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Thursday, July 21, 2011

...then there was the time I saw THE WORST TUMBLING CLASS EVER.

Cheerleading clubs often share space with gymnastics facilities; because of this that I ended up observing one particular private cheerleading organization. While my child was participating in a preschool gymnastics class, I witnessed a tumbling class for cheerleaders of about 9 to 10 years old.

After a bit of stretching, the instructors (a teenage boy and girl) perched on a spotting block and had the girls line up at the end of the floor. "Forward rolls!"

The girls, in turn, performed a row of forward rolls.

"Backward rolls!" 

The girls performed a row of backward rolls.


The class continued in this manner, with the instructors calling out a skill and then observing the tumblers. Not a bit of instruction was offered. No "keep your knees together." No "straight legs." No "great job!" No assistance was offered, no technique was explained, no professional or upper level coach was present to witness this "class," and in fact no instructor ever removed their rear end from their comfy perch to be near the students. 

Because my kids and their friends are at the age where they're trying lots of new sports and activities, I'm often asked what to look for in a tumbling or gymnastics class. While watching the class described above, I wondered what the three cheerleading mothers next to me thought. In that particular circumstance, it would be absolutely appropriate to find the owner or head coach to ask if this class is typical of their gym. Give them a chance to explain, but if they defend this sort of "teaching," I'd pull my kid out right away.

Think about it: what if you paid for piano lessons, and the teacher comes in, sits across the room and says, "Go for it. Just try to play. You'll eventually figure it out." That would be completely ridiculous. Of course in the case of tumbling, you've got the added factor of safety. There's no reason a gymnastics or tumbling class can't be completely safe, fun, and effective. Here are some things to look for in your child's class:
  • Active instructors. A coach of young children, particularly beginners, should be close to the action at all times. Simply standing nearby and making eye contact and engaging the children shows enthusiasm; a coach should also be ready to offer a quick demonstration or assistance if necessary. 
  • Helpful verbal instruction. A coach should be telling your child what they're doing correctly and what they're doing incorrectly. When a coach tells your child to adjust their hand placement or straighten their legs, they're not just making the child look better, they're developing the safest and most efficient technique. A coach should also be giving the occasional positive reinforcement ("Good job, much better!"), or gentle discipline if necessary ("Pay attention!"). 
  • A logical progression of skills. Your child wants to learn a back handspring. If she is not proficient at basics such as forward/backward rolls, cartwheels, handstands, and backbends, there is no reason for a coach to use all his strength to put her through the motions of flipping backward and tell her she's working handsprings. Now, will it kill her to do that? Probably not. But it does make me wonder if the coach is, a) trying to win customers by promising them that they will learn back handsprings within a quick timeframe, or b) not educated in proper tumbling technique. (More about modern techniques for learning back handsprings in a later post.)
  • Safety. The occasional cringe-worthy cartwheel, falling handstand, or "headspring" happens to the best of kids. But if your child is encouraged to practice a skill that repeatedly makes them crash on their heads, it's time to question the coach. Not only will the child be at risk for injury, but they're certainly not learning how to tumble properly. 
  • Competent coaches. One friend told me about a cheerleading practice where the young girls were encouraged to spot each other. Red flag! Red flag! (Again, what are we paying for?) And a word about teenagers: the kids in my story above were obviously not ready to be coaching their own class, but don't be alarmed if your child has a teenager for a coach. Everybody's got to start somewhere, and teenage gymnasts are usually very enthusiastic and have had tons of on-the-job training! 
  • Efficient use of time. If the coach has taken the kids to the water fountain three times in an hour-long class, they're just killing time. An efficiently run class should not have lots of standing-in-line time. 
  • Progress. I've heard parents say they wonder why their child isn't learning many new skills. What may not be obvious to parents is that their child's basic skills are steadily improving. A coach would prefer a gymnast to have a handful of skills performed well than many skills performed poorly. It's also very important to remember that every child progresses at their own rate. Some children simply have a natural ability and will learn faster; it's not easy to explain this to the children who struggle more and have to work harder, but that's part of life and sportsmanship. 
  • Fun. That's what your kid is there for. If they are not enjoying themselves or if they find class stressful, it may be time to stop. If they're having fun, if you and your child like the coach, if the class seems professional and well-run, but your child still can't do a cartwheel--it's ok. Some kids are like that. :)
Don't be afraid to ask questions of your child's coach or the head coach at the gym if you are concerned--but try to avoid being confrontational. There could very well be a reasonable explanation for what you see. A parent at the gym where I worked once commented, rather shocked, that one girl kept falling onto her back and no one seemed bothered by it! Turns out she was watching an upper level competitive gymnast who was doing a drill meant for learning multiple rotations in the air. She was purposefully landing on her back on a resi-pit--a thick, soft, cushiony mat. 

The above advice is what I, as a mother and former gymnast, coach and judge would look for in a class. There may be other factors that go into your decision about gymnastics or tumbling class such as location and cost, but where your kids are concerned, follow your instincts and insist on safety and fun!

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