Saturday, February 27, 2010

Learning the speed loop: a comparison of approaches

Getting ready to finally end the winter break with an ABK camp in Bonaire, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to learn the speed loop. I have looked closely at three different approaches:
  1. The Andy Brandt way. Andy's emphasis is on learning the loop without getting hurt. That's great, and he is responsible for convincing me that I can learn the loop without injuries. His approach is to start with small turns: jump when almost downwind, turn the board through downwind, fall on your back. Then, increase the angle jumped gradually, until starting at a beam reach and completing the loop.
  2. The Tricktionary way. This is a two-step approach: do a looping pre-exercise in light wind without the board, then do the looping fully powered with the board.
  3. The Remko de Weerd way.  Remko describes his approach on the "7 Sons of Freestyle" DVD. It was available on YouTube for a while, but later removed since it was an unauthorized post. He has 4 steps, starting with a non-planing jibe in the foot straps to land on your back, and then increasing the speed and adding the jump and upward pull with the back leg later.
Of the three approaches, the Tricktionary  has the most abrupt progression, while the others are more gradual. No surprise, here - the Tricktionary primarily shows how to do tricks, with a lot of very advanced tricks. Some gifted teens don't need more - they go from learning how to windsurf to multiple New School tricks in a couple of years. Most of Andy Brandt's students, myself included, don't progress anywhere nearly as fast, and need more intermediate steps. Nevertheless, the loop pre-exercise from the Tricktionary definitely is a great exercise. I teaches how several key points of the loop in light wind:
  • positioning the back hand far back
  • moving the sail far windward/forward while sheeting in hard
  • looking back over your shoulder
  • pulling the back leg up
Just as important is that you learn to overcome the fear of being thrown forward by your sail. Doing the pre-exercise in a nice tropical location is a lot of fun, once you overcome the initial fear that you'll end up on the front of the board.

Almost everything written about the speed loop states that this is a technically very easy trick - easier than a planing jibe, which most windsurfers can do when they start learning the speed loop. So why does learning the speed loop often take so long? I think because the things you need to do are exactly the opposite of what you usually do. Instead of looking forward where we are going, we look back over out shoulder, instead of controlling the sail to avoid a catapult, we want to do a catapult with the board. The Tricktionary pre-loop exercise helps to get these counter-intuitive patterns into your muscle memory, and to quiet your brain when it wants to say "But that's wrong!".

As much as I love the pre-exercise - am I ready to fully commit to doing the real thing while fully powered up? I think not... so let's look at the other approaches. Andy Brandt's approach seems to have the focus on avoiding injuries. That's great, since a 50-year old body (a) gets injured more easily, and (b) does not heal as fast as a 20-year old body. But when I watched Brendon's video of his attempts at the speed loop, I was not impressed. Brendon can do tricks that are technically much harder, for example the Spock. Andy's loop approach seems like "underkill" for him. In his video, he goes almost fully downwind before jumping. At this angle, there is very little sail pressure - but according to the Tricktionary, sail steering (i.e. a catapult with the board in the air) is what's really turning the board around in the loop. In other words - this in not really loop practice!

This brings us to Remko's approach that starts with a non-planing jibe in the straps as a "low wind almost loop". Remko also states that avoiding injury is a primary goal, and that's easy to see. The advantage of his approach is that it can be increased gradually by going faster and using chop more and more to jump. Jem Hall also seems to use the low wind jibe-fall in his loop clinics, as can be seen on this video.

The technique section of has a number of interviews with pros about their experience in learning to loop. The common elements are:
  • Fear - most pros found were afraid, too.
  • "When you do decide to do it, go for it 100%." Really commit to the move.
  • "Never let go of the boom" - none of the pros ever got injured in forward loops unless they let go of the boom (and even then, the injuries were minor).
Taken this all together, the following plan emerges:
  • At home:
    • Watch loop videos. Look at them in slow motion and/or frame-by-frame to see and understand what you need to do.
    • Read about the speed loop in the Tricktionary and/or on the web. There are many instruction pages and videos on the various windsurfing magazines sites and on YouTube.
    • Imagine doing the loop. You can do dry runs at any room in your house!
  • On light wind days (or non-planing with a small sail on high wind days):
    • Do the pre-loop exercise from the Tricktionary a  number of times to loose fear, and build up some muscle memory (back hand far back, sheet in hard, look back, pull back foot up).
      • Do the jibe in the straps - fall on your back exercise (Remko's steps 1 & 2).
      • On high wind days:
        • Practice chop hops, focusing on pulling the back leg up and staying tucked in. Try one-hand chop hops with board grabs.
          • When the conditions are right, go for it 100%. Focus on sheeting in hard with a back hand that's far back on the boom, looking back, pulling the back leg in, and staying tucked in.
           After practicing the "at home" stuff for a while now, I can't wait to try the other steps...

          Here's an amusing video from el Toro, who learned the forward loop when he was 60. The last loop is one of the most beautiful forwards I've seen:

          Saturday, February 6, 2010

          A Better Way to Jibe?

          I just noticed an interesting thread on the iWindsurf forum about jibing. Spencer Thompson, aka Spennie the Wind Junkie, had suggested that taking the front foot out for jibing (a) reduces the chance of injury, and (b) makes it easier to keep speed in jibes. Spennie stated that this works well even in chop, as long as the knees are bent enough.
          My jibes are pretty decent, and it's rare that I fall during a jibe on my own gear, unless I'm surfing in unusual conditions (e.g. a lot more wind and chop than I'm used to). However, one of the things that makes me mess up jibes every now and then is that I can't get the front foot out of the strap. So taking the foot out before the jibe sounds like an interesting idea worth trying.

          Andy McKinney did actually try it, and posted a video about his tries. His conclusion was that it worked better with the front foot in the straps. However, the board he used for his tests was a freestyle board, which had the foot straps mounted very far to the front and to the center of the board. Furthermore, the straps were very wide, so that the front feet are very close to the center line. This is very different to the boards I typically sail, which have foot straps that are further back, and much more to the outside of the board. On these boards, putting the feet in front of the straps to the center would place them pretty much at the place where the straps are on Andy's boards. Therefore, the results may be quite different when tested on "out-back" foot strap boards.

          But Andy definitely had the right idea: this is a thing that's easy to test. I'll try it out as soon as I get to it, and I'll do it with a GPS that gives me cold, hard data about jibe speed. The one thing in my jibes that still needs improvement is the end speed. My minimum speed in jibes is typically only about 40% to 50% of the entry speed. I think one problem is that I'm flipping the sail to late; but nevertheless, a different foot placement is certainly worth exploring.

          The funny thing is that my first chance to do so is during an ABK camp week. Andy Brandt has a great way of teaching jibes, and it's his "fault" that my jibes are looking good now. But he's also particular to the way he does the laydown jibes, and tends to correct campers who jibe differently (for example a sail-first jibe). Well, I'll just have to hope that we get wind during the two days before camp that we'll be there. As I explained in a previous post, I'm already planning to question the wisdom of teaching the Vulcan as the first New School trick, so we should have some interesting discussions :)

          So, here's a suggestion for other windsurfers that use a GPS: try both ways of jibing, and let us know what the results are - both the GPS results and how it felt (videos are also great, of course). I have an example of a jibe analysis generated with GPS Action Replay in a previous post.

          How to jump in flat water

          The best places for freestyle have totally flat water, like Bonaire. That does not keep freestylers from jumping, as Tonky illustrates here with a speed loop:

          How does he get the board out of the water?
           That's an important question for me, considering (a) my grand plans for the year (speed  loop, Grubbys, ...), and (b) my distinctive lack of success in chop hopping so far.

          Ok, I do have tons of excuses - my love for big boards and flat water, years of practicing to keep the board in the water under all conditions, and so on. But excuses don't help getting better. However, having plenty of time in the winter can help (or so I hope), if you use the time to study the Tricktionary and videos, and to think about things. After many hours, I have come up with a theory of how flat water jumps work.

          Maybe it's because of my scientific training, but I usually have to have a theory how and why things work to learn something new. There is a problem with that: if the theory is wrong, the chances of success are rather slim. Case in point: my initial attempt at chop hops and pops. Below, I'll refer to chop hops and pops as jumping, but I usually mean jumping a board of very small waves or flat water.

          Theory 1: Jumping a windsurf board is like jumping on land.
          Very simple idea: go down by bending both knees, then straighten both legs rapidly. Will result in a nice jump on land. On a windsurf board, can be useful to get out of harness lines that are way too short, as long as you are not in the foot straps. Do the same thing in the straps and... nothing happens.
          What going on? As I propel myself upwards, the board is pushed down into the water. Since we are connected by the foot straps, the downward momentum of the board pretty much cancels my upward momentum. Ok, maybe not quite, but there's also some extra force I'd need to tear the board over it's entire length out of the water. Pretty soon afterwards, the board will want to pop up again - but by then, I'm not moving up anymore.

          Theory 2: Time the board pop.
          What if I can time it so that I go up when the board comes up again, too? I can't think of a way to do this with just one up-down movement, but by doing this a few times in a row, I can push the board under water, and have it come back up a bit more everytime. This is more promising - at least something is moving. No high jumps this way, though, something is missing.

          Theory 3: I need a ramp.
          When the chop gets big, I'll jump all the time, unless I focus on keeping the board flat and using my legs as shock absorbers. Maybe a wave is needed for jumps? Sounds plausible - most trick instructions start with "look for a step piece of chop", or similar. But looking at Tonky in the movie above doing a speed loop in perfectly flat water, that can't be it.

          Theory 4: Pop up your own ramp!
          If we can jump with a ramp, why not make our own, and use it together with the "pop" of the board to get air? Here are some shots from the movie above to illustrate the idea.
          This is before the jump. Normal sailing stance, the legs are bend just a bit. The next image is from a second later:
          Notice how the front leg is straight, but the back leg is bent at almost 90 degrees.

          A second later, the back leg is straight, and the front leg is bent. The board is just about to leave the water. Here's a sharper screen shot from the Tricktionary DVD:
          You can see that the tail of the board has been pushed down into the water, and the front leg is bent, pulling up in the strap. As a result, the board is now going up a ramp! As soon as it reaches the end of the ramp, it's airborne. Then, pulling up on the back leg and getting small gets the tail higher into the air:
          we can't really see it, but I think we can assume that the board's pop in response to getting pushed under the water also helps it to get higher.
          Bottom line: a flat water jump is not at all like a jump on land. A better way of looking at it is  that we use our legs to create a ramp by pushing the tail underwater, and pulling up with the front leg. Then, to get the tail higher above the water, we pull up with the back leg. Jem Hall describes this motion quite nicely in his chop hop video. He also has another video that explains the differences when popping the board.

          So - why does all this matter? A month from now, I will have Andy Brandt yelling at me, telling me exactly what I need to do to hop and pop. I won't really need any theoretical understanding then, that can come later. But until then, I'll be doing plenty of chop hops, pops, and speed loops in my head. I usually fall asleep visualizing windsurf moves. That's fun and makes me go to sleep with a smile on my face - but it may also help to learn the tricks faster (wouldn't it be great to make progress on the speed loop and the Grubby within one week?).

          The idea to of "mental practice" is not a new one; many high level athletes use it. I got motivated to use it after reading the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge (great book). He describes an interesting experiment teaching piano to people who never played before. One group practiced piano for 2 hours a day; a second group, the "mental practice" group, instead just imagined playing while sitting in front of a keyboard, for the same amount of time. After 5 days, the group that actually practiced with a piano was better - but the "mental practice" group caught up after just one two-hour session with a piano! Maybe I'm an optimist, but I hope that all my mental practice (and hours of watching Tricktionary videos over and over) will pay off when I finally hit the water.

          Mental practice is not everything, physical fitness also help a lot. During ABK classes, we often get to sail for 4-5 hours per day - that can be pretty tiring after a winter break. This year's break is substantially shorter than last year's, which should help. But in addition, I have set up a winter fitness program which kicked into high gear a couple of weeks ago:
          1. Karate. I usually go just once a week for one hour. The Kettlebell exercises in the first half of the class can be pretty intense.
          2. The gym. I go to a local gym once or twice a week, for about 90 minutes. The time is split about evenly between cardio and weight machines (higher rep numbers, switching machines instead of sitting around lazily between sets). Besides the obvious benetfits, both weight machines and the rowing machine help to build up the skin on the hands to reduce the amount of blisters.
          3. Yoga. 2-3 times per week for 30 minutes, using the Wii Fit Plus. I like the feedback about balance - it think it trains better than doing poses or stretching without the board.
          4. EA Active More Workouts, using the Wii and the balance board, 4 times per week for 30-40 minutes. On the "hard" setting, I usually work up a sweat within a few minutes. The first few times I used it, I was rather sore the next day. Great game, great fitness tool (just switch the resistance band against a stronger one).
          I 've done the first three things the entire winter, and added EA Active Sports just a couple of weeks ago. Made a big difference, though. Working out three times a week was just about good enough to keep the fitness level constant; now, at six times per week, I see some marked improvements. Can't wait to be on the water again!

          Tuesday, February 2, 2010

          Flaka (or Grubby?) before Vulcan?

          Should the Flaka (or perhaps the Grubby), not the Vulcan, be the first "New School" trick to learn? I think yes, and here's why.

          Sitting in the freezing Northeast and battling windsurfing withdrawal symptoms, what can a poor boy do? Well, reading Tricktionary over and over is one idea. Reading about Vulcans, Spocks, Flakas and so on helps, with a YouTube movie thrown in every now and then. But let me change themes for a second, and go back to the ABK camp in Cape Cod last fall. A few guys had the jibe down well enough, and it was time for new pastures. We got one lesson about the speed loop, and one lesson about the Vulcan. Huge difference between the lessons, though:
          • For the speed loop, the main issue was how to avoid getting hurt. The solution was to start small, almost downwind, jumping and turning just a bit before falling on the back into the water. I can fall on my back very well, so technically, that seems to be perfectly doable. Plenty of other articles and lectures about the loop also say it's mostly guts, and very little technique. I think I remember everything Andy talked about in the lecture.
          • The Vulcan lecture was much longer, and had a lot more technical detail. Andy said many windsurfers have to try 1000 or 2000 times before getting it (he was talking about slower learners like myself, not about the 20-year old water wizards who learn everything in 2 years). The problem with the Vulcan is that it introduces many new elements. The ones I remember are: hops from flat water or small chop; turning the board 180 degrees in the air; sliding backwards for the first time; and flipping the sail while in the air. Yes, getting all that together will certainly take me a while. But Andy said that this is the first "New School" trick one needs to learn to get a chance at more fun stuff like Spocks.
          Somehow, that did not sit quite right with me. Ok, so I spend decades learning to jibe well - but I don't want to spend a similar time on just the entry trick for New School stuff!

          Back to the Tricktionary. It, too, states that the Vulcan is the first New School trick to learn. In the book, it's right after the speed loop (and the speed loop is often not considered a New School move, since there is no backwards-sliding component). But with Tricktionary, I can look at all moves for hours without getting wet, and go back and forth to compare the picture sequences. Furthermore, it also shows pre-requisites for each move.

          So, after studying the Gecko, which I hope to learn on my next Bonaire trip, I read that the Gecko "is essentially a non-planing Flaka". Looking at the Flaka pre-exercises, we also see the Upwind 360, both planing and non-planing. Comparing the pictures and descriptions, it seems to me that the Flaka is very similar to both the Gecko and the Upwind 360, the difference being the jump, starting the turn in the air, and then sliding backwards. Yes, there is the backwinded part at the end, but it's there in all these moves. Furthermore, any regular ABK camp attendees ready for New School tricks will know how to do this part (if your backwind sailing is not good enough, Andy will make you practice it - no matter how good you think you are at other stuff!).

          This seems to outline a pretty clear path to the Flaka:
          1. Backwind sailing
          2. Backwind jibe, heli tack.
          3. Upwind 360 (nonplaning, then planing).
          4. Gecko.
          5. Flaka.
          Compare to the Vulcan, the only new part in step 5 is the essential "New School"  element: jumping the board into a 180 degree turn, and sliding backward. Everything else is part of one of the earlier tricks, or at least very similar.

          If the (entirely theoretical) analysis above is right, then the first New School move to learn should be the Flaka, not the Vulcan. Learning the Vulcan after learning the Flaka should be easier, because there is less new stuff (just flipping the sail in the jump). Interestingly enough, Tom Lepak, an ABK instructor currently working on the Vulcan, writes that many surfers suggested to him to learn the Flaka first.

          Since all of this is entirely theoretical, I'd love to hear from windsurfers who actually can do the Vulcan and the Flaka what they think.


          After getting some feedback about this on the iWindsurf forum, I realized that I had ignored one important difference: the nose of the board spins away from the wind in the Vulcan, but into the wind for the Flaka. I have no clew if that makes the Flaka harder, but can imagine that it does. Also, if one learns the Speed Loop first, that's also a downwind turn. Not sure if that helps with a Vulcan, though, since the mechanics of the turn seem to be rather different (catapult under the sail for the loop, being centered on the board for the Vulcan).

          This makes me wonder about the advice to Tom Lepak to go for the Flaka, though. He's managed to turn the 180 degrees downwind for the Vulcan, not upwind. Looking at Tricktionary, a downwind jump with a Flaka-like ending seems to be a Grubby. Which, in turn, seems similar to a speed loop, so we come to a much shorter learning sequence:
          1. Speed loop.
          2. Grubby.
          I still have the feeling I'm missing something here. Tricktionary rates the Grubby at the same level of difficulty as the  Spock, and thus as harder than the Vulcan, Willy Skipper, and speed loop.

          For those who (like me) barely know about these moves, here are some YouTube videos: