These two pictures both depict the same tumbling skill: a back handspring…. If they are both of the same exact skill why would they look different? These two pictures also display an all too often to be true stereotype; when doing an image search of a back handspring silhouette the image on the left is depicting a CHEERLEADER and the image on the right is depicting a GYMNAST. Both gymnasts and cheerleaders tumble on the same equipment (floor exercise) commonly doing many of the same skills but the execution of them is often very different. These two images really make you think – why should the left image have bent legs, improper shoulder angle, and improper head position when the right image doesn’t? It shouldn’t! Both images should look EXACTLY the same!
In both sports sometimes there are instances of improper form and technique but more often than not you see this problem in cheerleading because of the way the scoring system works. In sports under gymnastics (artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, acrobatic gymnastics, trampoline, acrobatics & tumbling, power tumbling etc.) the athletes start from the infamous 10.0 execution score and are continually deducted based upon their form breaks during their routine. In order to score well a gymnast must have near perfect form and technique. This “form factor” is not as heavily weighted in cheerleading and therefore there is a normally a lack of it….
Another aspect of this “form factor” is the rate at which an acrobat can continually progress. We will use a scenario as an example: a 6-year-old cheerleader can throw a back handspring and a 6-year-old gymnast is still working on a perfect handstand. The cheerleader’s back handspring makes it over but has improper positioning but she gets so much attention for being able to throw a back handspring at such a young age. The gymnast is still “stuck” on working handstands but her handstand has straight arms, tight legs, and a strong position which will allow her muscles to memorize the technique and easily apply it to harder tumbling skills. Most likely by the time both athletes are 10 the gymnast will have greatly surpassed the cheerleader. This is because learning tumbling can be compared to learning to read – it is an acquired skill progression fitting together like a puzzle. Just like a child begins to learn the alphabet, phonetic sounds, writing letters, writing small words, reading small words, sentences, paragraphs, and lastly eventually whole books a child must learn to tumble the same way. Learning basic body positions (pike, straddle, pointed toes, flexed feet) are the basis of learning to tumble; next should come learning to move the body while stretching, squeezing the muscles, learning the difference between bent and straight arms/legs; specific strengthening to be able to hold the body throughout the extreme amount of stress tumbling places on the muscles and bones; and then finally tumbling skills (rolling, handstands, cartwheels, & bridges; followed by bridge with one foot up, round-offs, handstand + roll, handstand + bridge, standing bridge, etc.). Each skill must be completely mastered before progressing onto the next or else there will be a point of struggle or bad habit just as there would be if a child only learned half the alphabet and then tried to read. Some athletes possess enough natural talent to automatically feel how to flip their bodies and learning harder skills may come easily and fast for them but if they are not completely correctly they too will hit a plateau in which their incorrect technique inhibits their talent.
Although the initial skill learning process may seem to take “longer”, the speed at which one can advance without injury or bad habits after they learn their basic skills, acquire flexibility, and specific strength is tenfold of an athlete that skips through the basics or doesn’t pay attention to keeping good form. The height which the body is able to rebound off the floor or the speed the body is able to twist/flip all depends upon how tight the muscles are kept & the technique in which the skills are executed. Correct form & technique prevent plateau. Repetition of strong basics with perfect form is just one secret key to one day being an olympic level tumbler 🙂