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Basic instinct

By Ryan English

Have you ever had an instinctive reaction that was somewhat… unhelpful?

Here’s a classic one: you’re about to fall forwards, so you extend your arms to lockout to protect your precious brain. This is an important reaction–your face is definitely your best feature, it’s worth protecting–but it’s also flawed. Extending your arms to lockout puts you at risk of hyperextending (or dislocating) an elbow.

That’s why many combat sports prioritise learning breakfalls when you first start out—on an instinctive level we’re just a little bit rubbish at falling over.

Here’s another example from my own training:

A man in a gynmastic handstand, with toes pointed and straight alignment from wrists to toes. He is shirtless and wearing dark shorts.

Hand. Stand.

On the surface, some dude doing a handstand. Internally, screaming about how I’m about to fall over and that I need to do something right now to fix this situation.

That thing the screaming part of my brain wants me to do is almost always the wrong thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on an instinctive level, we’re also just a little rubbish at standing upside down and on the wrong limbs.

Fight the panic

Learning hand-balancing is (for me, at least) all about overriding unhelpful automatic reactions.

Falling forward? There’s a good chance my body tries to ‘help’ by bending something that makes my centre of balance go even further in the direction you’re falling. Tired shoulders? You better believe it’s going to try to shift so that they’re working even harder. Even when my body reacts the right way, it often does way more of it than it needs to, which means I’m now falling in the opposite direction.

You might be able to sympathise if you’ve ever had trouble with hand placement in a step vault or keeping your knees inside while doing a cat pass.

Black background with pink silhouette of a unicorn rampant. In nig, all-caps text underneath it says "Keep calm and ride a unicorn."

Ignoring these automatic, panic reactions isn’t easy, but here are some things which have helped me work my way to an increasingly stable handstand.

- Give yourself lots of opportunities to detect incorrect automatic reactions. Another way of saying this is practice lots and practice in ways that will get you feedback on what you’re doing. You can get feedback by filming yourself doing a skill and reviewing when things go wrong to see what might be going or by practicing in front of a coach.

- Once you’ve detected an incorrect automatic reaction, work to turn it from an unconscious incorrect action into an unconscious correct action. This can be a long process, but is mostly about getting used to the situation that triggers the incorrect automatic reaction. Once you know the incorrect reaction is there, you can consciously do the correct action instead. Do the correct action enough time and it will start to happen unconsciously.

- If the skill you want to learn is like a handstand, with many body parts working in opposition, you’ll have to do this many times. Focusing on a particular body-part to make it react the correct way before moving on to the next.

- If the skill happens very quickly detecting an incorrect reaction can be challenging. This is where coaches or training buddies are handy.

- Correcting a ‘quick’ skill is also a difficult compared to something relatively static like a handstand. You’ll need to find a way to slow the movement down or break it into sections so that you can drill making the correct reaction rather than the automatic one.

- One of the most important things you can do is to find ways to increase your comfort with a particular skill. There are many ways to do this, but the most important is just doing the skill a lot. Even if you’re getting an aspect of it wrong, increasing your familiarity with the other aspects will allow you to focus more on the incorrect part.

- Build up your supporting skills. One of the biggest steps to improving my handstand was becoming comfortable cartwheeling out of it. Once I did that, the focus I was using on worry about my face was freed up to use on balancing. Likewise, being able to transfer more force into a jump can free up focus for the vault that’s coming next.

Go try!

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