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.