What’s So Special About Cheerleading?

I was driving my friend Mike home from a bike ride, when he asked me if I thought that I had learned anything unique from cheerleading. Whether that sport in and of itself was unique enough that I felt I had learned things that I might not have learned from a different sport. This is a really great question. Now, I chose cheerleading because it captured my interest with the gymnastics and throwing people around, not to mention the great seats for football and basketball games, but I do feel I have taken some unique things from the sport that might be hard to find in total in any other sport. I think some of the things I’m about to mention can be achieved in other sports, but I don’t think the combination of all of them really exist.

Here’s a brief list of what I intend to cover:

  • Basic History
  • Co-Ed in nature
  • Not Position Based
  • The Community
  • Strong Diversity

Basic History

Not all cheerleading programs are co-ed, but the sport has really started to grow to the point where seeing a co-ed team is not that unheard of. It’s funny, but cheerleading was actually started by men in the 1880s. There is a large reference to this in the book Cheer! and on Wikipedia. Women started taking over the sport during the first World War.

Modern cheerleading, which I could take an entire post to explain started more in the 1970s and 1980s. During its formation, the rules were very fluid and there were a lot of stunts and tricks that have now become illegal. Men and women worked together to produce tall pyramids and perform interesting acrobatics. It is during this time that competitions began to really become popular. Cheerleading had previously been only to support other sporting programs.

Cheerleading in its nature can be a very dangerous sport. Over the decades it has become the number one reason for high school girls to visit emergency rooms. Please note, that even though it is the number one reason for visiting ER rooms, some argue (and I agree), that it is still not as dangerous as other contact sports like Football. Due to some of the dangers, several organizations have stepped in to provide training for coaches and set up insurances for institutions conducting cheerleading. I am a certified AACCA (American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators) coach. These organizations also somewhat restrict some of the skills that should be taught or performed. The benefit is that we reduce the number of injuries, but sometimes at the cost of some of the original excitement that was once possible.

Cheerleading consists of several different types of actions, just like baseball players have to bat and field, there are several different areas for cheerleaders.

  • Cheering or attempting to lead the crowd to create more excitement for the current sporting event
  • Stunting putting each other up in the air to better attract the attention of the crowd.
  • Tumbling and Jumping throwing oneself into the air to attract attention
  • Dancing moving the body to music to get the crowd more energized.

Each cheerleader will have stronger or weaker points in the list above, and they can change throughout the life-cycle of a cheerleader. For example, when I started out, I was a very strong Tumbler/Jumper. As I went off to college, I developed my stunting and cheering somewhat to the determent of my tumbling. I have never been a strong dancer.

Co-Ed in Nature

Generally, men tend to be stronger than women of the same build and size. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of women out there who can kick my butt, but I’m speaking about the average, not the exceptions. In the same manor, women tend to have greater flexibility than men (again a generalization, but bare with me). This duality leads to men having a strong place in certain aspects of cheerleading and women being generally better in other aspects. This duality has set up a very interesting balance in the sport of cheerleading whereby men and women co-exist in the same activity each of them providing specific benefits to the team.

Many other sports miss this connection. In what other sport do men and women co-exist on the same team, on a equal level, to compete together? I can name only a couple, like sailing, pairs tennis, etc.. These sports miss out on some of the other points I plan on mentioning later.

To name just a few of the benefits of this co-ed nature:

  • Broader respect for the opposite sex.
  • Better conflict resolution skills between genders.

Not Position Based

Many sports are position based. For example, Basketball. There are five players and four positions:

  1. Point Guard (1 player)
  2. Shooting Guard (2 players)
  3. Small Forward (1 player)
  4. Center (1 player)

Each person who makes it onto the court slides into one of these rolls. As you get more professional the roles blend, and responsibilities are diluted between roles, but basically everyone fits into a position. When someone comes off the bench to replace a player, the responsibilities are the same and it is relatively easy for that person to walk in and play. While there is a dynamic of team chemistry, responsibilities are set per position. Each players responsibilities stay relatively consistent even if the other players on the court are substituted.

Basketball isn’t the only sport that is position based. Football, basketball, lacrosse, and soccer are all somewhat position based. Cheerleading is also “somewhat” position based. There are several roles in cheerleading stunting:

  • Base– someone who helps lift another person of the ground and maintains a connection with the person being held up in the air.
  • Flier– someone who is lifted up into the air.
  • Spot– A spot may or may not be required to bear a fair share of the weight of the flier, but is also responsible for watching the flier and directing the other bases in terms of controlling the stunt

At most levels, bases normally work in pairs, with one flier, and one or more spots (normally a back spot and front spot). The problem is that matching up a group together takes into consideration more than just position. Since each person in a stunt group has a different level of skill, each group will normally work at the level of the lowest skilled member, for safety reasons. Another important requirement for a successful stunt group is that members of the same group are matched physically. Bases with different heights will have to use some tricks in order to make a stunt work properly. It is far easier if bases are the same height. Spots will need to be able to reach the arms of the bases or legs of the fliers.

On top of the difficulty of matching a group up, there is the sheer chemistry of a group. People have to get along and respect the other members. Timing needs to be figured out. Changing one member of a group could cause the entire group to need to relearn timing.

Now, as you progress through the sport, you become more adaptable. To the really experienced cheerleaders, changing a member should have minimal effect on the functionality of a group, but it takes many years, and depending on the difficulty of the stunt could still have an effect. At the far elite level, even the people winning national partner stunt competitions work together for years (sometimes even traveling to different schools together).

All in all, I feel that the dynamic nature of stunting groups and the chemistry required to make this all work is something is very unique to cheerleading. Potentially sports like synchronized swimming might have similar problems, but that is not my expertise.

The Community

Cheerleading has a very interesting motto, “cheer for your team, not against everyone else”. The best feeling I ever got was when we placed second in a nationals. It wasn’t a competition I won. I was proud of how my team performed. The team in front of us deserved to beat us, they were better. We did the best routine we could and came out very successful. I spoke with our competition, congratulated them, and wished them much future success.

Now, there are some rivalries, but for the most part we really try to get along. I feel its not as competitive as a community. Yes, most teams want to win, but not every team is going to win every competition, and I might be idealistic, but my goal has always been to leave a floor with nothing left in me.

At games its very similar. Our teams may be fighting on the field or court, but we always try to go over and say hello to the other cheerleaders.

Another aspect to our community is the closeness of the major players. This might not be all that unique, but the despite the fact that there are so many kids involved in the sport, the major players in the community are well known. I cheered for a program called LCI. One of the directors, Lynne Mensack was a former Varsity rep, and so many people (even some out here in California) know of her, or have worked with her. Bottom line, the community might be huge, but the major players are small group of people.

Strong Diversity

Cheerleading is a very diverse sport. From the 3 year old minis to the people like Jeff Webb who have been in the sport since the 1970s, there are many different types of cheerleaders. There are people who specializing in tumbling, and those that specialize in stunting. Backgrounds are also very different. My background is martial arts, many come from gymnastics, some from wrestling, some even come from NCAA sports like Football after they have served their four years in their primary sport. Everyone comes to the sport with a different perspective.

Cheerleading is expensive, so you tend to see people who have the financial means more often, but many programs offer scholarships to those who can’t afford it. If it is a college based program, the cheerleading expenses are normally covered by the school.

Because the background is so diverse, and the nature of the community is so friendly, cheerleading offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with many different types of people. This might not be as unique as some of the other points in this article, but it is a large component of what makes cheerelading so special.

Conclusion

I’m not sure if all the factors mentioned above exist for everyone who has been involved with cheerleading, but in the very least, I hope they explain why I love the sport so much. I spend countless hours a week either coaching or cheering myself. I’ve been doing that since I started nearly 12 years ago, and while I’ve played other sports along the way, I always come back to cheerleading as being my favorite.

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