Cheerleaders are as much of a part of the history and tradition of high school sports as Friday night football and state basketball tournaments. These individuals have played a significant role in supporting schools’ athletic teams and boosting the overall spirit within their schools.
In the 40-plus years since the passing of Title IX, the activity of sideline cheerleading has expanded into spirit programs that also involve competitive cheer. Between those individuals involved in competitive cheer programs and students who are involved in sideline cheerleading, there are more than 500,000 participants annually.
A survey of NFHS-member state high school associations in 2009 indicated there were 394,694 participants in the activity of cheerleading, and the latest NFHS Athletics Participation Survey showed another 120,593 participants in competitive spirit squads, which ranks ninth among girls sports.
As competitive spirit programs have expanded across the country, so has the number of states sponsoring a state championship in the event. Currently, 32 NFHS-member state associations offer a state championship in competitive cheer. (See Around the Nation map on page 13.)
Whether schools have traditional sideline cheerleaders or offer competitive spirit programs, the roles these students play in the overall success of a school’s athletic program is tremendous.
“[Cheerleading is] a unique activity that helps bring together a school and community in a very unique way – around sports,” said Bill Seely, president of USA Cheer and executive vice president of Varsity Spirit Corporation. “School spirit programs have the unique ability to connect a crowd to a game, a community to a school and school groups to each other to feel a part of something bigger than just their particular groups.”
Jeffrey Siegal, head coach of the Buffalo Grove (Illinois) cheerleading team, is coming off his seventh state championship in a state that has only sponsored a cheerleading tournament for the past 10 years. He said that cheerleading is also unique because it can be a coed activity, so getting every athlete on a team to work together is key.
“One of the greatest things about cheerleading is that you’re able to take boys and girls and mold them together and motivate them to work together as a team,” Siegal said. “You can have kids that are extremely athletic, but if they don’t gel and work together as a team, you won’t be very successful.”
Whether schools are considering starting cheerleading or spirit programs, or are looking for the right ingredients for success with their current squads, Seely suggests starting with the selection of a team. Before tryouts begin, Seely said that coaches should consider the type of student who should be a part of the team.
“Yes, they need to be athletic, but they need to be leaders,” Seely said. “They need to be able to get out in front of a crowd, uphold the traditions of our schools and help teach other groups within the schools those great traditions.”
Stephanie Blackwell, athletic director at Bixby (Oklahoma) High School, also said cheerleading requires a certain type of student. Blackwell, a recent NFHS Citation recipient, coached cheerleading for 18 years at Bixby and won two coed cheer championships before moving into her current role.
“I loved being able to develop young athletes through coaching cheerleading every day,” Blackwell said. “I considered a good fit for my team to be an athlete who not only possessed the cheerleading requirements – high level of stunt, motions, jumps and tumbling skills – but more importantly, leadership, teamwork, positive attitude and the passion to become a better person through educational-based athletics.”
Siegal said he would rather have students who are willing to learn and improve than those who walk in the door with outstanding talent right off the bat. He said he learns more from talking to the students than simply watching their tryout.
“I want to see kids who are able to pick things up – can they know right from left? Can they hit a toe touch? Can they learn something and emulate what we’re trying to teach them?” Siegal said. “I also want to have an interview with the kids. I want to find out from them why they want to be a cheerleader.
“I’m looking to hear, ‘I want to be a part of a team,’ and ‘I want to work for something.’ Those are the key components right there.”
All of the different duties of a cheer or spirit program must be considered, Seely said. Even at just a run-of-the-mill game, the cheerleaders have many tasks to accomplish and other things to consider. They also need to organize and prepare for special events like homecoming week and pep rallies, so their practices vary throughout the year depending on what needs to be done.
“They’re not the game, but they are part of the game,” Seely said. “They help impact the game through the environment that’s created – if they are doing it successfully – but they’re not playing the other cheerleading team that’s there. They’re creating an atmosphere using the band, dancers and the crowd to help foster a great experience for the fans and alumni that attend.”
As a coach, Blackwell focused on three aspects of her job to ensure her teams could enjoy a successful season.
“First, make all decisions based on what is best for the kids you are working with and be consistent with policies,” Blackwell said. “Second, surround yourself with coaches [who are] better than you and who share your coaching philosophy. Finally, teach your athletes how to set goals both in cheerleading and in life and encourage achievement of those goals.
“Give the athletes skills to achieve those goals.”
A goal of a great cheer program, Seely said, should be to react quickly to a negative situation during a game and change it into a positive one. He said he’s been at games where the cheerleaders have joined in with acts of poor sportsmanship, but he’s also seen cheerleaders use their power to overcome the negativity.
For that reason, Siegal said his sideline coaching is just as important as coaching in competitions.
“They need to know offense and defense and they need to think fast on their feet,” Siegal said. “When you’re at an away basketball game, especially in a hostile environment, the game is close and you have to go out there and perform during a time-out or at the end of a quarter, you have to be mentally tough and ready to go.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Seely said another assignment the cheerleaders have to take as ambassadors of the school is making appearances at events in the community to represent their schools.
“They’re really kind of the most visible kids on campus because of all the responsibilities they have,” Seely said. “When schools get represented in the community, nine times of out 10, they’re asking for the cheerleaders to come and help.”
Because of their role in the community, Seely recommended including what he calls “the stakeholders” in all discussions of school spirit and the mission of the cheerleading program.
“If I’m a new coach, I want to go visit with all the stakeholders from the principal and athletic director to the team coaches and band director to find out what has worked and what hasn’t worked, just to get a baseline for where we are,” Seely said. “It’s always asking those questions. If you’re not improving, you won’t maintain and you’ll get worse.”
Siegal also said new coaches need to take time to get acclimated to the job and not expect success overnight. He suggested coaches make a long-range plan and continually review it to see what worked and what didn’t, and make changes accordingly.
“You’re going to make mistakes and that’s OK. Be open to taking criticism,” Siegal said. “You have to be aware of the fact that it’s going to be like a roller coaster; there are going to be ups and downs. You have to be prepared for that.
“You have to enjoy working with kids. If you don’t do that, you’ll never be successful.”
Despite all the roles that cheerleaders have to take, Blackwell always tried to remember to make sure the activity stayed fun for her teams.
“Remember daily that you are getting to do what you love,” Blackwell said. “There will be ups and downs, but that is all part of coaching. Coaching is sharing your knowledge with your athletes by using discipline, integrity, hard work, sportsmanship, character and fun.
“I feel my proudest moment is not the state championships or national titles won, but the joy seen in the cheerleaders who set goals and accomplish them.”
Siegal also noted that participating in those cheering competitions can go a long way toward helping cheerleaders gain confidence and recognition, which is also key to their success.
“We need to be realistic as cheerleading coaches – we do not get the same recognition as boys and girls basketball, football or soccer. When we’re at the game, we’re there to support them; it’s not about us,” Siegal said. “When we’re competing, then it is about us.”
In the end, perhaps the best way to create or maintain a successful cheer or spirit program is to show the cheerleaders just how much of an impact they have, Seely said.
“There’s nothing better than looking back on all the game film of the fans and the environment that’s created inside the schools and share that with the kids,” Seely said. “I don’t think they realize what an important role they play within the schools.”
Juli Doshan is the graphic arts technician/editorial assistant in the NFHS Publications and Communications Department.