Why practice DOESN’T ALWAYS make perfect!

Throughout my life I have heard the expression “practice makes perfect” repeated by coaches, teachers, and parents alike. Although the advice was given with good intentions, their message could be interoperated as “repeat something enough times and you will become better at it.” That message is at best inaccurate, and at worst is Albert Einstein’s very definition of INSANITY! For this reason I prefer the phrase Perfect practice makes perfect.” 


When learning something new, every time you practice, you take a step towards making what you learned more permanent. The science behind it can get a little confusing, but for simplicities’ sake goes a little something like this. — When you learn something for the first time, the cells that make up your brain, called neurons, build new links to each other. As you practice and repeat what you learned those links becomes stronger and the cells communicate quicker and more efficiently. As a result, when neurons later pass messages between each other in order to recall what has been learned, they will choose the path that is the most familiar. This is much in the same way that people tend to drive on the roads they know well even if there is a better route available.

Using this example, it doesn’t matter if what you’re learning is a new skill such as a back handspring, or studying for an upcoming test. The basic principle behind learning is the same. If you need proof of this, go ahead and recite the alphabet. You probably didn’t need to consciously think hard about it because you have done it so many time before that those neural pathways are well paved. Now go ahead and try to recite the alphabet backwards. Was it a little harder that time? That’s because those neural paths are not used often, if ever, so those neurons struggled when trying to communicate. The same theory applies to skills and movements you learn. You don’t think twice about hopping on a bicycle to go for a ride, but maybe you really have to focus on remembering to set when you go for your roundoff-handspring-tuck.

Now imagine what happens when we add bad, or incorrect, information into the learning mix. Suppose throughout your life you have been told by your teachers and parents that the first president of the United States was the Pillsbury Doughboy. Who’s face is on Mount Rushmore? Doughboy’s. Who is famously painted crossing the Delaware river? Again, Doughboy! After years of reinforcement, if nobody corrects you, there is a good chance you will live your whole life believing that the first great American leader was Pillsbury Doughboy.

President Doughboy seen here giving his State of the Union Address.

In that context, learning incorrectly seems pretty silly. But it becomes a much more serious problem when complex cheerleading skills, like tumbling, are learned and repeated incorrectly. Picking up bad habits by practicing skills incorrectly won’t just leave you looking silly, as is the case with the previous Mr. Doughboy example, but can actually put yourself or others at risk of injury.

Walk into nearly any cheerleading gym in the country and you will probably see at least a few athletes walking around with knee braces on. Now go ahead and ask those, now somewhat cyborg-looking athletes, what they did to their knee. I am willing to bet that nine times out of ten they will reply by saying that they injured their knee doing some sort of twisting skill.

Knee injuries often occur in twisting skills because, unlike hips or shoulders, the knee only moves in one plane of motion. The muscles that make up the thigh flex and extend the knee-joint through its full range of motion. The knee itself cannot rotate or twist side-to-side. So if somebody is twisting, such as in a full-twisting layout, and their torso has not stopped rotating before their feet hit the ground, their knees are forced to try to twist. The results of trying to force a joint to move in a way it is not meant to is an over-stretching and possible tearing of the ligaments called a sprain. Depending on the degree of how stretched or torn the ligaments are, you could be out of practice for a few weeks, or in some cases, could need surgery and be out for up to six months.

The knee’s range of motion. Note the lack of TWISTING!

Knee injuries are so often associated with twisting skills, that they were cited as a major factor behind USASF‘s controversial tumbling rule changes announced earlier this year.  Within those changes, standing double-fulls and consecutive bounding skills while twisting were banned due to the likelihood of the athletes performing those skills to still be twisting when their feet hit the ground, resulting in potential knee injuries and consequently, potential law suites. The new rule changes were seen as a slap in the face by the athletes who had worked hard to reach those skills, and by the coaches who worked hard to get those athletes to that point.

But the new rules outlawed the dangerous skills. Plus there is always going to be some people upset when people change rules. Its human nature. You can’t please everyone. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that although the rules were an attempt to discourage unsafe tumbling. The changes only treat the symptoms of a larger problem. Time isn’t being spent mastering fundamental skills before athletes are progressing onto harder, more physically demanding skills. Because tumbling is progressive, bad habits that are not fixed early on will not only affect later learned skills, but will be harder to for the athlete to correct in the future.

So how do we move our sport forward in a direction that is both safe and competitive?

That question is what many cheer industry leaders are still trying to answer. The solution will take time, research, and the effort of many event producers, gym owners, coaches, athletes and parents. Answering that question fully goes far beyond the scope of blog post. However, it is a vital part the Full-Out mission to assist in educating cheerleaders, coaches, and parents about the importance of skill progressions and fitness training in order to keep athletes safe, having fun, and performing to their highest ability.

Although it will take time for the industry as a whole to develop. There are little things cheerleaders, coaches, and parents can do today to begin making cheerleading a safer and more competitive sport. Here are some things to remember the next time you are in the gym.

Cheerleaders, remember that nearly every skill you learn is progressive. In other words, what you have learned in the past will directly affect what you are learning now, and what you are learning now will affect skills you learn in the future. The drills you do at the beginning of tumbling practice aren’t there just to kill time. Coaches have you practice them because they are the fundamentals of every tumbling skill. Remember if you practice drills incorrectly, you will develop bad habits that will come back to haunt you later in your cheerleading career. So even if it seems repetitive, boring, or a waste of time, put as much effort into that handstand-step-down as you would your double full.

Coaches, we all at some point have gotten excited when coaching and have moved kids on to harder skills even when they haven’t polished their previous skills. Or we have been pressured by parents or gym owners/directors to make some cheerleaders throw crazy layouts before they learn to properly set in a back tuck in order to max out their level 4 tumbling. I am guilty of this at times too. But it is important that we remain the professional in those situations and ACT on our knowledge of safety and experience as coaches instead of REACTING to our emotions and external pressures.

“Eh, close enough to a layout. Lets teach you how to twist!”

Parents, remember that the coaches and instructors at your gym are professionals. Just because your child isn’t currently being spotted for their back-handspring in their tumbling class, doesn’t mean the instructor is not working on teaching them a back-handspring. Drills break down complex skills into smaller pieces that are easier to learn. Jump backs onto a resi-mat, handstands, and other seemingly unrelated drills are helping your athlete learn the body movements and develop the strength needed to successfully complete more advanced tumbling skills. Trust me, your instructors want your child to progress just as much as you do, and have helped many others just like them succeed.

If coaches remember to follow the USASF guidelines they were tested on to be credentialed through USASF, athletes strive for perfection in all they do, and parents understand the purpose of the methods coaches use in skill instruction, I believe we will have safer, more competitive cheer seasons in the future.

Then again, I suppose if we just start teaching dolphins how to cheer we wouldn’t have to worry about them blowing out their knees. I think I smell a business opportunity… or maybe thats just the bucket of chum in the corner.

No, not that kind of dolphin…

I will be at Camp Woodward coaching for a week starting saturday and will not be online to post! I can’t wait to work with athletes from all over the country! If your camping there on week 11 make sure to say “hi.” Make it a good week everyone! DOUGHBOY 2012!

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