Back Handspring, Bad Habits, Coaching, Skill Development, Training

Fixing this Bad Habit: Back Handspring: The Undercut

One of the most popular skills in gymnastics and tumbling is the back handspring. In sports like cheerleading, the back handspring is a major focus and a requirement for many team programs. Not only is this skill a difficult skill to learn, it can take years to acquire and perfect. In addition, there is a high risk element to consider. Many bad habits can be acquired if not learned properly. The most common, and difficult to fix, if not caught early, is what we call the “Under Cut”.

So, what is an Under Cut? There may be several different explanations, but I will give you my thoughts and best explanation. The Under Cut is a technical problem that occurs at the beginning of performing the back handspring. As the arms are beginning to lift up for the back handspring, the student begins to throw their head backward while thrusting their hips forward in front of the feet. The result is little or no jump and lift off the floor creating a heavy arch position. The hands actually land very close to where the feet are, which creates no backward traveling. The back handspring may only travel several feet when it should travel almost the length of the body.

This is a very common problem and recognized by most coaches. Even many students with the problem have been told they have an “under cut”. However, what is surprising to me is that many students who have the habit do not know exactly what the problem is except knowing that their back handspring is too short and the hands land to close to the feet (as they have been told by other instructors). I ask most all my students who have this habit if they know why this happens. Most do not know!! Let me discuss what causes this problem.

The under cut can occur as a result of several different circumstances relating to poor technique in proceeding skills to the back handsprings, like a poorly executed Round-Off ( Let’s first discuss the problem relating to standing back handsprings.

First and foremost, as discussed many times throughout my posts, students must have developed a strong foundation of basic elements prior to learning the back handspring. The back handspring involves a jumping action ( as described in the term “spring”). This element must be effective to ensure the proper lift and rotation needed for the skill. For a jumping action to occur, the body must be in a proper position so the legs can be effective in the action. The under cut causes the body to be in a position that inhibits or highly reduces the body from performing the jump or spring action off the floor.

The arm swing performed while initiating the back handspring is what usually causes this problem. Students get in a hurry to look and attempt to flip the back handspring before the proper body position is acquired. When the arms begin to lift up at the beginning of the skill, the student will begin to look backward before the arms get stretched above the head. In many cases, the arms do not get to a horizontal position before the student begins to look back and initiate the back handspring. This causes the knees and hips to thrust forward in front of the feet which eliminates any jumping action. It creates the effect of a back limber in a fast-whipping motion.

A great way to prevent this habit from occurring is to begin teaching the back handspring without an arm swing. We have the student stand with their arms stretched straight above the head. We then have the student sit back (slightly) as in starting to sit in a chair. From this point, the student jumps up and back with their head and eyes following the hands as they reach back. This prevents the head from throwing back too aggressively. This action should allow the student to have the proper lift and rotation at the beginning of the skill. When the hands make contact with the floor, the snapping action should occur for the landing (this snapping action has a characteristic of its own and will be discussed in another post).

For students who have developed this habit, we will re-train the skill from the beginning and teach without the arm swing. The student, in many cases, kinda freak out about this new technique, however, once performed several times (with a spot) they get more comfortable with it and realize what a difference it makes (

Please note that teaching this skill without an arm swing requires a spot from an experienced coach. It is very difficult to perform a standing back handspring without an arm swing. If a gym has a back handspring trainer block (like the Resilite Smarter Spotter), this is effective in training without the arm swing and without a spot. Once the student has learned the proper technique without the arm swing, we begin to incorporate the arm swing. However, it is important to reinforce that the arms get stretched above the head before looking back for the skill. One other note of importance: Make sure the student keeps their eyes open. It is very common that students close their eyes!!

There are many drills to teach the back handspring effectively, however, many gyms and programs do not have the equipment or ability to train many of the drills that can be effective. Focusing on the elements described above can be used for almost any athlete in any environment.

Good luck with this skill and remember – Safety is the most important. DO NOT ALLOW A STUDENT TO ATTEMPT THIS SKILL WITHOUT PROPER AND PROFESSIONAL INSTRUCTION!!

Scott Johnson – 1984 USA Olympic Gold Medalist

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