Cheerleading is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. It has evolved into a formal sport recognized world-wide and continuing to grow every year. We see cheerleading at almost every level: Pop Warner and other community little leagues, the public school systems from elementary schools through high schools, private schools, colleges, and the ever-growing competitive All-Star cheer gyms. It has become so popular on the world stage that some organizers are attempting to make it an Olympic sport.
This has become a very aggressive sport as well. There is a dance element that can be very complex, stunting: where the participants are creating pyramids and flying high doing acrobatics, and performing tumbling skills. All of these skills are requirements and the difficulty levels increase at higher levels of participation. As a result, as the participant grows in the sport, the risk factors become greater.
Unlike the sport of gymnastics where the industry is regulated by a comprehensive skill developmental program, the sport of cheerleading has specific skill requirements but no regulated developmental program for the coaches and students to follow to acquire those skills. Thus, the participants, in many cases, are lacking the fundamental basics that are essential in learning the higher level skills they are required to perform.
Tumbling is one of the most difficult parts that cheerleaders must learn to achieve in order to qualify for the team they are pursuing. For the younger age groups, these skills are pretty basic: cartwheels, back-walkovers, etc. However, at the higher All-Star levels and high school programs, these skill requirements are much higher. What is the main skill objective at these levels? The Back Handspring and Back Flip!!
What many students and parents do not completely understand is how difficult these skills are and the process and time it takes to achieve these skills. There is a certain amount of risks involved in learning to tumble and proper training can lower these risks. A great analogy is Mountain Climbing in understanding ones abilities and limitations – the shallower the climb, the easier it is to climb fast; as it gets steeper, the faster you try to climb the higher the chances of slipping and falling. The higher you are, the farther the fall and the greater the risks. I receive calls all throughout the year, and especially right before the cheer season try-outs, for students wanting private lessons to acquire their back handspring and they may only have a few weeks to learn it. Many of these students have not had formal tumbling training and do not have the basic skills required to pursue learning this skill.
It is important that we educate the parents, students, and even coaches that tumbling skills are difficult to learn and the risk factors involved with training these skills. As I covered in a previous blog (Tumbling for Sport) coaches in the cheer industry should have the knowledge and experience to teach their students these skills. The instructor must be able to communicate to the student in a way they can understand every aspect of the skill they are learning. If they do not have this experience, they should bring someone in to help or refer their students to a gym that has the expertise in this area. In addition, it is important the facility or training environment has the correct tools to teach these skills safely i.e. skill shapes, mats, spotting apparatus, etc.
I have been to many cheer competitions as a coach, parent, and spectator and have witnessed many scary tumbling attempts that did not end up in a positive manner. I have seen many athletes attempting skills they have no business attempting. The results can be devastating – and may have been prevented. I have done many private lessons with students that have acquired a mental block and such a high fear factor due to a tumbling accident that they have lost almost all their tumbling skills. Many athletes who have experienced this tragedy never recover. With this said, however, this can happen to even the most advanced and experienced athlete but much more common to those athletes with little or no experience.
As the cheer industry continues to grow, more and more focus is being put on regulations and safety. Cheer programs are putting an emphasis on training their coaches and acquiring tumbling experts to assist with the growing needs of this issue. Although, all programs want to achieve positive results and win at their competitions, the primary focus should be on their participants achieving positive results in a safe and controlled environment.
What are the Do’s and Don’ts?
- Do make sure the coaches who are teaching tumbling skills have the knowledge and experience to train their athletes in the skills they are attempting to learn.
- Do make sure the athlete is at a level and has the basic skills needed to begin learning the more advanced skills.
- Do make sure the athlete is training in an environment conducive in training these skills.
- Do Not (for the coach) attempt to spot a skill if the coach is not an expert at spotting.
- Do Not have another student attempt to spot the skills.
- Do Not allow the athlete to attempt the skill without a spot if they are iffy on the result. (I have seen many times where a coach will tell their athlete to attempt a skill when they are not physically and/or emotionally ready to do it themselves. The result is usually negative)
The sport of cheerleading is a great sport and the athletes are great athletes. If you haven’t seen a competitive cheer competition, you really need to experience it. These athletes are doing phenomenal things!! I look forward to continuing my work with this industry and provide all the support and training possible for its growth and continued success.
Let’s help to keep this sport positive and keep these athletes smiling!!