Bringing The Brain to Class: Gymnastics, Neurodevelopment & Healing For Teachers & Parents
Neuroplasticity and brain development are big topics right now. It is great news that the brain and nervous system can change and repair. Positive changes in the brain and nervous system affect the way a person experiences life and also how they behave. Evidence that the brain can change started to come into science about 30 years ago. Before then, it was believed that physiology was destiny. It is now known that the brain changes throughout life based on our experiences, environments, and relationships. It is also known that what we are exposed to in childhood profoundly shape the brain and nervous system. Positive early development also creates lifelong resiliency – the ability to cope with stress and bounce back from difficulty.
With this current heyday of the brain, there are many systems and therapies that offer help. People often feel they need to seek out the latest technology or brand name to help their child. The good news is that, in the process of teaching gymnastics, we have always had access to the most powerful elements for brain development and change: movement, touch, relationship, and the potential to consciously create an environment where change can take place. Knowing this, coaches can have a greater respect for the impact their teaching has beyond the development of physical skills. While some kids might benefit from specialized help, coaches can know that they are a great resource, especially if they begin to consider designing classes that develop the brain as well as the body.
Underneath all behavior, performance, and perception are the brain and the nervous system. Whether it is walking on a beam, focusing on and understanding instructions, leaving the side of mom or dad, or putting together a complex series of skills, brain development underlies everything we do. Below are some ideas that will help you bring the brain to class and see the potential for healing and strengthening in everything you do. Using these techniques will help you build better gymnastics and greater confidence for all kids. It may allow you to draw in kids and parents that would otherwise fall through the cracks.
Gymnastics and the Brain
Brain development improves gymnastics abilities and gymnastics development improves the brain. Movement links to certain parts of the brain, increasing blood flow and, with repetition, builds up brain regions, strengthening the pathways that connect them and increasing myelination. It is easy to take for granted how many processes are involved even in simple things. Did you know that a cartwheel involves moving forwards, sideways, backwards, upside-down and includes all three splits, plus the visual, auditory, and sensory processing involved? If this learning can be made accessible to those who it doesn’t come naturally to, it reaches out into life in powerful ways. For example, the eye tracking, proprioception, motor planning, and left-right integration involved in jumping side to side can improve reading and comprehension.
It is especially important to consider brain development in gymnastics because of the age groups involved. Structures of the brain do not reach basic development until age ten to twelve and is not seen as matured until age twenty-five. This not only includes the students, but also many coaches and parents! You can also consider how this becomes relevant with the peak ages of your particular sport. This is significant because high levels require peak brain ability as well as body ability and because, after an athlete finishes their gymnastics career, we want the brain that was built to serve their life in general.
Healing, Shifting, or Catching up
Everyone’s brain can use some help from time to time. That may be one reason why movement feels so good. Natural brain development can be supported through movement for all kids, however it can also be used to help kids with deficits or imbalances to heal, shift and catch up. Bringing the brain to class involves two basic understandings: 1. Movement development can also develop the brain, and 2. The power of the environment and relationships.
How to Bring the Brain to Class
here is a list to consider in planning classes and workouts.
• Brain and Sensory Lens. Start to look at behavior and ability as clues for what is going on in the brain and nervous system. This changes everything and moves you from a perspective of reward and punishment to one of being able to hear the communication and fulfill the needs. Do we judge the child who pushes to be at the front of the line for their moral failing or bad parenting? Or do we consider that the brain region that manages priorities may not be developed enough to allow them to make that choice?
• Sensory Systems and Brain Regions. The proprioceptive system lets a person know where their body parts are in relation to each other. The vestibular system is responsible for balance. Together, these allow us to sense where we are in space and feel movement. These are highly involved in gymnastics and also are commonly underdeveloped. Kids who land on their knees or want to rough house with classmates are likely seeking proprioceptive input to orient themselves. You can add tunnels, vantage points, and safe crashing into your class – crashing actually helps with flight!
• Modes of Learning. We all have a preferred mode of learning – though seeing, hearing, or feeling. Try to find different ways to bring all three into your classes. Some may not listen well to verbal instructions, but will happily respond if they read it themselves. Cognitive understanding is another type of processing that some kids needs. Work to de-mystify by breaking down skills into parts and drills, or giving explanations that help them understand.
• Teach Both Sides. Brain lateralization means that the two sides of the brain are not exactly alike. Some skills and processes have primary location in one hemisphere, and yet abilities in general can be improved by integration of both sides of the brain and awareness of the whole body. While where each skill is located in someone’s brain is not as cut-and-dry as it once was imagined (is different for everyone), each hemisphere relates to the other half of the body. The right brain controls the left hand and moving the left hand activates the right brain. Learning the non-dominant side of basic skills can help develop processing ability in general and also will improve the dominant side tricks. It’s also great to have for dance.
• Sensory Integration. Any action involves a complex combination of both receptive (what comes in) and expressive (what comes out) skills. Even when the brain abilities are there, challenges can come when they are not accessed in the right combinations. You can put different tasks together (like jumping on a trampoline while talking about your favorite animal, or crawling through a maze after doing a flying jump). This helps integrate different parts of the brain allowing for learning more complex skills and more awareness in life in general.
• Movement Sequencing. Sequencing abilities can be developed through using obstacle courses, teaching dance choreography, and through using creative movement to help develop motor patterns. Obstacle courses can be used for more advanced kids as well and bring in the benefit of de-focusing: helping the child to not obsess on one element by moving on to the next one, allowing the non-dominant brain circuits to process and figure it out.
• Non-Gymnastics Elements. Add rhythm, music, improvisation, theater games, art, and writing. Teach breath and relaxation. Study how you can use your touch to better support them. All of these help integration, regulation, and also begin to bring in the power of emotion and relationship.
Attunement and the Gift of Engagement
The list above relates to patterning and integrating the brain through movement and they are all good tools to have. The most important element for brain development and change however is much more simple. It is the relationship between teacher and student.
Attunement means to come into harmony. It is noticing and responding to the cues of a child, seeing the communications as important, and responding. Engagement involves deep presence, vulnerability, and participation. We are relational beings and the brain and nervous system develop through connection with those around us. In creating an environment that will foster brain development, attunement and engagement are the most important elements. It is not the equipment, the music, or the skills. Though those are nice to have, the primary tool is YOU. One of the greatest gifts we can give a child is connection to a nervous system that is present, engaged, playful, curious, and calm. In this time of smart phones, busyness, and comparison, and generations of trauma, this sort of engagement is very rare.
While attunement and engagement are basic human abilities, they actually need to be taught and supported because they are not the norm. Younger teachers especially should be coached in how to be present and engaged – both moment to moment, and in long-term commitment. They may need support to know what it would mean to get interested and go deeper, rather than dabbling and just doing what is convenient.
Just as you will need to teach coaches the value of their presence and how what they teach relates to the brain, you will need to communicate value to parents as well. Some parents may come to class brain development on mind. They may understand that gymnastics can help their child with speech, focus, reading or self-regulation, but most will have no idea what is happening under the surface of class. Helping parents to see brain development will let them have more respect for the class and for the difficulty of what their child is working at.
It is common for parents and teachers to punish kids for the way their brains are working. These punishments often hinder the exact development that is needed to bring about the desired change. Parents may use gymnastics as a reward for good behavior or for good performance in school – help them to see gymnastics not as a reward, but as something that actually will facilitate the desired changed.
Gymnastics is the sport of the super-human and the deeply human. At its best, it is about respecting the needs of the body while at the same time leaning into the edge of what is possible for each individual. Considering brain development brings us in touch with both of the super-human and deeply human as it looks at what is needed, how to help, and creates a paradigm where more is possible than ever had been imagined before. More important than any of the science, if we have one job above all, it is to love them. The hope is that this information lets you know how powerful your love can be and gives you a few more ways to love your students well and care for them deeply. You will likely notice that, by bringing the brain to class, you build better gymnastics and better relationships.
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