The Importance of Groping in the Dark: Part I

A 2-part blog by McKell Anderson.

When it comes to the aerial and circus industry, there is a giant push for safety, which is terrific! A big thing that has come up is training without an instructor is not a safe practice, specifically when attempting to learn things from the interweb. While I agree that having a qualified coach is essential to a safe aerial career, I think we place too little emphasis on the importance of practicing aerial WITHOUT your instructor.

Wait… What?!
Is she suggesting that we let beginning aerialists do ANYTHING unsupervised?!  That is crazy! Unacceptable!  This is nonsense!  People are going to DIE!

Take a deep breath, stay calm, and read all the way to the end before you write this off as rubbish.

Have you ever had a student (or are you the student) that can execute 90% of what has been taught in class, but then has the memory of a goldfish when asked to perform a skill weeks later?  Or have you ever sent an instructor a video saying, “Can we learn this in class pretty please?!” to get a reply from your kind, patient, wonderful instructor saying, “We have done this skill at least a dozen times in class before.”  There is a vast difference between learning skills in class and remembering them later.  I think this is a particularly common issue with complicated wraps used in more advanced skills.

Comic by Pony Poison
Comic by Pony Poison

This phenomenon is not unique to aerials. There is actual research to why stuff falls out of our brains and what we can do to prevent it. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel shed new light on how learning works from a variety of empirical studies done over the past decade.

SPOILER: People think they are learning and retaining well when they are not.

Going through this book has completely changed my approach to learning and teaching. If you do not have time to read it on your own, here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom that apply to aerial practice.

1. The true direction of learning
2. The importance of the struggle
3. The difference between content familiarity and subject mastery
4. The importance of practice variations


1 – Better Out than In!

“The single biggest idea is that we tend to focus on trying to get new learning into the brain and we do that through repetitive reading and practice. But what research tells us is that learning really happens when we try to get new knowledge and skills out of the brain.” – Make It Stick

Qualified coaches are the best source for putting good aerial knowledge into students’ heads through lesson plans, spotting, and supervised execution. The knowledge going into the brain, while an irrevocably important part of the process, is not where learning happens. Without a situation for an individual to recall the data input and turn it back into the output, long-term retention of learning does NOT occur.  If you spend three hours on Instagram watching videos, but never get up and try any of them, did you learn anything from all your aerial research endeavors? In this information age in which we live, getting information into our heads is all too easy. The learning is in the retrieval of the information you took in. You would have to watch it AND DO it.

Doesn’t doing things in class count as learning?

The short answer: No. Why not? Our in-class time is a valuable opportunity for exposure to new information but without strategic lesson design, not the place for retrieval. You recall the information too close to when it was learned. Timing is essential, and there has not been enough time for it to be moved from short-term storage in the brain to long-term storage in the brain. There needs to be enough time for the information to be processed in your fantastic head. The consolidation of new information can result in varying levels of remembering, and the ability to recall skills from long-term storage is the place where learning happens. As an aerialist you need to attend class, take in the lesson and try the skills with your instructor, sleep on it, forget it a bit, then TRY IT AGAIN to maximize learning.


2 – All Aboard the Struggle Bus!

One of the side effects of waiting long enough to forget before practicing a skill again is that it makes it hard. The longer the time that elapses, the harder it gets usually. Wait too long, and you must start all over with the data input. Unfortunately, the struggle is the process that produces the benefit you want.

“It’s a funny thing, but we, especially those of us who are in the teaching profession, think that the more clear and simple we can make new knowledge, the better it’ll be learned and remembered. As learners, when it’s clear, we think, boy, that’s great. I get that.

“In fact it’s the opposite that is true, that when you have to struggle with the new knowledge a little bit, if you hear a lecture that’s very clear but it goes in a different sequence than the text you read, and you have to think about how to reconcile those — that way of engaging with the material enables you to get it to stick.” – Make It Stick

This is a difficult concept for me to swallow because of who I am as a person. I LOVE mapping things out in clear, concise ways. When a progression is organized linearly I get a satisfaction that I cannot describe! When teaching, I love having a lesson planned that sensibly guides students to their destination with as much ease as possible. I do not want them to get discouraged, be upset, or get confused. If I see a student struggling, I try to immediately step in to help. I want it to be simple, and the idea that I have been shortchanging students by making it TOO easy is giving me an identity crisis. I want students to succeed; however, short-term success can come at the expense of long-term learning.

Why is struggling important? This is where the book got very detailed into the functions of the brain, which I will botch if I try to break it down. The central concept describes how the brain retrieves memories and ideas. When we struggle and take the time to pull things out of deep forgotten places, it changes where and how the brain stores those ideas. When I thought about the aerial concepts that I understand like the back of my hand, I realized it was because I sat down and mapped out the theory on my own. I was given the pieces, but by assimilating them into the big picture is what embedded those concepts. This never resulted in my crying in class because it was hard, but the struggle of connecting things outside of class drove them into my mind forever.

Embrace the struggle. If you are in class learning a new skill, try to connect it to other things you know. Try to create relationships in the information that are not being PROVIDED for you. If you are a teacher, make a lesson plan that includes areas where students have to problem solve or remember. Since reading the book, I have made a habit of making students do what was taught the previous week without me saying or showing it again. This action alone has resulted in considerable improvements in student skill retention from week to week. The first week I tried it, it was ROUGH. It took almost ten minutes of precious class time for students to remember the full sequence. During the discussion, I wanted to jump up and show it to them quickly about a hundred times. The process of them figuring it out made it a sequence they haven’t forgotten since that recall exercise.

I made it through my identity crisis, but it wasn’t by abandoning all the lesson plans or careful progressions. I still use those when I teach and try to construct those as I learn. To facilitate more effortful learning, I now try to create opportunities for problem-solving. Sometimes I will show the final pose and give the class time to try and find different ways there, make them create a way to mimic it on the ground, or with a partner. Simple difficulty can be added by having them ask you questions about the skill WITHOUT actually speaking. Now I use my structure to show clear steps, but only after encouraging opportunities to make connections first. When the answers are provided after, the ‘AHA!’ seems a bit more resonant.

There is most definitely a balance between beneficial struggle and leaving class in tears. I challenge all aerialists to make sure that each practice involves a chunk of time where a battle is felt to a reasonable degree. Try a new way to get into something, even if it doesn’t work. Embrace frustration as your long-term learning companion.


 

Keep reading on our next blog post for points 3 & 4. 


 

 

 

 


 

What’s in a Warm-Up?

As a teacher, it’s really easy to get warm-up burnout.  As a student, sometimes it can be easy to think rolling on the floor stretching is a warm-up. Both sides can use more of the WHY involved behind the motions. If you know WHY you are warming up and what your GOALS are, they will be easier to meet. And hopefully this blog can help you find new, fun ways to meet those goals.

Bring on the HEAT

The first step of a warm-up is that it should elevate the body temperature to that next degree. If you are wearing a sweater when you start warm-up, you should want to take it off in the first 5-10 minutes of the warm-up. That means you need to BRING IT!

Cardio work is the easiest and sure-fire way to get everyone in class warm, but it doesn’t always have to be cardio. You can use yoga or Pilates, or something along that vain as well AS LONG AS IT IS GETTING THE CHEEKS PINK. When people are worn out from cardio, I hear the breathing get heavier, so I know that they are working, but with non-aerobic work, you won’t necessarily hear the breath change. Instead, you can look at the cheeks around you (on the face silly!) and look for the flush that comes when you are working hard. In yoga or other non-aerobic exercises, it may take more TIME to arrive in the warm-up state. For example, in a ballet class, you may prepare the legs for about 30-45 minutes before you demand them to jump and leap. Be prepared to allow all the time necessary for your warm-up to take people from cold->ready.

DO IT WITH PURPOSE

While you are doing this, use the time to teach other principles of the body. For example, while ballerinas are getting their legs and feet warmed up, they are not thinking “This is warm-up, and I can check out until the jumping happens.” No! Those very first plies and tendus of the workout teach alignment. Going slow helps prepare for setting up body pathways and habits so that when the heat is on, those degages can happen fast and fierce.

For aerial, that might look like a mock pull-up. It’s a little hard to do this progressively with with just pulling down on air, but just going through the motion is valuable as it sets up the body for knowing where it is supposed to be in space.

THE WHY

Why are we so interested that the body temperature goes up? Well, have you ever tried to stretch a cold muscle? If you have, then you intuitively know that it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere, but after that heat comes, that muscle is much more prepared to lengthen. When we are cold, the blood is not circulating as much to our extremities and our bodies are more in conservation mode. (If you suffer from cold hands, you may want to really up your game in warm-up until you have warm hands so that you know the blood is in full circulation mode.)

When our blood is circulating more, it is carrying oxygen and nutrients to our muscles to help everything function better, or so I’ve read. I can attest to the feeling, that’s for sure! Warm muscles = happy, ready-to-work muscles.

Care for the Body Parts that will be in High Demand

For our aerial classes, the main thing that we need to prepare is the shoulders because we are sure to use them. There is no way to let them check out when you are in climbing mode. But, it’s also good to give attention to other parts of the body. If you have a specific target area for that workout, be sure to target that especially! Example: If you are going to be doing splits in your double footlocks, well, you need to warm up your splits, etc.

Nerve Care

Nerve Flossing has recently completely changed my universe. I used to suffer from chronically stretching my hamstrings and not getting anywhere. Then, I took a course from Cirque Physio. Apparently, my nerves were totally stuck, because when they got unstuck, my whole world changed. So, of course, I’m passing on the tricks of the trade to my students. In the following warm-up video, we are focusing on nerve flossing for the legs to help improve everyone’s pike position. Then, we focus on the ulnar nerve stretch to check in and see if anyone was tight there. All these exercises came from the courses by Cirque Physio, which I highly recommend. Check out the courses: Click here to visit Cirque Physio.

Peanut Rolling/Self-Massage

Before I was inspired by Cirque Physio to buy some peanuts, I lived on my foam roller. Both are incredible tools for getting muscles more ooey gooey and supple. When you first start rolling, the pressure might hurt, but soon, you’ll toughen up and get addicted!

For me, rolling replaces where I used to stretch. I still swing around my shoulders and dynamically stretch, and sometimes, especially on hot days, I may still add in brief stretches into the warm-up after the cardio portion, but in the colder months, getting on the rollers help to loosen up muscles and fascia in a way that stretching can’t.

In the video, you might see us rolling on our pec minor. This is an exercise that Cirque Physio highly recommends in order for the shoulder blade muscles in the back to function better. The pec minor tends to be tight and since it attaches to the scapula, it can sometimes get into a sibling fight with the muscles that attach to the other side of the scapula. Prevent the fight (and your bad rounded shoulder habits) by telling the pec minor to  back-off.

Rotator Cuff/Shoulder Engagement

The key thing here is that this is not an exhausting workout for your rotator cuff muscles (link is to a previous blog that includes a great video of what your rotator cuff muscles are). If they get worn out, they are not going to able to properly stabilize your shoulders and you actually put yourself MORE at risk for shoulder injury instead of less. But, with just the right amount of activation and engagement, you invite these suckers to fire on and help protect your shoulders. There are a large variety of exercises you can do here, and I will be covering some of my favorites in an upcoming blog. In this video, I have my students do: external rotation with the resistance bands, horizontal shoulder abduction, and then a lovely stretch sequence which helps to open up the shoulders

Everything in Moderation

With every aspect in warm-up, there’s a line where it’s too much. Too much cardio and you won’t have any energy left for a workout. Too much nerve flossing and your limbs will go numb. Too much muscle engagement and you’ll be fatigued even before the workout starts!

However, it’s really important to note that beginner students WILL get pretty worn down by warm-ups at first. They are highly likely to think they are too long. They might think they are doing things that aren’t really necessary (can’t I just climb that fabric now?), but stick with it! In the long run, they will learn something called appreciation. They will see (and notice!) the difference. Time and time again, I’ve watched people CHANGE their minds about warm-up. I known I have a warm-up convert when my students come in before a class or private lesson, etc, and they know exactly what to do to warm-up. They are over on the sideline doing Pilates hundreds, working their butt off like mad. And what completely wipes out a beginner doesn’t even phase them anymore because it’s been in every warm-up for the past 6 months.

There’s No Such Thing as “One Size Fits All” For Warm-Ups

Although aerial teachers do their best to find a “one size fits all” for warm-ups, I always tell my students that there is no perfect warm-up that I can give them. However, I am there to help them discover the perfect warm-up for their own body. I believe in perfect warm-ups for individual bodies, and my hope is that students will come early to class and continue side-line warm-up throughout class until they feel like they are in their peak condition for that day for that class. Yes, I have high expectations. It’s what makes me a good coach. :)

And while not every student comes early to class, I do see students going rogue in my warm-ups which makes me really HAPPY because they are learning that they need to take responsibility for their own bodies and listen to the needs of their bodies. I always tell the story of how I got injured and therefore, I need XYZ to make my shoulder move. If I relied on a “generic” warm-up, I wouldn’t have the best workouts because my shoulder needs more care to prevent stiffness (which I’ll get so bad I can’t sleep if I don’t warm up or cool down properly)! So, I have to independently add in stuff before or during class so ensure my own self-care. Everyone will have their thing — certain tight spots, etc, that needs extra attention and it’s important that individual needs are addressed. There’s NEVER enough time to do it all or do it perfectly, but the best thing we can do is educate. The rest is up the students to step up and take responsibility!

This video shows an example of a 30 minute warm-up which is included in a 90 minute class. Enjoy!

 

 

Balancing Teaching and Self Part II: Your Own Training Time

If you are an aerial teacher, there comes a point where your priorities shift from your own development to that of developing other people. But, most of us always have a higher place we want to be when it comes to our bodies. Just because you are a teacher does not mean the work of your own body is done. This is not ballet where the teacher is assumed retired and done dancing now that they teach. A circus life never ends. Never retires. You will forever have a higher vision of where your body could take you. It’s why you started this journey in the first place, right?

As for fitting in your own training time, it must be done! And it can be HARD. In fact, I am writing this to preach to myself because I am currently skipping my own training time to write this article. I was simply demotivated to work out, and I felt like writing instead. I am hoping to uncover some hidden secrets as I write out my thoughts. If nothing else, I’ll feel like a total hypocrite if I don’t take my own advice. So telling you to work out will make me work out.  haha!

First, decide which camp you are in: Do you need a separate day for your own training apart from your teaching days OR do you need to stay late and bust out a workout after your teaching hours? If you want to optimize the time in your life, it makes sense to workout on the days that you are already at the studio, plus warm from teaching class (or at least, quazi-warm). If you feel too tired or demotivated after teaching to do your own workouts, either push through anyway (you’ll get that second wind!) or come back another day.

For myself, I find that my need for days away from the studio supersedes my need for days devoted to my own training, so I have decided that I will self-train on my teaching days. That means I have 4 days of the week that I need to make it happen.

Now, you need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, guess what? You do have one — You have planned to fail. Pro-wrestlers and body-builders have a plan. They focus on a different muscle group each day. Personally, I like to set goals for aerial skills I’d like to achieve. I work on a different skill each day which ends up working a different part of my body each day. Here is a sample of my plan:

Mondays: I start with the weakest part of my body–my hamstrings. My goal is to be able to get a single knee hang on my left side. I can fake one, but I can’t do a real one with solid technique right now. I would also love to be able to do heel hangs on the trapeze or lyra. This takes a ton of hamstring strength. Even if I just do a few hamstring pulls on a resistance band, I feel like I’ve met my Monday training goal. Sometimes having a way to just do the minimum and go home is a way to make it work when you don’t feel like it.

Tuesdays: This is a day I focus on my grip. I already have hand-over-hand climbs, but I don’t yet have enough strength to simply hang on one arm with strong technique. Again, I can fake it, but it’s not safe. I want to be able to stay engaged in all the right ways while only holding with one hand. So on Tuesdays, I work on rope, doing a lot of momentum exercises and drills for grip strength.

Wednesdays: This is a day I like to focus on flexibility. After the birth of my second child two years ago, I completely lost my splits. It takes so much soak time to get more flexible; since I have the biggest time-block on Wednesdays, this is the day that I stretch. I use aerial yoga to incorporate the core and other strength exercises into my flexibility, so it’s not just passive stretching. It’s very active stretching for functional flexibility.

Thursdays:  Thursdays is the day that I teach some really fun choreography classes, so this is the day that my creative juices tend to be flowing a little bit more. I use this day to focus on creativity. Right now, I am working on a trapeze piece. It’s not my home-apparatus and so I’m not as comfortable on it, but it’s fun nevertheless. I have put some hard moves in the piece that I would like to work on (can anyone say elbow circles?!) and I’ve been having a fun time putting this together. If I don’t get enough time on Thursdays to work on my piece, then I will occasionally come in over the weekend so that I can keep up my work on the piece. Having a show to work towards always helps. That’s why I have shows at my studio every 3 months. It’s very motivating for me to continuously work on new work. :)

All the other days: One of the keys to flexibility is self-massage. This is one of the things I very much enjoy on my days off from aerial. I love rolling on foam rollers, sitting on heating pads while in a relaxing stretch, stretching out my hamstrings with lacrosse balls, etc. This kind of time is easy for me to get done. That’s why I’ve got my splits back on at least one side. Now if only my right leg would cooperate and my right splits would come back…

Keep in mind that sometimes you can accomplish your daily goals in bits & pieces. Maybe you don’t have a full hour to devote to your training. Maybe it’s only 15 minutes between classes. That is plenty of time to burn out your hamstrings in a quick knee hang drill. Or whatever the case may be for your body and the things you are working on. Your muscle can get worked in a matter of seconds, so take advantage of any time you have and push through.

“You will get where you are headed unless you do something different.” – No idea who said this quote, but I’ve always liked it. Where are you headed? Where are your habits taking you? Is it to the place you want your body to be? If not, change what you are doing. Make it so that what you are doing leads you to where you want to be. You will magically wake up one day more flexible and stronger…if the preceding 100 days were spent working for it.