Cheerleading and Tumbling, Skill Development

The Art of Spotting

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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.

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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!!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Cheerleading and Tumbling, Coaching, Skill Development, Training

Tumbling and the Cheerleader

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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.

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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!!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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Let’s help to keep this sport positive and keep these athletes smiling!!