Learning to Fly: Interview with Jessica Lichtenberg

Today we are launching a new series of interviews: Learning to Fly.

One of the hardest tasks for coaches all around the globe is trying to find flyers. At times, finding a good flyer kind of seems like a once in a lifetime event, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

To find good tiny vaulters, you might also have to invest in young vaulters and that can actually be a good thing for your team and your club; creating vaulters from scratch and getting them to start when they are young.

Investing in the basis of everything is a great way to get the sport to grow.

So we’ve decided to talk to someone who really understands about good flyers: Jessica Lichtenberg, longtime coach from the world champion team of Neuss Grimlinghausen, from Germany, home of a few of the most remarkable young vaulters all time, some of whom are still active today and have turned into great individual vaulters or bases.

Jessica trained a few of the most amazing flyers ever. Does the name Pauline Riedl rings a bell? How about Mona Pavetic? Janika Derks? All of them are Team Neuss material.

Check out what she said, but be careful: You might fall even more in love with Team Neuss afterwards.

1- Being a vaulting coach involves dealing with kids of all ages; from the young ones to the older ones, with different degrees of abilities and experience. How can you motivate them to be on the same page and deliver the same compromise towards the sport?

I think that´s not really just a matter of motivation but of habits and rituals. It is very important to ask all team members for the same effort – no matter what age they are. Of course we do have different training programs for flyers and the different types of bases but the effort should be pretty much the same. So when a young vaulter gets part of team Neuss he/she will soon get used to four practices per week like everyone else but with different elements of workout, gymnastics and basic skills. That´s the physical part of the process so far.

On the other hand it´s very important to treat everyone equally. Many teams have kind of leaders who are “untouchable” and never seem to fail. I´ve seen some teams who blamed all the mistakes that happened in freestyle on their flyers because it´s simply a matter of hierarchy. I´ve also seen coaches who tried to “save the little flyer” from any criticism. Both is wrong from my point of view. You should always try to find a good way of communicating to your team that every part of it has weaker and stronger parts – but the same value for the team and the performance.

 2-Thinking about coaches far away, do you have any advice that could help them spot a potential talent? How can we tell if a young vaulter will become a good flyer or turn into a good medium or base?

Good kids don´t just “turn into” a good vaulter. It´s your work that does it! But if you´re spotting talents, look for attitude and skills. It´s the personality that will help them to see goals and get motivated no matter what age they are. That will definitely matter later on. Good flyers (and later bases) are maybe sometimes a little too loud, a little “crazy” and often very creative. They have to have a strong character to be good actors up there.

Regarding the physical specifics: I prefer starting with kids that are less flexible but have a good tension. It´s easier for gymnastics, most of compulsories and freestyle exercises, dismounts and so on. A high percentage of fast-twitch muscles is something that you need for lots of exercises in vaulting but you can hardly improve them by practice. Flexibility is one of the things you can always improve. It will “just” be a matter of hard work.

I have taken my qualities and drive, (1)

 3-You are known for coaching teams with a tradition of great flyers. How do you balance the flyer’s practicing schedule so they have strong compulsories and freestyle skills at the same time? How to decrease the quality difference between smaller athletes to the big ones?

The better the compulsories are the easier the rest will be. So I would always focus on them. I know that there are some vaulters/coaches/officials/spectators or organizers of competitions who would like to get rid of  compulsories. But I think they are still very important because they force coaches to work a lot on the basics with everyone, especially the young kids. The strength that you need for compulsory exercises will protect athletes when falling off a horse any time. I´ve seen many teams in lower categories that build crazy freestyles and when it gets to compulsories you can hardly believe it´s the same team. But once they get into trouble up there they have a big problem and accidents/injuries happen more often. So spend lots of time working on strong compulsories. We always work about two thirds of a practice on them. Freestyle comes later on. Because it´s easier to find solutions for each type of vaulter and his/her degree of fitness in freestyle. If you practice like this regularly you will improve young kids quite easily within one or two years. And that´s the kind of time period that you should focus on to close the gap between young and older ones.

I have taken my qualities and drive,

4- Pauline and Mona: two golden flyers. How was it for them being part of big and important competitions and dealing with the responsibilities of being on a world champion team? How do you know when it’s time to change flyers because one is too big for the job? How to make this moment less stressful for the athlete?

That´s what I mean by “attitude”. You need flyers who are young/small but already have lots of self-confidence and personality. That will make it easier for the bases to work with them.

Pauline was that kind of “rockstar” up there and totally enjoyed that extraordinary role on the team. Even when she became taller and couldn´t fly on the very top level anymore it has never been a question to put her off the team. You have to stick to special flyers like these and they will pay you back.

Same thing with Mona: She apparently got as tall as Pauline and Janika who lifted her last year. Johannes will still be able to lift her though. That gave us two choices: Pick a new flyer and put Mona e.g. on our Junior Team. This is a very good solution for many flyers/coaches/clubs to find a good solution for the time between flyer and base. Or letting them do some individuals next to team vaulting. So with these options they will learn to vault on their own or to lift others in easier positions as in senior teams. But in this special case of Mona we decided to give her a safe place on our team like we did before when Pauli and Janika changed from flyers to bases. Mona (aged 12) works very hard on everything on her own (!) and maybe she will not get the same scores as the adult ones yet but she will pay back the trust with many stunning years she will still perform for our team. So our goal is to make everyone else getting one or two points more on their compulsories to be able to have two flyers – Mona and Leo – on the team.

So for the coaches:

1) Make sure you´re always preparing the next flyer even if you already have a good one.

2) Talk to the bases after the competition season and discuss the flyer-situation!

3) Talk to your flyer and explain this situation, no matter if you have good or bad news. They have to get used to these professional thoughts how to build a team.

4) Let your “stomach” decide what finally happens. Most times that´s the best thing to rely on.

5- How do you think this experience from such a young age shapes the lives of young adults? Pauline, for an example, today she is in university, a base and probably a leader for the team. How was it to see her grow every year, season after season into the woman she has become?

I wouldn´t just make it up to Pauli and I couldn´t really say she is in a leading role on the team but very much a face that you will always associate with Team Neuss. But I´ve had Antje Hill on my team, as well as Janika Derks, Julia Dammer and many others who all went this way from small vaulting kids to self-responsible adults. I am very proud to see how they all manage their ways into “real life”. I think that vaulters of many good vaulting teams will always have high goals, no matter if it´s school, business or any other challenge. Sometimes you don´t see the change from one year to the other. But later on you have a look on old videos and you will realize that their personality and spirit that they bring into the team has always been there. That´s crazy!

And I can already picture Mona in individual female competition. She is very ambitious to get there once. On my mind she always seems to be a little bit like Lisa Wild and that´s not too bad, isn´t it?!… 😉


BONUS QUESTION: What is a “must do every day” training exercise for a flyer?

“Press to handstand” from sitting in splits. (For flyers – AND bases! 😉



Pauline Riedl was the flyer from Team Neuss up untill 2007, she was part of the World Equestrian Games winning team from 2006. Here is an example of her performance.

Janika Derks was the flyer before her, she is still in the team today.

Mona Pavetic is Neuss’s flyer since the year of 2012.


I am a 27 years old psychologist from Brazil, although I have graduated in psychology I work with media and communications, with a focus on data analysis. I am currently heading towards a master's degree at the London School of Economics (LSE). I am not vaulting anymore, but I did for over 10 years. As it very often happens in our sport, I never really left, I taught at a social project for a few years and have been working on VN since 2014.

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