Archive for the ‘Tumbling’ category

Cheerleading Rule Changes, March 2012

March 29, 2012

This article is about the sweeping rule changes that were recently implemented affecting both high school and all star competitive cheerleading.  I’m going to address the situation in general terms, understanding that there might be exceptions, but if I went into great detail to every specific aspect of the changes, this article would be way too long.  So, with the disclaimer out of the way, here we go…

What we’re really talking about are limitations that have been placed on what skills cheerleaders are going to be allowed to perform.  That, and some age restrictions and I think a uniform restriction down the road.  If you want to know my opinion about the uniform restriction, look up my article called Dress For Success.  As for my opinion on the age limitations, check out the article called Age Appropriate.  THIS article is going to focus on skill restrictions, in general, that have been put in place.

People are understandably upset about the changes.  A lot of coaches and athletes have worked their butts off to master difficult tricks that they want to perform.  They want to stand out.  They want to shine.  What’s more, they want the competitive advantage that they have earned with the blood sweat and tears that they invested in training to progress to the point that they can execute the toughest cheerleading skills around.  After all of that hard work, the rule changes have taken that away from them, and they don’t think that is fair.

They are right.  IT IS NOT FAIR.

However, it is still the right thing to do.

Yes, I know I just said it wasn’t fair.  But it is still right.  It is the only solution to a serious problem.  The ends justify the means in this case.  And even though you might not be the cause of the problem (or at least you might not THINK you are), you have to pay the price for the greater good.  We need a safer environment in cheerleading.  The status quo was not an option.  And the coaches, the parents, and the event providers were not getting it done.  This is the result, and once again, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Before you tune me out completely, let me explain with an example.  10 years ago, people who earned $40,000 a year were allowed to borrow $400,000 to buy a house that was only worth $250,000.  Whether or not you’re a financial expert, you can probably figure out this is an example of a “high risk” loan.  Banks were allowed to make as many of these loans as they wanted.  They were very profitable.  The problem is if the borrower couldn’t pay back the loan, the banks would lose money and the borrower would lose their house.  A lot of bank took a responsible approach to high risk loans.  They used honest appraisers to determine the value of the house.  They looked at the borrower’s future income, credit history, etc.  They limited themselves to only making so many of these loans so that if some of them went bad, the bank wouldn’t get hurt too much by it.  The problem is, most of the bank were not responsible.  They gave out billions of dollars to people who could never repay it, figuring they’d just take the houses back and still make a profit when they sell them.  But then housing priced crashed.  The banks couldn’t sell the houses.  The people couldn’t make the payments.  Before you know it, we have a global financial crisis.  Folks who worked their whole, honest lives saving to retire saw their home and investments lose all of their value overnight.  Folks started getting laid off.  People’s dreams and futures were crushed.  Let’s face it.  Life as we know it changes and may never be the same.

Now, banks aren’t allowed to loan money like that anymore.  Not just the banks that screwed it up.  None of the banks.  The rules had to change because too many people were taking advantage of the lack of rules.  Is it fair that the banks that did the right thing lose the chance to make a good profit on the occasional high risk loan?  No.  It is not fair.  But the chance that someone else might is just too great.  We can’t afford another financial melt down, so before it happens, the rules had to change for everyone.  To the “good” banks, thanks for being responsible, but you’re going to have to make your money another way.  By the way, the big banks that messed everything up got bailed out by the tax payers for the greater good.  That also wasn’t fair, but it looked like the only way out of that mess.

The rule changes in cheerleading are kind of like that.  Hey, there are lots of good coaches out there doing things the right way and teaching their kids the hardest skills around properly and safely.  Those programs should not be punished with the programs that have failed to be responsible.  But just like with the banks, you can’t make that distinction.  The rules had to change for everyone before cheerleading had a meltdown of injuries.  And if that happened, the changes that would have been made could have been much more drastic.

By they way, before you assume your program is one of the innocent ones, maybe you should think again.  Do cheerleaders in your program start working on standing tucks before they have perfect standing back handspring series?  Do bases base with arched backs but no one says anything because at least the stunts are still hitting?  Are there 10 or 20 kids in the gym that cross compete of multiple teams because it is easier and quicker to have a few kids doing all the flying than taking the time to instruct every flier on the team?  Are kids that should be on youth (by age and size) getting pulled up to juniors and even seniors so the team can do harder stunts?  Believe it or not, high school girls CAN base other high school girls.  It just means they have to be taught good technique instead of being given a flyer the size of a Barbie doll.

You might have double downs in your gym, and do them safely, but if your program does those things (listed above) and other similar things, your program is cutting corners.  That makes you part of the problem too.  Cutting corners contributes to the environment where we have teams believing they have to attempt crazy hard tricks to be remotely competitive, and if they aren’t competitive, their kids will go to another gym, and then what are they going to do?

We have an environment where cheating is accepted.  Hate to say it, but it is true.  There will be teams at Worlds with 20-something year old guys on the mat competing in the senior divisions.  You and I know this is going to happen.  In fact, some of the programs complaining about the rule  changes have every intention of cheating in this way.  Cutting corners.  Instead of teaching young kids, they hang onto the ones who should be moving on.  The programs that do this and the event providers who look the other way, you’re responsible for forcing these changes just as much as the coaches who push kids past progressions and put dangerous stunts on the mat.

So now that I’ve made everyone made, please just take a deep breath.  Now exhale.

It isn’t fair.  It is not.  But it was right.  It had to happen.  Cheerleading is going to go on.  And now, maybe, cheer programs will have to find more creative ways to stand out.  Maybe programs will have to focus on teaching the less experienced kids how to keep up instead of mostly focusing on teaching elite kids a standing double full.  Seriously, where are all of the complaints about that discrepancy?

This is the new environment, cheerleaders.  The rules have changed.  You are challenged in a new way.  And that is pretty exciting.  The real competitors inside you will see that.  You have to stop feeling like a victim and move forward.  This is going to make a better cheerleading for all of us in the future.  Find new ways to stand out.  To shine.  Move forward.  You can do it.

Hardest Standing Tumbling

July 18, 2011

I’ve had a lot of readers writing it to ask about standing tumbling.  The most common request is to hear about what tricks are the hardest and/or score the highest.  I can’t do anything the easy way (ask my wife), so rather than just talk about skills and scoresheets, I’m going to go on a little rant as well.  But I promise I will ALSO answer the two questions mentioned above.

I remember when standing fulls were first coming around in cheerleading.  There were only a small handful of people throwing them.  They were freakish athletes with huge vertical leaps and incredible body awareness.  Nowadays, a lot more cheerleaders are throwing “standing” fulls.  However, they aren’t really standing.  They are taking 3 or 4 running steps backwards (maybe more), pounding their feet into the spring floor, and letting their momentum and the springs throw them over into the skill.  Don’t get me wrong, this is an elite trick.  Not everyone can do this.  However, it is NOT a standing full and should not be given the same credit that someone should get for doing a true standing full.  In fact, if you take steps into it, it shouldn’t even be considered standing tumbling at all.

Before anyone starts to argue, here is an example to help explain why I have this opinion.  Consider front tucks.  The traditional (and easiest) way to perform a front tuck is to take a few running steps, perform some kind of a hurdle (overlift, underlift or Russian-my favorite), and perform the front tuck.  This is a running tumbling skill.  No one would disagree with that.  It is not uncommon to see a level 3 team throw about half-squad running front tucks (which to me is one of the best ways to max out level 3 running tumbling).  However, when someone performs a standing front tuck, that is a true showcase tumbling move.  You’ll put that single cheerleader out in front so the judges can’t miss it.  In fact, a true standing front tuck is so difficult most cheerleaders will actually perform a toe touch before it so they can bound into the front tuck and get a little momentum. 

I’ll throw you for a bit of a loop now.  A true standing front tuck is a heck of a lot harder than one of the backward running things people are passing off as standing fulls these days.  Don’t believe me?  Take any of the cheerleaders throwing the aforementioned “standing” fulls and ask them to try a standing front tuck.  The vast majority of them probably won’t even try it.  If they do, most will land right on their seat (that’s cheer talk for “butt”).  The one’s that make it to their feet will almost certainly fall back onto their bottom (another cheer word for “butt”).

So how is that for a news flash.  A standing front, which technically is legal as a level 4 skill, is vastly harder than a standing full, which is not legal until level 5.  As for what is THE hardest standing tumbling skill, it is hard to answer.  I once saw a true standing double full (with no steps back).  That was pretty hard.  Much harder than the long, complicated passes people perform from a standing position, because in those passes, you gain momentum as you go.  They basically turn into running tumbling.  So for now, my answer to what trick is hardest is a true standing double.

Now onto the point of what scores the best.  First, you have to consider whether or not an event differentiates between standing and running tumbling.  Most seem to do so.  And most seem to say if it doesn’t come out of a round-off (or some kind of forward running skill), it counts as “standing” tumbling.  As you might have noticed, I strongly disagree with that definition, but for now, I’m out-voted.  For purposed of this article, we’ll use the commonly accepted understanding of what qualifies as standing tumbling.

Generally, to get perfect scores in your standing tumbling, you need excel in 2 aspects.  You have to show off a high difficulty squad tumbling skill.  You ALSO have to demonstrate a handful of “specialty” or “elite” tumbling tricks.

The second category is the simplest to talk about, so we’ll knock that out first.  We’re talking about standing fulls, handspring-handspring fulls, handspring-full-punch front-roundoff-handspring-double full, etc.  This part of your choreography is kind of a no-brainer.  If you have any cheerleaders on your team with this level of tumbling, FIND A PLACE TO PUT IT!!!  I think having 1 cheerleader bust out this something truly memorable like this adds about a point to your overall tumbling.  If you can pull together 3 elite standing tumblers, you are practically guaranteed maxed out standing tumbling scores.  Throw more than that and they’ll be talking about your routine next year at Worlds.  So the point is, obviously, if you have elite standing tumbling, use it.  I told you it was a no-brainer.

As for the squad tumbling, what we’re usually talking about to get consideration for high scores is some form of back tuck.  It can be a standing tuck or a standing handspring tuck.  Either way, if about 80% to 90% of your team throws (and lands) them, you will be in the high range for level 4 or 5 teams.  By the way, the 20% to 10% that aren’t throwing them, the judges notice when you “fake” it.  It does hurt your score, but not as much as busting on your knees.  So fake it if you can’t land it, but keep trying to catch up with your team.

Anyway, if a team manages to actually have 100% participation in a tuck, that can max out scores, depending on the competition.  If that is the best tumbling all day at a certain event, you might max out.  But judges will still probably hold back on perfect 10’s. 

If you want to make sure you max out your standing tumbling, you really need to throw a jump combination right into a back tuck.  You can get away with faking 1 or 2 cheerleaders, but you need almost 100% team participation.  Full squad tripple toe touch back tucks is sort of the standard judges look for to give 10 out of 10 in standing tumbling.

I kind of ranted longer than I planned, so that made the explanation part of the blog a little thin.  Sorry about that.  But I really think standing tumbling choreography is less flexible than most other parts of the routine.  That is, in pyramids, you can make up for lower difficulty with complex, creative and visual elements.  In standing tumbling, you can’t choreograph what your team doesn’t have.  You can only get so creative with presentation of standing tumbling.  So the only sure-fire way to improve that part of your scoresheet is to get in the gym and practice those standing skills.


Mental Blocks – Standing Tucks

July 8, 2011

As requested from one of our readers, this article is going to deal with mental blocks related to standing tucks.  Please keep the suggestions coming.  They are most appreciated!

Standing tucks seem to be one of the most significant mile-stones that a cheerleader reaches in their skill development.  Tucks are often the gateway trick of making the varsity team at your school or the highest level team at your all star gym.  On judging panels, “squad tucks,” still always seems to be the standard to score in the 9 out of 10 range for standing tumbling, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Lots of cheerleaders hit a road block when they start working on a standing tuck.  I believe it is very common for cheerleaders and coaches to think students have a mental block when the struggle to throw their standing tuck.  However, in almost every case, I believe this is a misdiagnosis of the problem.  Here comes a lengthy explanation…

When it comes to tumbling, most TRUE mental blocks come from the anticipation of the trick.  For instance, they are nervous about their full.  They think about it in the round off.  They undercut their back handspring.  They lose their power, and then bail out on the full.  But a standing tuck is over with in basically the blink of an eye.  There isn’t much time to get nervous.  Mental blocks sometimes occur, but I’ve found them to be rare.  In fact, most advanced students that I’ve worked with who have suffered mental blocks lose all of their tumbling EXCEPT for their standing tucks.  I have even seen standing tucks used as a therapeutic tool to help students overcome other mental blocks.

I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of cheerleaders who struggle to overcome a fear of standing tucks.  There are many.  I was one of them.  However, there is a difference between being afraid to attempt a trick and having a mental block. 

Honest fear of a standing tuck might simply be a matter of not having perfected it yet.  Remember in an earlier paragraph where I mention that tucks are often a gateway for a cheerleader to make a varsity team.  That being the case, a lot of cheerleaders rush to start learning a tuck, well before they should.  They have not yet perfected their back handspring.  They have not yet developed the lower ab and hip flexor strength to pull their legs and hips over their shoulders.  In other words, they are physically not capable of consistently landing their tuck, their body knows this, and they are rightfully scared.  I believe that this fear is frequently mis-labeled as a mental block.

Dealing with THAT type of fear is simple, but time-consuming.  I suggest taking a look at another article on this blog called Standing Tucks are Simple.  It provides some useful guidance on tuck technique. 

As for gaining confidence (overcoming fear) in your standing tuck, there are two things that will help you do that.  The first is do more tucks.  I know, I know, pretty obvious.  I had an instructor once who used to quiz us by saying, “Repetition is the key.  Repetition is the key.  Repetition is the key.  What is the key?”  Every responded, “Repetition.”  I think this saying is especially true in standing tucks.  Also, do not allow yourself to be limited to only throwing them with a spotter.  If you have to take your shoes off to throw them by yourself, do it.  If you have to use a cheese mat, do that.  Use a trampoline (under supervision, and using correct technique).  And, of course, also use a spotter.  But you are better off throwing 100 tucks with a cheese mat and no shoes than throwing 10 tucks on the hard floor in shoes with a spotter.  Remember, repetition is the key!

The other thing to help build confidence is conditioning.  The first thing you have to do is be honest about your physical condition.  I once had a young student.  She learned very quickly and was performing advanced running tumbling by the time she was 10.  But then, she started gaining weight.  Lot’s of weight.  By the time she was 13 she was 40 or 50 pounds over weight.  Not surprisingly, her tumbling suffered.  Her mom had her in private lessons and open gyms, looking for some technique that she could learn to get her to start landing her tumbling again.  News flash: there isn’t one.  You have to be an exceptional athlete to throw a tuck.  The moral of the story is be honest.  Maybe you need to tone up a little.  Maybe you need to work on your abs.  Maybe you need to improve your jump strength.  Whatever it is, as you become physically stronger, you will automatically develop more confidence in your tumbling.  Soon, that “mental block” will start to fade away.

Now to get into REAL mental blocks.  Like I said, these are rare for standing tucks.  These are when you have a well conditioned athlete who is proficient in their standing tucks, and suddenly, for whatever reason, they get freaked out and won’t throw them anymore.  I think I have seen this happen 4 or 5 times in the thousands of students I have worked with.  In most cases, it has eventually derailed their cheerleading career.  However, there are a couple of things we’ve tried that have helped, at least in the short-term.

The first thing is to video tape them performing the skill.  I actually use video as a teaching tool for stunts and tumbling, even when there is no mental block to overcome.  When a student actually sees what they are doing, not only does it help them correct technical issues, it really boosts their confidence.  By the way, everyone I’ve ever shown video of their tumbling too has commented that they didn’t look anything like what they visualized in their mind.  It makes a big difference.  Try it!

Most other techniques I’ve used involve rather advanced spotting skills.  Do not attempt to use these spotting techniques if you are not a strong spotter/instructor. 

The first is a “forced spot.”  I use this on students who are scared to even begin.  I stand next to them and count out the tuck, “5, 6, 7, 8.”  On “1,” if they do not go, I pick them up and flip them over and land them on their feet (I’m a pretty strong guy).  This is usually very sudden and a little scary/shocking for the student, even though I tell them ahead of time that I am going to do it.  Pretty soon, they are more scared of having me flip them than they are of just throwing the tuck.  They are still getting a spot, even if it is only a “mental spot” and I am not actually helping them physically, but at least they’re throwing it.

The next spotting technique is a “delayed spot.”  At this point, the student is scared, but they are throwing it with a spot.  Now, instead of starting with my hand already on the student’s back, my hand is just behind her, not touching her.  As she starts to perform the tuck, I put my hand on her back so she can feel it, and then she continues through the skill.  You can start off touching the student as soon as she bends her knees to start her jump.  Then, work your way down to where you are not touching her until just before the landing.  Also, try to get to where your arms are hanging at your sides rather than in a ready position behind the student.  All of these adjustments make the student “feel” more exposed, which allows them to overcome increasing degrees of fear.  When doing this, make gradual changes.  Do not make adjustments until the student has truly mastered whatever degree of spot you are giving them.  Also, NEVER try to “trick” the student.  If you say you are going to touch their back halfway through, you’d better do it, even if they don’t need it.  If you lie to them, you will lose their trust and you will be useless to them as a coach.  Seriously, that is no exaggeration.

This has been a lengthy article, so I’ll sum up a little bit.  Check out the article, Tucks are Simple, for tuck technique advice.  Be careful not to misdiagnosis a lack of readiness for a true mental block.  Don’t look for short cuts.  Do the work.  Repetitions are the key.  Honestly evaluate your physical condition.  If you encounter a real mental block, video tape yourself.  Watch the tape over and over.  Be able to visualize exactly what you look like.  Seek out a strong spotter and try to gradually wean yourself off the spot.  These techniques are not “tricks.”  You will not just “snap out of it.”  They take time, but they do work.  Have faith and work hard and you will get over your mental block.

Following Through

July 1, 2011

Cheerleading skills are vast and highly varied.  They include complex, synchronized techniques involved in group stunts, and simple but confident straight-armed punch motions on the sideline.  Whether you’re talking about flipping a sign during a cheer or flipping your body in a back tuck, there is one common attribute to the proper execution of ALL cheerleading skills.  The attribute can be called a lot of things, but for this article, I’ll just call it “Follow Through.”

When you hit a motion in a cheer, you have to HIT the motion.  Nothing looks more lack luster than a squad of cheerleaders going through lazy arm motions on the sideline.  A key to having good aggressive motions is confidence in your choreography.  If you are second-guessing the next motion, you aren’t going to be very aggressive or strong with your execution.  The result is that you and your team will look disinterested and unorganized.  This is a basic example.  In other instances, the lack of follow through can be much more detrimental.

Tumbling requires a total commitment to whatever skill you are performing.  When you are upside down in a tuck, you can’t afford to start second guessing what you’re doing.  You need to pull your tuck, keep your eyes open, spot your landing, and stick your feet on the floor.  You have to make the decision that you are going to follow through with the tuck no matter what before you even begin to throw it.  If you do, the worst thing that will usually happen is you might under-rotate and land on your knees.  If you’ve been around cheerleading for any length of time (or spent any time on YouTube), you’ve seen what happens when someone “freaks out” in a tuck and tries to abort.  They set up in the air, they bail out, they land (painfully) on their back, head or neck.  Follow through is what keeps you safe, not to mention, what gets you high marks on your score sheet.

I think stunting is where follow through (or the lack thereof) exposes the greatest difference between competing teams.  A squad that has put the time in at practice and has mastered their progressions is going to be confident.  A well-coached team with good communication skills, where everyone knows their job, is going to execute their stunts without second guessing.  A less prepared team might be able to hit the same stunt sequences as the first team, but that team will never look as good going them.  Here are some technique issues that will show up when people start second guessing what they’re doing.

Bases will not lock out their arms.  I’ve never understood this, but it happens all the time.  When a base is not confident, they leave a slight bend in their elbows.  Maybe this is so the flyer isn’t quite so high in the air.  I’m not sure.  But the result is that they are working harder, they are less stable and the flyer is going to feel it and struggle more than if the bases just locked out.  Listen up bases.  If you are performing an extended stunt, lock your arms out!  It doesn’t matter if it is the first time or the millionth time you have tried it.  Bending your arms will not make the stunt easier.  It will make it harder.  Follow through!

With flyers, it is even easier to see when there is a lack of follow through.  The first thing the flyer will do is look down at the ground.  This is a sure sign that the flyer is second guessing wanting to be up in the stunt.  That flyer is looking for the fastest (not necessarily safest) way to get to the ground.  They are not committed to the stunt.  They do not trust their bases to catch them.  This stunt is not going to hit, and if it does, it is not going to look good.

You can also see a lack of follow through with flyers in one-legged stunts when they don’t quite lock out the leg they are standing on.  This is the same thing as when bases don’t lock out their arms.  It does not make the stunt easier.  It simply makes the flyer work harder.  Do not do this.  Lock out the leg.  Follow through.

One final example for flyers.  One skill that I have noticed a lack of follow through a vast majority of the time is in double down cradles.  Sometimes, it is glaringly obvious.  A flyer will complete a rotation, open up and look down at her bases, and then try to pull a second twist.  This is the difference between a double down and trying to pull two single twists in one cradle.  Not only is it much harder, it looks terrible.  A less obvious mistake is when the flyer does not open up completely, but stops pulling with her shoulders and hips, slowing her rotation.  This is when the flyers land on their bellies or their sides and the bases kind of “bounce” them the rest of the way around.  Anyway, the flyers are essentially going limp right before the cradle.  This might be an instinctive reaction to try to absorb a hard landing.  However, by not completing the double twist, they are actually causing a hard landing because they are not in a good position for the bases to catch them properly.

These are just a small sampling of examples.  You can rest assured that almost EVERY cheerleading technique requires follow through.  In fact, I can’t think of any that do not.  So keep that in mind throughout your season and you will really develop good habits and consistent performances for all of your cheerleading skills.

Handstand Snap-Downs

June 29, 2011

Handstand snap-downs are one of the best, all-purpose tumbling drills to do practice if you want to improve your tumbling.  You don’t need a spotter.  You don’t need mats or equipment.  You don’t even need much space.  You can do lots and lots of them.  They’re safe.  And they help you to improve at everything from a cartwheel to a layout!  First, here is the “how to do” a handstand snap-down.

You start off with basic handstand technique.  Begin in a lunge, leading with whichever foot is your lead foot for a cartwheel.  Keep you arms stretched out, shoulder-width apart.  Your eyes should be looking on the floor about 3 or 4 feet out in front of your lead foot (which is where your hands are going to go).

Moving along, continue with the handspring technique.  Reach those hands out.  As your hands are touching the floor, you should be lifting up (kicking up) your back leg (not the lunge leg).  You should also be pushing off with your lunge leg.  As your legs rise up into a handstand, squeeze your legs together and point your toes. 

Here’s where it starts to get different than a handstand.  Instead of straightening your body all the way out into a nice, flat body position, as you begin to reach equalibrium, allow your back to arch slightly.  Your feet should be directly over your shoulders, or maybe even slightly in front of them.  Your hips will be behind your shoulders.

Also, allow your shoulders to “sag” somewhat.  This will allow you to push or “shrug” when the time comes.  Do not bend your arms at the elbow.

Since your hips are behind your shoulders, gravity will start to pull you down and out of your handstand in the direction that you just lunged from.  When you feel gravity grab hold of you, that is when you have to jump into action.

As your legs start to drop back towards the ground, use your ab

Back Head Springs

June 1, 2011

This article might repeat some of the advice in earlier tumbling articles.  You might want to go back and take a look at them for additional suggestions about tumbling and hand springs, specifically.

One of the cutest things at the cheer gym is the little Mini cheerleader throwing her series of back handsprings, bouncing her head off the spring floor each time, never missing a beat.  At that age, it is cute because they are too small to do any damage to themselves, AND because you know they will eventually learn how to straighten their arms and develop strong, accelerated back handsprings.  At least you hope they will.  Anyway, here are some tips to help you turn your HEADspring into a HANDspring.

First and foremost, lift up with your arms when you jump.  Do NOT just throw your hands back behind you and reach for the ground.  Doing that will cause you to undercut.  That is when your hands land only about a foot or so from where your feet took off from.  The shortness of the handspring is only a symptom of the problem.  The problem is that instead of using all of your strength to get off the ground and jump, you cut off almost all of your power by arching your back prior to jumping, causing you to take a backward nose dive into the ground behind you.

I wrote a whole article about accelerating handsprings that talks about how to jump correctly and avoid this undercutting.  I won’t repeat it all here, so feel free to go back and check it out if you need or want more details about it.

Here is something else to remember with your arms.  Once you have jumped up all the way and you start to arch and go over the top, keep stretching with your arms.  If you reach up hard when you jump, your shoulders will come up and touch your ears.  You have to keep stretching all the way over the top or your shoulders will reflexively relax and just fall back into place.  Your arms are still “up” but they are not fully extended.  Instead of being in line with your ears they are more in line with your eyes.  With your arms in this position, you will land in a push-up instead of in a handstand.  It takes a lot more effort to get to your feet from a push-up than a handstand, so do yourself a favor and don’t forget to keep stretching those arms!

My final bit of advice to stay off of your knees is not to crumble once you get to your hands.  A lot of people are able to get all the way to the handstand, but then they bend their elbows and land in a big heap on the floor.  To fix this, sometimes you have to go back and take a look at all of your handspring techniques, like sitting, jumping, reaching etc.  But sometimes, all you have to do is remember to keep your eyes open.  Seriously!  One of the first things I ask a student who is landing their handspring on their knees is, “What did you see right before you landed?”  The answer is almost always, “Nothing.”  Well that means you closed your eyes.  And if you closed your eyes, you were probably also flinching, tucking your head in, and anticipating the floor.  Basically, you were scared of hitting the floor hard on your hands and you relaxed to absorb the impact.

This is the exact WRONG thing to do.  When your hands contact the floor, you want your shoulders shrugged up by your ears, arms locked out and eyes looking right at your hands.  Maintaining this “rigid” frame with your upper body will cause you to bound right off of your hands, up and over, onto your feet.  If you look away and/or flinch, your bent arms and relaxed shoulders will absorb the impact, but you won’t bound anywhere.  Instead, you will stall in your handstand (or push up) and likely crumple to your knees.

If you are to the point that you can throw your back handspring safely on your own, but you are still landing on your knees, there are several things you can do to take the next step to improving.  First, I suggest video taping yourself tumbling.  You can learn a TON by watching yourself, and you will probably be surprised to see you are not doing what you think you are doing.  Also, try practicing on a cheese (wedge) mat.  If you can’t get into a gym, find a gentle grassy hill to tumble down.  Tumbling down a hill gives you a little more acceleration and a little more height to rotate, all of which help you get momentum to push over to your feet.  You can gradually work your way down the hill to smaller slopes until you are throwing and landing on a flat surface.

Finally, work on your conditioning.  A big part of rotating in tumbling is your core body strength.  That means working on your abs and your hip flexors.  Extra work on shotguns, crunches, leg lifts, etc. might be all you need to turn your HEADspring into a good HANDspring!

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…

Standing Tucks are Simple

May 3, 2011

No offense to everyone out there paying $30/hour for private lessons on their standing tucks, but standing tucks are simple.  In fact, they are the simplest tumbling skill in cheerleading, other than a forward roll.

But what’s that you say?  Standing tucks are hard?  Yes, you are very right.  A standing tuck is BOTH hard, and simple.  Here’s what I mean.  The technique involved in performing a standing tuck is not very complicated at all, making it more simple than other tricks.  However, a standing tuck requires exceptional athleticism, so it is still very hard.  As you probably guessed, this article is going to discuss the mechanics of a standing tuck.  But first, here are a few examples to illustrate my remark about the simplicity of tucks compared to “easier” tricks.

A cartwheel is much more complicated than a tuck.  It requires changing directions (from forward to backward) while inverted.  A back tuck has no such complication.  A back handspring is WAY more complicated than a back tuck.  You have to sit just right, jump at the exact right time, look at the right place, etc.  A front tuck is almost as simple as a back tuck.  The big difference is that a front tuck involves a blind landing.  After you invert, you do not see the ground again until after to you on your feet (or your seat, depending on how well you did).  With a back tuck, you should be able to see the ground about 2/3rd of the way around, with plenty of time to spot and stick your landing.

One final example to show how simple a back tuck is comes from watching guys tumble.  I have heard a million girls complain how a football player can walk into cheer practice and be throwing a back tuck in 15 minutes.  How is that possible?  Simply because they are very strong and athletic which more than makes up for a lack of experience because tuck technique is so basic.  However, guys always seem to have messed up, crooked goofy-looking back handsprings and round offs.  That is because those tricks take much more technique (and practice) to perfect.  You only need to be able to jump a few inches and be able to support your body weight with you arms to throw a handspring.  A tuck takes a lot more jumping strength and core strength to rotate.

So here are the basics of a back tuck.  First, you have to jump and reach as high as you can.  I tell people to NOT over-think the jump.  When people are thinking about a tuck, they start all kind of bad habit like jumping flat-footed (not pushing off their toes) and throwing their heads back which cut off their jumps and reduce their height.  When they just jump straight up, they don’t do any of those things.  Of course the reason for that is the most complicated part of a tuck, which is fear.  If you’re afraid of falling you might try to start your rotation early so you will at least get around to your knees, and that can cause you to cut off your jump.

The next part is really still part of the jump.  I call it the lift.  Really all I’m talking about is lifting your arms above your head and keeping your eyes looking straight ahead instead of back behind you.  This puts you in a stretched out position, and you are ready to rotate.

Tucking is what comes next.  Some people think tucking is all about grabbing your legs.  This is not true.  In fact, some people perform standing tucks without grabbing anything at all.  What needs to happen to tuck is you need to lift your hips up and over your shoulders.  It is just like doing a backward roll, only you are at the top of your jump, in mid-air.  The main muscles used to rotate are your hip flexors.  These are the muscles that attach your quads to your hips.  You also use them to lift your legs in a toe touch.  If you sit in a chair and keep your knee bent at a right angle and pick your foot 2 inches off the ground, that muscle you feel at the top of your leg is your hip flexor.

Back to tucking.  Using your hip flexor, you lift your knees up towards your hands (which should still be extended fully above your head).  You may note that I mentioned earlier that your hips rotate you, not your legs.  While this is true, your legs are attached to your hips, so where your legs go, your hips should follow.  Make sense?  Also, it is key that your feet come up in front of you as you lift your knees in stead of dragging up behind or underneath you.  It can help to flex your feet after you jump.  Failing to do so can cause your hips to drag behind and reduce your rotation.

Once your hips are rotating over your shoulders, you can grab under your legs, in front of your knees, or not at all.  Personally I recommend in front of the knees.  But whatever you do, you should not drop your arms down to your legs.  Instead, always bring your legs up to your hands.  Remember, that is what will lift your hips up and cause you to rotate.

Lastly, keep your eyes open, spot the floor and land.

In summary, you need to jump, stretch up, lift your knees, keep your eyes open and land.  The technique for a standing tuck is simple.  What makes it hard is overcoming fear, and developing the strength to jump hard enough and rotate your hips fast enough to execute the trick.  If you’re close but not quite landing, all you might need is some extra conditioning to get you the rest of the way around.

And that is why a standing back tuck is both simple and hard.  🙂

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.