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By Al Fong
I created the Al Fong Spotting Blocks System because of the way I taught bar skills back in the early 1980’s. To spot releases like jaegers and reverse hechts, I moved my pommel horse under the uneven bars, put additional folding panel mats on top and hoisted my gymnasts onto my shoulder to flip them around to catch the bar, or threw them over the high bar.
Back then, foam pits in private gym clubs were rare. There were no single bar setups like today. No platforms to stand on, pit pillows, throw mats, bar pads, etc… Only 6’ x 12’ four inch fold up mats, fold up eight inchers, 6’ x 12’ Nissen twelve inch fold up mats, panel mats, wrestling mats, horse hair mats, and Nissen and AMF mats of various sizes for competition….but not for teaching. The common things to use for releases and dismounts were spotting belt rigs or a mat held up by 4 strong guys to catch a fall.
As a gymnast you had to be naturally strong and gutsy to try new skills since the safety features we take for granted today were either nonexistent or hard to come by. Summer gymnastics camps like Woodward and International were the only training complexes where there were safe stations to learn difficult gymnastics skills safely. The average gymnastics gym businesses (owned by coaches), the YMCA, Parks and Rec centers, and Sokol gym schools didn’t have the floor space or the financial resources to have teaching stations set up full time. Injuries were commonplace and accepted as a way of life if you wanted to be a gymnast.
I started using the trampoline and the mini tramp as the most important tools to teach skill development in bite size pieces. I developed physical and mental building blocks as a learning platform where I could then teach harder skills.
Just like every other coach back then I spotted everything by hand. It was actually “braggin’ rights” to see who could spot the most difficult skills. When it came to bars, some skills could be spotted on the floor. But for the bigger releases and dismounts, it was impossible unless you had mountains of piled up mats to stand on.
I invented the first channel pit concept to make the gymnasts feel safer and to understand height and angles for the skills being taught.
Because I could stand bar height and straddle the channel with my feet, I discovered I had great control and leverage in spotting difficult skills without hurting my back or shoulders. I homemade my first channel pit with an old set of Spieth uprights anchored into the concrete, took a bunch of old fold up mats and tied them to the framework, and made a 5’ x 5’ waffle eight incher to cover the channel for gymnasts to sit or stand on. I discovered I could teach reverse hechts, giengers, and jeagers without me spotting very much or not at all!
Now my female coaches and gymnasts could spot easily as well.
It took 5 prototypes and 10 years to fine tune the perfect channel station set up for all skills and events for every gymnast and coach: not in the ground, perfect length, perfect width, perfect channel gap, and adjustable heights with leggo style planks……all standardized to compliment the dimensions of uneven bars, single bars, men’s high bar, still rings rig, beam, and more.
With my systematic trampoline building blocks training system and my Al Fong Spotting Blocks System, the potential to teach any skill safely on any event is unlimited.
1) My gymnasts had no concept of what “high” meant for a flyaway. They would try to do a flyaway above the bar but would let go early and flip with a belly arch tuck over. So I used the channel station as a visual platform to flip up onto in a hollow position straddling the channel. Wow! They immediately realized they were 2 feet above the bar. This gave them new insight in not only doing a double back above the bar but also when to twist for a full out dismount!
2) When a coach stands sideways to the gymnast on a platform to spot her on a release, it’s impossible to hold the gymnast long enough to help her visualize the skill. The coach’s back and shoulders are at risk for injury. Not to mention possibly dropping the gymnast or not being able to prevent her from hitting the bar. Needless to say, I had many gymnasts freeze up before letting go of the bar. I even dropped a few to the ground.
3) When I started teaching with the channel, it gave me total control for holding the gymnast mid-air and she felt completely safe to try the skill.
4) It cut the learning curve in half and reduced the risk to almost zero!