To become a great athlete, it take many years of training, focus and motivation. Many hours are spent in the gym working on complicated skills – some with high risk factors. Many gyms have all kinds of creative equipment to assist the athletes as they train and perform numerous drills to learn all the correct techniques. One of the essential aspects in developing skills is the role the coach plays and their ability to properly aid the athlete in the execution of the skill. In this discussion, I will focus on the art of spotting and how this one factor can make or break the confidence and potential success of the athlete.
The art of spotting can be considered a sport in itself. It is definitely a skill set that must be learned and practiced consistently to ensure success. Coaches need to learn how to spot skills properly so as not to interfere with the athlete’s execution of the skill. In all sports or activities that involve acrobatic skills, spotting is requisite to skill development. From the most basic skills to the most advanced, spotting is used and important in the development and safety of the athlete. Spotting entails complicated body movements, hand placements, coordination, and focus. In addition, spotting takes strength!! I have seen amazing spotting skills in gymnastics and it is apparent that these coaches are well-trained and experienced. Spotting even the most basic skills need training. When training my new coaches how to spot, they are always very sore the first few weeks of working classes. It is definitely the most physical part of the coaching experience.
Learning to spot skills is a very important element in the development of athletes, whether it is for gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, or other sports where the athletes are learning to manipulate their bodies in motion. What are the objectives of spotting? First and foremost, Safety!! But it’s also to assist the athlete in maintaining proper body position throughout the skill, and is the first stepping stone in building their confidence toward ultimately doing the skill unassisted. At every level of sport, the athletes are learning skills that could potentially cause some type of bodily injury. Even skills as simple as a forward and backward roll where the students are rolling over their heads, the instructor needs to know how to physically assist the students to prevent undue pressure on the body. As the skills become more difficult and complex, so must the spotting technique.
To provide this safety net in the athletes’ development, coaches need to have the skills necessary to spot correctly. I have seen many cases where coaches are not spotting correctly or spotting someone they shouldn’t be spotting. Many times resulting in a fall or accident. The coach not only needs to know their limitations, but also to closely evaluate the student and their abilities before attempting a skill with a spot. This is why it is so important the coach has the knowledge to train their specific level (as discussed in my post The Technique Controversy). For example, a student should not be trained on a back handspring if they have not mastered the basic elements leading up to that skill: ie, back limber or back walkover, handstand, etc. In addition, the coach should not try to spot a student if they are not physically strong enough to support that student. I have seen this often and it usually always results in a fall. Students and parents need to be educated on the risks involved with attempting skills with an inexperienced spotter assisting them. I have had students become injured because of their attempt at a skill at home and have a friend or teammate trying to spot them. This is dangerous!!
The instructor’s job is to protect the athlete and minimize the possibility of an injury. In doing so, however, there are risks to the instructor as well. In some cases, the instructor must sacrifice their own physical well-being in order to save an athlete from physical harm. Some common injuries include: ruptured or torn bicep tendons, shoulder and back injuries, and broken noses. I’ve actually had my nose broken so badly it required surgery. These are risks the instructors are taking when developing athletes. If the instructor is timid or afraid of getting hurt themselves, then they should not be spotting the student.
Spotting skills do become necessary especially as the athlete is transitioning from drill training to performing the skill without the assistance of equipment training. The coach needs to make sure the athlete is physically and emotionally ready for this transition. In developing skills, the emotional factor can many times outweigh the physical factor. Fear factors are a concern that must be dealt with in every athlete. Some students have a very low fear factor and some students have extreme fear factors. This should always be considered when training athletes. In my programs, the coaches are not permitted to force a child to attempt a skill they are not emotionally ready to perform even if the student performs the skill perfectly with a “pretend spot” (the hand is there but not doing a thing). We encourage, but do not force. Trust is a major element in the relationship between athlete and spotter. For the athlete to give 100% effort, they must completely trust that the spotter will protect them in the event of mental or execution mistake. If the spotter fails in their attempt resulting in an injury, all trust may be lost.
I have worked with many students who have developed a “mental block” with their skills. This is a common and serious issue that if not overcome, may result in the end of a students athletic career. There are many causes of mental blocks but one common reason is due to an accident the student suffered. Many of these accidents may have been prevented if proper training and spotting was in effect. An experienced instructor should know the limitations of their students which will highly reduce the risks of an accident. In many programs, especially in the sport of gymnastics and cheerleading, there are difficulty requirements at each level. Coaches should not place a student in a position to perform or attempt skills they have no t been trained to successfully perform. When a student develops a serious mental block and the coach is not successful in repairing the issue, there are professional sports psychologists that are trained to evaluate and help these athletes overcome this problem.
There are many clinics, camps, and seminars held throughout the country that is designed to assist coaches and athletes in development. Many of the discussions are based on skill technique, training methods, and class structure. However, I have seen little attention to the training of how to actually spot skills. This is an issue that should be addressed at every level, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels of sport as this supports the majority of sport participation. I train all my staff on the correct way to spot skills. As mentioned earlier, there is a technique to spotting every skill and the coach should be effective in this technique to protect the student from potential accidents.
Injury prevention should be at the for-front of every sports program. In the development of skills, there are many different types of training equipment that is designed to assist the athlete in training. For tumbling skills, there are matting shapes that are used for skill development. Some are wedges, octagons, panel mats used in different manners, back handspring trainers like the Resilite Smarter Spotter. Coaches need to utilize these tools as they train their athletes for the safety of the athletes and themselves. Why physically spot back handsprings for a developing athlete when there are tools the athlete can use without the physical strain on the coach? These tools should be used in a consistent manner.
Please let me know your thoughts on this subject and I would be glad to answer any questions or concerns you may have. Please like and share with your groups and contacts as this post can be beneficial to many in sports, including coaches, athletes, and parents of athletes.