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S1 Episode 3: Coaching Handbalance


Hi and welcome to our third episode of The Handstand Factory Handstandcast – a Podcast where Mikael Kristiansen and Emmet Louis talk all things handbalancing.

In this episode of our Handstandcast, Emmet and Mikael focus on not only coaching handbalancing but also the key elements that are important to being an effective coach in general.

The Handstandcast – Season 1 will air every week. Topics we’ll cover over the first season include the straight handstand, the mindset of handbalancing and coaching handstands, though to be honest we’re making it up as we go along, so who knows where it might go!

S1E3 – Coaching Handbalancing

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This podcast is brought to you by Handstand Factory, and is produced by Motion Impulse. To keep up with our weekly episodes, and help us spread the word, make sure to follow and subscribe to the Handstandcast wherever you listen to podcasts!

Love the podcast? We’re 100% coffee fuelled, so if you’d like to help keep us going you can easily support the Handstandcast by buying us a coffee here:

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Transcript of Episode 3: Coaching Handbalance

MK: Welcome back to the Handstand Cast, with myself, Mikael Kristiansen, and Emmet Louis.

EL: Welcome back to our second episode.  We are happy to be back as usual, not that we went anywhere really. We’re all just downing some coffee right now, so if you hear any slurping noises, that’s just Mikael being savage with his coffee.  I’m a bit daintier, myself, and take gentle sips.

MK: Stop being so civilized.

EL: Civilize the mind, but make the body savage…or some fitness nonsense like that.

MK: I think the only quote I actually like is the one that says: If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.  That strikes a lot of truth.

EL: It’s like summing up the core values of the inside tradition of Buddhism.  If you don’t know what the fuck is going on, you’re probably not paying attention.

Anyway, I suppose we should tell you what we’re up to.  We’re here with the Handstand Cast, once again, with our second episode.  Last week we kind of talked and rambled about what the handstand is to us, its context, and other things.

For our second episode, we’re going to talk about coaching.  How do we actually transmit information in a way that makes it practical to people, to be able to go from, “I am standing on my feet,” to “I’m standing on my hands, and not smashing my face into the floor”?

It’s a broad topic; we’ll probably have to come back to it a few times.  Hopefully we will get started on it, anyway.

it kind of ties into the theory – the ramble, not the theory – of what  we do in Handstand Factory.  If you have the course you’ll be able to understand a bit, have some context on that.

If you haven’t got the course, here’s my shameless plug: buy it, now!  Or else, Mikael starves and I have to feast upon his corpse.

Other than that, let’s get to it.  What kind of topics do you want to cover when talking about coaching?

MK: I find the entire idea of coaching, essentially, is transmission of information, doing it in a way where people can make something practical out of it.  Going from that definition, I think that first of all, you need to see who this person is that you’re trying to coach, and what that person needs.

When I started coaching, in the beginning I was teaching a little bit, some random workshops.  As I started getting interested in it- My first teaching work that I did was when I did Karate from around 14 to 20 something, as the assistant trainer.

EL: What you didn’t know is Mikael could kick your ass, if he chose to.

MK: I’d probably kick my own ass.

EL: MMA career starting soon, definitely.

MK: I’m going to fight myself, and lose.  Just like getting used to the context of being a teacher has been my way of life for a while.  Being a good teacher is something else entirely.  It’s more of a ‘people’ job than it is a numbers job, in general.  This is what gets to me with all these books on coaching, or life coaching, how to get rich, all this crap…it’s not necessarily crap, but they’re generalized rules that are supposed to apply, always.

But nothing applies always, hence: if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.  Nothing always applies, and that’s where it becomes both difficult and interesting for me when it comes to teaching.

EL: Anyone who’s done any coaching with me, or workshops, have probably noticed my favourite answer is ‘It depends.’ And it really does.  There is no one true thing, one true exercise, or direct path.  If there were, someone would have found it 200-300 years ago.

If you go back along the history of acrobatics, we can trace and follow the trail of acrobatic training in a semi formalized manner, back to 3000BC in China.  If there were a perfect way to do something, someone would have found it.  If there were a perfect technique, it would have been found…possibly hidden, but then disseminated at some point.

MK: The only real constant is you need to do something, of the thing you’re trying to achieve, or it’s not going to happen.  That’s taken for granted.  Speaking more specifically about handstand, or other line of skill coaching, the most important thing is actually knowing your subject matter, of course.

EL: One thing about subject matter I see as a mistake in all fields of coaching, not just handstands, but particularly so at the moment as it’s quite a new disciple: people are making the mistake of, I can do the skill so therefore I can teach the skill.

What you actually get is someone who can be good at the skill, who can do it for themselves.  If you’re a genetic match for this person in terms of being the same size, weight, age, training background, then following their advice to a T will probably get you there.

Most of the time, we are not the same person, unless we are twins.  It’s the difference between what makes a coach, and a performer, or someone who can perform the skill (not as an entertainment performer).

I probably wouldn’t want to learn boxing off Mike Tyson, but I would off of Cus D’Amato as a coach.

MK: I do think there’s something to be said for having the experience of the skill.  I can teach someone how to do back handsprings, though I’m not great at it myself.  What I can do better is say, this person knows how to back handspring pretty fucking good, they have a much larger understanding than me as they immersed themselves in that type of training for a longer period of time.  I do think that matters, but the thing with sharing information is it’s a lot about vocabulary and seeing people.

Who are you?  Where are you at?  How can we work with that?  Also more than anything is seeing the potential and limitations.  You have four hours a week to work on this; we need to be realistic about what you can do with those four hours a week, and instead of telling you you can’t get anything done, or have to work six days a week…it’s not relevant.  People usually have lives, and sacrificing everything for whatever practice they’re doing is usually not an option.  Some can, but if they can’t, that is part of the potential versus limitations, in where to set the practice at.

EL: You touch on two things there. One is what I call the 3 W’s.  Who am I speaking to, who is approaching me for coaching?  The advice I give to someone who is 45 and has 3 kids is very different to the advice I give to someone who is 16 and wants to go to circus school.  Different people, different context, different age.  Who’s talking to you?

Next, where do they want to go?  What are their aspirations with this skill?  It sets a realistic time frame to achieve things in.  It also sets whether a skill can be achieved or not.  If someone is 63 and wants to learn a one arm – so that’s who they are and what they want to do.  If they say they can only train one hour a week, we’ll just have to say sorry, you can’t do a one arm in that time frame, with your body type.  It’s just not going to happen.  Obviously this is an outlier, but it’s to give you an example.

Then we have the last W, of Where are they in relation to their goal?  Someone comes along, and if you’re speaking to them about all the concepts, how much do they actually understand about the skill?  What’s the closest approximation of the skill you want to do?  I want to do a handstand, but have never been upside down.  Well, then maybe we need to progress to a wall plank, or go all the way back to just a plank.  Where are you in relation to this, both mentally and physically, is a very important concept.

MK: There’s a couple of examples I always think about in my own training, the coaches I’ve had, the coaches I’ve seen around.  One parameter that’s seldom mentioned, and maybe because a lot of coaching is related to fitness, which is related to adhering to protocols and doing what you’re supposed to.  If you’re not, that means you’re making excuses.  If you don’t do it, it’s your own fault.  Sometimes, and I think Eric Helms wrote it in the Strength and Muscle Building Pyramid, or whatever it was, that it needs to stay interesting for the person doing it.

I think with practices like acrobatics and hand balancing, it’s even more important that you find it interesting.  The results come very slow, so you need to find it interesting.  Making it interesting for a person is of importance.

As he says in that book, if someone finds it a dread, they won’t necessarily quit, but on average, the likelihood that they’re doing what they should be, is much lower.  As a coach, you need to be able to modify and modulate that, so they still find it interesting.

Discipline does matter… I’ve seen it over the years on the internet, a general kind of blame game.  Yes, I get it, you can’t excuse yourself for everything, but fucking hell!  There are more things to it than: you should feel bad if you didn’t do your thing, because someone on the internet wrote ‘no excuses.’  You know what?  Fuck off.

EL: I think this is the thing.  If we look at what’s going on in fitness, and the history of the industry.  It’s intimately linked to Judeo Christian Anglican values of: you must work hard; you’ll get your reward later.  You must keep working hard to get the reward later.

That’s great as a concept…we won’t get into morality in this.

MK: An incidental tangent there, but when I read anthropology in university, there is a book called…I can’t remember what the actual work or name is.  I get lost.

Yeah, Process and Work.  It’s Max Weber who wrote that, right?  Anyway, it does-

EL: That was just our producer getting frustrated at us for not being able to read her sign.

MK: I tried to read her sign and I was really confused.  I apologize.

EL: We’re very high tech in our set up.

MK: We’re not speaking about anthropology anyways.

EL: Well it’s kind of straight into anthropology; coaching is a bit of an anthropological study into people and their mechanisms.  We’ll bully Mikael into talking about this later, as I know he’s got a lot of interesting ideas on it.

MK: It’s called The Protestant Ethic in the Spirit of Capitalism.  I think it’s called Max Weber.

EL: We need to build consistency with our training.  This is one of the key things I’ll drive home.  I would prefer someone to do a program that I knew was not efficient, not good on paper – if I knew they would stick to it.

Maybe it wasn’t physically or mentally challenging, or other stuff, but if I know they will do this program, and 95% of the time, that is much better than a program that is the best program for this person based on current assessment systems that would 100% guarantee results – but they only do it 70% of the time.

What you deal with as a coach more than anything else, is peoples’ frustration with the skill.  Until there’s a certain switch point, which I try to coach people towards, which is very different person to person, you have to understand something about handstands.  You go in, you do the work.  Some days are a bit better, most days are kind of boring.  I have a metric I tell people.

Out of ten workouts, one will be amazing.  You will be on fire: new things, everything feels better, longer hold times.  It’ll be great.

Then 2-3, almost 30% of your workouts out of 10 will be shit.  On paper you might get your hold times, but they’ll feel terrible, heavy.  You’ll be distracted, unable to concentrate, whatever.

Then the other 6-7 of that 10, you’ll go in, nothing remarkable happens.  You won’t even remember them, as nothing remarkable happens.  It’s like your bus ride to school, or work.  You get on the bus, you ride to school, you don’t even remember what happened, when the dog got on the bus.  That kind of thing.

But those ones put the money in the bank, so to speak, and slowly get better over time.  Trying to coach away from expecting a peak experience in your training sessions, and more just, this is what I do.

Why do you train handstands?  I just do.  Why do you train?  I just do.

 MK: One thing I thought about before.  Teachers have various styles, different experiences, and so on.  Speaking about that thing of having an interesting time when doing it; the first coach I had was Cory Tabino, a guy from the states who did ENC, the circus school in Montreal.  He did aerial straps actually, but didn’t like that, so did hand balancing himself, despite being in school.

He ended up quitting and became a hand balancer.  He performed for many years, and I still think he does.  Anyway, what he was really good at as a teacher, and of course he taught me the basic technique things I needed to know, and saw I was taking it rather fast, but he was just making it interesting to train.  It was literally fun to train with him; I had a good time.  I think the fact that it got the associations of actually enjoying the activity itself, and obviously I was enjoying learning, but it was something I was looking forward to doing.

I think being able to bring that quality forwards is possibly more interesting or important than anything else. It becomes something you really look forward to doing, you kind of almost have to stop yourself from doing it, as you know you can’t do too much of a thing either.  That’s kind of when you find it.

There’s another teacher I always think of.  Most of the time, in most disciplines, it’s good to have a large wide understanding of how it works.  Having been able to do it yourself is a large plus, at least to some degree.  The teacher for Teeterboard in Stockholm, the school I did, is Jan Rosén and I have had conversations about this.  He teaches teeterboard, which is basically the plank…what’s it called, that system?

EL:  It’s basically a see-saw.  One person jumps on one end, and they get momentum-

MK: and just do crazy flips and all that.  The thing is, Jan didn’t do it himself, nor did he do trampoline.  He told me his daughter did trampoline and gymnastics, and he got interested in that.  He learned about the coaching process through doing courses and so on.  Fast forward a bunch of years, and he’s the best and most sought out trainer in teeterboard in the world.  It’s fascinating, because one thing he told me, and I asked him, how can you have this understanding of people not only doing complex stuff in the air, but literally being in mortal danger at every jump if not doing everything correctly?

He told me one of the things that made him a good teacher is he had worked with some of the absolute best in the world…and some of the absolute worst.

It says a lot; it has to do with experience, rather than starting out by teaching a million billion people before you have something that you feel is solid and confident.  That is something he is able to bring across.  He’s been able to work with all these different body types, ability levels and so on that’s led him to have a very wide understanding of what’s going on within these peoples’ minds and bodies, after doing things he has never experienced before.  That’s an exception of the rule.

EL: I think what you’ll find a lot at a high level in the gymnastics world is peoples’ parents have been watching the club since the person was put in the club at age 4-5.  They take the coaching certs just to help out, since we always need more bodies in gymnastics.  Suddenly, they’re assistant head coach of this club and coaching.  My kid has graduated gymnastics and is well past it, but I’m still there as a coach, 15 years later, telling people, “Okay, let’s do a double.”

It shows that coaching is a separate skillset, from doing.  While you do need to understand the doing, it definitely helps, you can’t confuse the doing – how you do it – with a generalized template for how peoples’ bodies should do it.

MK: Generalized templates; I think that is one of the large fallacies, too.  I find it’s more interesting, and I’m definitely not an expert on anatomy, but looking into a few of the tidbits i’ve literally read off the internet, various articles or wikipedia, is how much difference there is in bone structure, muscle insertions, fused on certain people.  There’s so much stuff going on that you can’t really know about when you meet a person, which may or may not contribute to levels of talent and what not.  The fact that I can’t assume, and this is very relevant to handstand coaching, that the way I do things is going to work out perfectly well for another person.  This is where I think circus teaching and coaching, and fails is the wrong words, but it needs to have its methods questioned.

One of the reasons for that is, if you pass an audition for circus school, and you work with the coaches there, you will be one of the people that will have the attributes that the coaches will be looking for.  Since you have them, it also means that coaches who work there will mainly be working with types of bodies that function well for this sort of discipline-

EL: Or ones they know how to train.  The types of bodies they know well how to coach.  I had two students a while ago, Josh and Morgan.  They both hand balance.  They started training with me, and would not have been able to get into a single circus school.  Maybe a prep program here or there, but not into any degree program.  But I knew how to coach them.  They worked their asses off because they really wanted it, and no hesitation in that.  A bit of brotherly rivalry…but at the end of 2 years they were better than some people coming out of a 3 year degree in hand balance.

So maybe it was luck, they’re very physically talented and I’m not claiming my own personal success in that.  I just guided them through it.  But the circus program would have said no, not these people, because they just assess what their bodies could do at that time, not what their bodies were capable of learning and how fast they could learn it.

There’s this bias thing that leads in.  We were talking about it yesterday; one of our friends who’s a hand balancer went to get coached by a very well known hand balance coach.  They went and did some privates.  The guy said, Put your hands over your head, to see his shoulder flexion.  He took one look at his shoulders and said no, shoulders not good.  He hadn’t seen; this guy is a machine on his hands, so my man was like, hold on.  He kicked up into a Svetcha, which is a one arm handstand with legs together, very hard, held it on the floor for 15-20 seconds.  Then the man was like, Ok I’ll coach you.  But based off of one singular physical attribute, this guy had decided it was not ideal.  He just was like, no, not going to coach you…until he saw this guy is very capable.  Okay I’ll coach him, I just put a little bit of my stamp on him.

MK: What fascinates me, which we talked about in the first episode, is technique being a artificial concept.  It’s an idea we found that we kind of enforce on the body to make a certain aesthetic or technique or give certain options to the body though artificial technique.  And it works, obviously, but it’s very important to remember it’s an artificial thing, an idea.  It’s a construct, and as we said in the first episode: ask a child to kick up and they won’t be keeping a rock solid, super straight line.  Who is carrying, who is using the upper back and trapezius pushing up super high when you carry an object overhead?  No one ever does.  You’re using the muscles and bodies in a new way, that is very constructed.  It’s important to remember that we’re trying to adapt the body to fit a certain technique.  This is totally fair; there’s nothing wrong with it.

At some point you need to adapt the technique to your body as well, that is where taking the technique too seriously and adhering too strongly to it might get you to, hey this thing doesn’t really work for me.  What do you do then, just admit defeat and say, I’m not fit for this?  Or might you just modify it?  Find that this is actually something that functions for me.

 EL: This is where the coach comes in in some ways.  It depends on the level that people are coaching, but we would understand the technique to the point where we would go, this is your body and phenotype, this is where you fit into the technique.  Now find your version of that technique, not just say, this is how it must be done.
Particularly for people who want to do this as a hobby.  I want to balance on my hands, do a 30 second handstand, but have no aspirations of doing a one arm.  Well then, let’s get you to the point where you can balance on your hands, then figure it out from there.  It doesn’t need to be perfect.

It’s another thing I’ve dealt with a lot.  People who have had meniscus issues in their shoulders, or labrum – sorry, labrum issues in the shoulders.  This is generally from Crossfit.  Most people with labrum issues came from Crossfit.  It’s no indictment of Crossfit; we’re not throwing shade or anything.

But maybe they’re not going to be able to perfectly flex their shoulders overhead.  They can still balance in a pain free manner, and learning how to adapt to these people is one of the biggest things I learned while I was coaching.  If people have injury imposed limitations, not even structural ones where the bodies are certain shapes, then how do you take the principle of that technique and apply it to the body, and not the actual imitation of the aesthetic of the technique?

It’s a complicated matter.  It turns out, and I suppose this is a bit of the internetification of things.  Things become binary.  It’s not just like there is good technique, and bad technique.  There is a range in there of good and bad.

MK: There’s this mentality around this.  Why is there a need to be exactly like this?

A friend of mine is an aerialist and contortionist that lives in Sweden.  She also does hand balancing.  She trained under Natalia Pozdnyakova.  What she said, which I find very fascinating, was that Natalia is very good at seeing what fits your body type, professionally speaking.  What’s very cool about that is she’s trained some of the best hand balancers in the world.  Consistently, a lot of the best people in the world come out of there.

Looking at a few of the people that have been coached by her: they don’t do the same tricks, they don’t do the same stuff at all.  Many of them have very distinct styles.  I’m sure all of them can do a Svetcha, which is a basic when you’re at a high level.  But not all of them are performing that, nor aiming to do the same things.  That’s an interesting way of coaching.  Even on the highest level, you can gear a person towards being able to specialize in a certain vocabulary.  When we speak about the artistic side of things, if in the end, everyone does exactly the same vocabulary of moves – as there are only a few anyway – it’s just going to end up a snorefest.

The fact that having that level of thinking on a very high level is even more important to have with people who just want to do it for fun.  Even though I’m a professional hand balancer, why do I need to judge someone else that just wants to play on their hands?

Of course, if someone says I want to get into circus school next year, then you better point your damn toes.  That’s not to please me, I just know that the Federation, or people who look at you for the audition, have criteria.  So I will give more focus on that, and it’s not to say I won’t tell the person that just wants to do a handstand that they shouldn’t point their toes.  Sure they should.  But it’s just a matter of how much emphasis would I put on one thing versus another.  It just depends on a person’s goals.  If someone tells me, my goal is to do a one cane routine one day, then we’re going to be pretty damn specific about your one arm placements.  I won’t allow the person to wobble around in the shoulder, or move in ways that I would allow someone who just wants to stand on one arm one day and doesn’t really care that much.  Well fair enough, you don’t need to be as picky on it.  You can have this range.

In coaching, that is a very important thing.  That has to do with seeing who, seeing what, and seeing where.

EL: Just to segue, I’d like to move onto cueing.  I always found cueing one of the most interesting sides of coaching.  For me, there’s an interesting style of cueing: I give people cues and technique things, on two levels.  One that I want them to implement immediately, like, “your elbow is bending, lock your elbow.”

But then I also have cues related to sensations and balance and other stuff.  It’s a bit soft, a bit harder to identify.  It could be an internal cue that I tell the person.  It’s not that I expect them to be able to do it now and immediately on the spot.  When they happen to do it by mistake, they’re able to identify it.  They have a terminology to go, that’s what Emmet meant by ‘when you feel the weight fall into the structure in the balance point, you release the fingers.’

So it’s moments that would happen in a technique.  That’s when people go, “Oh, I can identify that moment.” It’s been cued, so they can react to it.

It’s interesting because if it’s always the same cues, why doesn’t everybody get all the same results?

If you’re trying to build a sensory lexicon, which is what we’re trying to do in balance, then we have to be able to explain an experience in some ways, and what to do when that experience happens.

MK: I had that when I taught in circus schools, where I had the same students day in and day out for a longer period of time.  They’re working on rather advanced stuff.  I can see the person hesitating.  I can experience their mind state, and just say, the reason you fell now is because all your attention was in your left leg when you tried to bend it, or straighten it.  It’s as if that takes sole attention of the entire body.  Then you’re not focusing on your hand or shoulder any longer.

Being able to convey that experience of hesitation easily leading to falling, because suddenly your attention shifts somewhere else.

I’m going to open my legs, after I kick up to handstand… You can see the person already thinking about opening the legs so much they spend like 7 tries kicking up into handstand.  It’s a very typical thing, this mental state you’re in when you’re doing these things.

Being able to guide people through the experiential state they’re experiencing as they do it, is very different than just doing technical cueing like, straighten your legs, point your toes, push your shoulders high, put you leg there, and so on.  These are more linear, copy paste cues.

EL: To get back onto coaching, you have what are like Copy-Paste coaches.  They know the words, and they say them.  They repeat some other coach cues they got over the years from other stuff.  That becomes a blanket statement, and this is how something becomes formalized.  “This is how you must do it.”  Why? Everyone says they same cues they received.  But maybe the cueing needs to be more specific to the person.

You can get people better, faster, by even knowing how they use language.  Do they talk about feeling?  Do they need to understand the skill?  Is someone scared, who just needs a bit of gentle handling?  Are they slacking, so you just need to give out to them?

With these kinds of things, it’s like telling someone who doesn’t know about hard, “I want you to squeeze harder.”  But can we teach them what a hard squeeze is. somehow?  We give them something approximate then get them to replicate it.  It’s this idea of cueing in coaching: how do we speak to what’s in front of us?  How do we take our generalized principle or technique and give it to someone in a way that they can digest and take it in, digest it and actually output it?

MK: People teach differently, and that’s ultimately a good thing.  Certain words are going to get you, and certain others won’t.  it might be a timing thing, a person thing.  There’s loads of variables to that.  Essentially what i try to do, and it’s an ongoing process, but find out how I experience this.  Then I see someone trying, I give them feedback.  Then they give me feedback on how the feedback is, and you build a larger library on how this works.

When you work online with the things we’re doing with Handstand Factory, and both of us have been online coaching for a long time, it’s an interesting experience.

I think the first year and a half, I decided, I don’t know if I can teach someone online, so I did it for free.  I just wasn’t sure.

For me it was really important to know, can I give you results?  I just don’t know.  I had to figure that out first, so I tried for a while.  I saw that that was getting decent results.

In the coaching process, it’s easy to imagine an attribute, the coaching itself.  But I also started understanding over time, when a person pays you for coaching, or does coaching, they’re also paying to make sure that themselves are going to do the job, because there will be expectation on them.

They just put a substantial amount of money into it.  They know someone is sitting and waiting for your video or results or effort.  The fact that this is an enormous reason, again, to get that consistency.

Consistency is more important than what exercises you do, as long as they’re at least relevant.  Seeing that there are some types of cueing that work, and how it’s different as well.

My in-person coaching has been influenced by the online, and vice versa.  Getting a higher degree of input on what I’m doing to a person.  I think that perhaps the most important thing of all, especially when it comes to online work, is being fucking honest with clients.

I can’t guarantee anything whatsoever.  It pisses me off when you get those fucking, learn this or that in ten minutes.  It’s nonsense, you can’t guarantee anything.  You can offer something, and the person can work, and you can see.  The variables of the bodies, the variables of the time schedules – all these influence whether or not it works.  I think it’s very important-

EL: -To have that level of honesty, or something.  For my own experiences in online coaching: online coaching has now, completely changed how I train people in person.  I would have learned how to coach handstands in circus school, mostly.  That was mainly from watching, or as a base, since they have to be coached for handstands and I learned a lot that way.

But the training I did in circus school was spot for position, literally just put the person into the position I want, and move the body around.  Now, I’ve stopped spotting in real life, from my experiences in online coaching.  I only spot for safety, or if someone is having like..contortion handstands, I’ll squash people into the right shape.  You just have to squash them until their bodies get used to it.

But for one arms and other stuff, I just eliminated it.  I realized there’s a hierarchy to developing the sensory balance mechanism that needs to be developed before the one arm will actually develop.  If you’re actually spotting and holding them in the one arm position, they’re not learning anything.

MK: I’m very skeptical to the entire spotting business myself.

EL: When I first started coaching, people wanted to learn handstands.  I didn’t know if I could coach a handstand online.  I was like yeah, I could probably teach you the basics, some wall drills.  Then I had to level up.  How do I actually teach?

If we’re in person, you can try ten drills at once, in a 20-30 minute session.  Try this, try this, til you find one that works.  Whereas if you’re training people online, you give them a drill, but in the time they get a video back to you, it might be 3-4 days later.

What can we do?  And Mikael’s kicking my table again…

It came into investigating constraints.  Can we settle the situation to this person that we described, that is built on what they can already do, which is maybe just beyond what they could already do, but there’s only one way to solve the problem.  This is where a lot of the balance cueing comes in.  There’s only way to balance, in the way we want, to give you the experience that I’ve described.

Once that happens, I figured out, hold on, I can start applying constraints.  I can use drills at the early stage that build up the motor pathways and the sensory mechanism that I want.  As they get more and more advanced, these things come into play sooner and sooner.  It’s kind of like a lot of what we did in the syllabus for Handstand Factory.

It’s our combined knowledge of these things, but we think very similarly on the technical side anyway.  But it’s built on this idea that you’re coming in as a beginner, never done a handstand.  From day one of your training, you’re building the things that become important for a one arm.  It’s important to have the idea of: this is what we want to do, these are the constraints, this is the end goal.  I think of pruning a tree – we’re not giving options, we’re removing options.

This is one of the most important things that came from online coaching.  It made my real life coaching better.  I have a better idea, because when you only get video, you have to be able to spot things faster.

MK: One of the things that I usually think of is more about principles than exact techniques, in a sense.  I feel the principles are more important in one way.  Of course, technical specificity needs to be there as well, but if you’re…I’ve always tried to distill down to the most important things that are always present as you’re doing this kind of practice.
And, what stuff is fluff?  The fluff can also be very important, but some things will be instrumental.

Let’s say you’re going to work on your movements in handstands.  In two arm, you’re going to move your legs.  If you can’t balance a straight handstands, or rebalance from the fingers or shoulders in a subtle way, then you’re not going to be able to do this other procedure on top of it, either.  It’s not going to happen.

If there’s no pressure through your shoulders, your shoulders will sink.  This will be a constant.  It’s not a discussion; it’s just physics.

EL: On that shoulder sinking – it’s one of the things you see a lot when coaching chest to wall handstands.  You see someone who can hold a 60…90….3 minute chest to wall handstand.  But you see the point where the shoulders sink, and then they might re-establish balance, but they might not.

Once you can spot this as a coach, and see the shoulder has sunk or gone to the side a centimetre, then you know they’ve actually lost balance on the handstand.  It might be 30 seconds into their hold.

This person might think, oh I can hold, so why can’t I balance longer than 20 seconds on the ground?  Well, your chest to wall….  These small details of what goes into coaching enables you to give a better realistic expectation to the person.  Oh, that’s why it happened, this is why you’re losing it, that’s why you shouldn’t be frustrated.

MK: Frustration is a large one, we’ll speak more properly on that in another episode-

EL: The Frustration Cast – The Fury Cast!

To speak on frustration, and because Elise our producer is in the room, she was coaching with Mikael for some time.  She learned the basics from me, but was doing coaching with Mikael.  She gets a little frustrated, every now and then in training.  Mikael gave her some of the most contrary advice that any handstand coach would give, but it worked, and took her handstands to really the next level.  He said stop training handstands, and all you’re going to do is warm up the wrists quickly, or not even bother, and just kick up to handstand and see what happens.  If you feel like going on, just go and do some more.  If you don’t then just don’t.

MK: She, at that point, got frustrated by doing sessions.  It was hard to find time for the sessions, and that adds to the frustration.  Like, I’m doing coaching now, I can’t do the work I should be doing, I feel bad.  No, just stop doing sessions and mess around a bit.  That’s better.  It’s something you can do more often and get consistency in, better than a program.

EL: A good reason of a person versus a program.  The program would have said, do endless rounds of conditioning.  That is just not going to work.

MK: If it’s not something that will work for the person, it’s better to find the thing that can add onto it.

EL: It was one of the moments for me when I was like, this guy really knows what he’s talking about.  He’s not just puling it out of his ass.

Cool.  Let’s segue onto: when should you start coaching handstands?  We’re probably going to rustle some jimmies now.

MK: This is kind of….well it doesn’t really fit, but one thing I started thinking myself, is when you start not agreeing with the teachers you’ve had.  That’s at least my experience, but then again, I came from the circus school way of things.

But the main thing is find out whether or not you’re actually interested in the subject matter.  You’ll be spending a lot of time on it, spending a lot of time finding out how it works, and it’s not just a gimmick.  Yes, we all need to find a way to make a living, that’s totally fair.  But if you want to put a lot of yourself into it, this will lead you to being able to put a lot of yourself into it.  That’s why you can perhaps offer something that is genuine and good.  I think there’s no specific time frame, but it’s important to have a good understanding.

My analogy for this is, you don’t start to teach guitar lessons just because you learned how to play a scale.  You learned Wonderwall, suddenly you’re offering classes.  It’s important to have a very solid sense of what is going on, but more importantly, a solid interest and passion, with something to bring.

EL: Going back to the music thing, knowing to play a few songs is okay, you can teach people to play a few songs.  But to become a real teacher of a guitar or instrument, you need to have the theory behind it.  Do we know the theory?  Do we know why we use these cues?  It’s not that cues are bad.  A misapplied cue or drill can be bad, but I’m telling a person to do this, because I understand if I give this cue to this person, I will get this effect.  That’s the level of thinking you want, rather than: ok, we’re doing handstands, ok, kick up, ok, now five sets of chest to wall, ok…

Don’t get me wrong, I understand if you’re doing group classes, helping people scale to appropriate levels.

MK: Maybe one very important thing, since coaching online is a big thing, is it’s probably good to have in person experience, before one does online work.  Online work is more about prescribing a certain..basically, numbers.  While the personal relationship things we spoke about, and getting to know the person, is less intuitive to do in that context than in person.

You do get more experience in that time than you do online.  I think in general it’s a good thing to start locally with that, so you have a good understanding of-

EL: I have a lot of people who want to be coaches, or have, over the years approach me.  I basically say you shouldn’t be online coaching until you have at least a thousand hours of in person coaching.  I know it sounds like a lot, but work it out, it’s 20 hours a week, not a full time job.  But you’ll see many people go, I can do something, DM me for coaching.  Some people are good, some people develop…it’s a bit of a buyer beware.

That leads into our next question; how do you pick a good handstand coach?

MK: I guess someone you find interesting, whose words you like, I guess.  Personality is a lot of it.  Some people want someone who just gives them loads of numbers.  I want to train hard and do the exact things on the paper. When I’ve done so, I feel good.  If those numbers are correct, then the person has progress.  Some people like to teach like that, some like to be more sensory, or have more of a rounder approach.  If that fits, that’s cool.  There’s quite a lot of people doing it out there, so ultimately, it’s good to try various people as well.  Then you get a sensation of what’s going on.

EL: If you’re looking to select a coach, or online coach, or program, or anything – the great thing about the internet is we can stalk people.  Stalk them, that’s fine, you’re only going to see the best side.  But then stalk the people they claim to coach, see if they actually have coached them.  This is the thing, we’re going to get onto ownership of people in a bit.  There’s this weird lineage thing.  People go, oh I’m teaching a class, I’m teaching this other person, I’m teaching this, there’s lots of photos, it’s Instagram.  But then follow the person they claim to be coaching.  Are they actually coaching with loads of people?  Were they really good beforehand?  This kind of thing, get an idea, not to call them out, but see if this person started with that person, or does this person coach people who are like me?  If you see someone who says they coach 14 year olds in gymnastics, but are now offering class to adults in their 40s, or online training to them – do they have the actual experience?

And vice versa, I see this person who’s coaching adults, and over time they’re getting better, and I’m about the same age range and fitness experience.  Cool!

Coaches can be quite good in domains.  I can think of loads of really high level coaches; I would not send a beginner anywhere near them.  But I would send my own advanced students to them, for like, a PhD in hand balance, and other sorts of arts.

Then there’s other people who are really good with beginners, really good with beginners, but I would not send an advanced student near them.  Maybe not even someone who would want to learn a press to them.

If someone was like, I can’t handstand, what do you think of this person?  I’d be like, three thumbs up, go to them.  There is this to watch out for in a coach: who is your coach good at coaching?  Do you fit in with their experience, the mold of what they expect?  It’s like the circus school coaches.

MK: There are many elements that go into this.  For me I’m happy to have worked with a wide array of people, but a lot of coaches end up doing that if they do it for enough years.  That again leads into-

EL: I think it’s quite a new thing, though.  Hand balance has become a bit of its own beast lately, but if you think about the traditional places people would learn hand balance:

Gymnastics? Okay, age 4 to 16, 18.  Handstands are in gymnastics.

Circus school?  Anyone who’s going to circus school, particularly when they were less common than they are now, they’re generally pretty fucking good already.  They came from gymnastics, or acrobatics or dance.  They’re doing pretty flexible things.  Circus school coaches had prime candidates for getting very good.

Then also, hmm…I don’t want to sound bad by saying this, but it’s not like circus school coaches who we consider the top of the game have coached a lot of people.  They’ve had a lot of time with people who are very good, and able to take coaching and cueing very well.  They’re able to push the art to a very high level.  In terms of numbers, when I was in circus school, there were…two people in my year?  One? One or two doing hand balance, two in the year below.  The coach there had five students over three years.  Now you get more volume of students.

In my online coaching, I have people doing one arms, and others learning to handstand.  We’ve got a range, so I think that’s really a new thing.

MK: With the internet’s spread of handstands, the volume has gone up loads.  There’s loads of capable teachers out there that have a reasonable range of people that they have taught.  That’s also something that is interesting, this student teacher relationship.  For me I don’t think it’s that interesting.  If someone wants to learn a thing or two from me, sure, that’s fine.

Of course, I would refer to certain people as being students of mine, but I also think it’s important to not claim ownership over people in that sense.  That’s an internet thing, this is MY student, like I’m calling the shot and dictating what that person should be doing.  For me, if someone asks if they should do a private session, or workshop with a person, I’ll say sure.  You might learn a thing or two, develop something.

You get a wider amount of experience yourself – doing it, teaching it, whatever.  You get to experience different approaches.

EL: As a coach, but there are people I think are good, people I think are bad.  If it’s a bad person, don’t waste your money.  But if it’s a good person, just go.  If a student comes back and says, oh, I trained with Yuri Marmenstein (I really like Yuri, and send people to his workshops, go check him out).  If they come back and go, oh Yuri told me to try this and this cue for my problem, that’s great for me.  I was trying this and didn’t get the result I wanted, but Yuri did that, let’s see how his advice works.  So you can learn off your students.  But this ownership thing…it strays into the realm of “fucking creepy.”

There’s one thing being proud of your student, but you’ll see people be like, no you must train and dress this way.  It gets creepy, and I’ve seen a lot of it over the last while.

MK: There’s two extremes in that.  One, the ownership of people, to follow the “great leader”, or you are a bad person type of thinking.  Then there’s the other of, since it’s the internet, there are many people who do these things, you become a teacher because you want to do a thing and have it as your job, you don’t want to advertise your teachers, because then you get less work.  I get it, but then again, I think it’s important, with lineage, in a sense.

That’s something I find good in the circus world.  The tradition has a lot to do with the circus families.  I always speak about my coach, Alexander Gavrilov, Sasha, who was the teacher at University of Dance and Circus, Stockholm.  He was an amazing teacher for me.  My entire work is basically an extension of what he’s doing.

There’s loads of things he does that I don’t agree with anymore, and I’m happy I don’t agree with them.  Not at all I think he’s bad – all the respect in the world to him – but there are things that I’ve experienced to not work in the same way.  Especially methodology.  Technique is very similar, with the need of update of the circus world and these types of practices.

EL: The context, people and population that are exposed to the circus world.  You go into circus school, or any typical circus coaching environments.  You have that person for 3-4 years as your coach, or student.  They do these things, it’s been  shown to work.  No one has questioned whether they’re necessary or not.  It’s just how things are done.  We can’t fault it; it definitely works.

But we now coach outside these contexts.  In circus school, you’re in there 9-5, then probably training after circus school, as well, at the prime of your physical fitness. You’re doing privates with your coach, and 1 or 2 hour sessions.  Then you’re training, and he’s probably sitting around shouting orders, or walking through the hall going, no, go practice this.  It’s a very different context than: here’s your program, send me some videos.  Ok, we’ll have one handstand class once a week where you come get topped up.  Hopefully, I’ll see you at class.

The principles and methodology are the same, I suppose.  But how you install them in the body is different.

MK: One of the large problems with the circus school way of things can be how a student is the subordinate, and the teacher decides what is wrong or right.  It’s your fault if you fail.  I’ve been at schools where I taught people who had worked in that methodology for years.  They’re not really having fun anymore.  They’re being told they’re really bad; the teacher constantly hammers on about a certain thing that they need to do, while the person doesn’t need that whatsoever.

One guy that I taught is pretty fucking good, has loads of talent.  Without warm up in the morning, he’d go into bridge and pull his legs off into a Mexican, no questions asked.  The teacher told him, was basically smashing him that he had to do tuck ups, on the box with his hands.  He had drawn up lines where his fingers needed to be because he had to have his hands exactly like this, and jump onto the box without bending his elbows.  Well, that hand position didn’t work out very well for him, so he bent his elbows and got shit for it.  But this was a dude who could do flags and one arm.  This guy was just getting his time wasted.

That is one extreme of not allowing, not adapting technique to the person.  With handstand, or other technical coachings, but within and outside the circus community, there’s often a tendency, or two I’ve seen often.

One is treating things as being too hard.  Watch out, this is too difficult.  You need to do basics.  People basics themselves to death, their basics are never good enough.  Go sleep then, Jesus Christ.  It’s important to have good enough basics, but you also need to try to do things that are next level.  You need to be pushing your level.

Then the other side: the classic Instagram ‘throw up an arm and pretend you can one arm’ technique.  People just trying to do things that are way too difficult for them.

EL: We should do a show on how to spot a fake one arm.

MK: How to set up your one arm so it looks like you can do it, with Mikael Kristiansen and Emmet Louis.

EL: How to fake a one arm, our new course, coming out soon.

MK: I know a couple of guys that are now total fucking mutants.  They became super good in a third the time I did, by just trying to do things.   They’re young, strong, very talented in so many ways, but they practiced.  The method of going forwards is just trying to do the things they wanted to.  Their level was appropriate enough that keeping to try to one arm was the correct solution for them.  One guy, when he was training in Stockholm, he barely learned the one arm, and would try to keep doing one arm switches on a block.

It looked like a train wreck in the beginning, and was wondering if I should tell him to stop.  But no, because give this guy a couple of years, and he’ll have done 5000 of these switches, and will be really good.  Guess who’s the boss at switching now?  He is, he’s done them so much, and by the time his one arm was so strong he could catch it easily, he had already been repeating the technique so many times.  That is of course an extreme end of the spectrum.  I don’t think most people should be working one arm switches unless they have very solid one arms.

EL: I met a dude over here, a breakdancer, through a circus meet up one time.  He had a one arm hand up, but couldn’t two arm.  Couldn’t handstand, couldn’t two arm hand up, but had this one arm.  On his good side only.  It was amazing, he could do 50-60 reps easy, just doing sets.

MK: That was basically me before hand balancing.

EL: You used to be cool, what happened.

MK: I can still hand up, maybe not a hundred, but can jump a bunch of times, it’s pretty easy.

Almost a bigger problem than trying to do things that are too hard is spending too much time on these endless basics, what I call “prepilepsy.”

You just keep doing prep forever, and never try to do the thing.  I see it a lot with finger tip supports on one arms, never try to take the arm off, because someone said they’re not ready.

EL: Like expecting the technique to be perfect first against the wall, but as soon as I kick up, it becomes a shit show.  It’s okay to be a bit shit.

The thing is, for a coach, to bring it back to coaching: knowing when to allow it to be shit, knowing when to call it a time.  That’s one of the main skills.  Can we see if the person is actually learning from what they’re doing even if it looks terrible and will get them banned from Instagram?  Versus, are they doing something that’s regressing, do we stop them for the day?

Right, so we’ve been going on for an hour and a bit.  I hope you didn’t fall asleep, but if so, I hope it’s a very deep and relaxing sleep, so we install some hypnotic messages.

Don’t fall down!  Push fingers hard!

MK: Take that out of this podcast: don’t fuck up, don’t fall down.  Take that out and put it on repeat in your car when you drive, sleep at night, etc.

EL: I think we need to go back to our mp3 handstand coach, where you run it on your phone when doing handstands: point toes. push shoulders. point toes. push shoulders.

Anyway, to wrap up, I’m Emmet Louis.

MK: I’m Mikael.

EL: Big thanks to Elise, our producer, who was here, but snuck out.  As usual, if you’re interested in the more  practical side of things, we have our courses available on Handstand Factory dot com.  We can basically take you from zero to hero, teach you a straddle handstand in between.  They’re very good, I think you’d enjoy them a lot if into this sort of thing.

Other than that, Handstand Factory does keep the podcast running.  We’re going to do more episodes, the rest of the season to do soon.  So watch out.

If you have any questions, you can mail them to us at the online contact form at Handstand Factory, and put podcast questions into the thing.  If your question is good we will read it out.  If it is bad, we will read it out with your name attached.  Over and out.

MK: Over and out.


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