In a long stretch of hallway lined with mats, sophomore Kirk Williams drills the members of his tumbling class in backbend-walkovers in time to upbeat music, making corrections and encouraging them as they go.
Before his sophomore year, Williams, a three-time qualifier to junior nationals in gymnastics, had never taught a tumbling class before, let alone seven, in a studio of his own. Now, he works at Hillsdale’s Studio 55, teaching tumbling (a set of floor exercises in gymnastics such as handstands, cartwheels, and forward rolls) to girls and boys ranging from 5 to 14 years old.
“It’s been hectic, for the first time ever teaching,” Williams said. “I’ve had half of my classes double in size.”
Studio 55’s office manager and hair and makeup stylist
Erin Reinker said once Williams joined the program, the studio began needing more mats to accommodate growing class sizes. She attributed the growth of the program to Williams’ ability to diagnose the needs of the tumblers and develop their skills.
“I came there, and they knew how to do certain things, but they were doing them improperly,” Williams said. “So, if they were ever to continue to try and do tumbling, it’d be more difficult because they’d be continuing to learn it wrong. It could actually hurt them in the future, possibly.”
Wendi Graham, the studio’s custodian for six years, said she has seen Williams both inspire confidence in the tumblers and become more self-confident as an instructor.
“I knew with his past and everything that he’d be overqualified to be an instructor here,” Graham said. “He’s going to be awesome for us.”
While Williams said he never anticipated becoming a teacher, the community and mentorship he’d experienced in gymnastics naturally equipped him for the job.
“It’s a thing that you learn in gymnastics without even knowing it,” he said. “You learn how to verbalize to younger kids because you’re always trying to give little kids pointers on how to do things better.”
Nevertheless, when he started teaching he still found he had to work to develop a more understandable method of explaining new concepts.
“It’s not the same to try and describe to a gymnast what they need to be doing as to a tumbling person who hasn’t had gymnastic experience,” he said. “I have to give it to them in examples that they know. It’s like starting from a clean slate as opposed to already knowing what those words mean.”
Instead of using gymnastics language, such as remembering to have a “hollow body” when executing a forward tuck, he tries to use examples with which students would be familiar, like imitating a diving position. Along with adjusting his vocabulary, Williams said he has been working on a template of skills tumblers in each level need to master in order to progress to the next level. When he first began teaching, no such system existed.
Williams enjoys the challenge of teaching levels four and five, the upper levels, because he can walk into class, come up with a challenging new sequence, and see if the girls can do it.
While the challenges make higher level tumbling classes interesting, he said he still enjoys teaching the younger tumblers.
“I really do like teaching the little kids, they really do say the darnedest things,” he said.
While little kids may make him chuckle, the older girls bring out Williams’s inner sass. Since mostly girls take his classes, he said he has had to become more confident in handling their sass — by dishing it right back.
“Whatever they give you, you have to give it right back if you want their respect,” he said. “If they say ‘Your face looks stupid,’ you have to say, ‘So does yours, now do a kick-handstand-forward roll.’”