Archive for May 2011

Off-Season

May 31, 2011

This is it folks, the mythical “off-season” for cheerleading.  This is the 2 to 6 weeks you get away from the pastime that we love.  The high school cheerleaders have just had tryouts and are off until they go to camp.  The all star cheerleaders may have actually just wrapped up one more competition (they will have them in June before long), probably had tryouts, and are now free to schedule a family vacation.  Never mind that the all star kids are probably still paying their monthly fees for “optional” tumbling classes.  Your break is in terms of time, not finances.

I have often said that one of the hardest things about cheerleading is the lack of an off-season.  I mean this from a physical standpoint, in that your body never really gets a chance to recover before the start of the next season.  Cheerleaders put off dealing with injuries they incur in August and try to schedule surgery in April and squeeze 12 weeks of rehab into the 6 weeks between tryouts and camp.  No wonder we have such a high incident of injury in cheerleading!

I also mean this from a financial point of view.  You’re probably paying for tumbling lessons basically year round.  If you’re in an all star gym, you pay 11 months, minimum.  Anymore, I think most gyms have you paying year round.  If you are a school cheerleader, you probably have a “team class” that runs from August through basketball season which goes into February.  If you compete later than that, you probably keep paying for lessons late as well.  But there is no respite after the cheer banquet.  You then have to pay for open gym, tumbling classes or private lessons so you can get ready for tryouts.  These, by the way, are probably more expensive than the monthly lessons you took with your team.

But the biggest challenge of the lack of an off-season is the mental grind of it.  Cheerleaders suffer from burnout worse than any other athletes in high school.  When the football players finish their final game, they have 6 months of anticipation to get ready for the next season.  That time away from the sport gives them a chance to recharge their motivational batteries.  They work hard conditioning during their off-season, but they are away from football.  By the time the next season comes around, they are starving to get into their pads and hit each other.  Now I’m not saying cheerleaders don’t love to cheer.  But without that time away from cheerleading, we never really get to miss it.  Those few weeks off feel like heaven and dragging ourselves back to the first practice, to start all over, can be a difficult mental challenge.

I never cheered in high school.  I only cheered in college.  Our off-season was from the end of basketball, which was usually March, until just before college camp in early August.  That was a nice long break.  Most of us, myself included, stayed involved in cheerleading during the break.  I worked at gyms, taught at summer cheer camps, and worked out, stunted and tumbled with whomever was still around campus.  But I was still on a break.  And by the time camp was coming around for my team, I couldn’t wait to pack up and start the season.  We came back refreshed, healthy and motivated.

Also, most of the cheerleaders I knew who improved a lot during college did so during this off-season.  I know that is when I made the biggest improvements to my tumbling and stunting.  During the year, you are so busy you’re lucky just to maintain what you have.  That is another huge benefit of having an off-season.

I would love to see cheerleading develop a shorter season for all of the reasons cited above.  Having 4 to 6 months away from cheerleading will give athletes a chance to get themselves together, both physically and mentally.  It will give them a chance to go get a job, not only to help earn money to pay to cheer but also for the experience of working.  It will give cheerleaders some time to try other activities.  It will give them time to study.  And from a selfish perspective, it will give them a chance to get in the gym and improve their stunts, tumbling and over all athleticism.

As cheerleading coaches, we need to be mindful of “burn out” so that we keep cheerleading safe, healthy and fun.  Finding a way to extend the off-season would go a long way to fighting off burn out.

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Cheer Camp, Cost vs Benefit

May 24, 2011

With the economy still struggling and people tightening their belts to make ends meet, it seemed like a good time to discuss the cost involved in cheerleading camp.  Let’s face it, cheerleading is expensive.  And many costs are in no way discretionary.  You have to have a uniform, and these aren’t cheap.  You have to have shoes.  If you compete, you have to pay competition fees.  You probably have to pay for someone to mix your music.  And so on and so forth.  Also, one of the traditionally largest single costs of a cheer season is cheer camp.  Cheerleaders regularly drop over $300 each to go spend 4 days practicing and learning during the summer “off-season.”  Some programs have been going to the same camp run by the same company at the same location, literally, for generations.  It makes me wonder if anyone ever stopped to ask the question, “Is it all worth it?”

First, let’s consider the costs.  If we’re talking about a resident camp (where campers stay overnight at the camp location), you’re probably looking at around $250 to $300 per person.  That will include the cost of instruction, housing and meals during the camp.  Here are a few other monetary considerations.  Teams frequently buy practice outfits for each day of camp.  These can easily run $80 per cheerleader.  There is also spending money to consider.  You can bet the camp store will provide a variety of new cheerleading T-Shirts, shorts, and sweat shirts for you to choose from.  Also, lots of teams will order pizza while at camp.  And speaking of eating, you’re probably on your own buying lunch on the first and last days of camp, as those are usually travel days.  Add everything up at a resident camp can easily cost $400 per cheerleader. 

A lower cost option that more and more teams seem to be taking is the private camp.  This is where a cheer company sends instructors to your location and teach just your team.  These camps can cost half as much as resident camps.  I might do a whole article comparing and contrasting the types of camps, but for this article, I’ll just focus on resident camps.

So what do you get for your $400 besides a dorm room and campus food for 4 days and night?  Here are a few examples.

You get material; specifically, sideline chants, cheers, fight songs and dance routines.  Personally, I have always questioned the value of camp material.  First, most programs already have an inventory of cheers and do not need more.  As for dances, do you really want to be performing the same dance that everyone else learned at camp?  I didn’t think so.  A fight song can be helpful, but again, a lot of schools use the same traditional fight song year after year.  So overall, I rate “material” as pretty much a waste.

You also get instruction on stunts and pyramids.  This can be really useful.  However, it can also be a big waste.  In 4 days of camp, you are likely to only get a few hours of stunt instruction.  You can’t perfect a whole lot in a few hours.  You might pick up a few tricks that you can take home and practice, but probably nothing that you can’t get at the local cheer gym.  You also might see some “new” stunts and transitions.  However, you can probably see them on Youtube a week after camp, so that has limited usefulness.  So stunt instruction can be useful but in limited capacity.

The other main thing you get is private coaching and critique on performances.  These usually occur during “incorporations” of skills into cheers that are taught at camp.  The cheerleaders go through the process of taking a cheer and adding skills to it (jumps, tumbling, stunts, etc.), practicing it, perfecting it and performing it for judges.  This is very similar to the process of building a competition routine.  I consider this a highly useful exercise.  Having said that, this is probably something you can do at home during practice.  However, it is nice to get pointers from outside instructors every once in a while.  I know I learn something new virtually every time I watch a different coach or instructor work with a team.

So far I think I’ve made camp sound like a pretty bad deal.  Most everything you get from camp is something you can basically get “in-house” for a lot less money.  However, the one thing you cannot get at home is the same mindset that comes from being in a camp environment.  I’ll explain.

When you show up at camp, you are surrounded by cheerleading.  There are other teams everywhere.  There are posters on the walls.  You rooms are probably decorated.  Also, you have probably spent about a week or so of heavy practicing just getting ready to come to camp.  In other words, you are ready to focus on improving as a cheerleader and as a team and you can leave every other distraction back home.  This is something you can really only get at camp.

Also, there are very few things that bring a team together as much as spending a week sweating it out in the July heat during cheer camp.  Surviving camp together can unite a team right at the start of the season, and that can go a long way to having good relationships and a successful year.

True, you can simulate a camp experience, to a certain extent, at home.  But at home, when you leave the practice gym, you stop thinking about cheerleading.  At camp, you remain immersed in cheerleading 24/7.  That mindset can really make a difference in terms of improving skills AND in team building. 

As I pointed out, the expenses involved in camp are pretty high.  However, I believe there are several intangible benefits of going to camp that you cannot get through other means.  Having said that, I personally consider camp something of a luxury.  If I had to choose between spending on camp or spending on professional choreography, I think I’d skip camp.  The main point of this article is to encourage each coach and each team to consider for themselves what is the best use of their resources.  Decide whether or not it is worth it for you and don’t just go because you “always” go.

Too Big to Fly

May 12, 2011

I was recently in the warm up area of a competition.  The large room was filled with mats and those mats were filled with teams.  My team was stretching out and I had a moment to observe other teams on the floors.  Just then, one high school team marched right past me in a single file line.  It was either the bright red uniforms (I like bright colors) or the military-like precision of their movements that initially caught me attention.  But something else about this team captivated me.  Every girl who walked past our team seemed to be almost the exact same size. 

I caught myself trying to find “the little” girls in the back of the line.  Nope.  Every one of them looked like fit and healthy bases.  Each girl was between 5″6 and 5″10.  I’d guess they all weighed around 120 pounds, give or take 10 pounds.  After stretching (because a proper warm up is very important), the red team formed up into stunt groups.  The tallest of the girls lined up as back spots.  All 4 flyers appeared to be as tall as or taller than their bases.  Again, they looked fit and healthy, but anything BUT “stick figures.”

The red team has such a professional and serious approach to everything I had observed to this point (including walking into the room), so my expectations were relatively high for their skills.  But I was not expecting what I saw.  Squad Full-Up Liberties.  I think my jaw dropped a little.  Double Downs.  Not the one’s where the flyer lands sort of on her side and the bases have to “bounce” her the rest of the way.  These were full 720 degree rotations with room for the flyers to catch their bases shoulders in the cradles.  But they weren’t finished.  Reload to Crunch.  Full Up (from the Crunch!) to Heel Stretch.  Then they pulled Bow and Arrows.  By the way, there were no front spots on the stunts.

OK, you kind of had to be there to appreciate how much this team stood out.  This was not an all star team.  It was a high school.  The bases were not 200 pound guys, or even 160 pound girls.  They looked like average, athletic girls.  The smallest flyer looked 20 pounds heavier than almost every other girl in the air.  In fact, they looked heavier than some of the girls that were basing them.

By the way, this amazing red team went on the throw beautiful high basket tosses, an extensive pyramid sequence that was poetry in motion and ended the routine with 5 Single-Base Extensions.  No, not 4, like in their main stunt.  They did 5 stunts using 15 girls and the other 5 girls threw standing tucks.

Watching this team execute their skills, it would be easy to write them off as a fluke.  They are that rare “perfect” team that was somehow blessed with flawless technique.  However, this would be lazy.  If you’ve been around cheerleading long enough, you might just remember that this used to be the norm.  OK, maybe not the difficulty.  That has gone up exponentially.  I’m talking about the fact that flyers were not always freakishly small.  Somewhere along the line, we stopped putting “normal” sized girls in the air.  Somewhere along the line, instead of insisting on perfect technique, we started recruiting 8th graders in the hallways for varsity flying spots.  And over time, we have formed a mindset among coaches and cheerleaders alike that an otherwise athletic girl can be too big to fly.  We need to rethink that mindset!

It really is all about technique.  Think about a handstand.  If a 120 pound girl can hold her own body weight (comfortably) in a handstand, then she should be able to hold 120 pound flyer (comfortably) in an extended stunt.  And that is by herself.  For a Double-Base stunt, weight should not be a factor at all.  The key is to use good conditioning and to reinforce proper technique.

Speaking of conditioning, how many kids on your cheerleading team are unable to do a correct push up?  I’m serious.  I bet there are several.  Maybe even a lot.  Hey, I coached a varsity team recently where maybe 4 out of 20 kids could do a push up.  It happens.  It shouldn’t, but it does.  We need to fix this.  We need our cheerleaders to have at least enough upper body and core strength to do a push up, instead of going out looking for smaller and smaller flyers.

And speaking of technique, it comes from consistency.  It also comes from NOT giving up on a girl who has flown all through middle school and suddenly hit puberty and started growing.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are times when a flyer just isn’t working out and she needs to be reassigned to a different role.  However, an experienced and talented flyer doesn’t forget how to fly just because she turned 15 (or 14, or 13).

What has happened is we have been eroding our base of good flyers (that was a pun, by the way) by pulling the smallest and youngest kids off of their youth or JV team and putting them on the junior, senior and Varsity teams.  That means the flyers have never had to learn to be tight and hold themselves correctly because they’ve always just been muscled around by older bases.  It means bases have never had to learn correct technique because they’ve had Barbie Doll sized girls to stunt with.  Bases also have not been developing strength like they would with normal-sized flyers.  Over the years, even though difficulty has increased, technique has been getting worse.

Personally, I am tired of seeing sloppy “elite” stunts.  I am tired of seeing 8th graders flying on 12th grade bases.  I am REALLY sick of seeing the same 6th grade flyer in the same all star gym’s Youth, Junior, Senior and Senior Coed routines.  But what I am especially sick of, and what I think is at the root of the problem, is the notion that someone is too big to fly.

Liberties – How to be Solid

May 11, 2011

A Liberty is sort of the entry-level advanced stunt.  Unbraced extended Liberties are only legal at Level 3 and above.  Advanced Stunt Class at many camps require a solid Liberty to participate.  The Liberty is the gateway stunt.  Hitting your Libs means you have arrived.  You are in the game.  So it is more than important that you master your Liberty.  This article is going to offer some suggestions for things to try to get more consistent and confident in your Liberties.

Starting with the bases, it is important that you make your flyer feel as secure as possible.  This starts with your grip.  For the main base, try to cover as much of the sole of your flyer’s shoe as possible.  In other words, do not ONLY hold the extreme heel and toe of her shoes.  The more your flyer has to stand on, the more secure they will feel. 

For the side base, one of your hands should be between the main bases 2 hands, covering whatever is left of the flyer’s shoe’s sole.  The other hand should either on the ankle of the flyer if you can reach that high, or on one of the wrists of the main base to help support the flyer’s weight.  What I think generally works the best is to place the left hand on the main bases right wrist, which is the hand on the flyer’s toe.  This is because the back spot can assist with the ankle/heel section of the foot.

One more word on the bases.  Unlike with 2-legged stunts where you should be spaced as far apart as the flyer’s hips, in Liberties, you should be as close to each other as possible, chest to chest, so that you can both be under the flyer and providing the strongest support possible.

For the back spots, you have a key role in getting the flyer in the air.  You should have your left hand under the flyer’s seat (that’s cheer-talk for “butt”), and your right hand on the flyer’s ankle.  Many back spots make the mistake of setting up a step behind the flyer.  This means you will either have to step in as the stunt goes up, or you will be pushing the flyer forward on the way up.  It is better to set up as far under the flyer as possible.  Try to position your flat hand on your shoulder, like you are carrying a platter.  That way, you will be doing most of the lifting with your legs.

All bases and back spots, remember to squeeze whatever ankle, wrist or foot that you are holding good and hard.  The tighter you squeeze, the more secure your flyer will feel.  Also, that reminds the flyer that they need to squeeze too.

Flyers, you are going to get most of the advice.  Lucky you!  🙂

Getting up, not only are you going to “step and lock” with your main (usually right) leg, not only are you going to push-off of the bases shoulders (or sometimes heads) with you arms, you are also going to take a big, strong jump off the ground with your back leg.  The back leg is the one that flyers tend to forget about.  I think this is because they just let the back spot lift them rather than pushing themselves.  You want your Liberty to “shoot” up to the top as fast and aggressively as possible.  The combination of a strong back leg push and good boost from the back spot is what makes that happen.

One you’re in the air there are a couple of things that you need to do that are standard for most stunts.  You need to hollow out.  Check out the article on flyer technique if you have questions about that.  You have to lock your base leg.  You have to NOT look down.  But there are also a few things that you have to choose how and what to do…

First, what do you do with your free leg/foot?  Some people teach a Liberty to dangle the free leg, get balanced, and then pull it up.  This is done because one thing you NEVER want to do is pull the Lib leg too early.  The earliest the Lib leg should be lifted is at the top of the stunt, after the bases have locked out.  However, that means shifting your weight to lift your leg after the bases have already become settled.  I find that this sometimes destabilizes the flyer.  You can do either, but I prefer to pull the Lib leg at the top without hesitation.

When you “hit the Lib,” you should think about lifting your leg, NOT your foot.  Your foot will obviously come up underneath you, but that should be a result of the leg lifting and not the other way around.  Also, think about lifting you thigh so that it becomes flat like a table, instead of lifting your knee.  Thinking about lifting the knee sometimes causes the flyer to stick the knee forward which has all kinds of bad side effects.  Also, be careful to keep your hips level.  If you lift or lower the hip of your Lib leg you are going to lose your balance.

Some people teach to place the foot of your Lib leg against you base leg.  I think this makes the Lib look prettier.  But be careful.  You do not want to REST your foot against your leg.  If you rest your foot there, is can cause your base leg’s knee to bend or your hip to drop.  You must continue to hold you leg up using the hip flexor muscles and not just press it against your leg.

One other suggestion.  I usually start teaching Liberties with the flyer NOT pulling a high V.  I want the flyer to focus on their hips and on hollowing out.  Pulling a high V while lifting the leg frequently leads the flyer to stick her knee forward and roll her shoulders forward and the stunt falls off the front.  Once the flyer is consistently staying in the air without the high V, adding arm motions is usually simple enough.

I hope some of those suggestions and observations are useful to you.  Feel free to leave your own in the comments section!

Life After Cheerleading

May 10, 2011

I was once told by someone with more UCA College National Championship rings than he has fingers that “cheerleading is less than this much of your life.”  He was holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.  This was on the first day of the varsity season, and he was our program’s advisor.  After that, we went right into goal setting exercises.

Making this point at that moment might seem slightly at odds with the purpose of motivating a new team to work hard and reach goals.  However, not only was it strangely effective, more importantly, it prepared me for the many retirements (breaks) in cheerleading that I have experienced throughout my life.

First, the motivational effect of the statement came from two points.  The first was the person saying it.  This was a person who practically created the concept of a cheerleading dynasty.  Everyone in the room loved and respected him.  So for a person like this to make a statement seemingly AGAINST the activity that we were all there to participate in…that really grabbed our attention.  The second point was one of urgency.  If cheerleading is such a small part of our lives, we needed to make every moment we had count.  I can tell you for certain that every person on our team got that message and worked harder than any group of people I have ever been involved with.

The next lesson from our advisors remark was, to me, much more meaningful.  It was simply that cheerleading ends for everyone.  There will come a day when you no longer go to practice.  You will stop doing pep rallies and decorating lockers.  You will have participated in your last car wash.  You’ll take the mat at competition for the last time.  My observation (and experience) has been that it usually happens before we want it to.  This can be for all sorts of reasons.  Our bodies get tired (or old).  The costs become to expensive.  School, relationships, family and life in general just get in the way.  Cheerleading is not like any high school sport because there is virtually no off-season in cheerleading.  you go from football to basketball to competition to tryouts to camp.  And you have to be 100% invested the whole time.  I do not know a single cheerleader who is not stretched very thin to keep everything covered.  Eventually, you will have to say enough.

Now, the purpose of cheerleading is not solely to have fun, be popular, make friends and win championships.  Those things are fun and they are important.  But the real purpose of cheerleading is to learn everything you can before you get (pushed) out.  You need to learn about time management.  You have to learn about enduring discomfort (be it from conditioning during 2-a-days or standing on the football sideline in the pouring rain.  You get to learn how to get in front of other people and lead (be it a crowd and a cheer or your teammates at practice).  Wrap all of these things (and many more) up into a nice pretty package and what you are really learning is to be able to work harder and accomplish more than you previously thought you could so that you can break through any wall and overcome any challenge.  Yes, you can learn that from cheerleading.  And if you do that, you will be successful in your life after cheerleading as well.

In case you’re wondering, the reason for this article at this time is that I am taking an extended break from coaching, effective last night.  I’ve had some fantastic personal changes recently, including getting married 4 months ago and a promotion at work (yes, I have a non-cheerleading day job).  After a couple of weeks of trying to balance everything, I came to realize that I was not able to put as much into coaching as I wanted to.  To me, that made it clear that I needed to step out and give someone else a chance. 

Fear not dear reader.  My retirement from coaching will in no may affect this blog.  I still need to get my cheerleading fix, after all!  I’ll also still be judging and making “guest appearances” as a speaker or instructor at clinics and such.  And I think I’ll get  back into coaching eventually.  But if I don’t, I am fine with that, too.  I’ve already had a longer cheerleading career than my advisor predicted back on our first day of practice.  But that doesn’t change the truthfulness of his message to us (me).  Cheerleading is NOT life, but cheerleading IS training for life.  Use cheerleading, while you can, to learn how to dream big, plan smart, work hard, sacrifice, and follow through.  Do that and when the time comes for you to retire too, you will be able to without regrets and with plenty of preparedness for what comes next, during your life after cheerleading.

Back Spotting – in General

May 9, 2011

The job of Back Spotting is one of the trickiest in cheerleading.  As their title implies, they are key to ensuring the safety of the Flyer.  Like a Life Guard on the beach, the Back Spot must be constantly vigilant, carefully observing the Flyer’s shoulders and hips, looking for any clue that they might be leaning in any direction, and ready to do whatever it takes to stay between them and the ground in the event of a fall.

But in addition to this most obvious (and stressful) role, a  Back Spot has many other duties.  They assist the Flyer when loading in on 2 feet.  They boost the Flyer up on 1-legged stunts.  They stabilize the Flyer’s ankles.  They usually have the responsibility for “calling” the counts for a stunt.  They also should be responsible for lining up a stunt group in the proper spacing for a formation.  When someone asks me what a Back Spot’s job is, I usually answer; “Whatever it takes.”

From a technique perspective, the  Back Spot generally does not have to worry about being judged.  They are frequently key to the legality or illegality of a stunt or transition (which we will get into in just a minute), but in terms of the execution score for stunts, Back Spots usually are not seen enough to impact very much (other than keeping the stunts in the air).  About the only 2 execution errors I ever write down on score sheet related to Back Spots are if they are not watching their Flyer (ALWAYS keep your eyes on the flyer), or if they do not reach up high in the cradle.  When it comes to most everything else (how to boost, footwork, grip, etc.) whatever works is usually fine.

For legality, Back Spotting is key!  Also, as a coach, you absolutely have to be knowledgeable about your competition’s requirements for legal  Back Spotting.  For instance, some events make it illegal for a Back Spot to have a hand UNDER any part of the Flyer’s foot.  You have to know if that is the case, and if so, you have to make sure the Back Spot know that.  Things get even more specific and complicated when dealing with pyramids, transitions and single base stunting.  I can’t go into all of these examples so just understand that legality requirements for  the Bask Spot can be entirely different for every single stunt in your routine, and vary from one event to the next, so do not make the mistake of assuming anything.  KNOW THE RULES.

As I referenced earlier, Back Spots are chiefly responsible for safety.  Being safe in stunts is all about anticipating mistakes before they happen.  As a Back Spot, you have to be watching every move your Flyer makes and how those moves will affect the stunt.  You have to know that if her Liberty foot starts sliding down her straight leg her left hip is going to drop, followed by her left shoulder, and she will usually fall toward the side base.  You have to act BEFORE the Flyer falls.  If you react to the fall, you will be too late.  That is the “art” of Back Spotting, knowing when to go from “saving the stunt,” to “saving the Flyer.”  I am not trying to advocate giving up on stunts.  After all, the safest way to finish a stunt is however it was choreographed.  However, once a stunt has reached the point of no return and the Flyer is absolutely going down, the Back Spot (and the bases too!) need to release the Flyer’s foot, ankle or whatever else they have and catch her.

The safest way to catch, not only for the Flyer but also for the Back Spot, is to step in close to the flyer and catch high.  I will explain both parts of this.

Stepping in sounds simple enough but is actually the most common mistake I see Back Spots make.  When something (or someone) is falling at you, your instinct is to step away from it (or them).  If you are stepping back, this puts you in a horrible position to catch a falling flyers.  The first reason is that you have to extend your arms out, reaching away from your body, to catch.  You have much more strength when your arms are in close to your body than when they are extended out away from your body.  Also, by being in close, you can catch the Flyer with your body in the “bear hug” technique.  This is basically what it sounds like and I’m running out of space so I won’t go into details.  The last reason (and maybe biggest) is for your own safety.  When a Flyer falls, they usually reach out with their arms.  That is going to place fists, fingers, finger nails, and elbows all a couple of feet away from the Flyer’s body.  These are the things that tend to send Back Spots to the Emergency Room for stitches.  If you step back, you are right in the path of an elbow.  However, if you step in, almost under the flyer, you might get a seat (that’s cheer-talk for butt) in your chest.  You might get the back of the Flyer’s arm on your shoulder.  You might even get an elbow on the top of your head.  But you are not going to get hit in the eyes, nose or mouth.  And if you get hit in any of those places, not only do you get hurt, you probably won’t be able to catch your Flyer, so they get dropped too.

Catching high is sort of a side effect of stepping in.  There are a couple of very good reasons for catching high.  The first is gravity.  The longer something is falling, the faster it gets.  The fast something is falling, the heavier it gets.  So simply put, if you catch your Flyer higher and earlier, she will be lighter.  Another reason is that the longer a Flyer is falling the more likely she will start to “freak out,” and start flailing.  That’s when you might get that painful elbow on top of your head. 

This rather long article has really only scratched the surface of the very complex task of Back Spotting.  I hope all of you coaches (and Flyers!) really appreciate just how challenging their job is.  I have always called the Back Spots the Quarterbacks of stunts, even though they rarely get the credit they deserve.

Accelerating Back Handsprings

May 6, 2011

As I mentioned in a previous article, fast tumbling is good tumbling.  Here’s something I haven’t told you, unless you’re tumbling on a trampoline, most advanced and elite tumbling tricks are thrown out of a back handspring.  In fact, the ability to throw “specialty passes” is usually contingent on the ability to gain power and speed (accelerate) during your back handspring.  You’ve probably seen the last pass during a tumbling segment go roundoff handspring full, virtually stop, but somehow push into a undercutted handspring, but then throw a couple more gaining speed and finally end with a double full.  That elite tumbler almost got stuck because they failed to over-rotate their full (which is a hard thing to do after working most of your life on “sticking” your landing and NOT over or under rotating), however, they saved the pass because they have the strength and technique to accelerate during their handspring. 

Now that we have illustrated the importance of accelerating the handspring, let’s talk about how it is accomplished.

First, there are only 2 points in a handspring where you can accelerate.  The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter what you do, you are slowing down.  Those 2 points are when your feet and on the ground and when your hands are on the ground.  If you are not touching the ground, you have no control over what direction you are traveling, which usually means you are traveling straight down.

Now, suppose you are standing up, ready to throw a back handspring.  What is the first thing you do?  Is it to jump?  Nope.  That would be for a standing tuck.  For a handspring, the first thing you do is lose your balance.  Surprised?  Here is the explanation.  You want to travel backward in the back handspring.  That is self-explanatory.  However, you also have to invert (flip) during the handspring.  That requires a pretty strong jump.  You do not want to waste any of your strength by throwing backwards.  Instead, when you jump, you want to lift up with your arms, push off of your toes and focus all of your energy on defeating gravity.  If you throw your head back or reach back behind your head you will cut off your jump and undercut.  Not a good thing.

So, in order to travel back in a back handspring without throwing back, you must sit before you jump in such a way that you slightly lose your balance.  Now, you do not want to completely lose your balance.  Lose it too much and you’re on your seat (that’s cheer-talk for your butt).  Here’s how you sit just right.  When you sit, your shoulders should stay directly over your hips.  They should not go back more than your hips.  They should not lean forward over your knees.  Also, your knees should stay directly over your ankles.  They should not slide out over your toes.  If you bend your knees without letting them go forward and without leaning your shoulders, you should lose your balance almost as soon as you start to sit.  That is way before your knees reach a 90 degree angle.  You probably want about half that much knee flex.  You CERTAINLY don’t want more than 90.  We call that bottoming out, which is, again, a bad thing.  You can practice this sit simply by standing 6 to 12 inches from a sturdy wall and sitting against it making sure that your hips and shoulders contact the wall at the exact same time.

OK, so you’re sitting, and you’ve lost your balance.  You’ve gone from zero momentum to the speed of gravity without even using an ounce of strength.  Very efficient.  Good for you.  But now what?

Now you get to jump!  But do not jump back.  Jump up.  Lift those arms up by your ears.  Do not reach back behind you.  Push straight up off your toes.  Because you are off-balance, even though you are trying to jump up, since your body is tilted backwards, you will be traveling backwards. 

By the way, you have now added the power of your jump to the speed you started with when you lost your balance so you have already accelerated.  See how well you’re doing!

Unfortunately, you’re going to slow down a little now because you’re about to leave the ground.  Just as your toes are pushing off the floor, you should look up at your hands (not back at the ground).  This will cause your back to arch and hands to go towards the ground behind you.  This happens pretty quickly.  In fact, at the moment your hands touch the floor, your feet should only be about a foot off the ground and your hips should be catching up with (but not quite even with) your shoulders.

Now that you’re on your hands again, there are two things you need to do to accelerate.  They are done simultaneously, so don’t be confused when I list them as first and second, ok?

First (but simultaneously) you need to push through your shoulders.  This is because your shoulders are your shock absorbers when you’re in a handstand, and you do not want to absorb anything, because that will slow you down.  Think of it this way, when two hard items hit each other (like a bowling ball and bowling pin) they rebound off each other hard and fast.  However, when something soft hits something hard (like a sponge ball dropped on the ground) it kind of just lays there.  The ground is hard, so all you need is to make your shoulders hard and you will bound off the ground like the bowling pin.  That, by the way, just added power and speed to your handspring.  Well done.

Second (but also simultaneously) you have to pull your legs over the top.  This is mostly done with your abs and your hip flexor muscles.  Point you toes and squeeze your legs together (not only does that speed you up but it looks prettier too).  Do not quit pulling your legs over until your feet are on the floor.  Some people quit pulling once they get over the top and they just let gravity pull their feet down.  That’s not as fast as using your muscles, so don’t be lazy.  So now you’ve added more power and speed.  You are really moving now.

If you blocked hard off your shoulders like we asked you to, your hand will come up off the ground a split second before your feet land.  During that split second, you will lose a little of your speed.  That’s ok.  You have more than made up for it with the rest of your effort and technique.  Assuming you want to continue to accelerate into another handspring, you want to land in the exact same position that you sat into in the first place (knees over ankles, shoulders over hips, arms by ears, eyes looking forward).  Now you are going even faster because you do not have to take the time to sit, you are ALREADY off-balance.

So now you know how (and why) to accelerate your back handspring.  Eventually, you will need to convert that backward momentum into upward momentum.  That is called “blocking,” but that is a topic for another day…