Why I had to stop hating cheerleading.

Okay, yes, the bows and hair and makeup still annoy me.

One March night, my husband and 4-year-old sat up late watching the UF basketball team. “Daddy,” Corinne whispered, “I just want to be down on that floor so bad.”

He was pumped. He loves basketball, especially college basketball, and was thrilled his own daughter wanted to play. “Tomorrow we’re going to go out and get you a ball and a hoop and sign you up at the Y.”

“No, Daddy,” she said, “I want to be a Gator cheerleader.”

When he told me about their chat the next morning, I sighed. “No way,” I told him. Cheerleading is one of the most dangerous sports. And the hair, and the makeup? No, no, no.

“Let’s just look into it,” my husband suggested.

I found a good local gym and signed up Corinne and her older sister, Mimi. They were 4 and 5. On our first day, Mimi refused to get out of the car. “Not interested,” she said, folding her arms and looking away. I begged her to try one practice, and told her that if she hated it, I wouldn’t make her keep going. “Do it for your sister?” She sighed, and wandered into the gym.

They were comically bad. They had taken some dance lessons and played a little soccer, but cartwheels and stunting flummoxed them. They didn’t seem to have any natural talent. I was relieved.

Their coaches were patient, though Corinne’s stubbornness tried them. One night, Coach Abner leaned down to explain something to Corinne. As he continued to speak, he became impassioned, his hands gesturing wildly, the vein in his forehead popping. I sat in the parent viewing area, watching through the glass.

“What did coach say to you?” I asked after practice.

“Not sure,” she said. “Good job and then a bunch of other stuff.”

The other parents tried to reassure me. “My kid was just as bad,” one said. I didn’t believe her.

But we stuck with it. The girls — despite their lack of any discernable ability — loved it. Mimi forgot that she had ever been against it. We competed, and lost a lot. We parents on the other side of the glass sat watching for hours at a time, and chatted, talked and bonded. Out on the mats, our kids did the same.

It was a huge commitment of time and money (still is, only worse).

One night I asked Mimi why she’d rather cheer than dance, in a hail Mary that I hoped would convince her to choose ballet, the art to which I had devoted my own young adulthood. “I look like you,” she answered. “I’m not you.”

We signed up for another year.

Sadly, that gym closed and we joined another. The same deep bonds grew among the new kids and parents, and stayed as strong with the ones who moved over together.

We’re now starting our fifth year of cheer, and my kids are a whole lot better. They spend 6–8 hours a week at the gym. And my disdain for the sport has turned into love. Why?

  1. These girls work really, really hard. They spend hours conditioning, lifting, stretching and tumbling. Their coaches are demanding and push them to work hard. Last year, my older daughter got the presidential fitness award because of the strength and flexibility she acquired through this sport. All three of my daughters (my youngest joined last year) have six-pack abs. Even if they decide to quit cheer and start something else, the strength, flexibility and coordination they’ve acquired will serve them well. Sports science shows that kids who acquire technique in one area will more quickly master skills in other sports.
  2. The name “cheerleading” is a misnomer. They’re not cheering for anyone. They’re dancing, tumbling and lifting. All-star cheer is a demanding sport, and if you haven’t watched a routine, go look it up on youtube before you discount it. (Here’s one I love, from our gym) And they work on mats, not gym floors. While one study showed more concussions associated with cheer than any other sport, most of those happen on rec teams that aren’t practicing and performing on mats.
  3. There’s a place for everyone. In dance and gymnastics, there are particular body types that coaches and artistic directors look for. But cheer celebrates and (more importantly) requires girls of all shapes and sizes. While dance companies strive a for a similar look among their dancers, the strongest cheer teams have the greatest diversity among body types and skill sets.
It really freaks me out to see my kid thrown up in the air. But I can’t deny how thrilled she is to be up there, nor the determination of her teammates to catch her.

4. It makes my kids really, really happy. Our kids had just finished their routine during a competition and my friend Ashley handed me her phone. “Look how high they’re throwing Mimi!” she grinned. I looked, and it put butterflies in my stomach to see it. My stomach calmed when I looked at Mimi’s face in the photo. Look at her. She’s having a blast.

5. There are no mirrors. In ballet, one grows up and goes through puberty in front of a mirror. The mirrors that cover a wall of every studio serve a purpose — they allow the dancer to endlessly self-correct errors of form and technique. But spending childhood and young adulthood critiquing one’s form changes you. My fellow dancers and I were endlessly self-critical, and not just about what we did in the studio. Too many of us believed that perfection was attainable, and that everything else was failure. And for some, like my friend Pam, critiquing form becomes impossible to separate from critiquing the body itself. Pam was lost to us when she starved herself to death. I’m not naive enough to think that eating disorders aren’t part of this sport, too, but the absence of mirrors may protect them from that particular form of hell.

6. Most of what you think you know about cheer moms (and dads) is wrong. Cheer moms are awesome. Yes, there are a handful of parents who want their kids to be stars, and will try everything they can think of to get the coach and choreographer to put their kids in the air, in front, wherever. Those parents bounce from one team to another, and don’t seem to be anyone’s problem for long. You see those kinds of parents in every sport and classroom. But the parents on our kids’ teams would do anything for each other, or for our kids. They make sure other people’s kids get to practice or competition. Over the years, I’ve seen parents make secret payments on others’ accounts, clean up someone else’s kid’s barf and be the shoulder to cry on if mom or dad wasn’t there. We cheer for each others’ kids. We cheer for each other. It hurts a lot when a family makes a decision to stop cheering.

The pyramid is a carefully crafted puzzle, and every single person on the team plays a unique role in keeping it together.

7. Team sports matter. I never played on a team as a kid, and I wish I had. Our kids are on several teams, and all continue to play basketball, soccer or both. There’s been a lot of good stuff written about how team sports help kids learn accountability to others. But in those sports, if one team member gets sick or benched, the team can still play. In cheer, where the pyramid represents a carefully crafted puzzle, if one team member doesn’t show or do her job, the whole thing falls. The flyer’s job is to stay strong and tight. If she’s floppy, the bases can’t hold her.

I still suck at the hair and makeup. Fortunately the other cheer parents are happy to help me out.

Okay, so the bows and the hair and the makeup are annoying. But we had all of that in ballet, too. And colleagues have been known to sneer (“why wouldn’t you put your child in dance. . . or swim?”). I’m done with their disdain.

Reason number 8? I know lots of really smart, talented women like Kristen Grimm, who runs one of the world’s top public interest communication firms, or Kristin Joos, who heads up the University of Florida’s work in social entrepreneurship, and they say, “I cheered.” It makes sense to me that such talented and grounded women who do so much for others would have a history in this sport. Learning to support others, and to be strong so that others can more easily support you, might be the biggest benefit of all.

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