When 14-year-old Tom Schaar won the first X Games gold medal of his career in Skateboard Big Air in Austin, Texas, Ryan Gallop was watching the event unfold on television during happy hour in Southern California.
Gallop, who trains Schaar and a handful of other action sports pros at KOA Fitness and Physical Therapy, saw Schaar land a similar trick combination as he has in the past: a 720 over the MegaRamp gap to a 900 on the quarterpipe. Only this time, in the face of a stiff headwind, the drama was heightened. Schaar wobbled on his 720 landing, enough that he said a few days later he momentarily questioned whether he should follow through with the 900. Instead of bailing, Schaar stuck to his plan and nailed the next landing, sealing gold and making him the second youngest X Games champion in history.
More than 1,300 miles away, Gallop exhaled, then smiled.
"When he squirreled out of that first one, I was like, oh man, is he going to back off?" Gallop said. "And when he didn't, well, we call that short-term memory loss."
Schaar said, "I wasn't really thinking. I just wanted to stay on and be sure I made my trick."
To Gallop, Schaar's gold medal validated a unique brand of mental and agility training that Schaar -- as well as pro surfer Keanu Asing and pro snowboarder Jussi Oksanen, whom Gallop also trains, among others -- has committed to in recent months.
The idea is to stress the brain while simultaneously stressing the body, thus simulating conditions athletes face in competition. For example, picture someone lunging back and forth on a slide board while catching a ball and solving math problems; or chopping his feet in and out of a hexagon while a coach shouts even and odd numbers, which dictate the varying patterns he follows.
"Once the fundamentals of the movement are nailed, then you mess with their heads," Gallop said. "It's blended agility, conditioning and brain cambering all at once. A lot of it is newfound stuff."
Schaar doesn't lack time on his skateboard. He gets out of school at 12:30 and spends three to four hours skateboarding four days a week. Starting last fall, he began working with Gallop two days a week to complement the sport-specific training he got on his board.
Gallop, who met Schaar during a trampoline session at Travis Pastrana's house, said he was amazed by Schaar's all-around athleticism. He said he doesn't always see that in action sports athletes, despite their natural gifts in their respective sports.
"The first day he was in here, I had him mess around with some speed ladders, and I was calling over other coaches to watch," Gallop said. "I would teach him a pattern and he'd get it right away. He was like, 'I've never done this before.' It was prodigy stuff almost. We have clients who it might take a year to do what he was doing after a couple of months."
Much of the mobility and balance training at traditional gyms is done at a slow pace, Gallop said. But there's nothing slow or stabilizing about spinning a 900 15 feet above the coping on a MegaRamp quarterpipe.
To prepare for X Games Austin, Gallop had Schaar do exercises like speed ladders, a jumping drill through a hexagon on the floor and rotational plyometrics, where he's jumping over hurdles in a pattern and spinning in an ordered direction.
Although these maneuvers might sound like a trainer turning his pupil into a skatebot, the broader goal is simply to teach the brain and body to work together. By doing so, Gallop believes, athletes gain an unconscious mental edge that benefits them in competition when they don't have time to think about what comes next, a la Schaar's climactic moment in Austin.
"If I'm doing the same pattern up and back on a speed ladder, then it's just conditioning. Because the movement itself is so innate that it's easy," Gallop said. "But if you tell me to go forward, then you yell, 'backward!' and I have to do an opposite pattern backward at the same speed, that's going to screw with my brain a bit. And that's more of what people deal with in sports."