Training Barefoot?

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.

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