First of all, I’d like to apologize for going MIA this summer. I had to take a summer semester in school and write my graduating thesis while working full-time, so cheer wasn’t the main thing on my mind. Now however, it is. And I have a little rant about something that’s been bothering me lately. You may recall from my post about tumbling at 20 that I’ve been taking private tumble classes at a gymnastics gym. Well, when I first started, I came in demanding deadlines for every skill I wanted – handsprings by May, tucks by July, etc. The deadlines came and went, and with them came a realization – I didn’t have the skills yet, and I was okay with that. You see, my tumbling coach didn’t really care about timelines or dates – rather, she cared that I learn the skill PROPERLY, and technically correct to a tea.
Most cheerleading gyms in Canada don’t take this approach to teaching tumbling or stunting. The sport is predominantly about competition – learning routines, moving up levels, and consequently, learning skills as fast as possible, leading to shortcuts in learning and forcing the body to perform things it isn’t ready for – ultimately resulting in injury. When a gymnast learns back handsprings, she spends hours and hours doing drills to perfect the technique before throwing the handspring itself. Handsprings aren’t even taught until level 4! Some cheer gyms, by contrast will spot kids to just throwing handsprings, without teaching prior body control through hand stands and walkovers, simply because they want the team to compete at Level 2. (What’s the point of teaching you Level 1 skills if you’ll be on a Level 2 team, right?) In addition, once a gymnast learns a back handspring, she doesn’t immediately start working on tucks and layouts and fulls. Skills are learned very gradually, ensuring that the athlete attains 100% body control over every skill. In cheer, gyms expect athletes to quickly advance through tumbling skills, whether they are ready or not. As soon as a kid gets their handspring, coaches are already urging them for tucks.
This applies to stunting as well. My high school (and many high school cheer teams for the matter) was a perfect example. Our coach was a dance teacher and had never done cheerleading before, and we would just throw stunts seen from YouTube videos on the hardwood floor in the gymnasium. As a result, here I am 5 years later, still trying to break some of the bad habits I learned early on in stunting. Stunting, just like tumbling, needs complete body control to be attained progressively and evenly. We want our athletes to be able to perform new stunts with ease because they know how to control their bodies, rather than have to rep out a new stunt 500 times before somewhat sticking it. Often, new flyers will be thrown into high levels (3, 4, 5) to fit the team numbers and routine formations, because they have the tumbling requirement for that level. Then coaches get frustrated with these flyers when they have trouble in the air, and the flyers don’t feel confident that they can do it.
What ends up happening is that rather than giving athletes an even, all-around base knowledge of a level, we teach them one routine. In a year! So at the end of that year, the kids can perform one routine but not an array of individual level stunts confidently. That’s when you end up with situations like flyers being able to full down from an extended arabesque but not from a double base. There is a large focus on perfecting single stunts because they’re in a routine, rather than teaching a full range of level skill and body control. That’s also when coaches come up with more ‘creative’ ways or ‘fake’ ways to perform stunts, only so that they’ll stay up because the athletes don’t have the proper technique or strength to perform it otherwise. (e.g. fake full-ups that require the whole group execute a half-turn to complete the rotation.)
I recently went to see a Cirque du Soleil performance. Their acrobats have such complete body control that coming down from stunts doesn’t seem possible. When I watch cheerleading teams like California All Stars level 5, I also see this. Yet when I watch any of the local cheer competitions here in Ontario, there are too many teams that are dropping stunts, or ‘just barely’ keeping them up there. What ends up happening is a competition between which team is ‘less worse’. If we want to create competitive athletes, we need to focus on coaching them slowly, consistently, deliberately, and with purpose for every drill. We need to take a gymnastic-like approach and stop focusing on competing. Competition should happen when the athletes are ready for it. True, it is way harder to coach a TEAM of 25-30 athletes this way versus individuals, but it’s the only way that we’ll minimize injury and create well-rounded and confident athletes.
Every other sport offers an array of recreational classes before athletes are even allowed to compete. Not cheerleading! Recreational classes are usually an after-thought at gyms, and are mostly offered to kids under 12. Everyone else must be competitive! Tiny and Mini teams compete! But the pressure to compete doesn’t allow us to coach that full range of skills, and contributes to the taking of shortcuts in skill development. Synchro swimmers don’t learn routines before learning individual skills. Neither do gymnasts, or figure skaters, or ballerinas. So why do cheerleaders?
There is hope though, and I think coaches are starting to realize this. In particular, a new gym that opened this year in Markham, Ontario – Dynasty Cheer Academy – has made positive leaps in changing the way cheerleading is taught. By teaching every athlete from the basics using gymnastics/acrobatic-like drills and progressions, owner Travis Stirrat is striving to produce athletes who know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and who truly understand their bodies in this complex sport.
For most all-star cheerleaders, tumbling is a skill that is picked up either before cheer altogether, or is learned along with cheer at a very young age.
I was introduced to power cheer at an age where most elite cheerleaders are already competing at world’s – and here I was, seventeen and learning double-base cradles. Tumbling wasn’t much of a question – on my high school team our most advance tumbling pass was a running cart-wheel. Our routines didn’t even have a tumbling section.
Then I somehow made it on my college team, where I realized I’d have to learn to tumble pretty quickly if I wanted to continue cheering. I remember watching a level 1 team at my first competition and admiring their back walkovers, which seemed like a difficult feat to me. Handsprings felt like something I could only dream of, and people who could handspring were my idols.
So after a gruelling three-month summer of once a week tumbling, I managed to achieve a bridge-walkover. Though I had once marvelled at this skill, I wasn’t satisfied in the least. I was by far one of the oldest girls in the class, and I watched with envy as 14 year-olds tucked, flipped, and twisted effortlessly. My semi-walkover seemed pathetic in comparison. I had level 1 tumbling (barely) on a level 5 team.
I knew that if I could just spend more time and practice a lot, I could achieve a handspring. And OH, how I wanted that handspring!
I was never quite satisfied with skills I achieved, even in stunting. I wanted to get my scorp in the air so bad, and while I was happy the day I got it, by next practice I was already looking ahead to what skills I still hadn’t achieved. The same ethic applied to my tumbling. A back walkover meant nothing since the day I got it.
The following year I transitioned to all-star cheer. They didn’t have a tumbling requirement, but I knew that if I wanted to go far I’d have to tumble. I had an advantage, being a flyer, but I still didn’t feel like a well-rounded cheerleader. After all, what kind of cheerleader couldn’t tumble?
At the time, I couldn’t take any more tumble classes, because the gym was too far away from my school, and I couldn’t afford the costs either.
Finally, in my last year of university, and at 21 years old, I put my mind into achieving some basic tumbling, and I started taking private lessons at a gymnastics gym close to my school. After 3 lessons, I was doing unassisted back handsprings on the trampoline, and learning back tucks off the mini tramp. I’ve been taking lessons for a month and a half, and am starting to work on round-off back handsprings on the tumble track. I thoroughly enjoy the classes, and feel no pressure because I’m only competing with myself, and every small feat feels big to me. I hope to take my handsprings to the floor soon, and believe I can do it.
But I can’t help but wonder if my body will give out at some point, and limit my progress. After all, most tumblers start out much younger than me. The non-tumblers on my team all claim that they’re too old to learn to tumble, but is that just a restriction of the mind, or is it really possible to learn to tumble at twenty? Is there an age that’s too old for this sport? Or can willpower trump age? Does this age apply to stunting too? I’m not sure, but I’m not about to let the answer stop me from trying.