For me, the priority for those delivering school based extra-curricular Gymnastics clubs should be to attract the pupils who would not typically seek to participate in the sport beyond their experiences in the curriculum. For example, only yesterday I received a tweet from a parent who's daughter was interested in signing up for the school club but felt concern that the extent of her past experience only amounted to 'PE and playground stuff' and that her height meant she wasn't naturally suited to Gymnastics. As far as I was concerned, the parent had just described the perfect candidate for the school club setting and I was enthused to encourage the parent to register her daughter as soon as possible.
Considering, therefore, that my target audience for the school club setting is a group of pupils who aren't naturally suited to or confident in the Gymnastics environment, I place huge importance on my role to create a setting in which they have a positive experience of the sport. Accordingly, I have developed an ethos for extra-curricular Gymnastics which aims to strike a balance between skill development and accessing the wider learning opportunities that the sport has to offer through exploration of basic Gymnastics activities and challenges. As further explanation of this, many deliverers of school based clubs will design their sessions around the content of the entirely skill based British Gymnastics Core Proficiency Award Scheme. With 8 progressive levels to 'pass', however, it is an approach which favours the naturally talented whilst potentially discouraging the rest particularly as they inevitably reach a point at which they get 'stuck'. Don't get me wrong - there is plenty of value to be found in the British Gymnastics Award Scheme and my extra-curricular gymnasts do achieve their badges. My approach, however, is to discretely integrate the delivery of the badge scheme skills within the session content rather than use it as the driving force to structuring each session.
In an effort to bring my extra-curricular ethos and session style to life, I shall detail one particularly memorable session born out of the fact that the group of gymnasts I had at the time were a particularly enthusiastic and chatty bunch - I had barely started a set of instructions before they set to sharing ideas and also spent more than a desirable amount of time trying to attract their attention to finish each activity in preparation for the next explanation. The time came to decipher a way to quickly attract and maintain the gymnasts' attention throughout each set of instructions whilst also encouraging them to maximise the quality and quantity of exploration time during each activity. Accordingly, I tasked myself to plan a session that would require gymnasts to only respond to/ employ methods of non-verbal communication to successfully improve one another's ability to perform balances.
I grabbed the gymnasts' attention at the start of the session by revealing in turn a series of instruction cue cards which set the challenge and led the group into a command and response style pulse raising activity. To overcome the issue of not being able to give commands verbally, I held up red and green cards to indicate go and stop and then varied the way I held them as a means to inform the gymnasts as to whether to work on the spot or freely around the space and whether to work on a high, medium or low level. For the second part of the warm up, I demonstrated a warm up phrase combining a selection of basic balances/static shapes and then allocated pairs of gymnasts with a red and green card each. Taking it in turns to perform the phrase in their pairs, the observers used the red card to inform their performing partner each time they had established the correct position for each balance/shape and the green card to signal that they had held it for 3 counts and could move on to the next.
The main activity saw the gymnasts rotate around a balance activity circuit. At each station, I placed a red, yellow and green card and a sheet detailing a balance skill and an extension skill each with three main teaching points. Again, pairs worked together swapping between the roles of observer and performer. When observing, gymnasts used the coloured cards to tell their performer whether they were showing 1, 2 or all 3 of the teaching points and used the sheet to indicate which teaching points they needed to focus on during the next attempt. Once an observer held up the green card, the performer knew they had shown all three teaching points at once and were ready to attempt the extension version.
On completion of the circuit, I challenged each pair to create a short movement phrase by linking three of the balances they'd improved during the circuit activity. This time, it was down to the gymnasts to find their own ways in which to communicate ideas, order and perform the sequence without a single word spoken. To my amazement, every pair took to the challenge with relative ease and an array of balance based phrases were composed within minutes.
The gymnasts also devised their own methods of non-verbal communication in the cool down activity which saw them working in two large groups. Starting from standing in a circle formation, the gymnasts in each group were tasked to take it in turns to adopt a basic gymnastics shape holding it for as long as it took the whole group to form a Gymnastics 'tableau'. To make it harder, the gymnasts knew that the whole group would have to start forming their tableau all over again if any two gymnasts moved to adopt their shape at same time. This also added an element of competition to see which of the two groups could be quickest to successfully establish their tableau without communicating verbally. Without a word, both groups naturally established the technique of identifying a leader who used a series of nods to indicate the order in which the gymnasts should move. To further the challenge, we then attempted to create one whole group tableau without using verbal communication or the nodding technique. It was encouraging to watch as one gymnast took the initiative to adopt the first shape followed intuitively by the gymnast next to them and so on in order around the circle until the whole group tableau was established.
Upon giving the gymnasts permission to speak again at the end of the session, a group scream, the like of which I had never heard before, filled the room. It can only be described as an outpouring of relief mixed with a sense of achievement and joy. We concluded the session with a discussion as to which methods of non-verbal communication each of the gymnasts had found the easiest to use and understand. So, whilst every gymnast improved the performance quality of a range of balances applicable to their own ability level including a selection of the BG Award Scheme skills, the overriding purpose of that session was to enhance the gymnasts' appreciation of a wider range of communication methods which will hopefully prove useful beyond the Gymnastics setting.
Six months on from that session and the gymnasts still regularly ask, 'when are we going to do a silent gym club again?'. They don't remember that they improved their performance of balances as part of that session but they do remember that they were challenged, succeeded and had fun. I believe, that by setting Gymnastics activities that encourage challenge and learning beyond the sport itself, those delivering extra-curricular Gymnastics in the school club setting can engage and keep the lesser naturally able active within the sport over a longer period of time. Skill development should not be ignored but I encourage club leaders to discretely integrate agility based tasks wherever possible so gymnasts feel comfortable to pick up the vast array of skills in their own time.
I appreciate that striking the balance between teaching Gymnastics and using Gymnastics activities to teach takes thought and planning time and is, therefore, easier said than done considering the majority of those running extra-curricular Gymnastics sessions will be teaching staff with many other demands on their time. As such, I hope to help extra-curricular club leaders to bridge the gap in provision for those pupils who are interested to participate in Gymnastics beyond the curriculum but for whom a skill development focused community club environment is not appealing or relevant. With that in mind, I shall continue enjoying the opportunity I currently have to create and explore a variety of wider learning Gymnastics activities as part of my role leading the extra-curricular session at my daughter's school and look forward to sharing the content of the most successful sessions through future blogs...