The most common and most performed tumbling skills in sports that entail tumbling as part of their structure is back tumbling. This includes back handsprings and the many varieties of backward somersaults. Although front tumbling has grown as a major element in the gymnastics industry, it is not used as often in the cheer and dance industries. Front tumbling has an entirely different dynamic than back tumbling – and it is considered by many to be more difficult. In this discussion, I will share my thoughts on the dynamics, training, and development of front tumbling skills.
Just as in back tumbling skills, front tumbling skills also build from a foundation of basic elements. Developing great technique in the basic elements of front tumbling, such as the forward rolls, handstands, front limbers and walkovers, will allow the students to progress more easily to the more difficult skills (Basics of Tumbling – From the Beginning).
One major difference between front and back tumbling is the emotional factors involved in each. For most athletes, front tumbling does not carry the same fear factor as back tumbling. Since we are accustomed to move in a forward motion throughout almost every activity, it is more natural and comfortable to move in this direction.
I have trained and worked with many athletes who are simply afraid to go backwards. Even through basic development, going backward is “scary” for many. It is rare to find an athlete with a mental block of tumbling forward, but very common in back tumbling. There is certainly a higher risk factor in back tumbling and, if not developed in a safe and experienced environment, accidents and injury can occur (Confidence and the Mental Block). This is, in most cases, the reason why mental blocks are created.
Even though front tumbling may be less scary and have a lower risk factor, it is more difficult to perform correctly. For example, a standing back handspring and back truck are fundamental skills for the developed athlete. However, standing front handsprings and front tucks are very difficult and rarely performed. Most front tumbling skills, with the exception of the front limbers and walk-overs, require a certain amount of momentum in performing the skill. Front handsprings, front aerials, and front somersaults all are typically performed with a run, hurdle prior to the skill.
Why is front tumbling so much more difficult? In my opinion, it is technically more complex and requires stronger body control and effort to accomplish. It may not be as scary, but it is more difficult to learn correctly. For the skills to be performed correctly, the athletes must have acquired the correct body and arm positioning to progress though the skills. In addition to strength and aggression, flexibility also plays a major role in several of the front tumbling elements. For example, the front limbers, walk-overs, and front aerials require a great deal flexibility in the back and shoulders.
Many athletes are simply born with this trait, but many others must work years to develop the type of flexibility required in these skills (Flexibility: A Benefit to Success). I myself struggled with flexibility as it did not come naturally. It took me many years to learn the splits and my back flexibility was never great. In fact, I performed a back walk-over in a floor routine at one time and my coach told me to never do it again. I guess it wasn’t that great!!
Front tumbling consists mostly of front walkovers, front handsprings (landing on two feet or step-out), and front somersaults of different varieties. Each industry has its own specific needs and requirements. In the gymnastics industry, the students must learn to develop the front handsprings landing on two feet. It is a required element in the compulsory routine and is necessary for connecting front somersault skills. However, in the cheer and dance industries, the front handspring is most commonly seen with a step-out.
Much of this industry difference is due to the surface used in the training and performance process. In the gymnastics and all-star cheer industry, the athletes train and perform on a spring floor. In the dance programs and cheer community and school programs, the athletes perform on a non-spring floor. The differences are almost like night and day with the two floor types.
In the cheer and dance industries, the most common front tumbling skill is the front handspring step-out or front walk-over. Not only is this a progressive skill that leads to combination passes, it is also not as physically demanding on the body upon landing. It is also more conducive for tumbling on a non-spring floor or a wood or marley floor. The front handspring step-out is a great skill to use for combination passes. The athlete can proceed to connect other skills such as multiple front handsprings, round-offs, etc.
The well-rounded tumbler will have acquired both front and back tumbling skills. Both require their own set of training drills. These drills and elements should be a part of the training curriculum, especially at the beginner levels. As in all skill development, if the basics are learned correctly, the athlete will have a much greater chance of succeeding in progressing through the more advanced skills.