I was a high school cheerleading coach for the first three years of my teaching career, and it almost broke me. Being a cheerleading coach is the hardest job on the planet. Delta Force commander confronts less treachery. NASA mission control flight controller has less of a juggling act. Warden of Rikers Island Prison deals with fewer threats. I completed my Master’s of Arts in Teaching from Trinity University with a 4.0 GPA, yet nothing prepared me for the challenges of cheerleading. After my first round of try outs, I received a typed, single-spaced, four page letter from a parent of a child who didn’t make the team, telling me what a horrible person I was and how I must have never had a good role model in my entire life. That missive should have tipped me off as to what lie ahead.
First of all there’s the technical knowledge. Seriously people, a CIA cryptographer has less specialized jargon to master. Do you know the difference between a Hurdler and a Herkie? Do you know what a Toss to Hands with a Twist-Cradle is? How about a rotating Scorpion squished to a Toe Touch Basket Toss? A Ground-Up Bow and Arrow? A Cupie? A Tic Toc? A Show and Go? A Post Up? A Walk-in Chair? A J-UP? A Matrix Reloaded? A Hitch? A Pike? A Russian? A Double Nine? A Jog? A Prance? A Clasp? A Clap? Candlesticks? Daggers? Need I go on?
Completely sane adults totally lose their minds when their child becomes a cheerleader. All of the sudden the laws of physics are out the window, and every mom wants her daughter to be at the top of the pyramid, regardless of her weight or the fact that someone has to be at the bottom of the pyramid or there is no top. One of my more interesting parental challenges arose when I had a boy on the team. His parents were adamant that he not dance nor be in the midst of the girls while they were dancing, since that would seem less than masculine. However, when the team went to cheerleading camp, they were offended that he didn’t have an outfit that matched what the girls were wearing. Well, the girls were wearing the tiniest shorts imaginable and tie-dyed tank tops. What’s a coach to do? My suggestion that he wear gym shorts and a t shirt made the parents exclaim that he wasn’t treated like part of the team. So no dancing, but wearing shorts that looked like panties would have been okay? Then out of nowhere I’d get the opposite end of the spectrum. During our competition routine, one of my 90 lb. flyers plummeted head first to the ground after being thrown into the air. I can still remember watching it happen, in slow motion, thinking she was about to be a paraplegic, but breathing a huge sigh of relief when she bounced right back up. Afterwards her parents apologized to me for their daughter ruining my routine. I didn’t care that we didn’t win the competition; I was just glad that the kid wasn’t paralyzed, and I wasn’t being taken to court. I’ve been raked over the coals behind my back, pubically shouted at in my face, physically pushed, manipulated, undermined, and all by moms of the children I was trying to coach. Either I was a very, very bad coach, or parents get a bit off their rockers sometimes. Both are possible. Let me make one thing clear. This was not at a school in Texas where cheerleading is almost on par with football, as far as technical skills go. This was at a tiny international school in Belgium that was lucky to have cheerleading at all. College scholarships were not at stake. I can only imagine how I would have been treated if they were!
I learned many valuable lessons as a cheerleading coach. One of them is that when you do the right thing; do not expect a ticker tape parade. In fact, expect a lot of people to be mad at you. Every time I held cheerleading try outs, I would get accused of cheating! Sometimes people were glad I had cheated; other times they were furious. The funny thing is that I never cheated! When I held try outs, I would assemble a panel of 5 judges of coaches, teachers with some athletic background, former cheerleaders, dance instructors, and the like. Each judge was given a score sheet for each child and would score them in a number of categories, like jump execution, motion placement, stunting, tumbling, etc. Each sheet was tallied, and then the school athletic director and I would average the scores for each kid. The top ten scores made the cut; plain and simple. I thought my career was over when the school secretary’s daughter didn’t make the team. I literally thought I had to leave that school, leave that country. There’s an unwritten rule in the education world, and that is: do not anger the school secretary. The school secretary has the power to make a teacher’s life a living hell. The principal even pulled me into his office the day after try outs and told me that I needed to lay low for a while. When I tried to show him the score sheets, so that he could back me up on the whole cheating accusation, he refused to look at them! He actually told me to destroy them! I didn’t since I planned on keeping the evidence of my innocence. Doing the right thing may get you into hot water, but you’re the one who has to sleep at night. It’ll also show you where people really stand. After that morning, I knew what kind of man my principal really was. I was 24 years old, the youngest teacher in the school, taking on one of the hardest jobs, and he was content to throw me under the bus. At that point, I wished I had cheated! It would have made my life easier. Now I’m glad I didn’t. If you’ll cheat on high school cheerleading try outs, it’s a slippery slope from there.
Another lesson I learned shaped me as a teacher, a leader, and now as a parent. People need more praise than criticism. I learned the hard way that the team performed much better, and was happier, when I pointed out the good things they were doing rather than their mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, mistakes need correcting; however, to boost morale and motivate improvement, people need to feel like their good points are appreciated. At a practice the day before a performance, the team was not up to par. The routine was nowhere near ready, and I stood there telling the kids every single thing they were doing wrong. One of the most adorable, sweetest girls looked at me with the most indignant expression and stamped her foot, then said: “You’re just being mean! You’re not helping us get better!” Such wisdom from a child! It was like a gong was struck in my brain. From that point on, I’ve always tried to remember that praise motivates while criticism tears down. Mistakes and bad behavior have to be addressed, but inspiring someone to improve will not happen by picking apart their every fault. I remember thinking to myself, “How will they know what they’re doing wrong if I don’t tell them?” Well, telling them what’s wrong without showing them what’s right will never work, especially with teenage girls. Since I’ll have a household of adolescent girls in the future, it’s a lesson I hope to hold on to for future use!
Kids like rules. They may say they don’t, but they do! It gives them the excuse to behave themselves while still saving face. Most of my rules while coaching had to do with safety. For example, no jewelry was to be worn during practice or a performance; the reason being, that when stunting someone could accidentally jerk that cute, little nose ring out of your head. A gaping flesh wound will dampen your fun at homecoming after all. Another example was that no stunt could be attempted in a performance that had not been successfully executed three times in a row in practice; the reason being, stunts are terrifying, death-defying things that go wrong sometimes. It’s better when it goes wrong on top of a mat in practice than on the hardwood floor of the gymnasium in front of the whole school. Also, kids lack good judgment. While cheering at a basketball game, they’d get all excited because they’d thrown up some cool stunts or one of the tumblers just ripped off 7 back handsprings in a row. The next thing you know, they want to throw one of our tiny flyers up in the air in some impressive stunt that they’ve never pulled off before. That’s when I step in with the rule, hopefully saving us all the trauma of the child’s skull smacking the floor. In my first season, I had a 14 year old girl who had been in cheer since she could walk. She also had a mom whom I thought it best not to cross. I had told the child to sit out during one of the basketball games because she had a sore ankle. The next thing I know her mom had instructed her to get up and cheer. Not wanting to tangle with this volatile woman in public, I just told the girl not to jump or stunt, but that she could do motions and say the words to the cheers. Our team won by 40 points; everyone was outrageously excited. I looked over and this girl was up in a stunt called a Cowboy, which we had never done in practice (see image below).
Again, in slow motion, I see her falling backwards and sideways while the bases cling to her foot, trying to stabilize her. Her head hit the gym floor, her feet rolling up over her head. The rest of the team collapsed in tears and wailing. The paramedics came, put her on a body board, and took her to the emergency room. Thankfully, she had no head injury, but her foot was broken from the bases holding onto it so hard as she twisted and fell. That mother said to me, “Don’t worry. I won’t sue you.” From that moment on, no matter how mentally off the mom may have been, no matter how excited the kids were, no matter how experienced the cheerleader, no stunt was attempted in a performance that wasn’t locked in ahead of time. Thankfully, my cheerleaders seemed okay with that rule after watching their friend driven off in an ambulance. They always had my rule to fall back on when one of their overly-spirited teammates suggested an unproven stunt. I was 23 years old at the time. Talk about baptism by fire.
With a group of 10 adolescents, tempers flared on at least a weekly basis. I got fairly skilled at mediation. The problem usually was something along the lines of the captain thought the rest of the team wasn’t working hard enough while her peers thought she was just being bossy. I’d have everyone sit down in a circle. After each person said his or her piece, I’d repeat it back, saying, “I hear that you are saying that Sally is not executing her jumps with enough precision” or “I hear that you are saying that Betty is being overly critical of your jumps.” Most of the time, just the simple act of their complaints being acknowledged diffused the whole situation. I started realizing that people just want to be heard. When you’re the one who’s angry it’s not always easy to hear the other person. Cheerleading taught me that we need to open our ears, hear what the other person is trying to say, and value the relationship over “winning” the argument.
One of the more interesting psychological lessons I learned has to do with social epidemics. You can see at the picture at the top of the post that one of the girls is wearing a knee brace. This girl had good medical reason to be wearing it. Within a startlingly short amount of time half of the team was wearing knee braces. The rest of the team wanted their wrists taped before practices and performances. One of my friends came to the school’s basketball game on a Friday night and asked if I’d been clubbing the kids in the knee caps. It was at that moment that I realized it looked like a band of cheerleaders who’d just been through some war! I instructed the kids that they were only to wear a brace if a doctor had told them to do so. The rest of them needed to find another trend!
Well, I could go on endlessly listing the lessons that coaching high school cheerleading taught me. People often assumed that the hardest part was the kids. That was not the case at all. I thoroughly enjoyed them. They were genuinely excited to be cheering for their school and supported each other as a team. Mainly the stunting terrified me, and rightly so! I sometimes wonder what I’ll say if Avery or Lily want to be cheerleaders. I know firsthand how dangerous it is, but I know how wonderful it is to be part of a team. A flyer has to trust her bases to support her and catch her after she’s been flung 20 feet in the air; the bases have to sacrifice themselves to make sure the flyer stays safe and catch her as gravity pulls her back down to Earth. There are definitely some powerful lessons there for us all to learn!