Last summer during my travels, I watched a coach teach a one-on-one session with a cheerleader. The cheerleader was 10 years old and working on her round off back handspring tuck. She had a run that didn’t generate power, a hurdle that actually made the power she did create come to a stop, and a round off that didn’t have enough power, turn over, or snap. In her back handspring, her feet were apart, she didn’t push through her legs for the jump, the threw her head back, her shoulders were extended, she piked down her snap, and she didn’t generate any power into the tuck. The tuck of course, had no set, no hip rotation, flipped very slowly, and she barely made it to her feet.

The coach had the student warm-up her pass. As she stood in the corner, she had no clue what to focus on during the pass. She mindlessly ran, flipped, and landed. The coach walked over, told her she was throwing back her head on her tuck, showed her how to keep it in, and had her try it again. She repeated her pass, and had close to the same result. By the end of the 30 minutes, her pass didn’t have much improvement. The only thing that the lesson improved was reinforcing her bad habits.

Since I love to know the answers to all my thoughts and questions, I causally asked the coach later that day what he was working on with the student. He answered, “her tuck.” I dug a little deeper and asked him what part of the tuck, what was the focus of the lesson. He answered, “she needs to get her head in and have more power.” He was right, and I asked him some more questions. I wanted to know what specific part was he trying to change and exactly how he tried to do it. He did not have the answer.

This cheerleader took lessons with this coach every week. She had been taking lessons for a year and the most she had accomplished was a janky tuck.

Mastering skills is not an easy task. In a 1993 research by Anders Ericsson, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, he states that in order to show excellence in a skill or a sport, there must be a highly structured activity, with a clear and concise goal, detailed and specific tasks to increase performance, and careful monitoring to provide adjusted techniques to improve.

In the previous example, the cheerleader was consistently training, but there was no focus on what precisely needed to be changed, how to change it, making sure it was changed before she moved on, and preparing the girl to make those changes.

Ericsson’s research is essential to excellence in cheer. In order for that cheerleader to improve and master her round off back handspring tuck, she must have:

A highly structured lesson. If we take our cheerleader, she has many things to correct. The best place to start would be at the beginning.

  1. The lesson must have clear goals. The goal for the lesson could be to teach the cheerleader the proper technique on a run, hurdle and round off; where the arms and legs must be for optimal turn over and power. They will understand what is expected and why. They will also perform precise drills, conditioning, and flexibility exercises.
  2. The lesson must include specific tasks to increase performance. The cheerleader may not be strong enough to perform the round off with the correct leg drive, or she may not understand what is being asked of her. Specific drills must be performed to help the athlete understand what is expected of her. She must also be conditioned with cardio, core, upper, and lower body strength exercises so she can overcome any weakness that makes her unable to perform the correct body positions on the skills. The drills and conditioning must correspond to the error that is trying to be corrected. If the head is out; explain why it is important to have her head in, and train her to focus on process on how to jump with her head in.
  3. The lesson must also include constant monitoring and feedback. Letting the cheerleader throw the entire tumbling pass will not help her fix the round off. She must master the run, hurdle, and round off before she moves onto the next part. The coach must fix the error at the exact moment it happens and not allow the cheerleader to continue on with the pass. The cheerleader must feel when the error happens, and know exactly when and how to fix it.

The truth is that Deliberate training is hard, it takes constant focused work, and mastering skills only happens over time. In order for Deliberate training to work, the athlete must want to master their skills and sport.

Deliberate training is not as fun and exciting as just chucking tumbling passes. Moms and Dads everywhere constantly post videos (me included) of their spectacular child flopping through a sort of scary, but also adorable technically wrong back handspring. The quest for instant gratification overshadows the work needed for mastery of the skill that likely won’t be seen until much later.


Why does it matter? Does a cheerleader NEED to master their skills?

  1. Technically correct stunts, tumbling, jumps, and baskets will use less energy and will be able to be performed when tired and /or under pressure. The correct technique can also help reduce injury.
  2. Technique is scored on the scoresheet.
  3. There will be a limitation to amount of progress a cheerleader will achieve.

When Katie learned a full, she twisted right off the floor, piked it over, landed with her chest down, and I would gasp in fear every time I watched her. She slowly learned three back handsprings to a full, and even one back handspring to a full.

Katie’s mom was so proud of her, she posted the videos, bragged to the other cheer moms, and made sure she Katie showed the team during the next practice. As I watched Katie, I clapped and gave her a hug. Honestly, it wasn’t her fault that she learned a very scary full.

Her mom paid around $18,000 for that skill. Katie worked hard and went to lessons twice a week for three years. She was committed and wanted it more than any other goal. With hard work and dedication, she achieved her goal to be on a level 5 team.

During competition season, Katie was able to start off the routine with her one back handspring full, but as she fatigued, she had a very hard time making her running full. She pulled right off the floor and every time I was sure she was going to land on her head. Yet, she managed to pull her feet under her.

By her senior year she never really learned anything more difficult than a double full. She pulled off the floor, crossed her legs in the air, and her coach (not the one that taught her a double full) was scared she was going to blow out her knee. After NCA, her coach pulled most of her tumbling out of the routine, she was never able to perform under pressure, tired, or constantly.

Katie had the same type of training as the cheerleader earlier in the story.

Last night I saw the most wonderful display of Deliberate training. I was watching a stunting lesson. The coach was working with a level 4 flyer and another coach was doing the heavy lifting (I do think he got the bad end of the deal). For an hour the coach worked with the cheerleader.

The lesson started with a short stretch. While she was doing her splits, the coach walked over and fixed her hips so they were square to the front. He wouldn’t let her move on until she showed the body control and flexibility needed for the lesson that day. He didn’t yell, he wasn’t mean, he explained why she needed to do it and so she did. Once she showed him that she understood what she needed to do and why she needed to do it, he let her more on to the stunt stand.

She started with the basics and she had to show control and mastery before she could move on. If she made a mistake, the coach quickly stopped her and put her body into the correct position. She continued; heel stretch, scorpion, scale, and so on. The process was the same. The coach moved her hip into place, fixed her hand, foot, and chest the very first time it was out of place.

Remember, she was a level 4 cheerleader. She knew how to perform much more difficult stunts than those the coach was asking her to perform on the stand. This coach started with the basics, because in order to perform the more difficult skills, she needed to have an excellent understanding of basic body shapes, how to hold each position, and have the muscle memory and strength to know exactly where the correct position was every time.

After about fifteen minutes, she was ready for the real thing. When she hit her first stunt, it was flawless. She was balanced, showed control, and was able to hit every position the coached asked. She had mastered the basic positions on the floor and in the air. As the lesson progressed, the coach had clear plan and it was obvious.

Since she had mastered each body position, she was able to combine stunts with ease. If the coach did notice an error in her body shape, he immediately fixed it. He would push on her knee so she would straighten it, or tell her to squeeze her leg. If she went a second time with the same error, he brought her back to the stunt stand and had her show him how to perform it correctly. He never let her move on until she showed physical mastery and understanding of the previous stunt.

I sat in the parent section and my heart filled with joy. The progress I saw in that hour was astounding and the girl wasn’t even my child.

The more impressive part was that every coach in the gym worked the same way with their students. The gym that coached with a purpose, a plan, and willing participants had a program where there was limitless potential to what their student could and would learn. Every year their athletes pushed the boundaries, were creative, stunning, and were able to perform with precision and mastery.

Not surprising was the other gym. Every year they seemed to max out their level of achievement. They never seemed to be able to break through to the next level. They had talented athletes, they worked hard, yet no matter how hard the athletes worked, they always seemed to fall short.

This is no real secret. The answer is in the training. It isn’t more hours, or more training, but the correct training. The athletes must learn how to train smarter, more efficiently. The coaches must continue to take the time to teach the skills correctly the first time and all the time.

In the past it was acceptable to teach skills fast and incorrectly. It was more important to have the cheerleaders do the skills, not do the skills correctly. In the world of cheer today, it matters. Parents and cheerleaders must understand that to be competitive, to have excellence, they must practice excellence. To win, or have a shot at winning Worlds, mindlessly practicing is not going to work. There is no easy path, no quick fix, no short cut. The one and only way to excellence is through lots and lots of Deliberate training.