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Q&A: “Cheer Perfection” star Alisha Dunlap

Q&A: “Cheer Perfection” star Alisha Dunlap

If you love TLC’s “Cheer Perfection,” get ready for more of fiery Alisha Dunlap and her cast of characters at Cheer Time Revolution. Season Two has hit the airwaves! Get to know this opinionated gym owner and find out how “Cheer Perfection” has changed her life:

CP: Share a bit about your cheerleading background.

Alisha: We opened Cheer Time Revolution in 1999, and then I sold the gym in 2004. I had already started a family and wanted more babies. But as time went on, I absolutely missed it—couldn’t stand it. Also, my oldest daughter was awfully talented, and I couldn’t find a gym anywhere in the state that I liked. We were driving 2.5 hours to take her to cheer. In 2007, we re-opened, and today we have 16 teams ranging from Tiny Tots to an open Level 6 team.

As for my own cheer experience, I was on the very first all-star co-ed team in the state of Arkansas, the Cheer Central Braves. I cheered for six years.

 CP: How did the opportunity with TLC come about?

Alisha: My daughter used to do pageants, and they had been asking me for several years to do Toddlers and Tiaras. They wanted to show just the pageant life, but I told them, “Our life is truly cheer, so come into the gym for a few days.” They came in and saw what we had to offer. After T and T aired, we got great hits, and they said, “We want to do this cheer thing selling you guys.”

At the time, I was so busy running two businesses (Pageant Perfection Studios and Cheer Time Revolution), plus a family with three kids. I wasn’t sure what more I could take on my plate. But all of the kids had so much fun on Toddlers and Tiaras; they thought they were superstars. They had a blast! I talked with the parents and kids at the gym, and they said, “Give it a try.” I thought to myself, “I’m going to do this more for the kids than anything.” Since when does a little itty-bitty gym in Arkansas and these kinds of kids get an opportunity like this? So I went for it.

CP: What are the benefits and drawbacks of such large-scale exposure? Have you seen a demonstrable change in interest or prestige since the pilot aired in July?

Alisha: The show isn’t just about cheer—it’s about our lives and interactions. The gym is a “set” for us; it shows how we all work together and get our kids to this point. We have not had any drawbacks. I haven’t lost one kid. In fact, we have doubled in size. When the show aired in July, we went from having small teams to large teams. Our junior team now has 32 [athletes]; we’ve probably gained 60 kids total since the show aired. Our tumbling classes are full, and new kids are coming out of the woodwork wanting to be cheerleaders. It’s generated a ton of hits on our website and Facebook pages.

CP: What advice would you give to cheer professionals who have the opp to put their gym in the spotlight?

Alisha: Pray about it. Go with the flow. Reality shows are reality shows, and editors are editors. Just do what you do best, and hope for the best.

CP: Parental expectations are a big part of the show. How do you strike a balance between keeping parents satisfied and doing what’s best for your gym?

Alisha: We have to set a line. It has to be our way, and that applies to both parents and athletes. We’re always open to suggestions, but our staff as a whole decides on what’s best for the gym. We’re okay with the fact that we might not always be the best fit for all parents or how they want to see a program run. We still have to do what’s best for our gym.

CP: You co-own the gym with your husband RD—any advice on running a business with your spouse?

Alisha: Without the two of us, it wouldn’t work. We love to disagree, but we always have to meet in the middle. We are night and day: I’m very firm, and my coaching style is very different than his. I want to see the overall routine hit and overall athlete to excel. I want their skills to improve and advance quickly, whereas my husband wants to see perfection before progression.

[As a compromise], we start our routines early in June. We have a lot of kids, so it’s about muscle memory. My husband helps them learn the early stunts before we advance. This approach gives us more lead time to accommodate both of our coaching styles. By the end, our kids can do the whole routine backward and forward, with or without music. Then he comes back in before competition season to get the skills absolutely perfect.

CP: The show emphasizes a heavy focus on winning. What’s your philosophy as a coach?

Alisha: Winning is important, but it’s not always about actually winning the trophy. They’re winners if they hit what they’re supposed to hit and do their absolute best. And 99 percent of the time, when the kids give all their effort and execute like they should, they’re going to win. It goes hand-in-hand.

CP: Any response to criticisms that you’re too hard on the cheerleaders?

Alisha: That’s from the outside world. [On TV], I come across as a hard coach, but what they don’t see is that, behind closed doors, I am very rewarding. I expect my kids to be a certain way in practice and I will push them until they get the skill they want to learn. In return, they are rewarded for everything they do. If they go out and have an awesome performance, we have sleepovers and ice cream parties, so it makes them want to work and give 100 percent. It’s all about working toward the skills they want to achieve.

CP: How do you think reality shows about cheer can further the sport as a whole?

Alisha: If all the cheerleading shows can show a positive side of cheer, I think it will be great and can only pick up the numbers. The new show on CMT [“Cheer”] shows a very high-level of kids. My feeling is that maybe the newer kids watching will say, “I couldn’t ever do that,” but with our show, they’ll see that everyone starts form the bottom and has to learn Level One first, so they have a chance. It’s great to have a wide representation across the spectrum.

Can’t get enough Alisha Dunlap? Check out our new “Candid Coach” Q&A with the Cheer Perfection star!

Do Your Part for All-Star Cheerleading!

All-star cheerleading is not a “mainstream” sport. Getting kids to walk into gyms is tougher than getting them to play in a basketball league. In light of this, our community needs to rally around each other now more than ever. But how do we show the kids and parents outside of our industry that All-Star cheerleading can and should be picked over soccer, basketball or any other “main stream” sport?

We need to remind ourselves of the many great aspects of our sport.  The MAJORS is what got me thinking about this. Thousands of athletes, coaches and fans came together to celebrate the athletes competing. While promoting this event, I learned that all of these athletes have so many things in common. To hear athletes talk about their love for their teammates, coaches, and parents; their desire to be the best; the commitment they have to their team and sport; and their tremendous respect for their competitors is both amazing and inspiring. These athletes have learned so much about life by being an all-star cheerleader!

Cheerleading is about so much more than just winning.  It’s about the journey, the friendships, the hard work, the education and being a part of a team. These are the things we must remember and continue to promote to those outside our sport to encourage growth. We need all gym owners and coaches to understand and live by this thought process. Coaches have the unique ability to be involved in a child’s life for a decade or more, to watch these children grow as people. If these values are instilled into our athletes, “success” will happen both on and off the floor.

We have to take to heart why these kids truly get involved in sports.  They love making friends, feeling good when they accomplish goals, having fun in what they are doing, being part of a team. If we all promote these ideas, the participation in all-star cheerleading will grow. I truly believe it is that simple. We HAVE to remember that cheerleading is about so much more than the placements at events—just like Little League Baseball is about so much more than getting to the Little League World Series. I believe one of the main goals of youth competitive sports is to teach life lessons to children.

Coaches: are you giving adequate importance to values, ethics and life skills training? Or are these messages getting lost amid the pressure to win? We all know that it feels good to win and be rewarded for the effort and time put into practice.  But we have to remember that not everyone can win every time and there are many more lessons learned from a loss than a win. Are we teaching our athletes these lessons?

Programs all across the United States and the entire world need to realize that to grow cheerleading; we need to be in this together! You may share a city with multiple gyms or there may be a gym just two miles away.  All gyms have a responsibility to grow all-star cheerleading in their city. Remember, you are not competing against other gyms for athletes; you are competing against those other sports for athletes.

IF all of us can focus on the wonderful things all-star cheerleading provides for youth, IF we can embrace every child for what they contribute to their team, IF we all work together and support each other as an industry, our sport WILL grow to new heights.  We know how great it is—now let’s show everyone else why all-star cheerleading is a great sport for kids. Please…Do Your Part!

Dan Kessler
The JAM Brands

Technique Time with SkillzonDemand: Hang Drills

The hang drill: Simple. Easy. Fundamental. At least that’s what many cheerleaders and coaches think and therefore quickly overlook it, when in fact, the hang drill is the single most important component to advancing into elite skills.

Taking time at the beginning of the season to focus on the hang drill and work at it until a group can perform it perfectly will pay off tenfold throughout the season. So let’s fix our hang drills!

One of the most common technique problems when it comes to hang drills has to do with the position of the top girl’s hips and knees. Too often, coaches will instruct top girls to load in with their knees up high. When the top girl’s knees are high, making the tops of her thighs parallel to the ground, her hips and center of gravity are positioned too far behind and below her legs to properly stand up quickly.

Instead, coaches should be constantly reminding their top girls to load into a hang drill with her hips higher than her knees. When a top girl’s hips are elevated above her knees and her chest is upright, she is in the best position possible to safely and quickly stand straight up without having to lean forward.

This one correction allows for the top person to transfer her weight out of her legs and into her upper body quickly, which in turn allows the bases to explode and drive the top girl to the top of the stunt.

David Kirschner
President/CEO of The Spirit Consultants
Co-Owner of Skillz on Demand

Varsity’s Matthew Goto weighs in on success

Varsity’s Matthew Goto weighs in on success

When asked by CheerProfessional to define success, I had to evaluate what success meant to me. Success by definition is characterized by three points: 1) prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; 2) attainment of wealth/position/honors; or 3) successful performance or achievement. There are many professional roles in our industry, and each of those roles can be weighed differently but all stay true to the definition.

But what defines a successful professional in the cheerleading industry? In reference to cheerleading gyms, individuals may see success as creating their own stand-alone program or having the largest gym or most athletes. For event producers, success might be measured by the quality of their event or by its size in numbers. And coaches and choreographers might measure their success by the overall score their teams are given during a performance.

But as for my personal view of success, it goes back to my focus and the reason I am passionate about this industry that we work in—and that is the kids. I view my own success by making the industry a better and safer place for the next generation of All-Star cheerleaders. I am a product of the All-Star World. I have been lucky enough to work year-round in a competitive and ever-changing sport that I love. I am able to teach proper technique and rules to teams all over the country as well as overseas. As a choreographer, I am able to bring confidence and creativity to teams and make them shine. And as an event producer, I am able to create quality events where teams are promised fair, affordable, and fun competition. To me, I would say that I am successful because I do what I love and love what I do.

Liz Gigante, event producer and gym owner of Vancouver All-Stars shares this focus with me and it was refreshing to hear how her gym measures their success. “Success at Vancouver All-Stars is not defined by the number of trophies or banners on our walls; that is what you see upon entering our gym. That is what the outside world thinks we view as ‘success.’ However, the ones living and breathing VAS’ success know that VAS is about helping our athletes reach their potential and to prepare them for the real world via the lessons taught in our amazing sport. When the gold fades, our love for our gym and each other stands strong and long. Watching our athletes grow up to do amazing things with their lives knowing they were each a force in contributing to the history of ‘VAS Excellence’ elicits pride and a true feeling of success. This was a part of the vision that the gym was founded on.”

Gigante has numerous national titles and has consistently been among the highest-placing international teams at the Cheerleading Worlds, but that is not how she measures her success. The team at Vancouver All-Stars has produced amazing coaches who have graduated from the program and are now giving back, athletes that have gone on to major universities (including the University of Louisville), and athletes with character, class, and respect which makes VAS a success in Gigante’s eyes.

But to ask “What defines being a successful professional in the cheer industry?” depends on the goals of that particular person. To some, success means the impact left in the industry and some may see it as the yearly salary they rake in. Others may view your success by the teams that you work, maybe by the number of rings on your fingers, or maybe by the way you made their child feel.

I feel that it’s healthy to compare yourself and your program to others when validating your success as long as you take all variables into consideration. If you’re a choreographer who has only been teaching for a few years, you cannot compare yourself to someone who has been well-established and around for a decade, unless the comparison is to when they were just starting out. As a gym owner, you cannot compare your small-town program to a program that exists in a major city much larger than that of your own. My suggestion would be to recognize all of your accomplishments—large or small—and weigh your success by your ability to set goals and achieve them.

With the ever-growing nature of our industry, some many strive for success or fame unethically or in an unhealthy manner.  Some think that winning equates to success, but that is not always the case. When the focus of the program is only to win, many things can be lost. Unethical gym practices, recruiting from other gyms, and sacrificing athlete safety for advanced level skills are unfortunately all too common nowadays. And is there pride in creating championship athletes if you sacrifice championship character?

Success is not a milestone or a rite of passage, but instead it should be seen as a journey. In this industry, your experience as an athlete will make you a better coach or gym owner. Let your experiences and accomplishments along the way define your success and, like the many accomplished and successful professionals in this industry, always strive to achieve more and to be better!

I find my generation of industry professionals grateful to have so many positive role models to learn from. Les Stella of the USASF is a championship coach and successful industry leader who admits to always wanting to learn more to make himself better. Michael Burgess, President of the United Spirit Association, is a well-decorated industry professional whose value of fairness and equality makes this industry respectable and honorable. And Karen Wilson, coach and parent to an all-star cheerleader, is constantly reinventing ways to prolong the life of all-star cheerleading for the future and longevity of the sport. With these and so many other role models to look up to, there will be a long list of successful industry professionals to come.

Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” For those seeking success in the industry, keep your focus on what is truly important, follow the lead of those who came before you, and be the professional that athletes and younger professionals will admire. And again, success is not about the destination, but on the ongoing journey!

 -Matthew Goto

Candid Coach: Cory Nyholm and Shiela Hajjar

Candid Coach: Cory Nyholm and Shiela Hajjar

Coaches gone candid—it’s Q&A time! We asked Cory Nyholm of Alpine All Stars in Parker, CO, and Shiela Hajjar of Cheer Zone Athletics in Saucier, MS, to give us the real deal on their coaching experiences.

Q. What are three things you’ll never do again as a coach?

Cory: First, I’ll never again take my teams to a competition that doesn’t really fit their style. Second, I’ll never allow my team to leave final practice if they’re not ready for their competition. Finally, I’ll never skip proper progressions for short-term goals.

Shiela: One thing I’d never do again is go to a new cheer brand and not fully review their scoring system and scoresheet. I’ll also never “count” on any child to come or not to come back for another season—they’ll either come or others will fill those spots. Finally, I’d never again change my routine each time we competed at a different brand. This eventually sets the kids up for missed choreography and missed counts. It can be a total mess.

What’s one thing you’ll never say to a cheerleader?

Cory: That any level skill is easier than another. The skill that each child is on is, at that moment, the most difficult for them. And it draws comparisons to other skills and athletes instead of keeping the focus on the athlete and their needs.

Shiela: “Tell your mom…” I, alone, should be the one to communicate any messages to cheer parents.

Q: What is the best lesson you’ve learned while being a coach?

Cory: We can make positive lifelong lessons that cheerleaders will carry for the rest of their lives.

Shiela: All kids get burned out toward the end of the competition season. It’s natural. I try to mix it up and have some fun toward the end so kids leave with positive memories.

Like this post? Don’t miss our Candid Coach interview with Trisha Hart of All-Star Legacy. Who do you want to see featured in Candid Coach? Sound off in the comment section.

(Web Exclusive) 

Two Sides: USASF Tumbling Rules

Two Sides: USASF Tumbling Rules

CheerProfessional explores both sides of the debate on the USASF’s new tumbling rules for the 2012-2013 season.

In March, the USASF rocked the industry with an unexpected announcement of new rules for the 2012-2013 competition season—affecting areas ranging from the age grid to appropriate uniform coverage. Among the most controversial changes were those pertaining to standing and running tumbling, particularly new rules prohibiting standing fulls and standing double fulls. The new regulations state that double fulls are only permitted in running tumbling and must follow a back handspring, and that consecutive bounding, twisting skills are no longer allowed.

Though the USASF cited safety concerns as the reason for its decision, the development still sparked a hotbed of debate and an outcry from those opposing the changes. (An April survey of 217 ASGA members found that only 3 of 10 agreed with the new tumbling rules.) To explore both sides of the issue, [ital: CheerProfessional] interviewed two prominent experts reflecting the wide spectrum of opinions throughout the industry. Find out what they had to say in our exclusive interview:

Angela Rogers,
Cheer Athletics,

Co-Owner, Cheer Athletics

On her initial reaction: The fact that the board of directors exercised their right to issue a mandate surprised me more than the rule change itself. There are discussions every year about what should be legal, but there is also a rules process in place [that wasn’t followed]. While I agree that the board has a right to issue mandates in the face of immediate danger affecting athletes, there were no facts to back that up. [The changes] were a shock and kind of a slap in the face to coaches and owners and athletes alike. It has caused me to be more cautious of putting so much trust and faith in a group to set the rules if they’re going to ignore the process without facts to back it up.

On her athletes’ initial reaction: Disappointment. These are skills they’ve been working on and that have been coached correctly in a safe environment. They were frustrated, especially the older athletes at the international level who’ve been competing for 10-plus years with extensive gymnastics background. They’ve trained hard for these skills, and they want the opportunity to display them. They’re beautiful skills, and they’re impressive—almost like art in motion.

On how the rules will impact the industry: The USASF says their aim is to protect athletes. I believe we’re limiting the coaches who are educated and who do have the experience to properly teach high-level skills, while catering to uneducated coaches. Our industry should always be growing and improving; coaches should constantly strive to improve their knowledge and capabilities to safely teach skills in order to improve the athleticism of the kids. It makes me nervous to cap that off and say, “This is as good as we can ever get.”

My motto has always been, “Don’t wish it was easier—wish you were better.” Sometimes leveling the playing field isn’t always the best option. We’re cheating ourselves if we get into that position.

Here is the analogy I use: say there are three NFL quarterbacks in the country who can throw a 90-yard pass—the NFL isn’t going to issue a mandate and say, “Not everyone can do that, so that’s not fair and those passes will be considered incomplete.”

There is a safe way to progress athleticism and that needs to be kept in mind.

On safety issues: I understand the board has good intentions. I’m all for safety, but I think we need to know what the statistics really are. I don’t believe these are the skills in which athletes are getting hurt. No one can bring up these numbers that supposedly exist about the injury rate.

I believe it is a coach’s responsibility to constantly be learning and improving. At Cheer Athletics, we hosted a coaches’ clinic with incredible gymnastics instructors to refresh our knowledge and to make sure our coaches utilize the safest teaching techniques, instead of just watching on YouTube and trying to guess. Coaches everywhere can put themselves in a position to get the right kind of knowledge. Across the board, I think that could happen more—perhaps with some improvements to the USASF credentialing process.

On the skills in question: Will the skills being restricted affect the vast majority of athletes? Maybe, maybe not. What scares me more is we’re putting limits on skills that can be taught safely. Tumbling is taking a hard hit as far as injuries—there are other factors and other skills that can probably be looked at as well.

The bottom line: We’ll never really know how many injuries these rules might prevent because we have no basis on which to compare them. There were no facts to back up the mandate. I think the USASF board of directors lost a lot of confidence from coaches who’d previously believed things were being done the right way and that processes were being followed.

Debbie Love,
Tumbling Expert and USASF Strength & Conditioning Chair

Tumbling Expert & USASOn my initial reaction: When I first heard of the original tumbling changes, I looked at the little girl who told me and said, “Where did those come from?” After I relaxed, I wrote a long letter to the appropriate people with my observations and some suggestions for compromise. [Regardless], I would have accepted the rules as they were because I feel there must be a governing body such as the USASF; however, I was comfortable with the compromise that came out eventually. I think [cheer professionals] will ultimately be happy with them.

On why the rules changes are needed: My take on the whole thing is I feel the rules changes were necessary to make us all more aware of the issues regarding safety of our athletes. Putting more emphasis on proper technique for each skill, specifically in the area of standing tumbling, will alleviate many of the injuries we have seen in recent years.

Following perfection before progression and conditioning our athletes appropriately will ultimately lead us to a more healthy, fun sport with greater longevity.

On how the rules will impact the industry: If anything, it will stimulate creativity in tumbling again. People are thinking of ways to do new skills while abiding by the rules. It may also increase front tumbling because no parameters were placed on front tumbling. I think the athletes’ initial reaction of ‘We can’t do anything anymore’ is gone. Kids are looking at what’s next and adding skills that have never been done before, which is great for the sport in terms of fostering more creativity.

On safety issues: Like any sport, safety is a concern because we have so many gyms that are not members of the USASF and simply not teaching correct technique for the proper development of the athlete.

This year will be more focused on safety. We’ve had 200 or more coaches at most of our regional meetings—with much of the emphasis on safety training. We need to teach our coaches how to condition the kids’ bodies. They need to be aware of injury prevention techniques for teaching—mentally, environmentally and physically.

On the skills in question: Standing doubles and hand doubles take huge amounts of conditioning and are mainly male skills, because the male’s center of gravity is around the shoulders whereas a female’s is around the hips. It’s hard for females to condition enough in order to really go up on those skills and do them correctly.

That said, I personally don’t think [keeping] those skills would have created a problem. However, it did wake our industry up to the fact that something needs to change—it wouldn’t have mattered what skills they were. I believe the direct result will be teaching the [remaining] skills correctly.

The bottom line: I follow two basic rules: 1) perfection before progression and 2) conditioning your athletes appropriately for the sport that they’re doing. I challenge each coach to start a sports psychology program, condition your athletes—especially in the areas of glutes, core and hamstrings, and get trained on proper technique so we can all enjoy this great sport for years to come.

An Athlete’s Perspective

As both an athlete and employee for Cheer Athletics, Dillon Covington brings a unique point of the view to the proverbial table. Having been part of the gym for more than 15 years, Covington cheers on its Wildcats International Open Level Five team and also coaches four teams. Primarily a tumbler, Covington says he was incredibly concerned upon learning of the new USASF rules. “I don’t think they understood the impact it would have,” says Covington. “It’s like someone coming into your job and saying your position is no longer needed. It’s heartbreaking that we’ve been working on these skills our whole lives and aren’t allowed to do them anymore. It affects the whole industry, especially those of us tumblers who can do them safely.”

 Covington created a petition on Change.org to state his position, and quickly gathered more than 7,000 signatures from coaches and athletes supporting it. “Many athletes felt like they didn’t have a voice or anyone that would listen,” says Covington. “It was our way of joining together to let them know they’re affecting our lives; we felt they were punishing us rather than fixing the problem.”

Looking ahead, Covington feels that the new rules may create a whole new set of safety issues. “The USASF wanted to get those skills out of the way so quick that they didn’t look at the repercussions,” he says. “Athletes are being forced to find more innovative skills that could be even more dangerous; with the higher degree of difficulty, there could be a higher chance of getting hurt.”