Archive for April 2011

Flyer Technique, In General

April 27, 2011

Like I always say, there are very few absolutes in cheerleading.  When I write about technique, I try to present things that work for most cheerleaders.  However, if something you’re doing works better, so long as it is safe, have at it!

Flyers, I think you have the hardest position in stunting.  My apologies bases and back spots.  I was one of you, and I definitely appreciate the skill involved in what you do.  But flyers have it much harder.  Forget the fact that everyone sees and judges the flyers every move.  After all, experienced judges will be watching and scoring bases on technique too.  Let’s also forget about the fear/trust factor.  Sure, flyers are the ones high up in the air and more at risk of catastrophic injury, but bases don’t feel all that safe when their flyer’s elbow is doing a 720 degree rotation a few inches away from their eyes, nose and mouth.  Everyone in a stunt has to deal with some degree of trust and fear. 

The factor that is truly unique to flyers (that I want to deal with in this article) is that flyers have to perform blind.  Yes, flyers can see.  However, a flyer can not see themselves.  And whether or not a flyer is doing their job (staying in the air) has everything to do with whether or not they are in the correct body position.  The bases, the coaches, the judges and the parents out in the waiting room can see exactly what the flyer is doing in the air, but the one person who really, truly needs to know if their hip is a half inch out of alignment has to try to “feel it out” because they can’t see it.

Now that we’ve established that body position is so important for flyers, and that they have to gain an instinctive ability to hit the right body positions, let’s talk about what correct body position means.  There are several popular buzz words people use when talking about flying.  The rest of this article is going to talk about some of the main ones.

The first is “Hollowing out.”  The best explanation I’ve ever heard of what hollowing out means is for the flyer to suck their belly button back into their spine while also trying to pull it up into their rib cage without holding their breath AND while keeping eye contact.  Yes, it is a lot to take in.  I try to simplify things somewhat.  The purpose of hollowing out as I understand it is to put the flyers shoulders into alignment with their hips.  That’s it.  The lifting through the diaphram that is described above is really all about preventing the flyer from “slouching,” because slouching drops the shoulders in front of the hips.  I actually do use the above description when teaching flyers to hollow out, but I ALSO explain to them how this results in proper shoulder to hip alignment.  I believe having that understanding helps flyers to hit the position more consistently.

The next most common phrase I hear is “Stay Tight.”  This is very good advice.  There is no faster way to a crashed stunt than a flyer bending their knee, and if the flyer squeezes their thigh muscle tightly, their knee is not going to bend.  One commonly used drill for staying tight is having a flyer lay on their back and lift their feet so only their shoulders are on the ground and their body is “straight as a plank.”  When I teach staying tight, I want the flyers to focus on their lower body in order to keep things manageable.  The main areas of tightness are to squeeze the seat (pinch a penny), squeeze the thighs, and (for 2-legged stunts) to squeeze the inner thighs, keeping legs shoulder length apart.  Doing that much should be enough to keep a flyer from collapsing out of a stunt.

Another commonly used phrase is to “Lift Up.”  I think this is a frequently mis-used phrase.  To me, the lifting that should take place is the hollowing out with the diaphragm.  Instead, people seem to want their flyers to lift with their shoulders so that the deltoid (shoulder muscle) is pressed against the flyer’s ears.  I believe this is a mistake.  For one thing, the shoulder is a ball and socket joint, so if you lift the shoulders enough, they will start to roll forward.  That will put your shoulders out of alignment with your hips.  That’s no good.  Also, squeezing the shoulders up like that can restrict a flyers ability to breathe.  Also not good.  I encourage flyers to keep their shoulders relaxed and to lift with their diaphragms instead.

The last phrase I will discuss is “Don’t Heel/Toe.”  The misconception related to this phrase is people believe that heeling and toeing cause stunts to go bad, when in fact, heeling and toeing is usually the result of improper shoulder/hip alignment.  If the flyers shoulders are pulled to the front, that will cause a flyers weight to shift forward and she will toe.  If a flyer’s hips drop back, that will cause her weight to go backwards and she will heel.  When the hips and shoulders are properly aligned, the flyers weight will be close to the middle of her foot, and sometimes slightly closer to the heel.  If a flyer is having heel/toe problems, I try to correct the shoulder/hip alignment.  That usually fixes the problem.  One other suggestion I make is to make “a fist” with the toes (good for locking out a shaky ankle, too).

Once again, this is just general advice that applies to most flyers for most stunts.  I’ll get around to more specific technique for specific stunts in future articles.  Also, as always, use trial and error.  Use whatever technique is safe and consistent for you!

Title Chasing

April 27, 2011

This article is based on a suggestion from one of my loyal readers (I love my loyal readers!).  The topic was about the emphasis teams are placing on being “the best of the best,” and whether or not cheer programs are too fixated on raising banners at any and all cost.  Seemed like an interesting topic to me, so here we go.

First, I want to recognize the difference between all star programs and school programs.  If you are a school program, your priorities should be to represent your school in a positive manner, to support the sports teams of the school at games, rallies, etc, and after those two (and maybe a bunch of others as well) comes competition.  That’s not to say that competition isn’t important.  People learn a lot of important lessons preparing for and going through competition.  And I think the TRUE purpose of school cheerleading is to provide a positive growth experience for the student athletes who participate in it.  But I have noticed that the school cheer teams that tend to do well at competitions are usually the better teams cheering on the sidelines too.  In other words, they seem to have their priorities in order, and they seem to work hard across the board.

On the other hand, there are way too many school teams that fixate on putting a “National Champion” banner in their gym, and not on simply working hard to be a great cheerleading program.  Here’s a bit of news for you, if your team is a great sideline/halftime cheer team, it will be a great competition team as well.  On the other hand, if your team is going through the motions at game practice and at games, they are never going to give you their best at competition practices.  They will learn that half an effort is acceptable and that’s all they will give you. 

Here’s another news flash.  National Champion banners are EASY to come by.  I hate to say this, but it is true.  Event companies are practically giving them away as soon as your registration check clears.  If all you want is a banner, just shop around for a “National Championship” that only has 1 team in your division.  Doing so is surprisingly easy.  And if another team registers late in your division and you want some insurance, no problem!  Just tell the event manager you want to switch to a different division.  There are plenty of event providers out there that will negotiate your division like a used car dealer negotiates trade ins and cash back.

Speaking of “National Championship” events, has anyone else noticed how there are like 100 different ones every year?  Some event companies even have multiple “National Championships.”  How’s that work?  If you crown one team the best in the nation, what does it say if you pack up your mats, drive 1,000 miles the next weekend and give some other team the national title?  Doesn’t seem right to me.

Anyway, on to all star teams.  It is hard to complain about all star programs fixating on competition seeing as how they do not cheer games or represent any school or organization (other than themselves).  They exist to compete, so it is appropriate that competition is their priority.  However, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about things.  I disagree with practices that sacrifice the development of individual athletes and the overall program for the sake of a quick fix for the current competition season.  Those are things like not being age appropriate (see earlier blog article for details), not perfecting basics to move on to advanced skills, “shopping” for a title (as described above in the school team section), etc.

But again, I cut the all star gyms some slack.  They are businesses and they want to make money.  In fact, they NEED to make money.  To do that, they need to have an impressive resume of titles they can advertise to lure families into their programs.  When a cheer gym is fairly new, I can understand cutting corners to get that first title.  I can understand looking for a “softer” division for one of your teams.  I can understand putting your 6th grade superstar on the youth, junior, senior and senior coed teams.  You need some success to promote your program, so for the first couple of years, have at it.  But once you’ve been in business for 4 or 5 years, it is time to grow up and compete at the big boy events.  After this much time your clients need to be satisfied with your coaching, and if they aren’t, another “Championship” hoodie from the Mega-Cheer Early-Season Leve1 4.2 Division III competition probably isn’t going to do you much good.

I’ve gone on and on and now I am going to (finally) get to the point.  The true competition in cheerleading has nothing to do with what you put on the mat.  It is not judged and scored by a panel in the back of the room.  It has nothing to do with having higher baskets and more double fulls than your rival team.  One of the truly special things about cheerleading is that the competition is internal, not external.  The hardest part of cheering is getting yourself to the gym everyday for the longest season in high school athletics and consistently working hard, getting along with teammates, fundraising, keeping up with school, and also living your life.  I promise you that if you do all of those things you will finish your season highly satisfied, no matter how big your trophy is.  If you do all of that and some other team happens to be better, you are not going to be upset.  Teams that work hard all year hold their heads up and smile at awards, even if they get second place.  Teams that cut corners cry on the floor, and if they do win a title, they really didn’t earn it, and they will probably never feel the satisfaction that comes from doing things the right way.  They will keep chasing titles that will be forgotten and trophies that will wind up in the dumpster in the back of the gym in a few years.  If your program’s goals are to work as hard as you can and to have fun, the titles will take care of themselves, or better yet, the titles won’t really matter in the big picture.

Training Barefoot?

April 26, 2011

The question is whether of not it is okay to let your cheerleaders practice tumbling with their shoes off.  The reason this comes up is that a lot of cheerleaders are stronger tumblers, for a variety of reasons, without shoes.  So, they prefer to practice without shoes.  I coached one girl who came to the gym everyday with a new excuse for where her shoes were and why they were not in her gym bag.  Of course, the reason this is an issue is because cheerleaders HAVE to perform with shoes on.  So, if you have to perform with them on, shouldn’t you get used to them by practicing with them on?  There are many arguments on either side.  Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

First of all, for almost every athlete, tumbling without shoes (on a mat) really truly IS easier.  Sometimes the difference is negligible, but there absolutely is a difference. 

Sometimes the biggest difference is mental.  Shoes can make an athlete feel less comfortable for any number of reasons.  Tumbling can be at least a little scary under ideal conditions, so making someone uncomfortable can cause them to lose focus on their technique, and then all bets are off.

Additionally, wearing shoes really does have a physically negative effect on a person’s tumbling.  A minor part of that comes from the extra few ounces of weight from each shoe.  The bigger part is that a person can jump higher by pushing all the way off their toes.  Shoes are not as flexible as bare feet.  The reduction in flexibility prevents a person from pushing off as far when wearing shoes as when jumping bare foot.  Both of the above physical differences are small, and probably not even noticeable when dealing with a very strong athlete with strong tumbling.  But when we are talking about someone who is just barely landing a skill, any small handicap can be the difference between landing cleanly or touching down.

But now to get back to answering the question.  My answer, which I’ve warned in earlier articles is an answer I frequently give, is that it depends.  Allow me to explain…

If we are working on strictly skill development, I do not mind letting a student tumble without shoes when working on a skill that they would otherwise need a spot on.  My rational is simple.  I would rather a student throw and land 50 tucks without shoes than stand in line for a spot and only get 10 repetitions with shoes on.  The athlete is working their tumbling specific muscles and getting stronger with each repetition, so more is better.  I do not believe in letting the students kick off their shoes for skills that they already have and do not need a spot on.  Once the skill is mastered, it should be practiced the way it will be performed.

Even in the above situation, I will still require a student to practice their tumbling with shoes on for part of the time.  For one thing, you do not want them getting completely unfamiliar with the feeling of tumbling with shoes.  For another, you have to be able to get a true assessment of whether or not the athlete can throw their trick in performance conditions. 

That brings me to competition and game material practice.  When working on real choreography that we are going to perform, I require the cheerleaders to practice in shoes.  If a student is not going to be able to hit a trick with shoes on, I want to find out at practice, not at the game/competition. 

A lot of people disagree with my situational approach to this issue, and that’s ok.  I do not feel like my method is absolutely the best method.  Like all coaches, I make the best decisions I can based on my observations and experiences.  Also, I am almost always changing things a little.  For instance, there was a time when I had an absolute no barefoot tumbling rule.  There was also a time when I had a no tumbling on spring floor rule (which I will write about in a future article). 

As a final clarification, I think training in shoes is better than not training in shoes.  In fact, training in ankle weights is even better than that.  There are a lot of unproven theories as to what is the best way to train for tumbling.  But one rule that I think everyone will agree on is that lots of repetitions of good technique makes tumbling stronger.  If taking off shoes gives my students the opportunity to get that, I am going to find a way to incorporate that into my practices.


April 23, 2011

I do not have a “number 1” rule of safety because there are several components of safety that I would consider indespensible.  But one of those big ones is absolutely communication.

When teaching tumbling, you can not assume that the student (or the instructor, depending on your point of view) knows exactly what skill you are performing each and ever time.  If you are the instructor, you can not assume that just because you spotted a stundent on a standing tuck on the last repetition that they are going to throw another standing tuck.  There is no such thing as spelling things out too much for your student. 

This is especially true if you are switching between performing skill and performing drills.  Referring back to the tuck example, I will frequently go back and forth between straight jumps, spotted tucks and spotted tuck drills.  In order to make sure there is no confusion between myself and the student, I will make eye contact with them when telling them what I want them to do.  I will look for them to nod back at me, and sometimes I even have them repeat it back to me so there is no way they will make the mistake of attempting a tuck when I am expecting them to be doing a jump drill.  By the way, I started using this method of communication after I made the mistake of assuming my student knew to do a standing tuck when she thought she was doing a toe touch back tuck.  Being directly to the side of my student, I got a very nasty kick from that breakdown in communication.  Don’t let that happen to you.

Communication is even more important when dealing with running tumbling.  This is because the spotter will set up where they expect the final skill is going to be executed.  If you are set up for a round off series tuck and the student only throws one handspring, you will be way out of position to assist for the tuck.  To avoid miscommunication, you simply have to use the same methodical communication style.  Do not rush through just because you have a long line of kids you’re trying to get through the class.   If you have any doubt at all, walk down to the corner and make certain that you and the student are on the same page.  When you are set up 40 feet from the corner they are standing in, it is easy to mishear something or for them to misunderstand your instructions.

When it comes to stunts, you have to be even more aware of communication.  This is because there are more moving parts.  Make certain that everyone knows the entrance into the stunt you are using (walk in, toss, single bounce, etc).  Make sure everyone knows the height of the skill you are going to0 (thigh, shoulder or extended).  Make sure everyone knows what if any transitions you are executing and what counts they are going on.  And the big one that people ALWAYS seem to neglect is to make sure everyone knows how you are going to dismount from the stunt (pop down, cradle, twist cradle, etc).

Besides knowing presicely what skills your stunt group is going to execute, it is also important to communicate who is going to be calling out the stunt.  Is it going to be you, the instructor?  Is it the back spot?  Are you counting straight through the sequence or stopping when you hit the final skill, then calling out “one-two, down-up” for the cradle?  The last thing you want is there to be confusion between the flyer and the bases as to how and when the dismount is going to occur.  There have been more elbows to backspots eyes and noses from this communication failure than I care to think about.

My final word on communication in stunts is to remember that, just like with tumbling, it is especially important to take your time and make all of your students repeat their jobs to you when you are switching things up in a sequence and/or going back and forth between stunts and drills.  It might feel like you are going to slow of wasting time by going to each athlete and getting them to verify they understand, but NOTHING wastes more time than having a stunt fall badly resulting in an injury or damage to trust and confidence.


April 22, 2011

Ever take things for granted?  That’s probably the same as asking if you’ve ever breathed air.  We all do it.  And it is a good thing when someone reminds us to take a minute and remember what’s important.  I bring this up because of a recent conversation I had with a person outside of the cheerleading community.  They suggested that some people might find it “weird” for a 39-year-old guy with a 9 to 5 desk job to be actively involved in cheerleading.  I fully admit that my first reaction was defensive and not the least bit appropriate.  After some time, I actually reflected on the question.  I’m glad I did because it gave me the clarity to remember why I continue to coach, instruct and judge.  I love the mentoring. 

The cool thing about cheerleading is that everyone gets the opportunity to mentor.  Cheerleaders on the teams mentor to each other.  Judges mentor other judges, coaches and event providers.  Coaches obviously mentor their students, and sometimes, even the parents of their athletes.  Basically, there is a whole lot of mentoring going on, whether people realize they are doing it or not.  And that is what I really wanted to talk about.  You have to understand that there is a good chance that someone is watching you, looking up to you, and trying to learn from you.  It doesn’t matter what your role is.  You have a chance to make an impression and be a good example.  And at the end of the day, if you are able to do this, then you have made a difference in someone’s life that is INFINITELY more important than teaching them a cheer or judging a good event.

Other than a few management classes in grad school, I do not have any official training in being a mentor, so take this advice with a grain of salt.  But here are a few general suggestions that I think can serve you well as a mentor, no matter what your role is in the cheerleading community.

  1. Check you ego at the door.  If you are a coach, remember that it is not about you.  It is not your team.  The team belongs to the participants and you are the caretaker of the team.  We are there to serve our students and it is our privilege to do so.  As a cheerleaders, remember that the team comes first.  You may have to be in the back row of a formation or hold a sign in the cheer.  Remember that no job is unimportant and always do your best.  To the judges, our job is to be fair and offer criticism that is constructive.  We work for the teams we judge, they do not work for us.  In our comments to the coaches and teams, we need to be respectful of the efforts they have made and understanding of how difficult it is to be a coach.
  2. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.  As a young coach, I once made a sarcastic comment to a student about what I perceived to be a lack of effort.  With great maturity, she told me she was not being lazy and did not appreciate my tone.  One of the smartest things I have ever done as a coach was to agree and apologize to her on the spot in front of the team.  From that day on, there was a greater trust among us, not to mention, a greater effort.  The same applies to cheerleaders.  And for judges, you are bound by obligation to admit and correct mistakes.  Never be afraid to say you missed something and fix it.  There is a lot going on in the routine and lots of technical issues to consider, so anyone could make a mistake.  It’s your job to get it right.
  3. Give an example through your effort.  Coaches, show up to practice with a lesson plan.  That’s not to say the plan can’t (and shouldn’t) change.  But you should not be talking in a corner figuring out what to do next while your team is waiting on you.  That needs to done ahead of time.  And it is a double standard to ask your students to show up prepared to work if you do not do as much yourself.  Cheerleaders, if you work hard, your teammates will notice and step up as well.  Remember that your actions speak louder than your words.  Judges, make sure you’ve done your homework and know the system you are judging with.  Coaches look to your scores and comments to improve themselves.  If you do sloppy work and write generic comments (point your toes on toe touches) you are just going through the motions and not serving anyone the way you should.

We all have our own style and we shouldn’t try to all fit into the same mold.  I encourage everyone to reply with their thoughts on mentoring, in the spirit of this article, as there are far too many sub-topics for me to cover.  The biggest thing I want to leave you all with it simply to be aware of the fact that people are watching you and counting on you to lead them.  As soon as you forget that, you forget what is important, and you make cheerleading just a pass time instead of an opportunity to grow and become better human beings.

Scoring Well in Showmanship

April 21, 2011

This article is sort of a request from one of our loyal readers.  (Thank you loyal readers.  Without you I would just be talking to myself and supposedly that isn’t very healthy.)  The question that was asked had to do with choreography and whether or not choreographed bits of showmanship, like everyone whipping their hair, makes an impression on the judges.  Every situation is different, but here are my thoughts on the matter.

My first piece of advice for ANY judging question is that you need to know your score sheet back and forth.  Also, to the extent possible, know the judging system of your cheer event provider.  I can tell you that there is a huge difference from one company to the next as to how judges are instructed to judge.  No, I’m not saying scores are rigged.  I’ve been on a lot of panels through the years and NEVER been told to change a score that would affect team placement.  I have been told to raise a score of a last place team so they didn’t get beaten quite so bad.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that, but that is a post for another day.

One key thing for you to know is whether or not the competition uses category judging, and if so, what are the categories.  For those who do not know, category judging basically is where one judge is assigned the responsibility for scoring a particular part of the score sheet, such as jumps and tumbling, stunts and pyramids, motions and dance, etc.  If your event uses category judging AND choreography is one such category, it is quite possible that choreography is only considered by one judge.  That has the potential to really change the significance of that category.

But here is the bigger consideration for category judging.  Most event companies that use that system expect the judges to write as many helpful comments on the score sheet as possible.  They are expected to focus primarily on whatever categories they are assigned.  If there is only one judging panel and not much time between performances, the judges pretty much have to be writing comments DURING the performance.  What that means is that if you just hit your elite stunt sequence and set them out, if you are doing a choreographed salute or hair whip, there is a very good chance that the stunt judge has their head down writing a comment about the stunt you just did.  In fact, there is a very good chance the tumbling judge was writing comments about he tumbling because they knew they aren’t going to be missing much or any tumbling while you are in the elite stunt.  These are just examples but I’m sure you get the picture.

If you are going to include choreographed displays of showmanship in your routine, be strategic about it.  The best place to use them is either right at the beginning of segment, like right before standing tumbling or a jump, or during or after a formation change.  These are the most likely times that you are going to have the full attention of every judge, especially if category judging is being used.

Personally, choreographed showmanship does not do all that much for me.  It doesn’t hurt so long as it is appropriate and not done in poor sportsmanship.  What makes a much bigger impression on me are the spontaneous displays of showmanship, such as a high-five, or someone yelling out encouragement to a teammate.  These kinds of things tell me the performers are having fun, and that makes the routine more fun to watch.  It also tells me that they are confident and strong in their routine.  If they were not, they would be busy counting or watching their teammates so they don’t run into each other.  Also, it tells me your team is very well conditioned because they have enough energy not only to perform your routine as it was choreographed but they have enough to give a little extra to the crowd and to their team.  I love this!

That’s a little bit about the very broad category of choreography and showmanship.  I will say just one more thing which is this, it’s not always what you do, but how you do it.  Do something the judges won’t forget.  In terms of choreography, that can be visual elements like ripples or level changes.  In terms of stunts it can be interesting entrances, transitions or dismounts.  In terms of showmanship, choreographed stuff is fine, but give the judges individualism and spontaneity too!

Assisting the Flyers “Seat”

April 21, 2011

(By “seat” I am referring to the flyers, posterior, derrier, bottom, or for those of you who are unfamiliar with these more polite words, the flyers butt.)

There has been much debate and disagreement on the subject of if, when, and is it ever advisable for the back spot to assist the flyer during stunts and transitions by helping to support her (or his) seat.  The more you read this blog, the more you will see me give this answer, “It depends.”  I have grown to believe that when it comes to technique, there are certainly norms that you can expect to work best in most circumstances.  However, there are always exceptions to norms.  I’m going to write about what I think works best most of the time, but feel free to disagree if you know something else that works better for you.

On to the discussion…

When dealing with one-legged stunts, such as liberties, it is pretty much universally agreed upon that the back spot starts with one hand on the flyers base leg ankle and one hand under the flyers seat.  On the way up, the back spot assists the flyer, pushing straight up to the top and then puts both hands on the ankle or as high as they can reach to assist with stability.  Likewise, when transitioning down to the ground in a double take (or retake) where the flyer’s base leg remains in the hands of the bases and her other foot “taps” the performing surface (hopefully that’s the ground), the back spot reaches up and contacts the flyer’s seat as high as they can and assists the bases in slowing and controlling her descent.  Please feel free to shout out if I’m wrong, but I believe this is commonly understood and accepted.

The debate occurs when dealing with 2-footed stunts, such as halves (preps/elevators) and fulls (extensions).  The debate turns into a full out battle royal when talking about basket tosses. 

The argument for assisting the flyer’s seat in both situations is the most simple so I will start with that.  The back spot can take some of the weight off the bases, making the load into the stunt smoother.  The back spot can help the flyer maintain her balance, assuring that the stunt will go straight up and not travel in any direction.  Doing so can make the flyer feel more secure and confident, which usually results in better execution on her part.  During downward transitions such as crunches (sponges, squishes), the back spot can assist the bases to slow and control the descent of the flyer.  I’m sure there are others, but I’m going to cut it off here.

The argument for NOT assisting the flyer’s seat is mainly that the flyer should support her own weight using her arms to push down on the bases shoulders, so it should not be necessary to have assistance from the back spot.  By having the back spot assist, the flyer becomes dependent on that assistance and never learns to support themselves.  And in the case of basket tosses, by assisting under the seat, the back spot essentially is cut off from helping the toss before the bases even get their arms to shoulder level.  The back spot will be much more useful in terms of achieving maximum height be assisting under the basket (the interlocked hands of the bases) all the way to the top when the “break” the basket.  Once again, I am sure there are other arguments to be made but I think this hits the main points.

OK, here’s where I stand on the subject…

For 2-legged crunches, I want the back spot assisting under the seat on the way down, just like on the 1-legged double takes.  I have not noticed a negative consequence of using this technique, and I have not noticed any benefit of other techniques, such as holding the flyers ankles or waist on the way back into the load position.

For halves and fulls, I teach both techniques, but we execute the majority of repetitions WITHOUT the back spot assisting under the seat.  This is because, when everything goes correctly, the flyer should not need the help.  However, if there is some kind of breakdown or slip that causes the flyer to lose her balance in the load position, the back spot can potentially muscle the flyer back into the correct position and save the stunt.  Personally, I consider this technique a short cut to teaching the flyer good form, so I prefer not to use it.  However, just like a “sweep” cradle needs to be used when things go bad, so can the old seat assist.

In basket tosses I am much less inclined to allowing the back spot to assist under the seat because it is so limiting to how much they can help on the toss.  However, I will sometimes have them assist under the seat if a flyer is especially nervous of baskets and using such poor form than she is jumping or slipping off the basket before the bases can extend their toss.  If the seat assist gives the flyer the confidence to use proper form and ride the basket correctly, that will result in a higher toss than having her assist under the basket but have the flyer sliding off.  I liken this teaching technique to giving a spot on a new tumbling skill.  Obviously, the spot has to be taken away once the tumbler is proficient in the skill.  Just like that, once the flyer is proficient in her basket toss technique, you should start weaning her off of the seat assist.

So there you have it, almost 1,000 words about whether or not to touch someone’s butt.  Not exactly Pulitzer Prize material, but I hope this contains some useful perspective to someone.  🙂

Cheerleaders are Gullible

April 20, 2011

This post is just a funny story from coaching junior all stars.  I hope you enjoy!

We had just wrapped up junior all star practice.  We had a super talented bunch of kids on the team.  Other than the first competition, they won every competition they entered the rest of the season.  As is the case with talented kids, they were what we called “gym rats.”  They were basically in the gym for hours every single day.  I think we should have been charging for day care instead for lessons.  We’d have made a lot more.  Anyway, a handful of my junior gym rats were hanging around after practice talking about things that middle school girls talk about.  It went from boys, to phones, back to boys and eventually to belly button rings.  That’s when a little devil popped up on my shoulder and MADE me have a little fun with them.  Here’s how it went down.

“Hey girls, did you know that when you have kids they probably won’t even be able to get belly button rings?”

(With startled expressions…)  “What?  Why not?  Will they be illegal?”

“No.  Not illegal.  Impossible.  Do you know what a belly button is?”

“Yeah.  It’s where your umbilical cord was when you were a baby.”

(Yes, they actually knew the word umbilical cord.  Pretty good for an 8th grader!)  “That is right.  It is the scar that is left when the cord falls off.  The thing is, they are just now starting to cut the cord with lasers instead of with scissors.  And when you cut with a laser your don’t leave a scar.  No scars mean no belly buttons.  So your kids probably won’t have belly buttons.”

(The girls were wide-eyed with sheer terror and disbelief.  For the record, I was completely making all of this up.  I guess it sounded pretty plausible.  Anyway, the conversation continued…”

“But what will people pierce?”

(No kidding.  THAT was the next thing they asked.  I just shrugged and tried to keep from laughing at them.)

“That will be so weird.  Why would they do that?”

“Well, belly buttons can get infected, so it is actually safer and more sanitary to use a laser.  The next generation will not have belly buttons at all.”

(This next part was my favorite.)

“But belly buttons are cute!!!!  I am going to make my kids have belly buttons.”

At this point, their ride got to the gym so they picked up and left.  I saw them later in the week at practice and they never asked about the belly button story again, and I eventually forgot all about it.  I had planned to tell them I was only joking but I just forgot to do so.

It was about 7 years later that I remembered the belly button story.  I had long since left coaching all stars.  I had not seen any of those juniors in years.  By this time, they had graduated high school and some were completely out of cheerleading.  I was judging a competition in Oklahoma City.  The gym I had been coaching at when I told the story was in Kentucky.  Anyway, while I was walking around the event, I overheard some girls talking about belly buttons and lasers.  I had to stop and listen.  Sure enough, one girl was telling another girl the exact story that I made up 7 years before.  I was utterly surprised to be hearing this so far away and such a long time from the original story.  But making it even more amazing was that this team was actually from around Seattle, Washington!

I can not be certain of the origin of the story I heard in OK City.  Maybe someone else made up the exact same story as me.  But I like to think that over the years my little white lie was passed from camp to competition and eventually found its way out on the West Coast.

One more thing.  As far as I know, my former little junior gym rats STILL do not know that I made that up, so if you see them around, don’t tell them so we can keep the joke going.  Maybe it will reach overseas.  🙂

Key to Running Tumbling

April 20, 2011

What is the most important part of a roundoff, handspring, double full?  Probably the most correct answer is, “It depends.”  But since I asked the question I’ll narrow it down.  The best answer is the ROUNDOFF.

If you already believe me, you’ll be nodding your head throughout this blog.  If you don’t believe me, read this with an open mind.  I think it will make sense to you.

There is an expression in computer programming that goes, “Junk in, junk out.”  In other words, if you start with lousy programming, the final product is only going to get worse.  The same is true of tumbling.

Running tumbling is all about speed.  Poor tumblers slow down through their pass.  Ever see a person barely make it over on their third back handspring?  They were probably losing speed.  Good tumbling maintains speed throughout a pass.  Elite tumblers actually speed up as they go. 

The easiest way to have good speed in a tumbling pass is to take a powerful hurdle.  Some people like hurdling out of 2 steps.  Some like 4 steps.  Some like to run across the floor.  In any case, you should be moving forward with speed at the moment you begin your roundoff. 

The whole purpose of a round off is to convert your forward momentum to backward momentum.  In other words, when you land your roundoff you want to be moving backwards at least as fast as you were moving forwards during your hurdle.  Ideally, you will land your roundoff in an off-balance position (unless you are doing a roundoff into a tuck or other upward skill).  The best off-balance position would be with your legs and feet together.  Your knees are only slightly bent.  The knees are directly above your ankles, or even behind your ankles.  Knees should NOT be forward over your toes.  Your shoulder and hips should be lines up so that your back is perpendicular to the tumbling surface.  Arms should already be straight up above your head.  Your chin should be level and your eyes should be forward, not up.  Hopefully you can visualize this.  From this position, you only have two choices.  You can do nothing and fall on your butt (ever notice that tumble means “fall?”), or you can jump, pushing off through your toes, look up at your hands, causing your back to arch, and bound into a perfect back handspring. 

So that is how you want to finish your roundoff.  And we already talked a little about your hurdle.  Now lets talk about that goes on during the roundoff.

The main thing you want to think about for a good round off is making it straight.  A crooked roundoff is a slow roundoff (plus you will take out anyone who is tumbling next to you and that can lead to much awkwardness).  The simplest way to keep your roundoff, and all of your tumbling, straight is to make it long.  The proper length for your roundoffs and your back handsprings is the length from your pointed toes to the tips of your fingers if you were laying on the ground with your arms reaching above your head.  If you are around 5 feet 6 inches, that should be a little over 7 feet.  An easy way to measure that is to go at least a foot past the width of a typical cheerleading floor panel, which is 6 feet wide.

To travel this distance without going crooked and while maintaining your speed, you want to break it up into even quarters.  The first quarter is the distance from your back foot to your lead foot (the lead leg should be in a lunge)  The second quarter is the distance from your lead foot to your lead hand.  The third quarter is the distance between your lead hand and your second hand.  The last quarter is the distance between your second hand and your landing. 

Another key to a straight roundoff is hand placement.  Something that will help your hand placement is your vision.  A lot of people make the mistake of looking at their lead foot as they enter their roundoff.  That can lead to crossing your arms, reaching sideways or not reaching out far enough.  All of those things cause a crooked roundoff.  Instead, you should be looking out at the spot on the floor that is in the middle of where your hands will land.  If you’re a math person, that is 5/8 of the distance of your roundoff.  As for your actual hand positioning, there can be some variation depending on what is comfortable for you.  But in general, you want you lead hand to have the fingers facing forward and your second hand should be turned 90 degrees, perpendicular to the lead hand.  This hand placement allows you to push (shrug) through your shoulders so you pop up onto your feet for the landing.

One final tip for a straight roundoff.  Just like a cartwheel, you want your hands to land one at a time.  If your hands both contact the floor at the same time, you might be diving into your roundoff, which will kill your momentum.  Either that or you are really reaching out crooked, and we already talked about how that can cause problems.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of a good roundoff.  Especially if you are tumbling on a non-spring floor.  During my floor tumbling career, I progressed to double backs.  Every time I moved on to a higher level trick, I would go back to the roundoff and try to improve it a little.  Sometimes the difference between landing a trick and falling on your face will be just a little extra speed and power from the roundoff carrying you through.

Age Appropriate

April 19, 2011

A trend in cheerleading that I hate is when teams pull up the youngest kids in their gym and make them flyers just because they are tiny.  In the short run, doing this might give the older teams a little easier time hitting more advanced stunting skills.  However, there are a ton of problems with this practice and it winds up hurting everyone involved.

Let’s start at the top.  The senior team that now has middle school flyers is only benefiting in the short run.  The overall team experience is going to be strained by having a majority of cheerleaders who are 15 to 18 years old, and a couple who are 12 to 14.  It is hard for a team to bond effectively with such a large age gap.  Also, judges aren’t stupid.  I assure you that when I judge a team of seniors putting a 70 pound 7th grader in the air, I am scoring down the difficulty as much as I can within the rules.  To me, that is like having 5 or 6 bases all holding a normal sized high school girl in the air.  It is too easy and your score should reflect that.

This also hurts the junior team because now you have pulled a girl off of it for seniors who is probably a flyer and a higher level tumbler for juniors.  Unless you are competing her on both teams, and that causes all kinds of issues with scheduling practices, costs for multiple event fees, and just stress on the poor girl who has to remember 2 different routines. 

For the program, this creates something of a race to get to the next age level.  Kids start feeling insulted if they are not moved up from Youth to Juniors as soon as they hit the 5th grade.  Also, if you put your best 6th and 7th graders on Seniors, they are going to get bored by the time they are 9th and 10th graders, and they will start looking for another gym.

I already talked about how unfair this is to the girl who is being pulled up.  Now, some kids really thrive among older girls and can handle multiple routines and the pressures of elite flying so young.  They are the vast minority.  What frequently happens is these kids never learn good flying technique because they rely on being small and having bases muscle them around.  They eventually hit a growth spurt.  Now they aren’t tiny anymore, and don’t have good technique which would keep them in the air.  They can no longer fly or base so they wind up front spotting or just tumbling the whole time.  This would have been avoided by keeping them on teams with girls their own age so they would learn who to properly support themselves in the air.

Even the older bases to not benefit from having the tiny flyers.  Again, in the short run, it is easier for them.  However, like the flyers, they tend to never learn the right way to base.  They arch their backs and fail to lock out their arms.  It’s all fun while they are stunting with a tiny rag doll, but when they have a normal sized flyer, they struggle and start having injuries.  Also, they have a heck of a time trying to base the girls on their high school team because there you HAVE to be age/grade appropriate.

Pulling up young flyers is a short cut and a bad one at that.  It is also lazy coaching.  It takes time and effort to instruct your team in proper stunt technique.  It is much easier just to give your high school bases a little bitty flyer.  But is that really what your clients are paying $100 or more a month in all star fees for?  Coaches should be teaching technique and not looking for the easy way out.

And for the record, you don’t NEED flyers under 100 pounds to perform elite skills.  There is no reason why 2 120 pound girls can not hold another 120 pound girl in the air.  If they can’t hold each other up, maybe they need better conditioning.  Maybe they need lots more repetitions of basic skills.  Maybe they need better coaching.

When coaches take the time to teach correct technique, maybe it means you have to compete level 3 this year instead of level 4.  But you can keep moving up over time and you will eventually get to the level you want to be the right way.  Simply pulling up tiny girls to fly on older bases lacks coaching integrity, it fails to enforce good technique, and it looks really terrible on the stage, which you SHOULD see reflected in your scores.