How To Be A Good Spotter

How To Be A Good Spotter by Chelsea Rothschild

At my team’s practice this week, I got a compliment from our coach for good spotting. I’ve also had the honor of being specifically requested as a spotter by teammates and friends, because they feel especially safe with me. I take a lot of pride in that ability to make people feel safe, and I thought it might benefit the community if I shared three foundational principles I’ve learned/developed over my 25+years as a spotter. (I started waaay back when I was just a little girl in gymnastics classes.)

 1) Know for sure how to spot the trick. It’s not enough to vaguely plan to grab someone’s shoulders if you see them taking a headfirst dive. Think about the trick, decide where you can provide the most help as a spotter (it usually involves contact around the hips and/or shoulders), and test your spotting technique on an experienced acrobat. Whenever possible, learn the proper spot technique from someone who’s successful at it, rather than coming up with your own.

Bad spotting can happen, even when everyone involved knows better.
2) Communicate with your acrobat. If it’s your first time spotting this person doing this trick, be explicit about how you’re going to spot them. Demonstrate the spot while they just stand there, eg, “I’ll have your right shoulder like this, and my other hand will be here, on the back of your hips.” If you’ve spotted this person doing this trick a thousand times, at the very least verbally confirm whether they want an aggressive spot, a passive spot, or just a reassuring presence. Here’s how I define those options:
  • Aggressive Spot: I will place my hands firmly on the acrobat, whether they appears to need help or not. I will base with my own body, expecting to take  a significant amount of the acrobat’s weight. I will expect to help them complete any necessary rotation, achieve necessary height, etc. If the trick goes wrong, I should be able to keep the acrobat from falling quickly to the ground. They may fall, but they’ll fall slowly and be at minimal risk for injury.

Fantastic Aggressive Spot: The two primary spotters have the acrobat’s shoulders, with one more spotter available to stop her from over-rotating and sitting the landing.

  • Passive Spot: I will place my hands lightly on the acrobat, whether they appears to need help or not. I will be prepared to take on some of their weight, but I won’t presume that will happen. I expect the acrobat will provide all the necessary height, speed, rotation, etc. If the trick goes wrong, I should be able to protect the acrobat’s head, neck and spine. If they fall, they may get bruised, twist an ankle, etc., but should be protected from serious injury.

Both Passive Spotters make brief contact with the acrobat; they’re prepared to intervene or let the trick succeed as necessary.

  • Reassuring Presence: I will not touch the acrobat unless I see they’re in danger. I will plan to have my hands and arms within their field of vision and within their reach, so that they may reach for me if they need a little stability. If the trick goes wrong, I’ll do what I can to protect the acrobat’s head an neck.  

Here the spotter keeps her hands available to the acrobat, without touching her unnecessarily.

3) Prioritize what you protect. Even after establishing proper technique and communicating with your acrobat, it’s challenging to make smart choices in the chaos of a failing trick. So remember, it doesn’t really help the person you’re spotting if you prevent a sprained ankle at the expense of a broken neck. Your top priorities should be the head, neck, and spine. It bears repeating that this is usually best accomplished by supporting shoulders and/or hips. Conversely, it’s almost never a good idea to grab someone’s arms, legs, feet, or hands, all of which they can instinctively use to break a fall or even pull off a weird-yet-safe landing.

Great spotting technique has almost as much nuance and difficulty as great acrobatics, so I could go on at length! But with these three principles, anyone should be able to contribute to a safer environment for their friends and teammates. Happy spotting, everyone!