Placements – What are they THINKING!?

What are they THINKING?

A Parent’s guide to West Halifax Cheer placement sessions

At this time every year, there is always discussion regarding what team Sally or Mary will be placed on for the upcoming all-star cheer season. All our parents, athletes, coaches, and CITs have many great ideas and thoughts on how our next season could go, and we are always open to feedback! The Board of Directors’ final decisions as to which athletes are placed on which teams are ultimately based on oh-so-many factors. We realize that as program owners of West Halifax Cheer, who have busy families and separate full-time careers, we take a long time to compile our teams, and we are so thankful for the patience our families have provided to us during those long days between placement sessions and team list posting. We are very aware that many people wonder, “What on Earth could they possibly be doing? Why is it taking so long!?” Well, there is a LOT of consideration, and we’d rather be as right as possible, rather than as fast as possible.

We often feel like we have done our due diligence to create the teams with the best chances of year-long success, but are occasionally confronted by some very well-meaning parents who are, quite frankly, shocked by our choice of team for their athlete. Very rarely do we find that they’ve over-estimated their child’s abilities. Instead, we have discovered they simply didn’t understand “how it all works.” All-star cheer is complicated and ever-changing. It’s true that an occasional parent may feel that their child should be on Team XYZ instead of Team ABC, skills or experience aside because dammit, she deserves it! They assume we simply cannot see their child’s obvious talents, and they’re now going to join Down the Road Athletics where they will surely be more appreciated! Thankfully, in our experience, this is not very often the case. We have discovered that most of our team placement appeal requests are a matter of educating a family on the processes we follow when building a successful team. Therefore, at the onset of our Season 12 placement sessions, we would like to offer you some insight into WHC’s team formation process. So make yourself a cup of tea, settle in, and get comfy for a long read. We will do our best to provide some valuable information to you.

We at WHC are in the privileged position of being able to field teams of all ages and most levels, allowing our athletes to grow at a safe and sustainable pace. In past years, when we had fewer teams, we would be more likely to put athletes on higher level teams than perhaps their skills indicated, and even though it may have been too soon in the athlete’s development, we decided to risk it in order to be able to field these teams for the growth of our organization. The score sheets and rules were also different in previous years and therefore, the team requirements were also different. We may have fallen short on our tumbling ratios, but we made the most of our decisions, and were generally quite successful (more on tumbling ratios later).  We mention this because your athlete’s path may differ from an older athlete’s path, who grew up in our program in a different time. Today, we still believe in putting kids on teams that give them their best chance of long-term success, and we now have enough teams and levels to do this as safely as possible. We have experienced how pushing kids too high too fast resulted in injury and burn out. We are not alone in this mind-set, as Cheer Canada and the international cheer community are seeing changes in the industry with a shift in focus to Long Term Athlete Development rather than hitting the Worlds stage at age 12, and leaving the sport burned out and injured by age 16. The advent of Worlds-level non-tumbling and open-aged teams is a testament to the fact that the industry is growing up. The Olympics are a very real future possibility, and changes need to be made to our sport to be in alignment with standards set by the International Olympic Committee. High stunting non-tumbling levels are great, as it allows our athletes to remain in cheer, and advance through stunting levels, without high risk for injury to attain difficult tumbling skills. There are instances where we feel it’s appropriate to move kids early in the hope they will be able to “step up” and succeed with higher level teams. Sometimes this gamble pays off in spades. Other times – not so much. Unfortunately, in some cases, when we progress an athlete too fast, the child becomes frustrated because she/he feels everyone else on the team is more advanced in terms of ability, so she/he then leaves the team and the sport, which is a no-win situation for anyone. Or, progressing too fast results in the athlete being underutilized and dispassionate – also a no-win situation. As the number of years that we complete this arduous placement process accumulate, the more times our predictions of an athlete’s outcome if placed on a given team are proven correct. We know sometimes it may seem strange, but we do have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing. That being said, it’s a tough balance and it’s often risky.

When the day finally comes that we post our team lists, we inevitably have a couple of confused and angry parents (although, we are pleased to say we have had fewer and fewer as the years go by). We then schedule a meeting with the family, and provide an explanation of the world of all-star cheer, and describe what is required to set up our athletes and teams for long-term success. Mom and Dad then have a more detailed understanding of the process and have a sense of our methods. You know those FaceBook and Instagram posts that say, “Trust the Process?” Well, those are great, but only if you understand the process in the first place! After the meeting, Mom & Dad may  or may not like the outcome any better, but we hope to be able to at least have provided an explanation. For Season 12, instead of waiting for these questions from our families, we thought we would try to provide some up-front education on how a cheer all-star team is formed, and what goes into the decision-making process. That being said, if any parents and athletes are at any time upset at our decisions, we are still, of course, open and willing to discuss their placement. Also, when reading this, keep in mind that other organizations may have a different way of doing things, so this article is purely speaking on behalf of how we do things at West Halifax Cheerleading.

Firstly, you should know that what team your athlete is placed on is not entirely based on the one-hour placement session that takes place the first weekend in June. We have several measurement criteria at play. To start, at the end of the season, each WHC coach is asked to independently fill out a report card on each athlete on each of their teams. This entails providing a rating of the athlete on his/her standing tumbling, running tumbling, stunting, dance and flexibility (as compared to the age range and level team that they were on). We also evaluate some soft-skills such as coachability and reliability. These ratings, similar to a child’s academic report card, are based on the coach’s perceptions after a full season and is used expressly for the purpose of providing one of several measurement criteria for determining placements the following season. We also consider other attributes… does your athlete usually arrive to practice on time? When the team is conditioning, who is chatting and has to be constantly reminded to focus, versus who is dressed appropriately, has sneakers on, hair up, is ready to work, and is giving it 110%? Sally in the back who works her butt off? We see you! When kids cut corners, you bet we notice that too. You may be thinking, “But my Mary has all the tumbling skills required for Level X, so why does this even matter?” Well, let’s explain further.

Tumbling… This is by far the easiest skill to measure, as it’s an individual achievement. Generally speaking, you can either do the skill or you can’t. However, it’s important to realize that there is a difference between having a skill “mastered” and simply being able to “pull it.” This matters. For example, to do a simple cartwheel, how many of our athletes require a 10-minute warm up, be concentrating fiercely, and need a coach to be arms-length away to save their life in case they bail mid-air? Hardly any except our newest and youngest athletes. Most just… do it, and can cartwheel in their sleep! They don’t have to think too hard; they don’t have to focus or talk themselves into it. They. Just. Do it. That’s having a skill “mastered.” Compare this scenario to one in which an athlete is able to do a standing backhandspring but only if there is a coach (or two) hands-on spotting, if they’re on the incline mat, and it’s got to be a Tuesday and not raining and they’re wearing their lucky pink socks. If the conditions need to be exceptionally perfect, or if a coach needs to spot; then the skill is not yet mastered, and the reality is, most kids fall somewhere in between these two extreme examples. To be clear, getting ANY skill is a huge accomplishment, and we still want to be sure to celebrate these New Skill Successes! This is how athletes progress along their life-long tumbling journey, by celebrating the baby steps it takes to meet a larger goal; and we are so proud of all our athletes’ individual achievements! However, understanding the difference between pulling a skill in the perfect environmental setting, and having the skill completely mastered is important. Telling a coach that your kid can do it “with a spot” is like saying you can pay bills if someone loans you the money. Well, yes, technically, you’re not wrong. The question we must then ask ourselves is whether we feel the athlete is going to be able to pull their tumbling skill in the middle of a high-intensity 2:30 routine with 20 other kids running and tumbling and stunting ten different ways all around them, and be able to do it well-executed? And safely? Maybe!? Hopefully! Fingers crossed!! That’s the risk/reward scenario we are discussing here in detail that is very individual to the athlete. Some kids will rise to this occasion, and will push themselves to prove that they deserved the spot on the higher level team. However, putting some kids in this situation before they’re ready is how mental blocks are formed. Pulling your skills at each and every practice and with excellent technique; that’s mastery over your skills and that’s a great goal to have. 

You may be wondering why we even care how many athletes on the team can do at-level required tumbling skills? You may be thinking, “I know that Susie-Q was on a Level X team last season, and she couldn’t tumble. So why can’t my Mary do that? Does it even matter that she doesn’t have all the skills?” Yes, it does. Let’s explain even further why…

Ratios… I’m sure you’ve heard coaches talk about this subject at one time or another and thought, what are they talking about? My Sally can do flips (see above – tumbling mastery) so she should be on team XYZ, right? Well, not necessarily.  So, what exactly ARE the ratios we talk about? The easiest way to explain this is that it has to do with the difficulty start value on your scoresheet. Suffice to say that our goal is to always start our score in the highest start-value for difficulty (we know the other teams we compete against are also doing this). In a world where the difference between 1st and 5th place at a competition can be less than 1 point, you can bet we want to be in that highest difficulty range every time. So, ratios: If a team has 20 athletes, in order to be in the highest difficulty range, we need 12 of them to be at-level in terms of tumbling skills. If it’s a Level 2 Team, then 12/20 athletes must be able to do, at a minimum, a standing backhandspring all at the same time, plus 8/20 athletes must do an additional separate level-appropriate tumbling skill. This will only put you in the highest range.  To increase your score within the high range bracket, judges will look at the type and quantity of skills performed (teams that do more than just the minimum number of skills required will be able to score higher). Also, the judges will consider the number of athletes over and above the 8 or 12 required minimum who are also performing those skills. Simplistically speaking, the more at-level athletes we have performing the skills, and the more at-level skills they are performing, the higher our chances of attaining those extra points.

The execution score then rates how well they are doing the skill. The coaches must often make a difficult decision regarding whether an athlete has enough mastery of a skill to perform it with correct technique in the routine, or risk losing execution points. For example, if Sally’s backhandspring has poor technique, and the team doesn’t require it to meet the minimum quantity for the highest difficulty range because they already have 12 kids doing that skill, the coach may ask Sally not to do it. They have determined that it would likely cause the team to lose more points on the technique score than the number of points potentially gained by increasing the number of skills performed. Sally or her parents may feel that this is a punishment as she may have worked really hard on her backhandspring and is understandably sad she has been asked not to do it. We assure you, it is not a punishment. We then encourage Sally to not give up, and focus on perfecting her technique. Remember that this is a team sport, and since her skill wasn’t needed to meet the difficulty range, and her execution isn’t quite ready yet, it would do more harm than good to include it. Clear as mud? Are you still with us?  

Overall, this ratio situation means that for our Level 2 Team with 20 athletes, we can only have 8 athletes on this team who do not have a mastered backhandspring. Furthermore, we typically will try to avoid having a team with just barely the minimum ratio required, because, inevitably, someone gets injured, gets a mental block, or switches teams, then we’re below ratio and can’t score at the highest difficulty level start value. Now that we’ve covered difficulty and execution scores in tumbling, it is also important to understand that these ratios are also applicable to the number of stunt groups and the types of skills the team does. The highest difficulty start value for stunts is based on 4-person stunt groups (two bases, a back and a flyer). Back to our awesome Level 2 team of 20 athletes. The maximum groups you can have is 5 (5*4 = 20), and you need 4 groups stunting up in the air at the same time to be at the highest difficulty start-value, and they must perform the highest stunting skills possible for Level 2. All this is information is taken into consideration when creating a team.

In recent years, we have seen a drastic improvement in our athletes’ tumbling abilities! We actually have situations in which the athlete’s tumbling abilities have greatly surpassed their stunting, as tumbling is an individually mastered skill, while stunting requires a social dynamic and teamwork ethics that don’t always mature as fast as the tumbling skills. And that’s okay!  All this is meant to say is, well, tumbling is important, and gaining skills is a great way to advance through our program, but it’s not necessarily everything! It’s just one section of the scoresheet. We have a goal to create well-rounded athletes; not simply tumblers. If the only skill an athlete is interested in pursuing is tumbling, we recommend they try Power Tumbling as a discipline of gymnastics instead of cheer, which is a multifaceted, multi-skilled social team-based sport.  

Let’s do a quick review. We now know that a team must have a minimum number of at-level mastered tumbling skills to be competitive in the highest difficulty range for tumbling on the scoresheet. The same is also true for stunts, dance, jumps, and choreography. We want to have the highest start value as possible in all categories on the sheet, and then aim for a high technique score with well-executed skills. And always, “hitting zero”, which means no deductions, falls, or out-of-level illegal skills, and we aim to do this with every team at every competition.

So.. back to the original question. How do we do it? When evaluating an individual athlete, we start with his/her current team and also look at what teams they are eligible for in terms of age. We then evaluate the report card ratings completed for the athlete by his/her coaches. We consider the overall performance of the athlete over the previous year(s) in terms of attitude, punctuality, attendance, work ethic, coachability, and potential, as well as risk. We consider what skills they were assessed on at our placement sessions.  We also look at the registration form that they (or their parents) filled out, where they indicated what team they’d like to be on, can they travel, and if there are any extenuating circumstances, such as a request to keep siblings together, and whether or not they’re interested in being on more than one team. So, lots of factors at play.

The A level WHC head coaches (5+ years experience) and the Board of Directors (Erica, Jana, and Ashley) then begin forming teams. We also prefer to keep a portion of an existing team together, so as to keep that team strong and successful. We found it easier for athletes who are new to a team to learn the new skills if a certain percentage of that team is experienced with working together already. So, let’s continue to use the 20-athlete Level 2 Team as our example. We begin by looking at who is on the team from the previous season who has not aged out. We then figure out which of those kids are ready to move up onto a more difficult team, and also look at which kids could use another year on this team to have an opportunity to grow as a leader, and to keep the team strong. We then look at the kids who are aging-up, as well as those who have been determined to move up from level 1 as a result of our evaluations. Then, we see who has the at-level tumbling skills mastered.


We then start to form our best guess at stunt-groups. A team of 20 athletes that has 10 flyers will not be successful even if all 20 are tumblers. That won’t work. So, once we have enough at-level tumbling kids, and have formed some stunt groups, we then look and see what positions are needed to fill the gaps. We may have 5 spots remaining on a team of 20 kids, and about 15 kids to choose from who could fill those roles. Do we need a base? Do we need a back? Which of those 15 kids is close to having the tumbling? How were their attitudes? Are they emotionally ready to be on this team?  We only have so many non-tumbling spots to fill on any given team. This is, invariably, where we run into problems with Mom & Dad. They see that Sally (non-tumbler, same age and experience level as their Mary, also a non-tumbler) made Team XYZ but Mary did not. They may not see or understand that Sally is a back and Mary is a base, and we needed a back. They may not see that Sally never missed practice, never complained, worked really hard, and gave 110% at every practice where Mary never worked on improving her tumbling, sat out of conditioning, and argued with the coaches. On the surface, it looks like to many that Mary & Sally were equals, and therefore, we picked Sally because she is a favourite kid. Well, that’s not how it happened. We picked Sally over Mary for lots of reasons. However, we will only discuss Mary with Mary’s parents, never anyone else.  We understand on the surface how it looks like one is a favourite, when in fact, Sally was simply a better fit for the team (right height, or right role for example), especially if we are in a situation where for all intents and purposes, Mary and Sally are pretty much equal. It’s these situations that keep us up at night second-guessing ourselves. It is also important to remember that if you’re a tumbler, you have a better chance of making an at-level team than a non-tumbler, however, if we are strong in terms of tumbling ratio, you may also not make the team if you do have the at-level tumbling skills, but are not ready in terms of stunting. We also may not be able to take an at-level tumbler on a team if we already have too many incumbent athletes in the same stunt group position as that athlete (i.e. back, flyer, base). In this situation, we may actually look at creating a second at-level team (as in the case of having two Level 1 Junior Teams or two Level 2 Youth Teams). We also want to create a team that gels together well, and has a great dynamic. There is lots to consider!

Note that Tiny, Mini, Youth, Junior, Senior, and Open are age-ranges. Levels 1 – 7 are difficulty levels. So although a Junior 2 and a Senior 2 are the same difficulty level of cheer, the senior team just has a top age of 18 compared to junior which has a top age of 14. A Junior 3 team is a higher level of difficulty than a Senior 2 team, even though the athletes are mostly younger. It is also important to note that a Senior 2 team may have the ability to do a higher range of difficult level 2 stunting skills than a Youth 2 team, due to the maturity, strength, and age of the athletes. In all level 2 teams, the tumbling skills should be quite equal. We mention this because you may be on a Senior 1 team now and be put on a Junior 2 team next season. This is not a demotion! 

Back to our Level 2 Team with 20 athletes example. At this point, we now have a draft team in place. We then socialize this with the rest of the coaching staff. They are given an opportunity to weigh in on the placements. As you can imagine, with a large staff of many amazing Type A personalities, there are lots of opinions to be heard, and we believe in a collaborative approach whenever possible! We make changes as per necessary, and the BOD has the final say in the team make-up. We then repeat this process for all 17-20 teams in the club. This is why it takes so long!

Finally, we then post the team lists on our website, have a big drink of wine, and hold our breath. Are we perfect? Absolutely not! In the process of doing this, we may accidentally overlook an athlete’s skills or misinterpret their preferences as indicated on the placement form. We also find out after the fact that some athletes have chosen to do volleyball or dance instead, or their band practice is on the night their cheer team practices, and then a spot opens up on a team, and we can move up Mary to her dream team. Things move and change over the summer right into late fall. New kids join, some kids quit, and coaches may realize that they need a strong base and they’re already set for tumbling, so a great opportunity is then created for a non-tumbling athlete to step up and excel on a higher level team.

We hope this helps to explain some of the mystery surrounding team placements, and we want you all to know that if you truly feel we missed the mark with your athlete, please, don’t hesitate to contact us. We may be able to move or cross your athlete, or at least, provide some guidance on what skills need to be worked on in order to progress to the next level.

We are SO EXCITED to begin Season 12!


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