TESTING INTENSITY: INSPIRE ALLSTARS
This blog is brought to you by Joey Gamper, Director of Inspire Allstars: a truly visionary team that was selected to be the UK ambassadors for INTENSITY™ because of their excellent ethos of putting their athletes before the sport. The vision and passion to create Inspire Allstars was the aspiration of local resident Joey Gamper Cuthbert. Joey has over 10 years of experience as an athlete and coach and has seen first-hand how cheerleading can truly change lives.
ENTRY 1: THE CLINIC
Inspire Allstars athletes were thrilled to be chosen as UK ambassadors for the INTENSITY training programme: piloting a new fitness programme designed to physically condition cheer athletes in preparation for competitions; developing their strength, endurance and technique.
As a new cheer programme with beginner level teams, I jumped at the chance to get the competitive edge by improving our athletes’ strength and fitness. As a coach, I am a big fan of HIIT training (High Intensity Interval Training) but with only an hour per week with each team, I struggled to figure out how we might fit in any conditioning on top of stunts, jumps and choreography. INTENSITY felt manageable for us and I was excited to take it on: It is prescriptive enough that my coaching staff can just follow INTENSITY lesson plans and don’t need to create their own material, but also flexible enough that we can make it work for our training sessions, within the time limitations. The idea that the teams will have their fitness regularly tested as part of the pilot also gave me a strong incentive to commit – knowing the INTENSITY staff will be back every 3 months to track our progress, made me think we’re more likely to stick with it!
The first clinic, led by INTENSITY creator and instructor Jessica Zoo was a chance for our athletes and coaches to learn the first 3 months of INTENSITY material (conditioning exercises, warm up routines etc.) and to have base fitness levels tested. The activities taught in this clinic will then be replicated by us in our regular sessions over the next 3 months, before Jessica returns to track the team’s fitness levels and teach new material in January. There was also a 2 hour training session prior to the clinic specifically for our coaching staff to understand the principles and methodology behind INTENSITY.
I find having an external instructor in always ‘ups’ our athletes’ performances and our teams really worked hard to meet the physical challenges Jessica set them. The clinic was fun, engaging, high energy and everyone really enjoyed it. My staff and I felt it was challenging for the athletes but also manageable for them and I liked the variations in material that made it age appropriate (for example, different types of head stands were asked of different age ranges to accommodate the fact that younger children’s forearms are not as strong).
The 2 hours with Jessica and the Inspire coaching staff prior to the practical clinic were an invaluable chance to learn more about the methodology behind INTENSITY. Having a clear rational behind what we were doing gave real purpose to the programme and made me excited to see whether we can really deliver the results Jessica is hoping for. The essence of INTENSITY is that if cheerleading is a sport, participants must train like any other athlete. This is something my staff and I all strongly believe in. My hope is that in developing our athletes’ fitness levels we will increase injury prevention, improve stamina, skill and strength (and therefore the level of stunts etc achievable)
We are all excited to get going with the programme and I am looking forward to updating everyone on how we are doing!
ENTRY 2: FIRST MONTH OF INTENSITY
Following our introductory clinic led by INTENSITY’s creator and instructor Jessica Zoo back in September, Inspire Allstars have been left to continue the INTENSITY programme on our own until January, when Jessica will return to test our athletes’ fitness levels and provide us with new training material. As a new cheer programme with beginner level teams, we had a good base level of fitness to measure from. Many of our athletes had not participated in competitive sport before joining Inspire, so improving their strength, stamina and flexibility are all high on our “to do” list. We really are looking for a zero to hero transformation! All of Inspire’s volunteer assistant coaches participated in the first clinic and are leading on the INTENSITY strand of our training. Using Inspire’s volunteer assistant coaching team as the INTENSITY instructors has been a great way to give them some autonomy – an element of the athletes’ programme that is purely led by them and for which they are responsible. All of the coaching team are supporting the delivery and getting some opportunity to lead elements, but at our initial clinic Jessica selected one assistant coach to act as the lead INTENSITY instructor. Here’s how Evie, Inspire’s lead instructor feels our first month has gone: "I'm really enjoying leading the INTENSITY programme. I can definitely see a difference in the girls (and myself!) already, especially in their attitude towards fitness. It's such an important aspect of cheerleading that can sometimes be overlooked, and I'm glad that Inspire is taking it seriously. It will make such a difference on the mat at competition, and will mean that the girls can concentrate on their performance rather than on how tired they're feeling! I'm excited to keep working with them each week, and I can't wait until they really start noticing a difference themselves. " Some of them are already noticing the change; Senior member Lauren says that she can already feel the effects in the air as a flyer: “I think the warm up routine is fab and it gets harder as you continue, which makes me push myself more each time and the feeling after is great! I feel that my headstands are so much better and more stable since starting INTENSITY. Doing all of the exercises has really helped my stability when flying extensions, as I have worked on that core tightness Jess explained in the clinic! All round, a great programme to be a part of!” And youth level athlete and base Phoebe says "I really enjoyed the training [at the clinic]. It was intense and hard work, but worth it. When I'm warming up now, I feel fitter and better prepared for the cheer session. My headstands are getting stronger and steadier. Thank you Jessica for giving us the opportunity to be pioneers for Intensity." Watching the teams do INTENSITY has also highlighted to me the weaknesses we need to work on: some girls are still really out of breath after the warm up, indicating we need to do more to increase stamina, others are still struggling to hold a headstand because their core isn’t strong enough yet …but “yet” is the operative word! At the end of month one, we can see the benefits and are aware of our weaknesses – for me these are both really positive initial outcomes. As a new team, INTENSITY is a process, and while we’re not there “yet”, so far we’re learning from it and enjoying the journey!
ENTRY 3: CHRISTMAS CONDITIONING
This month it has been pretty stressful keeping ourselves focussed: Lots of athletes have been off sick with winter bugs and a million and one Christmas commitments have been pulling them all directions (every week an athlete has been away singing in a school carol concert …or at least that’s how it feels!). We are also fast hurtling towards our first competition of the season and every second of training counts!
As is inevitable when time is of the essence, conditioning is one of the first things that gets reduced! We have managed to maintain at least the INTENSITY warm up routine in every session, but in order to fit it all in with everything else pre-comp, we are now bringing our seniors in earlier to complete the warm ups and have been cutting youth’s down slightly to maximise choreography time. Our new year’s resolution is definitely to get back on track – especially as we’ve been seeing such great results: One of our volunteer coaches Sarah is relatively new to cheerleading, but she is no stranger to the world of competitive sport, working at the top level with Junior tennis players. While our lead instructor Evie has been away this month, Sarah has been leading the warm ups and conditioning, and has this to say on her experience so far:
“For someone that works in junior sports for a living and is a great believer of conditioning I was so pleased to see that cheerleading can have an equally as intense conditioning schedule as other sports. Since the girls have been practicing INTENSITY I have seen how they are becoming stronger athletes. I have always believed conditioning improves the ABC's of sports; Agility, Balance and Co-ordination which contributes to helping strengthen their cores and stamina and I have seen a major difference in their performances since starting this programme. The girls are coming in to practice ready to condition and we are now increasing their limits of how far they can push themselves. I think they are surprising themselves every week, which gives them the added motivation for the session. Our team is getting stronger and I am very proud of each individual that goes above and beyond their goals of expectations”
We’re looking forward to our next visit from Jessica in the New Year. Completing our latest round of fitness testing will no doubt confirm Sarah’s comments above and encourage us in our training!
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas from all of us at Inspire Allstars!
ENTRY 4: THE SECOND CLINIC
It’s been an “intense” month at Inspire as our first competition of the season is now only a week away. While Inspire is an All Star programme, our squads currently only have the luxury of 1 hour training a week, so every second counts in the run up to regionals! In conversation with INTENSITY creator Jessica Zoo, we agreed that in real close proximity to competition, the full INTENSITY programme is not always appropriate, and so the closer we get to competition and the more valuable our practice time is, some weeks we have had to cut back on how much is included. That said, we have managed to make sure we include some every week, and last Sunday when Jessica returned to see how the squads were doing, she was impressed with what she saw.
This month Jessica returned to run our second INTENSITY clinic.
The clinic had 2 focusses: The first was to look at how we are currently executing the INTENSITY warm ups – looking at perfecting athlete technique, body positioning, effort and timing. The second was to look at how the work we do in our conditioning / warm ups directly impacts stunt and jump technique.
With Inspire’s lead INTENSITY instructor Evie sick in bed, Jessica challenged two of our senior athletes to lead the set warm up, while she observed what was being done. Here was the first real test …how much had they actually been taking in each week? Did they even know the warm up off by heart to be able to do it without Evie!!??? Luckily Yasmine and Olivia leading up front were fantastic, and to my relief, yes, they did all know what they were doing!
Olivia said afterwards that “It was a little bit scary at first, just because I was used to following rather than leading, but once we started it was actually quite fun. I definitely focused more on squeezing and having tight motions when everyone was watching! I think that idea transferred into our routine is going to really help us for competition”
Yasmine also commented that: “The regular warm up that we do during training really helps with our jump, stunt and tumbling techniques. Although sometimes doing the exact same warm up routine does get a bit tiring, so switching it up a bit would be a nice change!” With that in mind, Yasmine will be relieved to hear that the idea of INTENSITY is that the routines are switched up every 3 months, so we’re due to start a new one soon, however, there was still a lot of work to do yet on what we had…
ENTRY 5: RESULTS & COMP PREP
With our first competition of the season, mid-season tryouts, a BBC live radio interview with the squads and multiple interviews with local press, it’s been a busy start to the year for Inspire Allstars!
As soon as competition was over, we returned to our INTENSITY training schedule in our regular practices, and are now looking forward to switching up our routine for a new one. This will be done via an instructional video that Jessica will send us and we will then learn and teach the athletes. We’ve really pushed them to be strong with their motions and purposeful in their effort in the set warm ups, but I can tell they’re now ready for a change of routine.
The fitness testing has been interesting, not least because our youngest athletes may be, how can I put this, slightly prone to exaggeration?! I am pretty convinced that one of our 7 year olds did not do 57 push ups in 1 minute, but as there were so many athletes participating in the tests, we were reliant on them counting their own reps and then reporting the results at the end of each minute to the coach at that station. I will therefore look more closely at the results of our seniors, in terms of comparative scoring. For this blog I selected a number of our athletes from the senior squad to look at. I just randomly picked a line of five from the register and there is a big jump in improvement for all of them. As I looked further across the seniors, and also the older youth squad members (who I deemed likely to be less likely to exaggerate or miscount their scores) the pattern continued.
Many of the seniors were competitive about their participation in these tests – not just with each other but with themselves. After Jessica’s first visit, they had requested their scores, so that they knew what they were working to beat the next time round. It was kind of fun to watch them all fight it out!
Being named INTENSITY ambassadors had also spurned many of them on to do more outside of cheer practices. Regular running, stretching and one has even had a pull-up bar installed in the doorway to her bedroom! These particular athletes I have seen a jump not only in the basic tests below, but also in their skills level in stunts and tumbling. In fact, while I’ve selected the five athletes below at random, I now observe that the five picked have all hit a back or front handspring since the first round of testing. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Our tumbling coach often comments that the main area lacking in terms of progression for our seniors is strength, and this is now coming in abundance!
ENTRY 6: Learning INTENSITY™ 2
For INTENSITY™ 2, we have had a new way of learning our INTENSITY™ routines. Rather than Jessica attending a clinic with us, we have had to learn our new warm ups etc from the video tutorials.
Sadly due to other work commitments we recently lost the lead instructor from our coaching team, so as Head Coach I have taken on the role of learning the routines from the videos. Despite being a trained dancer, I was nervous about the volume of material I would have to learn and must admit that it was put off for a number of weeks following our lead instructor’s departure. I was nervous about how much time it would take me to learn and then again the amount of time it would take to teach it to the athletes.
I needn’t have worried at all. The instructions are split in to two easy to understand sections. The first with each movement broken down, explained and demonstrated slowly, and the second was the movements one after another in a routine to speed, that you could follow like any other workout dvd. The first video with the broken down movement helped so much in terms of getting it right, that it made the second section fun and easy (easier!) to follow. I say easier, because it’s not an easy ride…this routine makes you sweat!
During the hour I spent sweating as I learned the routine, I reflected on what I acknowledge now to be a decrease in our teams strength and stamina since competition, when we were regularly hitting the INTENSITY™ 1 routine hard. While I could see a difference in the athletes (which I have consistently written about in this blog), I did still wonder whether it was much different to any other type of warm up I could have been giving the teams, in terms of the benefits. I can now categorically say yes it is different and yes you can notice the difference!
Because our competing squads have so little time to train together (only 1hr a week) I am currently perfecting my INTENSITY™ instructional skills on our rec classes and will be moving to teach it to the squads in the next week. I need to know it well enough that I’m not wasting any time referring to notes. I could definitely recommend taking a separate session to teach for the workout to your teams – as we have previously when Jessica has come to visit – but with limited time before Nationals we’re just fitting it in with our regular training. I had started to get stressed that INTENSITY™ was just another thing that we needed to try and cram into training, but now I’ve witnessed both the benefits when we do and the losses when we don’t, I can say it’s definitely worth making the time for. I realise all my blogs are just starting to sound like long promotionals for INTENSITY™, but I am starting to be totally sold on this workout as the way to develop our teams!
ENTRY 7: CHALLENGE TIME
While I knew from learning the instructional video that INTENSITY™ 2 was more complex in terms of skills and coordination, I had not anticipated how challenging the squads would find it; both learning the moves and being able to physically keep up…they are absolutely knackered!
Lots of the new moves require the athlete to perform arm motion sequences at the same time as performing different moves with their legs, like squats or kicks. I can see that the whole “doing two things at once” thing is still frying their brains and challenging their ability to coordinate, even though we’ve been doing it a while now! Sometimes when I ask them to stop so we can go back over and break down the movement, the ones who have got it, will yell “We can’t stop! Now I’ve got it, if I stop, I’ll never be able to do it again!” As one can imagine, the senior teams are getting the hang of it much quicker than the youths. Some of them are still all over the place on those kicks with jump arms!!!
While they’re still struggling a little to pick it up, I can see how beneficial the increased coordination and stamina challenge is to improving them as athletes. Definitely as we approach Nationals and full-outs, the increased stamina work is essential. They’re really finding it hard to keep up the pace!
Included in our squads for are athletes who only joined mid-season and didn’t experience INTENSITY™ 1. They’re finding INTENSITY™ 2 is also helping them get up to speed on some of the cheer terminology “It is a great way to get involved in intense fitness and also a way to learn some positions in cheerleading” Crystal, Senior athlete.
Because as Crystal mentioned, it’s a good way to learn more cheer terminology, we have upped the number of Inspire athletes now involved in INTENSITY™ and introduced the programme to our recreational and tumbling classes too. This was initially done only as a one-off workshop, but it has been so beneficial, that we are now keeping the conditioning warm up in all of our squads and classes!