There are few things in sports that can get an audience’s adrenaline flowing quite like a well executed Cheer routine can. Cheer athletes perform seemingly impossible stunts, choreography and tumbling passes in a fashion which, if they have done their jobs right, looks effortless to the audience. While this polished final product is exactly what all teams and athletes aim for, such a performance can unfortunately have one major detrimental effect on novice athletes and new parents; it can, and often does, lead to the expectation that such skills should be acquired in a very small amount of time.
Particularly in the case of tumbling, one of the biggest hurdles which athletes across the world face in Cheer is the misunderstanding that tumbling is easy and that the tumbling curriculum can and should be mastered within a couple of years of starting the sport. The aim of this article is to guide new athletes and parents/spectators away from some of the oft-repeated misconceptions about tumbling, and to help people understand some of the “method behind the madness” which goes into Cheerleader tumbling training.
The three major physical attributes which an athlete must acquire and hone throughout their tumbling progressions are technique, power and aerial awareness. If we imagine for a moment that instead of developing an athlete we are building a sports car, we can understand our technique to be the body of the car, our power to be the engine and our aerial awareness to be the wheel alignment. There is no point in building an engine if we do not have a car to house it, and it is dangerous to drive a car which does not respond to steering in the correct fashion, so in the beginning the first two things we must build are technique and awareness/coordination. Power is always the last thing that should be developed in the creation of a skill so as to avoid injury.
Athletes are taught the basic shapes and movements required for skills by breaking the skills down into smaller movements referred to as drills. Breaking things down into drills allows the athletes to focus on movements which, in the actual execution of a skill, must be performed perfectly in a split second window of time. Drills afford athletes the opportunity to train their muscular, skeletal and vestibular systems to work in unison at a slow and safe pace. Once the coach is satisfied that the athlete has mastered a drill, they will either introduce a new (often more advanced) drill or progress the athlete to repetitions of the skill, usually assisted by either the coach themselves or equipment.
The frustration which faces athletes (and coaches) at this stage is that the body movements perfected in the drills will usually fall apart once the skill is actually attempted, as the athlete now has to contend with not only adding power (which will destroy the technique if the technique has not been adopted into the athlete’s muscle memory), but also the confusion which the brain experiences when a new rotation is attempted (which will also result in a loss of technical ability). Athletes and parents should ideally view moving from drills to assisted repetitions of a skill as a sort-of “pressure testing” environment, where coaches slowly add new elements to the learning process which are designed to challenge the athlete to gain greater control and awareness of their movements. Athletes and parents should ideally remember that tumbling is not always a linear progression of:
- Try the skill
- Get the skill
But that tumbling frequently follows the path of:
- Try the skill
- Perform the skill
- Perfect the skill
When an athlete is practicing drills they are practicing the skill, the specific part of the skill which the coach feels need the most attention on that particular session. If coaches were paid a dollar for every time an athlete said something along the lines of “I don’t want to work on drills, I actually want to do the skill” we would all be driving around in actual sports cars and not writing about metaphorical ones!
Once a skill has been acquired, and the athlete has mastered not only the gross movement but also the finer points, we continue to slowly add more power, so that the skill can be turned into an advanced variation (a tuck becomes a layout, which in turn becomes a full twist and eventually a double twist) or a connecting skill (a handspring becomes a handspring tuck, a whip becomes a whip to double, etc). At no point in their development is any athlete “too good” to work on the basics. Even Olympic tumblers and gymnasts constantly refresh and refine their basic skills, as these movements and principles are in all of the tumbling skills. At every point in the development process coaches are watching athletes and assessing whether their technique is correct, whether their aerial awareness is advanced enough to facilitate a safe rotation (and avoid the dreaded “bail out”) and, if both of these factors are in place, whether or not the athlete has enough power to fully commit to the skill and make it not only technically perfect, but also exciting for an audience. A great tumbling pass should take the audience’s breath away, not give them a heart attack!
The primary concern of any coach is ensuring the physical and mental well-being of our athletes, and every coach wants their athletes to enjoy a long career in the sport. Approaching tumbling in a slow and methodical process may seem like a waste of time to new athletes and parents, but it is vital to the long-term success and safety of athletes. Rushing ahead with tumbling skills can result in various injuries, ranging from chronic but manageable to catastrophic and career ending/life changing, none of which are in the best interests of the athletes, parents or clubs involved.
A good mantra for all of us to remember is not “practice makes perfect” but “perfect practice makes perfect”!