Archive for the ‘Stories and Opinions’ category

Cheerleading and the Olympics

August 6, 2012

With the 2012 Summer Olympics in full swing, now seems like a perfect time to discuss the topic of whether or not cheerleading should become an Olympic event.  I can tell you that when I cheered (back in the 90’s), I was absolutely certain not only the cheerleading SHOULD be in the Olympics, but that it WOULD be in the Olympics in a couple of games.  History has proven me wrong on the second count.  As for the first, that is still very much up for debate.

Regardless, the first issue I’d like to consider is whether or not cheerleading would be good for the Olympics.  Assuming those of you reading this article are cheerleading enthusiasts, like me, you’re probably going to be surprised by my response.  No, I don’t think adding cheerleading to the Summer Olympics would do much to improve the Olympic games.

My saying this is in no way meant to be a put down of cheerleading.  If you follow this blog, you must realize that I love cheerleading.  I treat it with as much (or more) respect as anyone I know.  However, there are a lot of competitions/sports that I respect that I don’t necessarily think make a nice, neat fit in the Olympics.

Olympic events are best when they are very inclusive of a large number of participating countries.  Track and field events are the quintessential Summer Olympic sport.  Every country in the world has the resources to field a track and field team.  Every person on the planet can run.  In that, this year, the world witnessed its first double leg amputee compete in track and field against able-bodied athletes.  Talk about inclusive!  Furthermore, only in track and field can you find a country has economically disadvantaged as Ethiopia able to dominate certain events, year after year.  Certainly, the wealthier countries still have an advantage in terms of population, training techniques, coaching and equipment, but even with that, most of the world has a chance to be competitive.
Of course that isn’t the case in every Olympic sport.  Ethiopia will probably never field a competitive Olympic gymnastics team.  You either need a wealthy population to train privately, like in the USA, or you need a well-establish, government sponsored training program, like in China and Russia.

As for cheerleading, in spite of the rapid increases in international participation, competitive cheerleading is still too highly concentrated in the USA to make for a successful competition at the Summer Olympics.  That isn’t to say there isn’t great cheerleading in other countries.  There is.  I’ve seen (and judged) teams from over a dozen countries, and have witnessed some exceptional athletes on the competition mat.  However, outside of the USA, what you just don’t see enough of are dedicated cheer gyms with the facilities to practice full-out performances of their routines.  Very few international cheer teams have an opportunity to practice on a full-size cheer floor (let alone a spring floor!) until they are at the warm up mat at a competition.  This puts these teams at a huge disadvantage in terms of practicing timing, spacing, showmanship, endurance etc.  Teams in the USA run their routines over and over, full-out, fine-tuning each step of each performer for every 8-count.  You can’t do that when you’re practicing on 2 strips of cheer floor and you have to practice 2 stunt groups at a time and never get to run your tumbling sequence full-out.  You can take the greatest diver in the world but if you never let them practice in the pool, they’re going to splash on every dive.  The same is true for international cheerleading.

This is not to say that this will forever be the case.  Once there is a greater competitive balance among international teams, that might be a great time to revisit the conversation.  But we just aren’t there yet, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with admitting that, and continuing to work at it until we’re there.

Additionally, I don’t think including cheerleading in the Olympics would necessarily be a good thing for cheerleading.  Frankly, I think the professional cheerleading event providers operating today already do a great job.  I don’t think the Olympics could put on nearly as strong of a cheerleading competition as Cheersport Nationals in Atlanta, Jamfest Nationals in Indianapolis, NCA Nationals in Dallas or UCA Nationals in Orlando.  And that isn’t even considering Worlds, which is already the premier international cheerleading event.

There’s a reason the Olympics doesn’t consistently include other very popular sports like baseball and golf.  Both of these sports are incredibly popular and played at a very high level, internationally.  But they also both have such tremendously established other competitions, that an Olympic tournament would be something of a let down.  Think about it.  Would the Yankees shut down during the baseball season so they could send Alex Rodriguez to the Olympics?  Of course not.  They would much rather focus on the World Series.  As for golf, I’m sure Tiger Woods would love to compete for an Olympic medal, but would he skip the Masters to do so?  Here’s another example.  Consider soccer, which is in the Olympics.  Doesn’t the world pay more attention to the World Cup than to the Olympic soccer event?  I think by far.

I could be mistaken.  I certainly think an Olympic title in any event is always a special thing.  But when there are already highly established championships in place, trying to fit an event into the Olympics might not really do much for that event.  One more example.  When people talk about Michael Jordan, what do they think about first, his 6 NBA championship (and multiple MVP’s), or his 2 Olympic gold medals?

This hasn’t been my best-written article because I’m writing about something (the Olympics) that I am anything but an expert in.  I would not be surprised at all to hear an argument from someone who would completely change my point of view.  But for now, the way I see it, cheerleading isn’t a very good fit for the Olympics.  Additionally, I don’t think the Olympics would do very much for cheerleading.

One final thought.  I could definitely see a spin-off of cheerleading eventually establishing itself as an Olympic event.  I think the emerging sport called Stunt could be a good candidate for the Olympics in the future.  If you haven’t heard of Stunt, I suggest doing some digging.  It’s a pretty cool activity that really boils competitive cheerleading down to the purely athletic side of the activity.

In the mean time, I think it might be neat to figure out ways to use traditional cheerleading during certain select Olympic events to add to the experience of the spectators.  The London games have tried to do that (s0rt of) by having “entertainers” that are similar to cheerleaders at volleyball, beach volley ball, basketball and I think handball.  I’m not sure that the execution has been the best, but I like where they’re going with it.  Cheerleading started out on the sidelines as a way to encourage the athletes on the field (or court) and to entertain the audience.  I would love to see that aspect of cheerleading highlighted at the Olympics more than see them trying to force a cheerleading competition before the world is quite ready for it.

Cheerleading Rule Changes, March 2012

March 29, 2012

This article is about the sweeping rule changes that were recently implemented affecting both high school and all star competitive cheerleading.  I’m going to address the situation in general terms, understanding that there might be exceptions, but if I went into great detail to every specific aspect of the changes, this article would be way too long.  So, with the disclaimer out of the way, here we go…

What we’re really talking about are limitations that have been placed on what skills cheerleaders are going to be allowed to perform.  That, and some age restrictions and I think a uniform restriction down the road.  If you want to know my opinion about the uniform restriction, look up my article called Dress For Success.  As for my opinion on the age limitations, check out the article called Age Appropriate.  THIS article is going to focus on skill restrictions, in general, that have been put in place.

People are understandably upset about the changes.  A lot of coaches and athletes have worked their butts off to master difficult tricks that they want to perform.  They want to stand out.  They want to shine.  What’s more, they want the competitive advantage that they have earned with the blood sweat and tears that they invested in training to progress to the point that they can execute the toughest cheerleading skills around.  After all of that hard work, the rule changes have taken that away from them, and they don’t think that is fair.

They are right.  IT IS NOT FAIR.

However, it is still the right thing to do.

Yes, I know I just said it wasn’t fair.  But it is still right.  It is the only solution to a serious problem.  The ends justify the means in this case.  And even though you might not be the cause of the problem (or at least you might not THINK you are), you have to pay the price for the greater good.  We need a safer environment in cheerleading.  The status quo was not an option.  And the coaches, the parents, and the event providers were not getting it done.  This is the result, and once again, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Before you tune me out completely, let me explain with an example.  10 years ago, people who earned $40,000 a year were allowed to borrow $400,000 to buy a house that was only worth $250,000.  Whether or not you’re a financial expert, you can probably figure out this is an example of a “high risk” loan.  Banks were allowed to make as many of these loans as they wanted.  They were very profitable.  The problem is if the borrower couldn’t pay back the loan, the banks would lose money and the borrower would lose their house.  A lot of bank took a responsible approach to high risk loans.  They used honest appraisers to determine the value of the house.  They looked at the borrower’s future income, credit history, etc.  They limited themselves to only making so many of these loans so that if some of them went bad, the bank wouldn’t get hurt too much by it.  The problem is, most of the bank were not responsible.  They gave out billions of dollars to people who could never repay it, figuring they’d just take the houses back and still make a profit when they sell them.  But then housing priced crashed.  The banks couldn’t sell the houses.  The people couldn’t make the payments.  Before you know it, we have a global financial crisis.  Folks who worked their whole, honest lives saving to retire saw their home and investments lose all of their value overnight.  Folks started getting laid off.  People’s dreams and futures were crushed.  Let’s face it.  Life as we know it changes and may never be the same.

Now, banks aren’t allowed to loan money like that anymore.  Not just the banks that screwed it up.  None of the banks.  The rules had to change because too many people were taking advantage of the lack of rules.  Is it fair that the banks that did the right thing lose the chance to make a good profit on the occasional high risk loan?  No.  It is not fair.  But the chance that someone else might is just too great.  We can’t afford another financial melt down, so before it happens, the rules had to change for everyone.  To the “good” banks, thanks for being responsible, but you’re going to have to make your money another way.  By the way, the big banks that messed everything up got bailed out by the tax payers for the greater good.  That also wasn’t fair, but it looked like the only way out of that mess.

The rule changes in cheerleading are kind of like that.  Hey, there are lots of good coaches out there doing things the right way and teaching their kids the hardest skills around properly and safely.  Those programs should not be punished with the programs that have failed to be responsible.  But just like with the banks, you can’t make that distinction.  The rules had to change for everyone before cheerleading had a meltdown of injuries.  And if that happened, the changes that would have been made could have been much more drastic.

By they way, before you assume your program is one of the innocent ones, maybe you should think again.  Do cheerleaders in your program start working on standing tucks before they have perfect standing back handspring series?  Do bases base with arched backs but no one says anything because at least the stunts are still hitting?  Are there 10 or 20 kids in the gym that cross compete of multiple teams because it is easier and quicker to have a few kids doing all the flying than taking the time to instruct every flier on the team?  Are kids that should be on youth (by age and size) getting pulled up to juniors and even seniors so the team can do harder stunts?  Believe it or not, high school girls CAN base other high school girls.  It just means they have to be taught good technique instead of being given a flyer the size of a Barbie doll.

You might have double downs in your gym, and do them safely, but if your program does those things (listed above) and other similar things, your program is cutting corners.  That makes you part of the problem too.  Cutting corners contributes to the environment where we have teams believing they have to attempt crazy hard tricks to be remotely competitive, and if they aren’t competitive, their kids will go to another gym, and then what are they going to do?

We have an environment where cheating is accepted.  Hate to say it, but it is true.  There will be teams at Worlds with 20-something year old guys on the mat competing in the senior divisions.  You and I know this is going to happen.  In fact, some of the programs complaining about the rule  changes have every intention of cheating in this way.  Cutting corners.  Instead of teaching young kids, they hang onto the ones who should be moving on.  The programs that do this and the event providers who look the other way, you’re responsible for forcing these changes just as much as the coaches who push kids past progressions and put dangerous stunts on the mat.

So now that I’ve made everyone made, please just take a deep breath.  Now exhale.

It isn’t fair.  It is not.  But it was right.  It had to happen.  Cheerleading is going to go on.  And now, maybe, cheer programs will have to find more creative ways to stand out.  Maybe programs will have to focus on teaching the less experienced kids how to keep up instead of mostly focusing on teaching elite kids a standing double full.  Seriously, where are all of the complaints about that discrepancy?

This is the new environment, cheerleaders.  The rules have changed.  You are challenged in a new way.  And that is pretty exciting.  The real competitors inside you will see that.  You have to stop feeling like a victim and move forward.  This is going to make a better cheerleading for all of us in the future.  Find new ways to stand out.  To shine.  Move forward.  You can do it.

Coed Stunting; Power and Strength

August 26, 2011

In case you’re new to reading this blog, I need to fill you in on my background.  I’m a former college cheerleader, with the HEAVY emphasis on the word “former.”  I can’t remember the last time I tumbled, and I have not stunted with any regularity in at least 5 years.

Several weeks ago, a student of mine asked about working on coed stunting.  She is an excellent student.  The kind that you don’t mind going the extra mile for because you know she’s going to try to make the most of the time you give her.  So I really felt inclined to help her out.  The problem is, after 5 years of coaching from the sidelines (and from behind the keyboard), I really didn’t know if I could still stunt well enough to give an effective lesson.

After thinking about it for a long while, I decided to agree to stunt with the student.  Since she has never coed stunted before, I knew we could spend lots of time just working on fundamentals, so it’s not like I’d be holding her back by not quite being able to still base elite stunts.  Also, for me, stunting is really good exercise.  I’ve pretty much kept up with my strength since retiring from cheerleading.  However, in terms of overall athleticism, I’ve let a lot slide.  So I figured the pressure of not wanting to let a student down, not to mention not wanting to embarrass myself, would be good motivation to get me back into stunting shape. 

Stunting is not like static strength training.  Static strength training is basically sitting on a bench or machine and pushing heavy weights around.  You’re trying to concentrate on specific muscles or muscle groups and isolate them with each exercise.  This style of workout CAN be very effective and help you get bigger and stronger.  However, basing coed stunts has more to do with “power” than with “strength.”  Here is the difference between the two.

Strength is what it takes to pick up and hold heavy objects.  Someone who is strong would be well-suited to help you move furniture.  They can lift and carry.  If they pace themselves, they can keep this up all day.  Power is different than this.  Power is explosiveness.  Power is what allows martial artists to break concrete blocks.  It is more related to overall athleticism than to size and sheer strength.  To gain power, you have to train differently than you do for strength.

Stunting actually requires both power and strength.  When you toss (or walk in) they flyer, you are using power.  You have to be explosive and fast.  The more speed you can generate for your flyer at the moment you release her (flick), the higher your toss will go.  Now that she is in the air, strength takes over.  Now you are holding her weight with your upper body.  You are ALSO using your legs, back and core to stabilize and balance.

Please note, the above description is only for basic stunts.  Once you start talking about transitions and dismounts, you go back and forth between strength and power.  No room to write about all of that here so I’ll just let you figure that part out on your own.

So back to poor retired me knowing I was going to be stunting in a few weeks.  I decided to take that time to prepare as much as I could to work on power.  I replaced a few of my regular static workout sessions (traditional weight lifting) with more dynamic workouts.  I picked exercises that used multiple muscle groups.  Also, the movements were explosive rather than slow and controlled.  I also tried to focus on exercises that somewhat simulated the movements involved in basing coed stunts.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Jumping Jacks.  These were mostly used to warm up and to keep my heart rate up between more strenuous exercises. 
  • Bounding Push-ups.  For these, I was actually pushing hard enough that my hands came off the ground.  Using good form also works the core.
  • Sit-ups.  Nothing special here, but you have to work your core to stabilization and to avoid injury.
  • Clean and Jerk.  Dangling relatively heavy weights at my side and rapidly lifting them up to about eye level, controlling them down to should level, and then returning them to the start position.  This sort of simulates your toss.
  • Plyometric Jump.  This is just jumping in the air as hard as you can.  You can jump onto a platform if you like, but I just jumped in place.
  • Flutter kicks.  Lay on your back, lift your feet a couple of inches off the ground and perform shallow switch kicks as if you are swimming.  Another core exercise.
  • Back Raises.  Laying on your stomach, lift your feet and your chest off the ground at the same time.  This works your lower back and is good for stability and injury prevention.
  • Modified Lat Row.  For this, I held a 45-pound plate.  I positioned my hands at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions (like on a steering wheel).  This is similar to the grip you would have on a flyer’s waist.  Dipping with the legs, you lift the weight as forcefully as you can as high as you can.  Keep the weight close to you, almost dragging it up your body.  If you generate enough speed, the weight will almost come out of your hands at the top.  I think this is a great simulation of a toss.
  • Squats.  Just a static strength exercise, but a good one.
  • Shoulder rows.  I just used light weights and lifted them straight out, circled my arms out to the sides and then returns them back down to a hanging position in front.
  • Lower Back Rows.  I held a 45 pound plate to my chest, bent my knees slightly, leaned forward at my waist and then returned to upright.
  • Tricep extensions.  A basic static exercise.  I used a 45 pound plate instead of dumb bells or a bar to work on grip strength too.
  • Calf Raises.  Another basic strength exercise.
  • Bicep Curls.  Just because.  Not really stunt oriented.

And that is it.  It took about 12 minutes to get through all of the exercises.  That made one circuit.  I did 3 circuits in total.  The first time I did this, I was careful and used moderate intensity.  I increased the intensity a little each time.  This became a great aerobic workout by making it more intense and taking fewer and shorter breaks.

Anyway, after about 3 weeks, it was time to stunt.  I’m happy to say that I survived, and the student and I both felt that the session was successful.  The morning after, I was a little sore, but not especially so.  I have one knee that gives me trouble from time to time, and it was sore, but that is nothing new.  So I guess my preparations helped.  I plan to keep using this workout and to keep stunting once a week.  I’ll write again about it I have any significant observations or make any changes.

For one final note I just want to comment that coed stunting is a really great workout.  You are training all of the major muscle groups, as well as lots of smaller muscles that you do not use much a regular basis.  Always be careful when you stunt.  Nothing messes up your training like an injury.  But if you take your time and follow basic safety guidelines, stunting can really help you (even if you’re an old, retired cheerleader) get into your best shape.

Crazy Cheer Moms

July 21, 2011

I read an article on Rivals, which is a website dedicated to high school athletics, that got me really angry.  I’ll summarize, but in case you want to read the full article, here is the link.

http://rivals.yahoo.com/highschool/blog/prep_rally/post/Court-kicks-out-frivolous-Title-IX-cheerleader-s?urn=highschool-wp3831

The gist of it is that a cheerleading mom in Texas sued the school her daughter went to (and cheered for) because she did not make the cheerleading team.  The suit alleges that there were Title IX violations equating to gender-based discrimination.  The cheer mom’s case was thrown out in a lower level Federal court.  She took it to the Federal Court of Appeals.  That court wrote a hilariously scathing opinion of the cheer mom and upheld the previous court’s ruling.

Now, if you actually believed your daughter was a victim of some form of unlawful discrimination, I would be completely supportive of seeking out a legal remedy.  HOWEVER, this was clearly not the case.  The mom’s suit actually states that one instance of discrimination was that the captain of her daughter’s cheer team should have been, and was not, dismissed from the cheer team for having kissed the other cheerleader’s boyfriend.  ARE YOU SERIOUS???  This crazy cheer mom tried to (literally) make a federal case out of what is essentially a teenage romantic rivalry.

The crazy cheer mom’s lawsuit goes on to make various other ridiculous claims.  You should read them.  They are rather funny.  I’ll just point out one more example that I think illustrates how delusional this idiot was.  The crazy cheer mom actually cited as evidence of Title IX discrimination that other cheer mom’s on the team threatened to sue her (the crazy cheer mom) if she (the crazy cheer mom) did not return video tapes that belonged to the cheer team. 

Let that sink in for a second….ok, here we go.  So the crazy cheer mom stole property from the team (ok, she probably borrowed it, but then refused to return it).  The team asked for it back.  The crazy cheer mom did not return it.  The team did the proper thing which was to pursue the matter lawfully in the civil courts (the crazy cheer mom probably would have called the FBI).  And somehow, that action equated to gender-based discrimination against the crazy cheer mom’s daughter.  Huh???

First, I want to say a great big thank you to the court for getting it right.  Apparently, they dismissed the case as swiftly as the law would allow, wasting as little time and resources as possible.  Our courts are way over-burdened with legitimate legal actions as it is.  People like the crazy cheer mom not only waste tax dollars but also delay the resolution of important legal matters.

I also want to thank the court for smacking down the crazy cheer mom in their written opinion.  They don’t pull any punches, even going so far as to compare the crazy cheer mom’s writing to that of a 4th grader.  It’s good stuff!

But the point of this blog is not merely to go off on a rant about the crazy cheer mom.  There are actually lessons to be learned here.

The first has to do with the image of cheerleading.  Guess what folks.  Cheerleading is the butt of a lot of jokes.  Will Ferrell made his name in comedy on Saturday Night Live, and his most famous skit was making hilarious fun of cheerleading.  The movie, Dodgeball, has an entire subplot that is completely unrelated to the rest of the movie that does nothing but make fun of competitive cheerleading.  Even movies that have tried to make cheerleading mainstream, like Bring It On, play into cheerleading stereotypes.  A lot of folks in the cheerleading community don’t like this prevailing social opinion of cheerleading and have blamed the media for portraying cheerleading in such a light.  Guess what.  The media is not to blame.  We are.  And by “we,” I mean cheerleader, coaches and parents who, like the crazy cheer mom, act like idiots.  Remember, part of cheerleading is supposed to be about representing your community, school or organization in a proper way.  That is an extra responsibility that cheerleaders are supposed to accept.  So when one of our own does something irresponsible and stupid (like the crazy cheer mom), it should be looked at with greater scrutiny than if the same mistake was made by a different student or athlete.  That’s just the way it is, so we have to be mindful and not make those kinds of mistakes in judgement.

Another lesson we can take from the crazy cheer mom incident is that cheerleaders need to treat each other nicely.  Look, the crazy cheer mom was crazy.  No disputing that.  But if she felt so strongly that her daughter was being singled out and picked on, maybe she was.  That’s no justification for bringing a federal suit against someone.  But still, we should not tease or exclude anyone on our team.  Cheerleading is hard enough when everyone is working together.  It is impossible when people on the team are being petty, uncooperative or cruel to each other.  The daughter of the crazy cheer mom might have been odd.  She might have dressed funny.  She might not have been very talented.  Who knows.  There is usually someone on every team that doesn’t really fit in with everyone else.  Those are your teammates that you should be the most supportive and inclusive of.  They are your opportunity to do the right thing.  That is especially true of the leaders on the team.  I don’t know if the captain was right or wrong for allegedly kissing the alleged boyfriend of the daughter of the crazy cheer mom.  Regardless of that, this team clearly had personality issues for things to have gotten all the way to federal court.  Those personality issues should have been worked out by the girls on the team.  If everyone on the team had been thoughtful and supportive and really cared about each other, I can’t help but believe things never would have gotten so out of hand in the first place.

There is a cliché that I believe is true.  It goes like this.  “No one is completely useless.  Everyone can at LEAST serve as a bad example.”  Well crazy cheer mom, thank you for being a bad example.  While this kind of publicity is bad for the image of cheerleading (makes me cringe thinking about it), at least we can try to learn from it.  Cheerleaders, be inclusive of your teammates.  Reach out to the ones that are struggling to fit in.  Communicate with each other when there are problems.  Work them out.  Coaches, when there are things that the kids aren’t working out, you need to step in.  Communicate with the parents early so there are no misunderstandings.  Let the school administration know if there are ongoing issues that you are struggling with.  And parents, including you crazy cheer mom, let’s keep things in perspective.  Cheerleading is a wonderful activity, but remember, it’s only cheerleading.  In the future, try not to make a national joke of yourself, waste tax payer money and Federal Court’s time because of a cheerleading issue.

Bad Attitudes

June 6, 2011

Dealing with different personalities is one of the most challenging aspects of any group activity.  It is also one of the  most potentially rewarding!  When personalities conflict, it seems that someone is always labeled as having a “bad” attitude.  Whether one attitude is good or bad is completely dependent on who is assigning the label.  A truly exceptional coach and teammate is able to find a way to motivate and work with any person, regardless of their attitude.  Having said that, here are a few common traits that are sometimes considered part of a bad attitude and what you might do to help yourself deal with them.

One of the hardest things to deal with is a lazy person.  Whether you area a coach or a teammate of a lazy person, it is frustrating.  You can only succeed in reaching your team goals if everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction.  When you perceive someone to be lazy, it is important to first consider things from their point of view.  Ask yourself why they are not working as hard as you think they should.  Maybe they are dealing with some kind of disappointment in cheerleading, like not getting to stunt in the group that they wanted to be in.  Something like that can certainly be de-motivating.  Maybe they have some personal difficulties outside of the team.  Either way, it could be useful to find an appropriate time to ask them if something is distracting them.  Usually that will be the case.  And most people are more than willing to open up to someone who is sincerely interested in hearing about their troubles.  Once someone knows that another person cares about them, they will be more open to encouragement and motivation from that person.  I find that this works much better than certain other tactics like calling someone out in front of the team.  It might feel good when you do it, but it usually has the opposite effect of what is intended.  Embarrassing or angering someone with a bad attitude is only likely to make things worse, so try to avoid that approach.

Gossip, especially negative gossip, is another aspect of a bad attitude.  This is also something that surfaces from time to time with people that usually have good attitudes.  It is probably unrealistic to think you can ever completely get rid of all gossip, so keep your expectations reasonable.  A lot of people suggest dealing with gossip by simply walking away and not participating.  I like this high road approach.  However, if you are brave enough, I think confronting a gossip with what they are doing is even more effective.  Saying something like, “That person is my teammate and I am not comfortable talking behind their back like this,” will send the message very clearly that not only will you not participate in gossip but that you do not condone it. 

Another trait that may be hard to deal with is a cheerleader who never wants to share the spotlight.  This is a rather selfish attitude and it can quickly bring down the attitudes of everyone else.  Most teams have people of various skill and experience levels, so it is reasonable to expect some cheerleaders will be showcased more than others.  However, the same cheerleader should not be in the front and center of every formation.  If there really is THAT big of a talent gap between one cheerleader and everyone else then there might be a coaching problem to deal with.  Anyway, people that feel the need to always be in the front are usually dealing with some other insecurities.  As a teammate, it is best to just be patient and encouraging with those people.  It is also important to give plenty of praise and encouragement to other people on the team.  This not only lets the other cheerleaders know they are important, it lets the glory hound know that other people are important as well.  If it ever becomes to big of a problem, you should let your coach know about it.  As a coach, it is very important for your team’s success that you are utilizes everyone’s skills and abilities.  No matter how good one star might be, they will never outshine the whole team.

The last difficult trait I want to bring up is the teammate who thinks they are a coach.  They may just be trying to help, but it seems like they are constantly telling everyone else what they are doing wrong.  This can be a big problem and really alienate someone from the rest of the team.  As a coach, I have had to deal with this situation pretty often.  Sometimes I make a rule that only a coach is permitted to give criticism at practice.  However, not only does that rule usually get ignored, it isn’t even a good rule.  A team can improve much quicker if people are allowed to offer suggestions and help to their teammates.  Making blanket comments to the whole team to keep comments positive is another good idea that usually doesn’t work for long.  People just forget to reinforce the good and only want to point out mistakes.  If you notice a teammate constantly criticising other teammates or even yourself, you have to remember to be patient.  Tell them that you appreciate their suggestions.  Ask them if they have noticed things that you are doing correctly that they think you should continue to do.  This will act as a gentle reminder to them that they should reinforce the positive as well as pointing out problem areas.  And sometimes, you just have to let your coach know that it is bothering you.  As a coach, you have to be ready to tell such a cheerleader if and when they are crossing the line of a helpful teammate and becoming a bossy know-it-all. 

In general, none of the traits discussed above need to become major distractions to your team.  They can almost all be dealt with effectively by trying to understand what is causing the behavior.  Trying to be patient and offering positive behavior to replace the “bad” attitudes is a good step getting everyone on your team on the same page with a good attitude.

Off-Season

May 31, 2011

This is it folks, the mythical “off-season” for cheerleading.  This is the 2 to 6 weeks you get away from the pastime that we love.  The high school cheerleaders have just had tryouts and are off until they go to camp.  The all star cheerleaders may have actually just wrapped up one more competition (they will have them in June before long), probably had tryouts, and are now free to schedule a family vacation.  Never mind that the all star kids are probably still paying their monthly fees for “optional” tumbling classes.  Your break is in terms of time, not finances.

I have often said that one of the hardest things about cheerleading is the lack of an off-season.  I mean this from a physical standpoint, in that your body never really gets a chance to recover before the start of the next season.  Cheerleaders put off dealing with injuries they incur in August and try to schedule surgery in April and squeeze 12 weeks of rehab into the 6 weeks between tryouts and camp.  No wonder we have such a high incident of injury in cheerleading!

I also mean this from a financial point of view.  You’re probably paying for tumbling lessons basically year round.  If you’re in an all star gym, you pay 11 months, minimum.  Anymore, I think most gyms have you paying year round.  If you are a school cheerleader, you probably have a “team class” that runs from August through basketball season which goes into February.  If you compete later than that, you probably keep paying for lessons late as well.  But there is no respite after the cheer banquet.  You then have to pay for open gym, tumbling classes or private lessons so you can get ready for tryouts.  These, by the way, are probably more expensive than the monthly lessons you took with your team.

But the biggest challenge of the lack of an off-season is the mental grind of it.  Cheerleaders suffer from burnout worse than any other athletes in high school.  When the football players finish their final game, they have 6 months of anticipation to get ready for the next season.  That time away from the sport gives them a chance to recharge their motivational batteries.  They work hard conditioning during their off-season, but they are away from football.  By the time the next season comes around, they are starving to get into their pads and hit each other.  Now I’m not saying cheerleaders don’t love to cheer.  But without that time away from cheerleading, we never really get to miss it.  Those few weeks off feel like heaven and dragging ourselves back to the first practice, to start all over, can be a difficult mental challenge.

I never cheered in high school.  I only cheered in college.  Our off-season was from the end of basketball, which was usually March, until just before college camp in early August.  That was a nice long break.  Most of us, myself included, stayed involved in cheerleading during the break.  I worked at gyms, taught at summer cheer camps, and worked out, stunted and tumbled with whomever was still around campus.  But I was still on a break.  And by the time camp was coming around for my team, I couldn’t wait to pack up and start the season.  We came back refreshed, healthy and motivated.

Also, most of the cheerleaders I knew who improved a lot during college did so during this off-season.  I know that is when I made the biggest improvements to my tumbling and stunting.  During the year, you are so busy you’re lucky just to maintain what you have.  That is another huge benefit of having an off-season.

I would love to see cheerleading develop a shorter season for all of the reasons cited above.  Having 4 to 6 months away from cheerleading will give athletes a chance to get themselves together, both physically and mentally.  It will give them a chance to go get a job, not only to help earn money to pay to cheer but also for the experience of working.  It will give cheerleaders some time to try other activities.  It will give them time to study.  And from a selfish perspective, it will give them a chance to get in the gym and improve their stunts, tumbling and over all athleticism.

As cheerleading coaches, we need to be mindful of “burn out” so that we keep cheerleading safe, healthy and fun.  Finding a way to extend the off-season would go a long way to fighting off burn out.

Cheer Camp, Cost vs Benefit

May 24, 2011

With the economy still struggling and people tightening their belts to make ends meet, it seemed like a good time to discuss the cost involved in cheerleading camp.  Let’s face it, cheerleading is expensive.  And many costs are in no way discretionary.  You have to have a uniform, and these aren’t cheap.  You have to have shoes.  If you compete, you have to pay competition fees.  You probably have to pay for someone to mix your music.  And so on and so forth.  Also, one of the traditionally largest single costs of a cheer season is cheer camp.  Cheerleaders regularly drop over $300 each to go spend 4 days practicing and learning during the summer “off-season.”  Some programs have been going to the same camp run by the same company at the same location, literally, for generations.  It makes me wonder if anyone ever stopped to ask the question, “Is it all worth it?”

First, let’s consider the costs.  If we’re talking about a resident camp (where campers stay overnight at the camp location), you’re probably looking at around $250 to $300 per person.  That will include the cost of instruction, housing and meals during the camp.  Here are a few other monetary considerations.  Teams frequently buy practice outfits for each day of camp.  These can easily run $80 per cheerleader.  There is also spending money to consider.  You can bet the camp store will provide a variety of new cheerleading T-Shirts, shorts, and sweat shirts for you to choose from.  Also, lots of teams will order pizza while at camp.  And speaking of eating, you’re probably on your own buying lunch on the first and last days of camp, as those are usually travel days.  Add everything up at a resident camp can easily cost $400 per cheerleader. 

A lower cost option that more and more teams seem to be taking is the private camp.  This is where a cheer company sends instructors to your location and teach just your team.  These camps can cost half as much as resident camps.  I might do a whole article comparing and contrasting the types of camps, but for this article, I’ll just focus on resident camps.

So what do you get for your $400 besides a dorm room and campus food for 4 days and night?  Here are a few examples.

You get material; specifically, sideline chants, cheers, fight songs and dance routines.  Personally, I have always questioned the value of camp material.  First, most programs already have an inventory of cheers and do not need more.  As for dances, do you really want to be performing the same dance that everyone else learned at camp?  I didn’t think so.  A fight song can be helpful, but again, a lot of schools use the same traditional fight song year after year.  So overall, I rate “material” as pretty much a waste.

You also get instruction on stunts and pyramids.  This can be really useful.  However, it can also be a big waste.  In 4 days of camp, you are likely to only get a few hours of stunt instruction.  You can’t perfect a whole lot in a few hours.  You might pick up a few tricks that you can take home and practice, but probably nothing that you can’t get at the local cheer gym.  You also might see some “new” stunts and transitions.  However, you can probably see them on Youtube a week after camp, so that has limited usefulness.  So stunt instruction can be useful but in limited capacity.

The other main thing you get is private coaching and critique on performances.  These usually occur during “incorporations” of skills into cheers that are taught at camp.  The cheerleaders go through the process of taking a cheer and adding skills to it (jumps, tumbling, stunts, etc.), practicing it, perfecting it and performing it for judges.  This is very similar to the process of building a competition routine.  I consider this a highly useful exercise.  Having said that, this is probably something you can do at home during practice.  However, it is nice to get pointers from outside instructors every once in a while.  I know I learn something new virtually every time I watch a different coach or instructor work with a team.

So far I think I’ve made camp sound like a pretty bad deal.  Most everything you get from camp is something you can basically get “in-house” for a lot less money.  However, the one thing you cannot get at home is the same mindset that comes from being in a camp environment.  I’ll explain.

When you show up at camp, you are surrounded by cheerleading.  There are other teams everywhere.  There are posters on the walls.  You rooms are probably decorated.  Also, you have probably spent about a week or so of heavy practicing just getting ready to come to camp.  In other words, you are ready to focus on improving as a cheerleader and as a team and you can leave every other distraction back home.  This is something you can really only get at camp.

Also, there are very few things that bring a team together as much as spending a week sweating it out in the July heat during cheer camp.  Surviving camp together can unite a team right at the start of the season, and that can go a long way to having good relationships and a successful year.

True, you can simulate a camp experience, to a certain extent, at home.  But at home, when you leave the practice gym, you stop thinking about cheerleading.  At camp, you remain immersed in cheerleading 24/7.  That mindset can really make a difference in terms of improving skills AND in team building. 

As I pointed out, the expenses involved in camp are pretty high.  However, I believe there are several intangible benefits of going to camp that you cannot get through other means.  Having said that, I personally consider camp something of a luxury.  If I had to choose between spending on camp or spending on professional choreography, I think I’d skip camp.  The main point of this article is to encourage each coach and each team to consider for themselves what is the best use of their resources.  Decide whether or not it is worth it for you and don’t just go because you “always” go.

Too Big to Fly

May 12, 2011

I was recently in the warm up area of a competition.  The large room was filled with mats and those mats were filled with teams.  My team was stretching out and I had a moment to observe other teams on the floors.  Just then, one high school team marched right past me in a single file line.  It was either the bright red uniforms (I like bright colors) or the military-like precision of their movements that initially caught me attention.  But something else about this team captivated me.  Every girl who walked past our team seemed to be almost the exact same size. 

I caught myself trying to find “the little” girls in the back of the line.  Nope.  Every one of them looked like fit and healthy bases.  Each girl was between 5″6 and 5″10.  I’d guess they all weighed around 120 pounds, give or take 10 pounds.  After stretching (because a proper warm up is very important), the red team formed up into stunt groups.  The tallest of the girls lined up as back spots.  All 4 flyers appeared to be as tall as or taller than their bases.  Again, they looked fit and healthy, but anything BUT “stick figures.”

The red team has such a professional and serious approach to everything I had observed to this point (including walking into the room), so my expectations were relatively high for their skills.  But I was not expecting what I saw.  Squad Full-Up Liberties.  I think my jaw dropped a little.  Double Downs.  Not the one’s where the flyer lands sort of on her side and the bases have to “bounce” her the rest of the way.  These were full 720 degree rotations with room for the flyers to catch their bases shoulders in the cradles.  But they weren’t finished.  Reload to Crunch.  Full Up (from the Crunch!) to Heel Stretch.  Then they pulled Bow and Arrows.  By the way, there were no front spots on the stunts.

OK, you kind of had to be there to appreciate how much this team stood out.  This was not an all star team.  It was a high school.  The bases were not 200 pound guys, or even 160 pound girls.  They looked like average, athletic girls.  The smallest flyer looked 20 pounds heavier than almost every other girl in the air.  In fact, they looked heavier than some of the girls that were basing them.

By the way, this amazing red team went on the throw beautiful high basket tosses, an extensive pyramid sequence that was poetry in motion and ended the routine with 5 Single-Base Extensions.  No, not 4, like in their main stunt.  They did 5 stunts using 15 girls and the other 5 girls threw standing tucks.

Watching this team execute their skills, it would be easy to write them off as a fluke.  They are that rare “perfect” team that was somehow blessed with flawless technique.  However, this would be lazy.  If you’ve been around cheerleading long enough, you might just remember that this used to be the norm.  OK, maybe not the difficulty.  That has gone up exponentially.  I’m talking about the fact that flyers were not always freakishly small.  Somewhere along the line, we stopped putting “normal” sized girls in the air.  Somewhere along the line, instead of insisting on perfect technique, we started recruiting 8th graders in the hallways for varsity flying spots.  And over time, we have formed a mindset among coaches and cheerleaders alike that an otherwise athletic girl can be too big to fly.  We need to rethink that mindset!

It really is all about technique.  Think about a handstand.  If a 120 pound girl can hold her own body weight (comfortably) in a handstand, then she should be able to hold 120 pound flyer (comfortably) in an extended stunt.  And that is by herself.  For a Double-Base stunt, weight should not be a factor at all.  The key is to use good conditioning and to reinforce proper technique.

Speaking of conditioning, how many kids on your cheerleading team are unable to do a correct push up?  I’m serious.  I bet there are several.  Maybe even a lot.  Hey, I coached a varsity team recently where maybe 4 out of 20 kids could do a push up.  It happens.  It shouldn’t, but it does.  We need to fix this.  We need our cheerleaders to have at least enough upper body and core strength to do a push up, instead of going out looking for smaller and smaller flyers.

And speaking of technique, it comes from consistency.  It also comes from NOT giving up on a girl who has flown all through middle school and suddenly hit puberty and started growing.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are times when a flyer just isn’t working out and she needs to be reassigned to a different role.  However, an experienced and talented flyer doesn’t forget how to fly just because she turned 15 (or 14, or 13).

What has happened is we have been eroding our base of good flyers (that was a pun, by the way) by pulling the smallest and youngest kids off of their youth or JV team and putting them on the junior, senior and Varsity teams.  That means the flyers have never had to learn to be tight and hold themselves correctly because they’ve always just been muscled around by older bases.  It means bases have never had to learn correct technique because they’ve had Barbie Doll sized girls to stunt with.  Bases also have not been developing strength like they would with normal-sized flyers.  Over the years, even though difficulty has increased, technique has been getting worse.

Personally, I am tired of seeing sloppy “elite” stunts.  I am tired of seeing 8th graders flying on 12th grade bases.  I am REALLY sick of seeing the same 6th grade flyer in the same all star gym’s Youth, Junior, Senior and Senior Coed routines.  But what I am especially sick of, and what I think is at the root of the problem, is the notion that someone is too big to fly.

Life After Cheerleading

May 10, 2011

I was once told by someone with more UCA College National Championship rings than he has fingers that “cheerleading is less than this much of your life.”  He was holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.  This was on the first day of the varsity season, and he was our program’s advisor.  After that, we went right into goal setting exercises.

Making this point at that moment might seem slightly at odds with the purpose of motivating a new team to work hard and reach goals.  However, not only was it strangely effective, more importantly, it prepared me for the many retirements (breaks) in cheerleading that I have experienced throughout my life.

First, the motivational effect of the statement came from two points.  The first was the person saying it.  This was a person who practically created the concept of a cheerleading dynasty.  Everyone in the room loved and respected him.  So for a person like this to make a statement seemingly AGAINST the activity that we were all there to participate in…that really grabbed our attention.  The second point was one of urgency.  If cheerleading is such a small part of our lives, we needed to make every moment we had count.  I can tell you for certain that every person on our team got that message and worked harder than any group of people I have ever been involved with.

The next lesson from our advisors remark was, to me, much more meaningful.  It was simply that cheerleading ends for everyone.  There will come a day when you no longer go to practice.  You will stop doing pep rallies and decorating lockers.  You will have participated in your last car wash.  You’ll take the mat at competition for the last time.  My observation (and experience) has been that it usually happens before we want it to.  This can be for all sorts of reasons.  Our bodies get tired (or old).  The costs become to expensive.  School, relationships, family and life in general just get in the way.  Cheerleading is not like any high school sport because there is virtually no off-season in cheerleading.  you go from football to basketball to competition to tryouts to camp.  And you have to be 100% invested the whole time.  I do not know a single cheerleader who is not stretched very thin to keep everything covered.  Eventually, you will have to say enough.

Now, the purpose of cheerleading is not solely to have fun, be popular, make friends and win championships.  Those things are fun and they are important.  But the real purpose of cheerleading is to learn everything you can before you get (pushed) out.  You need to learn about time management.  You have to learn about enduring discomfort (be it from conditioning during 2-a-days or standing on the football sideline in the pouring rain.  You get to learn how to get in front of other people and lead (be it a crowd and a cheer or your teammates at practice).  Wrap all of these things (and many more) up into a nice pretty package and what you are really learning is to be able to work harder and accomplish more than you previously thought you could so that you can break through any wall and overcome any challenge.  Yes, you can learn that from cheerleading.  And if you do that, you will be successful in your life after cheerleading as well.

In case you’re wondering, the reason for this article at this time is that I am taking an extended break from coaching, effective last night.  I’ve had some fantastic personal changes recently, including getting married 4 months ago and a promotion at work (yes, I have a non-cheerleading day job).  After a couple of weeks of trying to balance everything, I came to realize that I was not able to put as much into coaching as I wanted to.  To me, that made it clear that I needed to step out and give someone else a chance. 

Fear not dear reader.  My retirement from coaching will in no may affect this blog.  I still need to get my cheerleading fix, after all!  I’ll also still be judging and making “guest appearances” as a speaker or instructor at clinics and such.  And I think I’ll get  back into coaching eventually.  But if I don’t, I am fine with that, too.  I’ve already had a longer cheerleading career than my advisor predicted back on our first day of practice.  But that doesn’t change the truthfulness of his message to us (me).  Cheerleading is NOT life, but cheerleading IS training for life.  Use cheerleading, while you can, to learn how to dream big, plan smart, work hard, sacrifice, and follow through.  Do that and when the time comes for you to retire too, you will be able to without regrets and with plenty of preparedness for what comes next, during your life after cheerleading.

Are Spring Floors Dangerous?

May 5, 2011

I have not done any statistical analysis or conducted any experiments to research this topic.  This is strictly based on my experiences and observations (plus some common sense).  So, here is my highly unscientific discussion on whether or not spring floors are dangerous for cheerleading.

My initial reaction to the question is this; That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!  Springs are used in mattresses, right?  That means they are a cushion.  If your going to fall wouldn’t you rather fall on a cushion than on a firm surface?  The biggest danger in cheerleading comes from falling, and if spring floors make falls hurt less, that should make it a no-brainer, right?  Well, some people disagree.  Here are some arguments I have heard against spring floors.

  1. Spring floors make you tumble higher and faster so if you are not used to them, they can cause you to land with more force than you are prepared for or to over rotate and land awkwardly.  This argument makes some sense, BUT it is important to note that the spring floor itself is not the concern.  It is a cheerleaders unfamiliarity with the floor.  Honestly, in the USA, I think it would be difficult to find many cheer teams that do not have reasonable access to train on a spring floor (albeit for a fee).  Nevertheless, assuming cheerleaders are forced to compete on a spring floor and they have not practiced on a spring floor previously, the above situations could occur and increase landing injuries such as sprained ankles, torn ACL’s and possibly over rotations to crash landings on the tail bone or even shoulders and neck (although that would be a MAJOR over rotation).
  2. Spring floors make you over-confident so you might try skills that you are not prepared for.  Let me make myself perfectly clear.  I completely, utterly and totally reject this argument!  This is not an equipment issue.  This is a coaching issue.  Your coach needs to determine what skills you are prepared to safely execute and your coach should be capable of determining what effect, if any, a spring floor will have on that.  The simple solution to this concern is to use good judgement.
  3. Spring floors have more give than simple mats and can cause stunts to be less stable and fall.  It is certainly true that when you walk around on a spring floor you can feel it dip under your weight.  It is also true that an especially worn or poorly maintained spring floor can have “dead spots” that could cause unevenness and less stability.  While this concern has some merit, I consider it minimal.  In fact, I would say it is negligible when dealing with a quality spring floor.  And any additional spills that might occur in the rarest occasion from this instability should be more than made up for from the added safety provided by the softer landing on springs.  I have seen flyers fall completely untouched from basket tosses straight to their backs on a spring floor and walk away with only the wind knocked out of them.  Try that on a flat mat and see what happens.  Better yet, don’t and take my word for it, it would be worse.

I’m sure there are other arguments that could be made but I think I hit the main ones.  As you can see, I favor spring floors for cheerleading.  I believe any additional dangers potentially posed by the extra, unexpected power and/or uneven stability, are more than compensated for by good judgement and coaching and the increased cushion that springs provide.  I would not say it is a complete no brainer, but I really do not see a winning argument against springs.

Having said that, it makes me wonder why this is even an issue in the first place.  I have heard some fair statements about how competing on spring floor gives an unfair advantage to teams that have the resources (mostly financial ones) to train on a spring floor regularly.  I agree that there is something to that, however, the argument is not about competitive fairness.  It is about safety.

Another argument I have heard has to do with the expense for event producers of providing a spring floor (actually 2 when you count one for the warm up area).  Again, this is a real consideration for newer and smaller event providers, but NOT a safety concern.

One issue that I find strangely accepted across the board is that it is ok (safe) for all star teams to compete on spring floors but not school teams.  I supposed the thinking is that an all star team can probably train exclusively on a spring floor as opposed to a school team.  As I discussed above, I do not agree with that particular argument.  I have heard (and am not yet prepared to repeat) several conspiracy theories about why spring floors are allowed for all stars and not for school teams.  That might be a topic for a future article and I’ll wait until then to get into it.  What I will say should come as no surprise, and that is that it has to do with money.  Go figure.

But all conspiracy theories aside (for now), I remain firm in my belief that there is just no justification for the belief that spring floors are more dangerous for school cheerleading teams than non-spring floors.  I hope that anyone who has a differing opinion will feel free to share it!