by Andrew Villanueva
When I was young, my parents enrolled me in gymnastics. For the first few years, I stayed in the recreational program. As I progressed, I was eventually allowed to compete. Even when you are young, competitive gymnastics is serious. It requires countless hours put in week after week. Typically, the minimum will be somewhere around nine hours a week. I bring this up because gymnasts have what seems to be an unlimited amount of hours to perfect their craft. For this reason, the sport demands perfection before progression. If there is a commonality between every gymnastics coach you meet, it is that one. On the contrary, all star cheerleading coaches typically have to choose which philosophy they want to implement in their programs: perfection or progression.
I bring up gymnastics not to compare it to cheerleading, but to explain the nature of the two sports and why cheerleading needs a different approach. While gymnastics practices typically last longer, the repetitions are shorter and more calculated. This does not say that cheerleading is less calculated, but rather has more room for error. This is the beauty behind an all star routine. There is allowed to be error. In fact, the smarter the athlete, the quicker they are able to adjust in quite literally, less than a second.
The nature of cheerleading, and the nature of gymnastics are different, while they can actually learn from one another. Cheerleading practices are more explosive, and for this reason must be shorter. To practice what needs to be practiced cannot typically be done over one continuous four-hour practice. As a result, the absolute pursuit of perfection is inefficient. On the other hand, you may see some programs strictly emphasize progression. This has led to improper technique, advancement for the sake of advancement when athletes are not ready for skills, and ultimately, injuries.
What we should strive for is actually a balance between the two. Understanding how the two coincide has proved effective, efficient, and invaluable to a number of highly successful programs. Going back to the nature of the sport, too much focus on one or the other can prove unsafe or impractical. Using a combination of the two however, they work together. And I have personally seen it drastically improve the abilities of an entire age group of athletes. Aim for perfection, and you clean up skills undoubtedly. But also focusing on progress, and the athletes become significantly stronger and more aware of their own bodies. As they become more aware of what their bodies are doing, their coach is able to go back and review relatively basic skills. At this point, because the athlete has become stronger, their muscles can react faster. While their quick-twitch muscles improve, tumbling feels like it slows down for them, and finally, they are able to make adjustments you may have been trying to make for a long time leading up to that.
Now this does not go to say that kids should go home and just throw the next hardest skill they can on their backyard trampoline. The element of progression actually needs to be the opposite of that: careful, calculated, well coached, and very specific. I think most of all though, it has to be fun. Throwing new skills is always fun of course, but if that is missing, the desire to learn anything, old or new, easy or hard, will cease. And when a thirst for knowledge and improvement is absent, passion for the sport can rapidly diminish.
Applying this method will no doubt help everyone involved. It has helped me learn as a coach, learn to adjust, and best of all, learn to inspire. Often we find ourselves in a rut, doing the same thing week in and week out. But the great thing is, we can easily break that routine simply by throwing new skills sometimes and seeing how they help the old ones. Best of all, we can find the fun for the athletes, and ourselves.