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Clicker Training for Gymnasts

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In February, I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to spend a few days with gymnastics coach (and ClickerExpo faculty member) Theresa McKeon, her husband Brian, and their kids. While the purpose of my trip was to visit with Theresa and her clicker-trained gymnastics students, after single-digit temperatures in Boston during most of January, the balmy early spring of Charlotte was a blessing. Early crocuses, a few cardinals, and robins starting to sing a little. Theresa's horses were lying on their sides in the pastures, soaking up the sun.

We spent one happy afternoon in the sun playing with a dear old horse that Theresa is clicker training, but most of our time was spent in the gym. The gym is a huge structure, big enough to hold 200 to 300 girls at once. The girls range from about seven years old to high school seniors. They were divided into groups, working in different areas and on different skills. I was enchanted by the sight of all those children flipping themselves around in the air like spinner dolphins.

This is a serious matter, however, not just recreation. Many of the girls start competing on state and regional levels when they are no more than nine years old, and this organization, with coaches like Theresa, produces national champions. The goal is not just exercise, or fun, or medals and glory: it's college scholarships, and big ones, too—something really worth working for.

The clicker is an ideal tool to identify correct movement, especially in the air. Theresa and her scientist colleague Joan Orr call it "TAG" teaching—Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. It's clicker training, of course (the clicker is the acoustical marker), but giving it a different name helps parents to get past the idea that coaches are using "dog training" with their kids.

And boy, does it work (of course). I watched Theresa coaching a bunch of eleven- and twelve-year-olds through a workout on the uneven parallel bars. The girls had already learned many parts of the exercise—through shaping and reinforcement, one element at a time. Now they could perform the whole exercise: swing up to crouch on top of the low bar, jump from the low bar to the catch the high bar, swing under the high bar and up into the air again, let go, and do a back somersault in the air, landing on their feet on a pile of mats. (This part of the maneuver is called a fly-away dismount.)

One by one, they tried it. All of them got up on top of the first bar all right, and caught the second bar. But most of them flubbed the dismount and landing, falling backward out of the somersault onto their rumps instead of landing on their feet.

In each maneuver, Theresa looks for what she calls the "tag points"—the place where she can teach the correct action that leads to success. In this case, she said, energy was being lost in the jump from the low bar to the high bar. The girls were letting their legs flop in the air, which pulls the body out of alignment and leads to a loss of momentum.

Traditionally, a coach might deal with this by ordering the girls to try harder, as they start the maneuver, and by scolding for bad landings after they happen. And of course, the coach is usually yelling, since the gym is pretty noisy—so she may sound angry even if she isn't.

Theresa called the girls together and said quietly, "The tag point is this: legs together as you jump to the high bar." The girls nodded solemnly, lined up, and began, one-by-one, running for the low bar, catching it, swinging forward, back, forward, and then up into the air to land feet-first on the low bar. From this position, they instantly jumped through the air to the high bar (this move is called a "kip, cast, squat on"). As each girl flew through the air, her legs were straight and together, her toes pointed: Click! Sometimes Theresa accompanied the click with a shout of praise, "Nice! Legs together, good!'

Each girl then caught the high bar, swung under it, let go, flipped into a somersault, went all the way around—and landed on her feet! For some it was their very first successful fly-away dismount. They looked not only pleased, but rather surprised. "Oh, wow! Did you see me?"

As an expert gymnast herself, Theresa knew that getting into the right position would add enough energy to the swing to bring the girls over and onto their feet. That's the coach's expertise.

What the clicker does is give the coach a way to talk to the muscles, not the mind. The sound is like a snapshot, a picture of the action. For the tagged child, it identifies exactly what the right move feels like, from top to toe, and THAT enables her to do it again. Instead of practicing and making mistakes, and getting scolded, and making more mistakes until she gets it right, she can get it right once, and then practice that!

For all the watching girls, it identifies what the right move looks like, and when it has to happen, so they learn something, too. In fact, once the girls have all got the idea, they can take turns clicking each other for specific tag points. It's a great game, and mutually reinforcing. Doesn't that make sense?

They think so. Here's what some of those fourth and fifth grade girls told me:

"Coaches tell you what you did wrong. The clicker tells you what you did right."

"When you don't get a tag you know to change what you're doing until you do get it."

"When you fix it yourself you remember it better."

"We can tag each other, and that helps a lot. The more you are the teacher the more you can get it right yourself."

"It's a fun sound."

"Clickers never yell."

Click! I will be writing more about this wonderful work and other applications. That's my next big job. Related Links:

Popular Dogs Special Issue: Clicker Training!

Every year Fancy Publications puts out a special annual issue, which is on the newsstands and pet store counters all year long. The annual issue, a Popular Dogs "topic volume," is a collection of expert articles on one particular subject.

This year, to our delight here at KPCT, the whole issue is devoted to clicker training. Clicker training for all kinds of dogs—deaf dogs, field and hunting dogs, service dogs, obedience, puppies, etc. Yes, I do have an article in it…I got to tell a great story about two mischievous Dalmatians I was supposed to "cure" in a weekend, a story I've always longed to put into print (p. 16, the "Yeah but…Training Department.") Look for this Popular Pets "Magabook" at Borders bookstores and at PetCo and PetSmart stores.

Next month: A behind-the-scenes visit to Disney Animal Kingdom, and my new favorite animal: a Komodo Dragon.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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