Spotting is both one of my favorite and least favorite parts of being a gymnastics coach. The only time it is my least favorite is when you have the kid that depends on you for assistance. Those “will you just stand there” or “will you just touch me” kids. Thankfully, I only have to deal with that in my gym rarely, if ever. I tell my kids this… I will spot you and make sure you have the right feelings and the skills are safe. I will ease off the spot as you get better and when I tell you it is ready I will be absolutely sure and I will expect you to do it. I will not tell you to do something that I don’t believe in, such as… yeah you can do your back handspring. Do it by yourself. I try to spot them ’till their mistakes are still safe. Like the back handspring… I want to make sure they at least know how to rotate and flip over before I ever consider letting them do it solo. Their bad turns with spot should still be safe. Another thing I always tell the kids that has virtually eliminated all balking is this… would it be okay with you if I tell you I am going to spot you on your double layout and I just decide that I am scared or nervous or I just don’t feel like spotting you? They all think for a second to understand the question and then say… no? Of course not! Their life is in my hands and I would never just decide to not do my job for any reason. I then proceed to tell them that it isn’t okay with me for them to decide to not do their job because they are scared or nervous or just don’t feel like it. I believe that we don’t have problems with the “just touch me” kids because we take our time and make sure to help the kids to the best of our ability. Any of the “just stand there” problems have come when the coaches have been in a hurry. I also believe we don’t have any balking issues because the kids are confident that I would never tell them to do something that I didn’t believe in and they know I will do my job and I expect them to to theirs. Furthermore, I make sure I let the kids know that a lot of times their lives are in my hands. I take that very seriously and they trust me. Their health, happiness, and success are the most important things to me, in that order.
So that is why I don’t like spotting sometimes, but like I said… we don’t have much of a problem with those issues at this point. So why do I love it so much? There is no really manly way to put it, but that doesn’t bother me. Spotting is a dance, an art form. There is science behind it, but the execution of a spot is art. Like a painter using different brush strokes to achieve the perfect painting, the spotter must use different methods to achieve different results. The reason I call it a dance is because you have a partner that you must key on, react to, and communicate with. A quick side note… it should always be a partner and not an unsuspecting, scared victim. Back on track, I love spotting and shaping gymnastics skills and gymnasts because it is always a new challenge every time. You must be trained, confident, and poised at all times when spotting dangerous skills. It is both very difficult and very simple. And to make sure I am clear and there is no confusion… I do not mean that you must always use completely different methods. I believe there are certain methods that work better than others, as I will discuss later. I mean that you will use different timing or pressure. You will adjust the amount of push with your left hand to help facilitate more rotation or you will put your right hand higher on the lower back to make sure that you can assist the athlete to block their angle and create lift.
Spotting skills can be extremely intimidating. I have a funny “don’t try this at home” story about the intimidation factor. While working at Woodward Gymnastics Camp in Pennsylvania I had a level ten high school senior ask me to spot her on pak salto. I said yes and put a small mat over the low bar and some spotting blocks in between the bars for me to stand on. We did probably ten or fifteen of the skills with some good success. She felt good about her progress, as did I, and she said she was done. She thanked me as she started to take her grips off. I gave her sort of a sheepish grin and a high five and said, “Thank you for being the first girl to let me spot her on pak saltos!” Her jaw dropped and she inquired, “You never spotted them before?” I shook my head no and continued smiling. She said, “Well… I couldn’t tell. Nice job!” Now… a couple things before I sound like a completely wreck less, possibly retarded coach. I had already spent a lot of time working on bar transitions like overshoots and straddle backs. I had watched this girl do probably fifty paks earlier in the week with another coach. While watching her attempt her very well executed paks with the other coach, I had been doing the mental gymnastics. I was seeing where the hands went and working on the timing. I was completely confident stepping up onto the block and spotting this athlete on her pak salto. A large reason for that was because at this point I had already been spotting for about eight years. I trusted myself and my instincts and I trusted the athlete after observing her the whole week. And just to make sure, I do not recommend this course of acting to anybody and I do not make it a habit. The point of this story is that even after all of the things I had spotted up to that point, after observing her do these skills all week, and after doing the mental gymnastics while watching… I was still nervous as hell. It was sort of the pre-game or pre-meet shaky, weak feeling. She had no idea that I had never spotted the skill before and I was hell bent on making sure that I didn’t tip her off. Spotting can be intimidating, nerve racking, and scary but you should always be aware of what you are telling your athletes through body language. I never want my athletes to know that I am nervous. In my own gym there have been tons of instances where I have felt this way but never showed it. Off the top of my head I can remember last year when I told my first athlete she was ready to do her flipping vault on her own. I knew she was ready because we went through all of the instruction, drills, and progressions to get there. I had spotted the vault standing on spotting blocks and on the ground to catch the landing. I knew she could do it but still… I was nervous as hell. What happens if this is the one she screws up? What if her nerves get the best of her and she doesn’t commit to flipping? What if this is the one she gets hurt on? All of these thoughts and more were racing through my head but I took a deep breath and made sure my body language wasn’t telling any stories. I calmly reminded her of a few cues that have made her successful and then I stood back and watched. Much to her relief and my own, she did the vault successfully. I can remember at least ten other instances from last year that I went through this. And never did I show what I was feeling inside. Too bad I hate poker, because I might be pretty good at it. My encouragement to coaches is… be aware of what you are saying to your kids with your non-verbal signals and try to control them as best you can.
Some other pointers I have from my experience spotting and teaching others to spot at home, at clinics, and at Woodward are to break it down if you are nervous to spot a skill. At Woodward we always presented multiple small, easy drills to break down the spot of a double back before letting the coaches spot a double for the first time. Use your imagination and have your kids do some drills with you so that you can train yourself to see and catch what you need to. You can gain a lot of experience and confidence from spotting drills that simulate the bigger skill in slow motion or in pieces. I have often told people that say they can’t spot that if they can see hips and catch hips then they can spot just about anything. Watch the hips and try to grab them. Sitting here right now the only time I can think of not doing so when I spot circling skills on bars like clear hips and giants. Get in a good lifting position when spotting anything. Bend your knees instead of leaning over to spot. Your back will thank you. Use the big muscles like your quads to help you bump or catch, instead of trying to do it all with your arms or your back. Get in close to the kids. You can’t be afraid of getting hit. Obviously, you can get too close… but most of the time the mistake is being too far away from the athlete to give them a proper bump, catch, or save when they make a mistake. You can never get in too early… unless you get in too early. I know that sounds very weird, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it and have it read the way I want. I tell me kids on clear hips that you can’t start opening early enough unless you arch off and then you opened too early. So… to explain, I try to have my hands on the athlete’s lower back and hamstring before or as their feet are contacting the floor when I am spotting a skill out of a handspring. When I bump a double back I want to have my hands on them as they are finishing their handspring and before they are starting their double back takeoff. The too early part would be if I get in so early that their feet kick my arm, for example. My last sort of rapid fire tidbit is to work at it. Never give up. Never stop trying to be a better spotter. Never stop trying to spot new skills, unless it is too physically demanding. Never resign yourself to “I’m just not good at spotting” because everybody can get good at it if they want to.
For me, spotting is essential. I have no pits or resi landings. Everything is taught on the floor or with hand spot in the beginning. Often times I will still be spotting skills even after they have a mastery. Overshoots, for example. All it takes is that one time that they air mail the low bar and that kid is out with broken bones or worse. I know of some gyms that don’t spot and I don’t get it. The biggest benefit to spotting is the trust and the bond that you can build by working with your athletes. I need to qualify that, because I do know coaches that spot all the time and their kids hate it and fear their coach because of it. These are the coaches that impose their will upon the children with their muscles. They grab and yank them through the blind change instead of giving them gentle guidance. In my gym I am constantly spotting but never doing things for the kids unless they make a mistake that I need to cover up. I work with my athletes to make sure the skills are being done safely and properly. Often times I only touch the kids with fingertips and only grab them if they make a mistake or are falling. My kids trust me and I believe this is a big part of it. As for coaches that don’t spot because they rely on drills and progressions… it can be done, but my overwhelming feeling from the people I encounter is that they are just lazy and don’t want to do any work. But I could definitely be wrong about that. For me, spotting is part of the drills and progressions of every skill.
There are hundreds of ways to spot the simplest skills. You can spot a handstand about five thousand different ways… That was just a random number, but there are a lot. For skills as basic as a handstand or as advanced as a full in I believe there is one or two great ways to spot them. You should be versatile and be able to adjust, but you should think of the best and most efficient way to spot things. For example, I was shown to spot overshoots where they turn into you and I spotted them that way for a while. I always felt like there was a better way so I asked somebody and they said to spot where the kid turns away from you. I had to adjust and get used to the new side, but in reflection… I feel like that is the only way they should be spotted. It is way more efficient and effective, especially when an athlete makes a mistake. I am sure there are coaches that will swear by the athlete turning into you, but I must politely disagree. Another example is the tsukahara vault. I was initially taught to spot the tsuk where the athlete’s back is closest to me. You kind of catch their hips and throw them through the skill. I was then taught how to spot where their belly is towards with you and I have never really looked back. The only two drawbacks I can find to spotting this way is if the child’s legs go way around the side, it can create a problem. The other drawback is if the child goes very crooked away from you, it can be hard to reach over the table to spot them. My counter to those two problems is… if the kid is doing it that around the side or crooked then they probably shouldn’t be doing flipping vaults. Go back and work on really good front handsprings and then try again. The benefits of spotting a tsuk where the belly is into you are that I can be with the child as they leave the springboard, as they are on their hands, as they block off their hands, as they flip, and if I jump off the spotting block with them I can be there while they land also. Spotting the other way you basically are just chucking the kids and hoping they land. So… while I agree there are tons of different ways to spot skills I do also believe that you should seek out and find the best way to do it or at least the way that works best for you. I encourage anybody reading this to think all the scenarios through and think about the positions you are in and your athletes are in. What happens if they screw up? Are you in the best possible position to help them?
In closing, what is a good spot? One where the kid survives? One where the kid is successful? One where the kid does the skill well and is given the proper feelings at the proper time in the skill? I think it is the latter. Spotting should be used as a guiding force in the development of a skill but never a dominating one. I feel like I can’t reinforce this enough… never spot to do. Spot to assist. Spot to give them the proper feelings and spot to help make your athletes better. Spot to give them confidence. Spot to build trust and help secure the bond with your athletes. Be smart about it and be safe. Remember they should be your partner in the turn or attempt and not your unsuspecting victim of your desire to see how high they can fly on a back tuck.
I just remembered a small wise tidbit that I received from two coaches I respect greatly. The combination of an inexperienced coach and an inexperienced athlete can be deadly. I don’t mean actual death, but it can be bad. If you can, learn to spot on athletes that can already do the skill or at least have some kind of competency and not the kid that is trying it for the first time.
I really want to post this but I keep remembering other things to add. For male spotters working in Women’s Gymnastics. Be aware of the no zones and do everything in your power to avoid going near them. If you do accidentally brush them while spotting I believe you should acknowledge it. A simple “sorry, I will spot you better next time” will do. I feel like when the kid has to wonder whether or not it was intentional is when you could start to have problems. Just make sure you actually do spot them better the next time. I never want to have that seed planted in anybody’s head. As a male coach you have to constantly be aware of what you are doing and where your hands are when you are spotting. I have discussed this with quite a few female coaches over the years and they have all said that sometimes they feel sorry for the males because they do have to be so much more conscious of it.
I hope this post helps in some way. I am excited to keep trying to perfect the art form of spotting!