Groping in the Dark Part 2: A Case for Open Gym

This is a continuation of the previous post about the important of self-practice for students. Blog by McKell Anderson.

3 – Familiarity VS Mastery

Have you ever practiced aerial to a specific playlist? To the point where when one song ends that you know what song is going to play next? Or have you ever read a passage in a book so many times that when you get a few words in that you remember what it is all about? You don’t have it memorized and can’t recite it when the book is closed, but you recognize it.

Recognizing input isn’t the same as learning and is a far cry from Mastery. Often, recognizing what is happening can make us feel like “we already know” something, and the brain turns off. How does this relate to aerial? Have you ever started watching an instructor demonstrate something you are familiar with and stopped paying as close of attention? Or have you done a warm-up or conditioning drill so many times that you think you are a pro, only to have the instructor come around and tell you to zip up your core?

When asked to do the “hip key drill” at the beginning of class, you (or your student) fan kick like a dream with perfect execution. From the ground AND from the air! Later, when lost attempting the sequence in class, the help provided is to “find the hip key again” to restart. This tip is met with wide eyes of confusion, and the instructor must offer step by step instruction to get there successfully. This would be a sign of familiarity with one entry to a hip key, but light years away from the true understanding of the wrap and how it relates to other things.

How does one get beyond familiarity and take the next step to mastery? The book addresses many ways, but one crucial thing is this: stop repeating the same drills over and over again! Mass-practice of the same exercise will not lead to mastery, just like rereading text doesn’t lead to better recall. (I wish I had known that when I was in college.) This creates a familiarity that lets you feel good about your practice when your execution is not improving to the degree that you perceive. This leads to a thought that can be haunting:
Perceiving your practice as having gone well is often a symptom of familiarity and not mastery.


4 – Variety is the Spice of Circus Life

There are things we can do to help prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of familiarity. Learning and practice should involve varied approaches. One of the most significant issues with training is that sometimes we do the SAME drills for the skills we are learning. Lack in variation diminishes our ability to establish extensive connections mentally and physically, which results in a very shallow depth of understanding.

In the book, a study that was done tested a person’s ability to throw a ball into a bucket that was three feet away. The participants were separated into two groups. Group 1 practiced throwing balls into a container that was three feet away, just like the test would require them to do. Group 2 practiced throwing balls into a container at different distances, but never the three-foot distance needed for the test. After the practices, which group performed better on the test? Group 2. Even though the first group was doing the EXACT motion that the test would measure, their execution was not as good as the group with variety in their practice.

Sarah Scribbles Comic

Thanks Sarah Andersen for the comic.

A considerable benefit of variety in training is that it develops problem-solving abilities. For any aerialist that has ever gotten stuck in the air, being able to troubleshoot is an extremely critical skill. If you have learned ten different ways to get into a hip key through variability in training, then the ability to recognize different paths to save yourself in the air is more readily at hand and in the muscle memory of the body.

This past summer I participated in the Born To Fly Teacher Training for Level 1 Silks. The week of training was very intense and sometimes a bit overwhelming. I remember us going over invert progressions for HOURS. There was a list of different drills that boggled my mind, and at the time I thought, “Do we REALLY need to do all of these?” However, when I read the section in Make It Stick about the importance of variety, I realized those invert drills are not meant to all be done together when learning how to invert but are a benefit in providing different ways to do similar things over time. The various exercises doled out bit by bit will benefit an aerialist more than the same four drills done during warm up every single week when it comes to developing inversion strength.

Some subconscious repetition I have seen with training happens when you choose where in the room you like to train and what apparatus to use. In a class, students often find their way to a specific spot in the room and never leave it. Even though six apparatuses are hanging, they never leave THE ONE. Different environmental spacing and different equipment help develop better skills. Another example from the book was when a hockey team started performing their passing drills on different areas of the ice rink in practice, and the overall cohesiveness in the gameplay improved. It seems like a no-brainer, but when we practice, we tend to all congregate to the same area we usually do. Change which points you train on in the room, try the stretchy fabric, the braided rope, the big 38” lyra, or the un-taped trapeze bar. The difference in how things feel is vital to learn.

Variety in timing is also a great tool. Not only does this help with spaced retrieval for better learning, but this also helps with execution at different energy levels. Do you always train hard skills at the beginning of practice? Just after warm up? If you only condition how to do inverts at the beginning of class, then what will happen when you need to execute one at the end of a difficult routine when your body is VERY fatigued? Choosing different times during your practice to try skills can help make you into the best aerialist you can be. Don’t be afraid to do conditioning at the end of class or training.


Open Gym Practice is a Must

To get better at anything in life, practice is a key component. We now know that what happens in class is not “practice.” That is the time that new information is going in. We need time for the brain to process and assimilate that information in our minds. After our lesson, we need to get up in the air again later to review. For a lot of aerial students, aside from the weekly classes, not much additional practice happens. This approach removes the element needed for the recall of the things done in class to make them a more permanent part of a student’s repertoire.

 Pony Poison Comic

Thanks Pony Poison for the comic.

If the studio you attend has an open gym, make sure you take the time to participate regularly. This is the time to get the things out of your head and truly learn them. Practicing A LOT is not as important as practicing effectively. Here are some tips for effective good open gym practices:

1. Do not train alone for safety and helpful group problem-solving.
2. Make open gym training follow a different pattern than standard class structure.
3. Try different conditioning exercises or try them on a new apparatus.
4. Don’t forget about your “other side.”
5. Choose to review skills that are not fresh in your mind and harder to recall.
6. Review any forgotten things low and slow before moving up.
7. Try to connect skills, even if you fail.
8. Let yourself get frustrated, but don’t fall apart over it.
9. Do not let someone teach you something new; this is remembering time!
10. Write down any questions or things you couldn’t figure out for your instructor.

To clarify, I don’t think there is anything wrong with skill sharing (item #9), but that when it comes to learning retention, using open gym for skill sharing undermines our goal. The whole point is to add training time around the need for retrieval of skills without an instructor there to make it too easy. Plan additional training opportunities for skill sharing.
For studios and instructors, open gym is often a sensitive topic. Rules need to be established to make this type of practice a safe environment and not a liability risk. Here are some suggestions for ensuring that happens:

1. Have staff members present for supervision and emergencies, not instruction.
2. Require crash pad use for all apparatuses in open gym.
3. Wait to lower in equipment (or however your studio brings them out) until after enough time or warm up has elapsed.
4. Create a designated cell phone area that is not directly next to an apparatus but close enough for filming.
5. Display a list of any open gym restricted skills.
6. Provide “open gym homework” during regular weekly classes.
7. Ensure class time incorporates training on troubleshooting when stuck.
8. Pull apparatuses up (or however your studio puts them away) before open gym is over to provide cool down time without aerial temptations.

Many of these things are commonly part of studio open gym rules. I would encourage studios to designate a cell phone area for the sake that watching a video and immediately hopping onto an apparatus to do it isn’t a long-term learning skill. The student should have at least a little walk to forget and must recall the video content. Also, it is appropriate to decide dangerous skills are too risky for open practice environments without the appropriate instructor. Teachers providing homework can help encourage open gym attendance.

While taking time to practice skills away from an instructor can be scary and overwhelming, for the teacher as much as the student, studies show this learning strategy is sound. Ensure your learning methods are prepared to support a way for information to go into your mind and a way of getting that information back out. Without this balance, the frustration of forgetting will be your enemy instead of your guide.

 

McKell Anderson is currently working as Rebekah Leach’s right hand woman, creating blogs, fun newsletters, photo editing, and doing all the good stuff to make this curriculum project an aerial dream-come-true. 

Burnout — Can’t come up with a cooler title since I’m burned out

This past summer, burnout started trending as the lastest thing to come out about. It was happening in epidemic. Young youtubers everywhere were coming on their channels to talk about their burnout. A classic conundrum: “This is all I’ve ever wanted. Why am I so unhappy?”

It made it to the youtube channel of Philip DeFranco, which is a channel that my husband loves watching, which is, in turn, what brought it to my attention. In his video, Philip DeFranco talks about how it’s everywhere but he wasn’t experiencing it himself, which was good to know. He talked instead about how to avoid it. I appreciate his advice, and have some of my own to share, which I’ll jump in with shortly here. I’m going to half admit to burnout myself. I will say that I suffer from burnout in some areas, but have hit a resurge in other areas. Here’s my story and my two cents on the subject. I feel it’s an important topic to address for any artist, young or old.

I wouldn’t be surprised if burnout was inevitable for any artist of any type anywhere. According to this article here, there are three main types of burnout. I see them as (1) burnout due to overload, (2) burnout feeling lack of purpose/relevancy — lack of moving forward with what used to be your dream, and (3) burnout caused by lack of motivation to do what you know you need to do. I’m going to clump all three of these together.

For my own burnout example, I started this blog about 9 years ago. I started this blog in order to share topics I was passionate about in the aerial arts. I have written on many subjects over the years and have been so rewarded by the results and the community who has supported my writings. (Here’s the story of one woman who’s life course was influened because of one of my blogs! )

I’ve given a lot through these blogs and I feel like there’s just fumes left now. I feel complete burnout and exhaustion just even thinking of writing one more blog! I get a bit fuzzy when I sit down to try to write. I feel the fear questions rising: Will I still be relevant? Can I put coherent words together and match the standards of my previous blogs? Do I have the same energy? Is anyone even reading these anymore? Am I still fresh or am I really just old news?

THE NUMBERS LIE I TELL YOU

Social media puts the pressure on every artist to compare. It’s a numbers game. Who has the most likes? The most followers? Well, THEY must be the best. And I am not the best because my comments, my followers and numbers are low. That means I am not as valued. And the silly thing is that you feel the effects of this no matter how big your numbers get. Big and small Instagramers, etc, all suffer from the social media life-sucking powers. In fact, the larger the numbers, the more pressure you get!

HIDING FROM SOCIAL MEDIA WITH SOCIAL MEDIA

I recently started a private Instagram channel where I am letting only a few aerial friends follow me where I get out all my ranting and life-processing that needs to happen but I don’t want to go full social media with. The fact that it’s just for friends and family makes me feel really ok when there’s isn’t over 1,000 views! I feel like I can more appropriately share my balanced life which includes the ups and the downs, while just sharing the ups on my more public pages. This is something I’ve enjoyed doing to find balance within my social media sharing.

LOSING MOTIVATION

Here’s what one friend recently wrote to me, “Lately I’ve been feeling super bla about circus. Like, uninspired. I see all these videos with super strong, super flexible people, and it’s like ‘I just don’t fit that mold…..& I don’t know that I want to.’ It’s not a self-deprecating thing….it’s a lack of care. I’m just not sure what my goals would be in an Instagram industry. I don’t have any desire to try to be status quo, and I just don’t feel any excitement around circus anymore. No one here seems inspired to create weirdness; so it’s just me making art happen for other people. It’s just…..bla.”

Man, how I can relate to that! It’s ironic that one of the major suggestions to avoid burnout is to have creative outlets. Us artists doubly suffer when our burnout is coming from our creative outlet and we don’t have back-ups handy. Who has time to pick up another hobby when I’m overworked as it is? Arh!

Often times, we love aerial so much, we make it our job. We start performing or teaching or start a studio. That means that we are doing aerial all the time. And while we love it, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, where it becomes a bad thing. Even if we love doing aerial 24/7, it’s just not sustainable. Everyone needs breaks. Everyone also needs refreshment from other sources.

The thing that was first on my list to avoid burnout is identify what was causing me burnout and stop that immediately for the safety of my mental health. For me, that was blogging. I like blogging, and I feel that it was a necessary part of my job in order to get the word out about my books, my video library, and to get people to understand me, but I had to dramatically cut back. I felt — and still feel — that blogs are necessary to drive traffic and awareness to my resources. But, if I writing a blog than I am not writing a book. And for me, books are what I really want to do. There, I have surprisingly not felt any burnout. I feel driven like you wouldn’t believe. I feel the clock ticking and all I want to do is finish my books before I die — there are a lot of them!

BURNOUT CAUSES US TO LOSE SIGHT OF THE NARROW –I MEAN, BIG PICTURE — NO, I MEANT NARROW

Blogging helps to keep me connected to the general aerial community. It helps me to have a voice, and by stopping the blogs, I feel like I’ve pulled some sort of plug. And in fact, I have. But it needed to be done. I am doing my best to find contributing writers and others who can blog here instead (know anyone? how would you like to blog here?!), but it has been hard, so the number of blogs released has decreased dramatically. Our growth has been slow. I haven’t gotten as much attention or shares on social media, and I’ve had to let all that go. I have identified what I want to do, and I must keep my eye on the prize. It’s when you start looking at the runner next to you that lose sight of the finish line. Don’t look around you. Just keep your eyes focused on your next step. What do you want to do? Where does your energy most thrive? You must do that. Nothing else. You cannot do it all. Eventually, there will be parts that need to fall away. If you can, hire people to pick up those parts. If you cannot, just let those parts go. Focus on where you feel driven. That is your calling.

TOTALLY DRYING OUT — OR IS IT DRYING UP?

There are going to be times when you don’t feel driven at all. In terms of creating new aerial works, I’ve dried up. I used to love creating new work, but I’m done. It’s not a hunger I have to feed anymore.

I bet you can relate to that point of not feeling motivated anymore. The truth is, when the dry spell comes upon you, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can read all the cliches and inspirational quotes on the internet, but it’s not going to change. At least not today. So, you might as well own it. Trying to summon enthusiasm is like trying to get my 3 year old to stop crying. Sometimes, you just have to let the tantrum out. Only it’s even harder when your tantrum is that you feel— nothing!

When I start feeling burnout (or it’s sibling, de-motivation) I go with it. I do nothing. For me, that’s the best thing I can do. Here’s three reasons why:

(1) Burnout is exhaustion of the mind. My mind needs to rest. Doing another thing on the to-do list will only make matters worst. Rest is the best thing I can do to help recuperation take place.

(2) I get perspective by doing something else. Rest is really just a change of activity from one thing to another. And when we do something different, we get a new perspective on everything. For example, “resting” can be going for a walk or coloring or reading a book, etc. All these time-wasters are really going to allow me to circle back to the things that matter in life. Not the number of likes on my facebook page or how many subscribers I have to my website (which feel like they drive my annual salary which is terrifying when it’s not enough).

(3) After a while, I typically get bored with doing these other activities, so then I ask myself, “I’m bored, can I go do something for my business now?”
My brain: “Sure Rebekah. What would you like to do?”
And then I think about what I really want to do — not what I feel I need to do to make anyone else happy. I go then to do the thing that would bring me the most fulfillment. In fact, that’s exactly how this blog came to be. Ta-da!!

I have been working on writing for my latest manual for three straight weeks now — 10 hours everyday. But, today, I was feeling a little burned from it and couldn’t get the motivation to get productive work done. So, I lay myself down on the floor after cleaning it a little (which always helps me think), and I thought about what I really want to do. That’s what drives me to do things. If I’m not driven, it won’t be quality. So, I have to wait for drive to come, and then I let it steer me. I have often joked that I wrote my first 6 books out of boredom. The rest I wrote because I needed to feed my family.

“I love these hours when I really can’t work..
love it when i have the real excuse,
because the rest of the time I just don’t stop…

without any decisions, I just slow down!!!!
connect to the way i feel,
and do anything that comes to my mind and makes me feel like doing it.
From eating an ice cream to listening to music
or doing my own lovely things
that are stuck in my mind for a while with no time to do them….

so these hours become full of living in harmony…

yohoooooo…. LET’S STOP WORKING.”
– anonymous person on the internet

Disclaimer: Everything I say must be taken with a grain of salt. There is something to be said for discipline of the mind as well. If I just wandered around all day everyday until motivation struck me, I’d never get anything done! I often don’t feel like working, but once I’m working, I get right into it. It’s important to not let the large daunting tasks ever stop you from getting started. I have a long list of things to do before I die, and I have no qualms about getting started on that list! I’m more-so addressing the days where it’s gone too far. It enters the realm of burnout.

EMBRACE EVERY PART OF YOUR JOURNEY

In a way, what I am doing is embracing myself wherever I am at. And I think that’s important. I think often times, we get down on ourself for not feeling excited. We feel like we don’t even have the right to complain about it when we are living the dream of getting to do something we love! But, don’t feel guilty. All that is a waste of time and even more distracting you away from the goal. Just let yourself feel. Embrace it. Give it a hug. Say, “Oh, I love you, my de-motivated, tired self. Let’s go have coffee together. Do want to try something you’ll really suck at? Let’s try playing the piano today.” And then, you’ll be ready to go back to aerial cuz that’s something you’re actually talented at. (And if you’re a really talented professional piano player, then how did you come to be reading my blog?)

If you push a toddler, they will fight back and say no. When we are all grown up and no longer have our parents pushing us around, we get an even tougher person pushing us around — ourselves. And we push back. De-motivation and burnout is ourselves pushing back. We are throwing an inner tantrum when we get tired of giving to one thing. We have to let the tantrum ride its course. Take a break. Let it go. When its passed, say, “Are you ready to play now?” Good, because I have some fun ideas.

HEALTHY MENTAL HEALTH

When you let out the emotion, even if its the truth that you have no emotion, you will find release. All these youtubers that were “coming out” about how they were burning out were publically demonstrating healthy mental health behavior. While we don’t need to share everything on social media, it is healthy to express what we are going through. Maybe that’s the inspiration for your next piece, eh? Paint this picture: You start to climb the rope, but don’t because you are not interested. It just doesn’t appeal to you. So you go sit down on the chair. But you keep thinking about that rope. Maybe you’ll go try to climb it again. Well, it’s really hard and just doesn’t appeal to you that much. Or does it? Only you know how the piece will end!

Don’t ever let the fear of the piece not being interesting or cool or relevant stop you from the creative process. If it is relevant to you, it is likely relevant to one other person. Stop playing the numbers game. Be inspired by what Ruth St. Denis had to say:

“I have performed for thousands when they found me exotic, the vogue, daring, but I have danced, at any give time, for about ten people… They were the ones that left the theater forever different from the way they were when they came in. All of my long, long life, I have danced for those ten.”

I’m going to shrink that down even more. I have danced my whole long life for an audience of ONE. I dance to connect with the divine in my own way. I feel the spiritual calling of the dance, the worship of God, the listening to the inner spirit when moving. It’s really for me. I hope that my work can have influence and can help others and can be shared, but even I were on an island alone, my life’s work would not change. I must do what I must do.

“Dance for yourself. If someone understands, good. If not, no matter. Go right on doing what interests you, and do it until it stops interesting you.” –Louis Horst


Rebekah Leach is the creator and founder of Born to Fly Curriculum. She has published 11 manuals (and counting) on the art of how to fly in the air. She lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with her husband and two beautiful children who continually remind her how to really enjoy life! She strongly believes in the philosophy that we are all builders of something, and that something needs to be building you up; otherwise it will turn around and destroy you. Anything built with human hands alone is not worth building. Anything built with the purposes of God at the very center (love) is always worth building.

Whiplash Dangers of Drops

Written by McKell Anderson

While receiving a lovely massage that my husband gifted to me for Valentine’s Day, my therapist began asking me the usual questions:

“Do you have any problem areas?”

“What areas would you like me to focus on most?”

“How do you like your pressure?”

My answer:  “Please destroy my shoulders with all the force an invading finger army can deliver.”

So far, pretty normal experience for most aerialists getting a massage.   During the massage, the therapist moved to my chronically tight neck and she was surprised with how tense it was.

Masseuse: “Have you been in a car accident recently?”

Me: “No, my neck is usually tight like this.”

Masseuse: “Your neck feels like people I work with that have had whiplash.”

The wheels in my head began to turn with that statement.  I was in a car accident when I was seventeen but that was fifteen years ago and I did not experience any severe whiplash from it.  However, I commonly let my body gracefully–and sometimes not so gracefully–fall towards the ground until a piece of fabric halts my descent in a rather abrupt manner.  The curiosity seed was planted:  Can aerial drops give someone a whiplash injury?  Has it given me whiplash?

Now, let me start by saying that I’m a firm believer that correlation does not equal causation.  Just because things seem to relate, does not mean that it is truth.  You should know that despite my supplications to the oracle that is Google, my canoodling on aerial forums asking around, or my general inquiries to my aerial role models, I couldn’t find any existing data on the idea.

Aerial is still a young industry, so having scientific data collected on many practitioners is highly unlikely.  Data not existing doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a correlation; it could just be a sign that no one has researched it yet.  For the remainder of this post, we will go over what information we DO have on whiplash injuries and aerial drops separately, then compile the information into some helpful guidelines for safe dropping. If you ever come across any research on this topic, I’d love to be the first one you share it with! Much appreciated.

A Crash Course on Whiplash (no pun intended)

“Whiplash is a mechanism of injury due to forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like the cracking of a whip. The energy transfer of the rapid acceleration and deceleration forces to the neck can result in damage to the soft tissue structures of the neck.”  -Dr. Emily Scherb

Most of the observations made about whiplash relate very specifically to car accidents.  Whiplash injuries are kind of a fickle thing and vary by individual.  Some people experience a little pain for a few days but make a full recovery with very little side effects in a short time.  Others do not notice any symptoms until many weeks after the accident.  The unfortunate thing is that the longer the symptoms persist, the more likely that the damage will become permanent.

Symptoms following a whiplash injury may not be what you would normally anticipate.  When you think of whiplash, the normal expectation of symptoms would be tender muscles, limited neck mobility, headaches, and upper back pain.  Other symptoms can be a bit sneakier like shoulder pain, anxiety, fatigue, sensitivity to noise, impaired concentration, or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD/TMJ) resulting in jaw pain.

I’ve observed (and that doesn’t make this a fact) that TMJ pain is more pervasive in the aerial communities I’ve been in than any other groups I’ve associated with.  Could be a coincidence but might not be.  Only time and data will tell.  There are various factors that can increase the likelihood of getting whiplash in an accident.  Some of these facts I found interesting when analyzing them with aerial in mind.

  • The threshold for soft tissue injury is five miles an hour. Vehicles do NOT need to be going fast to cause the most severe kinds of whiplash.
  • Rear end collisions can be the most severe because the torso is the most secured by the seat belt and the neck can move freely. So instead of the entire back being able to absorb the force, most of the energy is transferred to the neck alone.
  • Position of the head during the collision is also a critical element for injury severity. If the neck is not in a neutral position, say while you have your head slightly turned to adjust the radio, then the available range of motion is greatly diminished. This will result in the force of the collision being localized to one side of the spine.
  • Awareness of impending impact is also a factor. If an individual can brace themselves for the collision then their ability to effectively stabilize during the accident increases.  Studies have shown that passengers experience greater whiplash injury than the driver, often because they are less aware of the situation.

Aside from all the potential factors DURING an accident, there are even MORE chances to impact whiplash with the human body.  Since no two bodies are identical, here are some of the physical considerations in assessing whiplash risk.

  • Muscles, ligaments, and other tissues help absorb shock to the body without causing injury. Individuals that are physically fit and in a good health condition will be more efficient in stabilizing severe forces to the body.
  • Strength needs to be balanced on both sides of the body. Uneven muscle development in the back can result in the spine being in a less ideal posture during collisions or unable to stabilize evenly during an accident.
  • Body type can put certain individuals at risk. Those that have smaller frames, longer necks, and less supporting muscle mass have an increased risk for whiplash.  Women are statistically twice as likely to be injured than their male counterparts.
  • Small children can also have a proportionally larger skull in comparison to their neck and less muscle mass to compensate for it, making them prone to injury.
  • Older populations also have a great injury risk due to the natural degeneration of human body as it ages. “Ligaments become less pliable, muscles less flexible, and the bones, joins and discs less able to absorb impact without injury.”
  • Good body mechanics is also helpful. Individuals that train to have coordinated control over muscles and joints, engaging in the right order with the right tension, will be able to stabilize their body with less mechanical stress and pain.

Drop Mechanics

There seems to be a time in a lot of aerialists’ lives where drops are “the end all, be all” of their hearts desires.  While I don’t think this is true myself, my entire third year of practicing aerial was spent consuming all the drops I could get my greedy little hands on.  So, I’ve BEEN there and I understand the draw.  If drops are what you want, then I hope this will help you understand what to anticipate and make the process as pain free as possible.

First thing to address, drops cause force!  Lots of it.  While you might be an aerialist somewhere between 100-200lbs, with the additional forces we add by embracing gravity abruptly, the true force (or shock load) can end up being around 1,000 pounds.  A general rule of thumb is that 1,800 pounds of force can cause a person to black out and bleed internally.  This should be avoided!  HOWEVER, that’s not to say that injuries cannot occur to our persons with less force than that.  Let’s look at the shock load formula to help further our discussion:

shockload

W = Weight of Aerialist

Df = Distance Falling

Ds = Distance Stopping

In this formula, the most important relationship to pay attention to is the falling and the stopping distance.  Since it is a fraction, everything you solve for begins here and SHOULD likewise be what you notice when learning drops.  (Who says math and real life don’t intermingle?) If you are falling a large distance and stopping abruptly, you will create larger amounts of force.  In aerial, we very often choose to fall large distances on purpose, but if we want to reduce the impact to our bodies we need to pay attention to how we can increase stopping distances to help provide a physical reprieve.

Stopping distance is a hard thing, here are factors that can impact the stopping distance:

 

The Type of Drop Chosen.

I know, duh.  Some drops have more freefall time that happens and others are more of gravity guided unwrapping, think slack drops versus star drops.  Drops can also vary on how many wraps will tighten at the end to help slow us down more gradually.

 

Equipment Choices.

Depending on the apparatus, there are choices an aerialist can make to help the equipment absorb more shock by stretching during impact. Think of high stretch or low stretch aerial silks, bungee packs added to the top of rigging, or ropes with stretch used for pulley systems.

 

What Part of the Body the Drop Culminates On.

I don’t know about you, but my thigh has a lot more “squish” available than my ankle does.  Dropping to meaty regions versus boney regions will have different comfort levels and stopping distances.

 

FORM!

If you have been waiting for the moment where we address the physical capabilities needed, now is the (first) moment.  The human body is made up of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that are great at absorbing shock and impact.  This ONLY happens when proper strength and engagement are available.  MORE ON THIS LATER!

There are specific instruments that can measure shock load (dynamometer) and these often show the calculated estimation to be higher than reality.  Why the discrepancy?  Many of the above factors are very dependent on the human body and are not the same from individual to individual.  Even in one person, your day-to-day ability to absorb the shock of drops will not be the same.  Muscle soreness and stiffness will inhibit your body’s abilities to absorb the shock load of drops.

How to Drop it like it’s Hot (Safely)

From the discussion so far, we know that whiplash is caused by a rapid extension and flexion.  We know that it often happens in accidents of low speeds.  We know aerial drops can create a lot of force on the human body.  I’m going to go out on a limb and conclude that whiplash in aerial is a real possibility.  How often or how severe?  I couldn’t accurately guess, but it IS something we need to be mindful of in our practice.

“Incorrectly wrapped or executed drops can result in sprains, whiplash, burns, and broken necks. You don’t get to be cavalier about them. Respect the risk, respect the work, respect the process, respect the community.” – Laura Witwer

Most importantly, based on reviewing this information, I feel that there are easy practices to put in place to help mitigate the risk for whiplash or other injuries while performing drops.  Check out the list and let me know if there are more things you would recommend:

1:  Strength First, Drops Second

There is a terrible habit in aerial of attempting drops before the body is strong enough to support it.  Having the appropriate strength along the spine is a key element in the body being able to execute drops safely and gracefully.

“With any particular drop, an untrained artist would be more likely to have a whiplash type injury than someone who has trained up to that level because the trained performer has more strength and control in their paraspinal musculature and can withstand more force and load.” -Dr. Emily Scherb

Flailing form is usually the result of an aerialist attempting something they aren’t strong enough for and flailing is how we get injured.  The lovely and eloquent blogger, Laura Witwer, just wrote a wonderful blog about assessing the readiness of an individual for drops (link at the bottom).  Use discernment when deciding to learn aggressive drops and ESPECIALLY when to teach them to others, specifically children with their proportionally large developing domes.  They aren’t party tricks friends!

2:  Neck Engagement – Embrace the Jabba Chin

One of the factors with whiplash was related to seatbelts restricting torso mobility which resulted in the neck taking more force than desired.  If you are engaged in your core for a drop, but your head is loose like a bobble head doll, then your neck is in danger!  When executing drops, it is important to have your neck engaged along with the rest of you.

The Jabba Chin is the practice of engaging your neck so that your chin drops and pulls in just enough to feel a little bit of pressure on your windpipe.  Your jaw should not be clenched.  Don’t give yourself a genuine double or triple chin, because we will still want to look sexy while we do things.  Keep your neck position neutral during the drop and wait to fully extend or arch until the end.

3:  Train Both Sides

Your bodies ability to absorb shock appropriately depends a lot on having a balanced muscular system.  If you constantly only train one side, then your body will lose its ability to evenly react to force and will make you prone to injury during those critical moments.  I know some people do not drop on their offside for safety, which is not the point I want to make here.  Aerialists need to be able to climb on both sides, invert on both sides, hip key on both sides, meat hook on both side… All your aerial foundations should be as ambidextrous as possible so your body is balanced.

4:  Coordinated Engagement Practice

The key to good execution isn’t just tensing all your muscles at once.  We need to make sure we are engaging muscles in the correct order and with the right amount of tension, because if we do not it will increase mechanical stress and pain of what we are trying to accomplish.  Aerial is hard enough, no need to make it harder by over engaging, like with clenching your jaw for any reason or being too tight when attempting beats.

There could also be a different type of engagement needed for certain things.  For some drops, it is important to engage the abdominals by ‘pushing out’ to protect the ribs instead of ‘pulling in’.  Practicing drills like scorpion/sacrum falls will give the body a chance to learn how to fall and engage in the appropriate order to make bigger drops easier and more intuitive.

5:  When in Doubt, Walk it Out

Pro Tip:  The first time you do a drop you should always have doubt.  Meaning that the first time you try a drop you need to walk through the exit/drop instead of just going for it.  Your body has never done the trick and cannot understand what will happen.  Having a method to walk out of a drop is important because it teaches the body what to expect.  Being able to anticipate what will happen helps the body engage in the correct way to protect itself.  Much like the driver of the car being able to prepare for impact better than the passenger, you need to understand what is coming before you do a drop “full out”.  You don’t want to do a drop as a passenger, you need to be the driver.   This is even more important if you are attempting a drop that has a direction change, lest your head channel its inner pinball machine.

6:  Avoid Drops When Sore

Another way the body will lose its ability to absorb shock is when it is fatigued.  If you have been overtraining and are sore, then your muscles will not be able to support you like they would on days where you feel like a spry young pup.  Save your drops training for the days that your body can handle it safely.

7:  Designated Drop Equipment

Where possible, try to have a rigging point set up with equipment that is drop friendly.  Put a stretchy fabric up or have a point that has a bungee pack on it.  When learning any skill, repetition is key to mastery, but repeating aggressive drops can be daunting and painful.  Having a set piece of equipment that helps mitigate the stress when practicing is helpful on the body.

8:  Learn Drops with Coaches

While this is not a conclusion being made from the analysis on the whiplash data, this is of equal importance. Recently Brandon Scott, an accomplished aerialist, published a rant on the dangers of learning from Instagram.  I really loved what he had to say:

“Drops are the flashiest part of aerial. They are dynamic and exciting, their impact makes them almost necessary for the climax of an act, and when they are done right, they are just plain fun to do!!”

But did you catch that caveat? ‘When they are done RIGHT’. There is a large range of how difficult or technical drops can be. But at any level, drops are part of what makes aerial dangerous. While ‘death defying’ may be used as a descriptor to pull in an audience, we as aerialists need not consider death, let alone defy it, if we have all the information and preparation for safe execution.” -Brandon Scott

Preach Brandon, preach!

Good aerial instructors will give students the information they need to successfully execute a drop without injury.  A lot of times success is achieved through a series of progressions that aren’t ever shown during a performance or on an Instagram video.

Drops will forever be a huge part of aerial and they are a wonderful tool, but aerialists need to take the time to learn them safely and appropriately.  Hopefully the content of this blog will help you in your endeavors to gain more information and help you do amazing things more safely!

 

Congratulations!  You made it to the end!  Share your thoughts below!

 

Resources:

https://treatmentforwhiplash.com
https://www.lifemark.ca/blog-post/understanding-whiplash
http://www.laurawitwer.com/2018/04/11/pardon-sir-madam-not-ready-drop/