Every now and again there is an interesting thread on Facebook in one of the many Acro groups. This time it was a story of someone trying Standing Hand to Hand for the first time and then a question about pre-requisites and for specific skills and safe-guarding those with less experience.
Many people chimed in, to the tune of over 200 comments, and shared their thoughts and expertise. Better spotting, better physical and technical prep, more focus on the progressions, and better self-assessment. All totally valid and reasonable points.
Except one. There’s one piece of advice I see given that I think is a ‘catch 22’.
It’s a phrase that you hear a lot but without much explanation or guidance given. In this article we’ll see why it’s a double-edged sword, and how to do it more effectively.
If you want to skip ahead, there is an ‘Assessment Checklist’ at the bottom that contains questions I think you should be able to answer as part of any ‘self-assessment’.
First we have to make sure we’re all on the same page in our definition of Self Assessment. Self-Assessment as I understand it and how it relates to acrobatics is this:
‘As an adult you are responsible for your own safety and the risks you choose to undertake. It is up to you to assess both your own, and your partner/s readiness, ability and proficiency with the skill you’re attempting in order to help you accurately judge the risk of attempting that skill and to make an informed decision’.
Self-assessment is typically spoken about on a skill-by-skill basis. The outcome of your assessment for one skill (a forward roll) might be different than the outcome for another (a double-back).
I include judging your partner or partners ability (in the case of trios or more) as although it’s obviously not judging yourself, it is a crucial part of judging and understanding the overall risk for yourself. I’ll be switching back and forth between assessing ‘mine’ and ‘our’ abilities / risk.
In my mind self-assessment is weighing up two major components: my own (and our joint) ability to do something, and the risk if we can’t. Your ability to accurately judge those two components gets better with experience. Which is exactly our first problem.
What happens though if you’re brand new? Or you’ve never done a skill before? How can someone realistically be asked to accurately assess something they have no experience with or knowledge of?
This is the strange catch 22 of “people wouldn’t be put into dangerous situations or try things they’re not ready for if their self-assessment was better”.
Maybe their self-assessment was as good as it could be with the knowledge they had. Can we still say they did it poorly if they did it to the best of their ability but it wasn’t right?
How can we better equip acrobats everywhere to be able to more accurately judge their readiness and their personal risk?
The main thing we’re doing when ‘self-assessing’ is doing a little mental calculation of:
my ability >= the minimum ability needed to attempt the skill safely
Basically, we’re asking ourselves ‘is mine and my partners ability good enough to be trying this skill?’
This is typically where pre-requisites come into play. If you can confidently and honestly complete the pre-reqs, it’s likely that you’re ready to attempt the skill. But where do these pre-reqs come from? Why are some peoples different than others? You can look at three different classes / coaches teaching the same skill, and the pre-reqs might be widly different.
Why? Risk tolerance.
I, as a coach, have a higher minimum standard than a lot of other people for specific skills. Why? Because I have a lower tolerance for risk.
An individual’s risk tolerance will affect what they consider to be the minimum ability level and crucial pre-reqs for a skill. This doesn’t mean that my pre-reqs are more valid than someone elses, it’s a difference of how much of a risk we’re willing for our students to take.
Acrobatics is risky. No two-ways about it. As acrobats what we’re always trying to do is reduce risk down to our own, personal, minimum acceptable level. We can do this through various means; spotters, lines, mats, and training.
That minimum acceptable level is different from person to person. The person throwing courbettes on the grass for the first time ever-in-their-lives has a higher risk tolerance than me who would 90% of the time want you to do it in safety lines first.
Having different levels of risk tolerance is not a problem, one is not right and the other wrong. It is a position you arrive at for yourself after assessing a number of factors. Example, I don’t go skiing because I consider the risk and consequence of injury to be too high because of the importance of my body to my livelihood.
One of the most interesting parts of the Facebook thread was the discrepancy between how different levels of experience view the risk of people attempting standing Hand to Hand. There seems to be a negative correlation between experience and risk tolerance.
The more experience someone has, or the higher level they themselves train at, the lower their tolerance for risk is. Part of this is probably the Dunning Kruger effect; the less you know, the less you know you don’t know. I think a larger part is that, as mentioned before, your ability to accurately assess yourself, or students, and the risk is something that improves with experience.
I think people with more expertise or exposure understand that while the chances of something going wrong in someone attempting Standing Hand to Hand (for example) is low, the severity of the consequence is high. Whereas those with less experience or exposure might not fully understand the consequences as all they’ve seen has been multiple attempts with no incident, and they lack the knowledge to understand what might happen, and how it could happen.
Negligible / slight damage
Very unlikely to ever happen.
Slight injury requiring treatment on site only.
Injury requiring professional treatment.
Injury/incident causing broken bone, overnight hospitalization, etc.
Severe incident/accident causing loss of limb / permanent damage / death
The idea of working out your risk score by doing mental arithmetic before every new skill is an absolutely overkill method that I am in no way suggesting you use. But I think there is merit in understanding how an industry built on calculated-risk-taking assesses risk. As well as knowing that when assessing risk you have to understand and have thought about both the consequences and the likelihood that they will occur.
Again, you can see the problem of expecting newbies or even those with some, but not a lot of experience, to accurately assess a skill when they may not know or understand the full extent of the risk.
The second part of the risk assessment we were taught is to look at what we could put in place to reduce either the severity of the consequences or the likelihood of occurrence. When training acrobatics this typically takes the form of things like: safety lines, crash mats and spotters. It can also encompass things like your or your partners experience, or the amount of work you’ve done on the pre-reqs.
Think about two pairs of equal ability trying a new skill for the first time. It’s a cool new throw-&-release trick, and there is a possibility (score of 3) that either pair fall and cause themselves a serious injury (score of 3). The overall risk for this skill would be 9 for both pairs.
One pair decides to try the skill in lines for the first time with a (for the sake of argument, appropriately skilled) line-puller. The chance that they would seriously injure (score of 3) themselves in the lines, is now very unlikely to ever happen (score of 1). This pairs new risk rating is now 3.
The other pair decides to fuck it and just throw the skill by themselves. Their risk rating has not changed, they added no controls, it’s still a 9.
Both pairs catch the skill. The outcome is the same, but the risk was different. This is not necessarily a problem, but we have to understand that one pair made decisions to lower their risk and the other did not.
The Accurate Assessment Checklist
The best, easiest and likely most reliable way of assessing readiness and outcome of a skill is by asking someone, or ideally multiple, people who are considered by those around you as ‘experienced’ (i.e a coach) for their advice. This potentially has its own pitfalls as it’s easy to give off the aura of knowledge while being full-of-shit, but if you ask the advice of multiple ‘experienced’ people the chances of them all being full-of-shit is slim.
If you’re lacking in people who fit that description, and need to lone-ranger it then here is a checklist of questions you should try and answer.
Here is a list of questions that I think you should be able to answer as part of a ‘self-assessment’,
The P.R.E.P system.
There are four parts of a good assessment.
Risk & Controls
Within each of these categories are questions that you should be able to answer. You may not always need to ask all the questions, but they are there in case you do. Not all of these questions are necessarily asked of yourself. Some questions are entirely meant to be asked to someone else in order to give you more information to make an accurate assessment of, and for, yourself.
There are a lot of questions here, and I don’t expect you to ask and answer each and every one every time you try a skill. But if we’re talking about hypothetical ‘best assessment practices’, this is as good as it’s ever gonna get.
- Do I know the pre-reqs?
- Can I do the pre-reqs?
- Does my partner know the pre-reqs?
- Can they do the pre-reqs?
- Have I done similar skills in the past?
Risk & Controls
- How could this trick go wrong?
- What are the consequences of that?
- What is the likelihood of that?
- Are we both / all aware of the risks and consequences?
- What control could we add to reduce either the likelihood or the consequence?
- Does my partner (/spot) know about my injuries, and do I know about theirs?
- Do I or my partner have any injuries that may be made worse by this skill going wrong?
- What will we do if something goes wrong?
- How will we exit / come down?
- Do we have a clear, and understood, word that signifies ‘stop. Get me off / you need to get off this wild ride?’
- Is anyone or anything likely to get in our way?
- Might someone walk past unexpectedly? Do we need a bodyguard?
- Will there be any distractions (flashing lights, loud noises, cute dogs) while we’re performing the skill?
- Do those around us know what we’re about to do, and to give enough space for it?
- Is our environment appropriate for what we’re attempting?
- Is either me or my partner fatigued? Do I / they feel strong?
- Do I / they feel scared?
- Am I comfortable with how this person is talking to me?
- Do I trust this person?
- Have I given them reason to trust me?
- Do the other people in my community trust them?
- Is my partner able to critique themselves?
- Are they able to understand their own limitations?
Do you have other questions you'd like to see included? Send them to us!
No One Is Perfect
We cannot ever eliminate risk completely. All we can do is try and choices to limit the risk to within an acceptable level for ourselves and those around us. There are too many accidents & injuries that occur because poor choices were made. These incidents are, for the most part, totally avoidable. Accidents & mistakes can, and will, happen. And that’s ok. But there is no need to put yourself or someone else at undue risk for the sake of a trick or your ego.
Making smart choices, training safe, working hard, having fun are not mutually exclusive.