floor and on balance beam. Developing the proper handstand and shaping is one of the first things a child will learn when they enter into a school age gymnastics class, and should be something they continually develop throughout their gymnastics career.
Before beginning handstand training, it is important to note that the wrists and fingers must be properly stretched and conditioned to take the pressure and weight of the child. By circling the wrist around and placing them on the floor with palms down and palms up, the wrists can begin to stretch and strengthen in preparation for the training involved in learning a handstand. Exercises such as push ups and push up holds are also good for conditioning the wrists and fingers. A child should be able to do a minimum of a 30 second push up hold and a solid bridge hold before beginning any handstand progressions to ensure their wrists are up for the challenge.
Learning Weight Support and Kicking
The first thing that a child will be taught in reference to a handstand will be how to support their body weight. Learning to push on the floor to avoid collapsing onto their head is very necessary to building a strong handstand and more advanced inverted skills later in their gymnastics. Students should be taught small, safe drills such as push up holds, small kicks with hands on a block or mat ("donkey kicks"), and traveling down a mat by kicking one leg up in the air and then transferring the weight to their hands each time they kick ("the wounded dog"). Once a child develops the necessary weight support and kicking motion needed to be safe in an upside down position, then it is time to start learning the handstand shape.
Steps to Reaching a Straight, Vertical Handstand
When children first start to train the kicking motion of a handstand they will do so with bent knees. As they get more comfortable, they will start to straighten the legs out more and more until they finally kick with complete straight legs. A common mistake that is made during this transition from bent to straight leg kicking is arching in the back or midsection of the body. Children tend to develop an arched handstand to avoid hitting the true vertical position out of fear of falling over. In order to start developing the correct shape, it is important to help the student feel confident by properly spotting the skill and manually correcting the arch shape. This can also be done by having a student walk up a wall with their feet until they are confident in holding a straight shape against a wall. It is also important at this time in the child's development to train their core to give them the necessary strength needed to maintain a straight shape once corrected. Eventually, with practice and spotting a child will build the confidence and body awareness needed to develop a good solid handstand shape.
After the child has developed a good handstand shape, it is important to continually train the handstand for balance so that the child begins to hold the handstand longer and longer each time. Once they develop this skill, passing through the vertical position for skills such as cartwheels, back walkovers, round offs and back handsprings will yield much less fear of being upside down, and the child will begin to be able to transition skills to balance beam and even uneven bars much more successfully.