In the Industry

Cheering For Charity

Cheering For Charity

“If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble,” funnyman Bob Hope once quipped. It feels good to give back, but that might seem like a tall order if your weeks are filled with classes, meetings and competitions. Still, finding time to do philanthropic work can benefit your gym and, most importantly, your athletes.

Many gyms realize this and manage to make giving back a priority. In fact, according to Cheerleading.org, more than half of all cheer teams currently participate in community charity events. A select few have won USASF Chairman’s Cup awards, which honor programs that display powerful philanthropic or community service work each season. Others have been supporting the same charity for years, getting the kids involved in the community—and, in turn, getting the community to pay attention to their business.

Julie Van Os, owner of Tracy, CA-based Athletic Perfection, is a former high school leadership teacher, so being involved in the community has always been a core value for her. Every Christmas since she started her gym, her athletes have gone “ringing the bells” for the Salvation Army in front of local businesses. Last year, they wanted to do more so they “adopted a family” in Tracy for the holidays, donating toys, clothes and gifts. They also help with Case for Kids, a program that provides a “custom case” to foster children—filled with clothes, blankets, stuffed animals and things to make their new place feel like home.

Van Os says philanthropy is a “win-win” as far as business goes, since it helps get the word out about your program and increases exposure in the community. Doing charitable work can also make your kids better athletes, which is a sentiment that many gym owners share. “[Athletes] learn about teamwork, perseverance, commitment and hard work,” says Van Os. “They’re learning about giving back and being thankful for what they have.”

To find balance, Van Os and her team try to do their charity work during the less busy times of the year, when schedules are less intense. She says it’s important to focus on causes you care about, rather than spreading yourself thin.

“Choose something you’re passionate about—that’s the key,” she says. “If you jump around, you lose your drive.” And don’t do it for the business, she advises. Instead, do it because it feels right and you truly want to give back.

Tara Wieland, program director/coach of Midland, MI-based Michigan Storm Cheer & Dance, initially started her charity program to help teach her own daughters the value of appreciating what you have. One of their biggest charities is Toys For Tots, an organization they’ve been supporting for over a decade. They’ve also had the athletes write letters to soldiers in Afghanistan. “It was hilarious,” Wieland says. “One little girl wrote: ‘Thank you for saving our country and I really like camouflage shirts.’ The feedback we got from the soldiers was amazing.” The gym has also done things like hold a flash mob for the American Cancer Society.

She says some kids initially resisted the charity work, but quickly grew to love it. “Watching them give back is better than watching them do something on the floor. It has become the backbone of what our program is about,” shares Wieland.

The best advice Wieland has is that if charity work is going to be a part of the program, explain that to parents ahead of time in an open, honest way. “You have to be upfront about it,” Wieland says. “I haven’t had any problems, and now we have way more parental support than we used to.”

This charity-focused trend also seems to be ramping up with a new slew of competitions in the last few years that devote winnings to charity, such as Amazing! Champions and Cheer for Charity. At Amazing!, participants complete a charity service project, which is announced as each gym enters the performance mat. $10,000 is awarded to the chosen philanthropies of the winners; beneficiaries have included the Texas Autism Foundation, Scottish Rite Hospital, The Dallas Association of the Deaf, Foster Families of Texas and the Carter Blood Care Center, to name a few.

Even if your gym isn’t participating in a competition like Amazing!, it can still be impactful to target a central cause. “Each year, pick a different charity to support,” suggests Smith. “Even better is to have your athletes involved.” And don’t forget to let Smith know about it—on the website for his other company, Spirit Celebration, Smith has created a “Community Service” page to spotlight the good deeds of various gyms.

At Gymniks All Stars in Grand Prairie, Alberta, program director Jennifer Lekisch implemented charitable work as soon as she signed on in 2010. Each year, they focus on different ideas, but always with the goal of bettering the community, which helps keep them focused. They’ve helped victims of a DUI accident and have done advocacy work for Toys for Tots, Breast Cancer Awareness, the “Butt Out” National Non-Smoking Campaign and Heart Month, to name a few.

The gym is a non-profit, so their charitable work is not a tax write-off. “It is just something we do to give back to our community and help build that foundation of excellence in our community,” Lekisch says. She also says that it does attract attention to the gym, which can be a reward in itself. They fit the charitable work into their schedule by doing it during slower points in the season, and they use social media to promote and spread the word about the work they’re doing.

As far as advice for gym owners who are thinking about getting into charitable work, Lekisch says, “Ask yourself three questions: What’s important to you? What image do you want to put out there about your athletes and your gym? What do you want to be remembered by?”

In short, it’s about staying organized, getting the kids (and parents) on board, finding charities that you’re passionate about and integrating the philanthropic work into your gym’s ethos—rather than tacking it on as an afterthought.


Spotlight: Debbie Love

Spotlight: Debbie Love

International cheer consultant and coach Debbie Love is famous in the industry for emphasizing the importance of psychology in sports, but she admits that while competing as a college gymnast she wasn’t always a perfect picture of focus and concentration. In fact, she can pinpoint a specific instance when she realized she was relying mentally on magical thinking: “I wouldn’t tumble until I did a little ritual before my pass,” she says. “I had to stand there and close my eyes and say, ‘Okay, Debbie, you can do this. Now go.’ And if I didn’t say it, I wouldn’t go.”

Love trained herself to execute her routine without the mantra and trust the mechanics of her routine by repeatedly assuring herself, “You’re confident; you can do this.” Now, more than 50 gyms per year—including teams in South America, New Zealand and Scotland, along with Louisville-based GymTyme (which she’s affiliated with)—seek out Love’s expertise on mental block, injury prevention and technique. Not only are they the three most common issues squads ask her for help on, but they’re also the subjects 58-year-old Love is most messianic about.

“I’m more concerned with athletes doing things right,” she says. “I don’t ever talk about winning. We talk about doing things right [and] hitting our routine, because eventually winning will take care of itself.”

During her days as a student at Memphis State University, Love cheered, did gymnastics and ran track before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in math and a minor in English language and psychology. Afterward, she landed in the computer world, working as a systems analyst for four years. Though she enjoyed her time in tech, Love eventually returned to her passion for coaching gymnastics and cheer and stuck with it—including a decade-long stint as a Level 10 gymnastics judge.

Known in cheer as the “Tumbling Queen” (a moniker derived from her uncanny ability to quickly assess biomechanics while watching tumbling runs), Love recalls the a-ha moment when she decided to focus exclusively on coaching cheer. “In 2005, I went to a competition, and I saw these people doing what I thought was going to be a round-off back-handspring, and [instead they did] fulls and ended up on their faces, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. This industry needs help,’” recalls Love. “And then I went 100 percent into the cheerleading industry and never looked back.”

Since that turning point, Love has focused on touting perfection before progression. “We need to consider the bodies of our athletes first before our own desires,” she says. “I’m afraid a lot of times that doesn’t happen.”

After heeding Love’s advice on safety and teaching mental alertness, individual gyms’ results have ranged from implementing better flexibility training and conditioning programs to better squad cohesion, but one of Love’s favorite success stories takes place on a much smaller scale. A coach contacted her for help with a little boy who had once been an agile tumbler but lost his skills. She helped the coach sharpen his coaching style and alleviate pressure on the child, including instructing him in her “Breaking Free: 9 Steps for Getting Rid of Mind Block” plan. Now, Love says, “[the athlete] has got all his tumbling back, and the coach kept thanking me for changing his life.”

Love’s industry notoriety stems not only from her much-coveted expertise, but also from the fact that her family name is a household one in cheer circles. Her daughters Whitney and Britni, two of six children whom Love home-schooled through high school, have achieved fame as popular “cheerlebrities,” a word Love says she dislikes due to its focus on the individual rather than the team.

“It’s something that we did as a family that turned out to be a really good thing,” Love says. “Between gymnastics and cheerleading, all those things are family activities.”

As seasoned as her daughters are, though, they aren’t exempt from Love’s safety-first instructions. The Loves have their own rule of three that they follow to make sure they grasp new moves. “I have a deal that when I’m teaching a new tumbling skill, they can only try it three times on the floor; if they miss it three times, then they have to go back to a drill or another skill to build themselves up to get that skill,” Love says. “I pretty much do that with every child that I teach. Because I think we keep on trying skills, hoping we’ll get it one time, when what we really need to do is break it down as a drill.”

Even when she’s not on the clock, Love makes suggestions designed to improve conditions for athletes. Case in point: At competitions, including the most recent Worlds, she has noticed athletes sometimes wait a full hour between warming up and performing, creating conditions ripe for injury. As a preventive measure, she has encouraged event producers to put a mat halfway between the warm-up room and the competition floor to re-warm athletes’ quick-twitch muscles. At Worlds, the producers listened—they slowed down warm-ups to reduce backup time.

Love attributes her business success to a certain degree of humility, which she advises anyone interested in becoming a consultant to follow.

“I would just keep your priorities straight,” she says. “It’s not ever about you; you’re a service to the industry. When people see that you want to serve them and that you’re not there for selfish means, they’re more willing to listen. Just make sure that what you have to say is true, current and relevant.”

The approach has worked out for Love. A significant part of her business consists of repeat clients who ask her to return year after year to learn new skills and build on old lessons. (She’s worked with some gyms, like All-Star Elite, World Cup, PowerCheer Athletics, CheerGyms.com and others, for almost 10 years.) Another of Love’s hints? Maintain an open mind when it comes to industry trends.

“Over my lifetime of 59 years, almost everything has changed a whole lot,” Love says. “I think you have to have an attitude of, ‘I don’t have all the answers, and if I don’t know the answer to something, I’m going to find it out.’ So it’s just [having] the desire to just keep learning. I think my favorite saying would be: The day you stop learning is the day you fail.”

-Jamie Beckman

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

Got your blinders handy? Amy Faulkner’s dedication to the Northstar Studios community shines bright. As founder, owner and coach, she has grown the cheerleading studio to become a welcoming beacon in Sunbury, Ohio. Along with being a wife, mom of three and mother hen to all of the Northstar athletes, her tireless devotion to family is evident in the fact that Northstar welcomes cheerleaders from unfortunate backgrounds to cheer for free.

Faulkner first started Northstar Studios in 2008 shortly after her husband returned from a military tour in Iraq. Since then, the business has outgrown two studios to become what it is today: an 8,000 sq.-ft. space that plays home to five teams, 80 competitive athletes, 150 recreational athletes and a lot of community spirit. That spirit has been kicked up a notch lately, thanks to Faulkner’s latest accomplishment: being named “2014 Coach of the Year” by AmeriCheer and CheerProfessional.

As the 2014 Coach of the Year, you received some stellar nominations from Northstar Studio students, parents and staff members. How would you describe your coaching style?

Faulkner: Let me start by saying we have a pretty amazing staff—one thing that I really want to stress is that I could never have been successful without them. My role is more of the emotional aspect of cheerleading: to focus on the individual, to help those kiddos out there having a mental block. [If they’re] not secure or confident in what they’re doing, I strive to build them up and teach them about working together, overcoming obstacles and being their best. I play the more motherly role; I can tell when a kid had a bad day at school. I also hold my athletes to a high standard. Sometimes you have to yell at them and push them even though they don’t want to be pushed, but at the end of the day, I think they always realize it was worth it.

Why are you willing to sacrifice gym income to help athletes have the opportunity to cheer?

Faulkner: I [started NorthStar] as a way to get out of the house and never looked at it as a way to make a living. I wanted to share my passion of cheerleading with those around me and give my experience to girls who weren’t as fortunate. We have surrounding all-star cheerleading gyms that are probably hard for parents to afford, so my original mindset was to build something local where everybody has the opportunity to cheer. I try not to lose focus of that—I have a weak heart for the less fortunate. Several kids do come for free, and not everyone knows who they are. I love anyone who loves cheerleading, and I will do anything to help her or him be a part of it.

What is your advice for effectively connecting with and inspiring your clientele?

Faulkner: My advice for other coaches would be to stick to your core values and beliefs and standards that you hold for the athletes in your gym. Don’t stray from who you are and what you want the program to become. The right people will surround you and, with that, you’re bound to be successful. I constantly surround myself with the people who lift me higher; as a business owner, I don’t get caught up in the drama of the cheer world. I have times where I have to be both owner and coach. I coach every team at the gym. I run the business aspect of it during the day: meet with parents, do finances, keep in touch with office manager. At 4:30/5 pm, I am on the mat for the rest of the evening. The key is to continue doing what you love. For me, that was coaching. My mission is to touch the lives of those in my community and move on—after being named Coach of the Year, I smiled at myself and said, “That’s part of the mission.”

-Amanda Kennedy

Pure Magic: Pacific Coast Magic

Pure Magic: Pacific Coast Magic

Troy Hedgren landed in the all-star cheer world by chance, but he nailed it. Today he’s one of four co-owners of the rapidly growing Pacific Coast Magic program, but the former gymnastics coach first started his entrepreneurial career at age 19 with the Tumblebus, a mobile gymnastics school for pre-schoolers. In 1995, he sold the venture (which by that point had grown to three gym buses) to open his first gym, Gymnastics 4 Kids, with his wife Keri. While sponsoring the local Pop Warner cheer team at a competition, the Hedgrens ran into one of Keri’s former gymnastics students, whose parents clued them into the competitive all-star world of tumbling, stunting, dancing and flying.

“It looked like a lot of fun, so we started down the road to learning about cheer and what it is,” Troy says. “I wasn’t a cheerleader, but the elements and training of gymnastics are similar.”

The Hedgrens took the bait, adding their first cheer team in 1997. By 1999, it made sense to change the gym’s name to Magic All Stars, one of the first gyms of its kind in Orange County. By the time Jarrett and Kellie Elliott (the latter a former college cheerleader) opened their all-star gym Pacific Coast Cheer in Murrieta in 2005, the emerging all-star industry was already changing with some smaller gyms consolidating and gaining presence in the industry because of multiple locations.

Pacific Coast Magic emerged in 2008, combining the two gyms under one umbrella. Troy and Kellie had judged competitions together for years and felt confident about their joint prospects. “We knew we wanted to get bigger and stronger and felt like the best way to do that was to combine our strengths,” shares Troy.

With increased numbers came better buying power, which helped the gym with everything from cutting costs on uniform essentials to adding additional locations. Owners of smaller, independent gyms started contacting the PCM team about the possibility of partnering or just straight out asking them to buy their struggling gyms. As a result, the all-star cheer gym has grown to seven locations in seven years: seven in California (Anaheim, Corona, Irvine, High Desert, Murrietta and Vacaville) and the most recent in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The most obvious advantage of joining forces was the bigger talent pool for creating elite competition teams, as well as the ability to utilize all the coaches’ individual strengths company-wide. Since the merger, PCM teams have secured bids for Worlds yearly. With the added training centers, PCM anticipates training 1,000 or more athletes next year in anticipation of Worlds, nearly doubling their arsenal.

Hedgren says the key to the merger’s success has been ensuring consistency throughout the organization in both training and business operations, procedures and centralized bookkeeping—while ensuring that they didn’t strip each individual brand of its personality. “We had to make sure we didn’t lose the gym’s individuality, but we wanted it all to identify with PCM and embrace the best of both of those things,” Troy says.

The Hedgrens and Elliotts stay hands-on at all locations by evaluating the different teams’ routines by video, providing feedback and quality control. “Kellie and I are coaches at heart,” Troy says. “We love this sport, so we are constantly trying to be on the cutting edge, the very forefront of what is happening—inventing new stunts and choreography or just making sure we’re pushing the envelope.”

Their enthusiasm is most evident when they are on the practice mat. “I love watching the growth of young athletes,” Troy says. “I love injecting in them the strength our sport provides of teamwork, hard work and dedication. I love taking them through the journey of a season—starting from scratch and learning a routine or building a new stunt and seeing the light in their eyes as they go through those procedures.”

However, it hasn’t all been pleasant turns of fate since opening PCM. In late 2012, one of their athletes, 17-year-old Danika Rae Tibayan from the Anaheim gym, died from a severe asthma attack. She had competed as an International All-Girl Level 5 All-Star in 2011 and 2012. “It was a very trying time because obviously losing any young athlete or child is never easy, but I think what it did for PCM is that it reminded us that while we are growing and we want to continue to grow and get stronger, we never want to lose that family feeling from our core values,” says Troy.

At a competition just days after Tibayan’s death at the Citizen’s Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., the PCM family wanted to find a way to honor their fallen friend. They spoke to the event’s producer and organized a 10-minute break in the festivities for a prayer circle around the Tibayan family, who were in attendance. But what they thought would be a PCM moment of grief and healing turned into something much larger as the rest of the attendees joined them, forming a huge circle of support.

“The feeling that came from that was just overwhelming,” Troy says. “While it was tragic to lose Danika, it was definitely a reminder for us that no matter how big we get that we will always remain a humongous family.”

-Arrissia Owen

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

As home to the premier F5, the Maryland Twisters are no strangers to high expectations. Pressure from industry leaders, judges and fans to “keep delivering and over-delivering” can be intense, but gym owner Tara Cain insists that championship titles (of which they have many) are not the end goal for a Twister—it’s having fun.

“At the end of the day, the kids sacrifice two to three days a week at practices, all year long, because they love what they do,” says Cain. So when competition time arrives, she advises her athletes to “stop worrying about the judges” and simply enjoy the moment they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Several such moments arrived this year at The Cheerleading Worlds, where the Twisters competed on five paid bids and saw their senior medium teams—the flagship F5 and Reign—nab Bronze medals.

It’s another stellar win in Twister history, one punctuated with the kind of success that grows a gym from 50 athletes in 1998 to more than 500 today. Yet Cain says their winning reputation isn’t what drives athletes to become a Twister. Instead, she credits a great staff, “families that believe in [the] system” and a commitment to having “hard conversations” about athlete progression and team placement “before they become an issue.”

Equally important to the big picture has been building brand recognition. In 2007, a parent opened Cain’s eyes to the tremendous value of brand investment. A logo and social media presence were developed and the phrase “repetition leads to retention” embraced, the cumulative effect launching Maryland Twisters into an international spotlight.

Of course, the Twisters are not without challenges. The biggest, Cain asserts, is one that the industry faces as a whole: talent retention. Minimal work hours (roughly six to nine per coach per week) plus limited pay scale (intended to keep athlete costs down) lead many top coaches to work multiple jobs or leave the industry entirely to pursue full-time careers or, as they grow older, start a family. “It’s hard to find that person who is dedicated, loyal and loves cheer, but is willing to put in the nine hours [weekly] for little pay,” says Cain.

This is the type of straight talk Cain is known for, a quality that’s led her to question cheer status quo time and again. Questions like the one she posed to GK Elite in 2008: Why are cheerleaders still wearing polyester? The material, Cain said, proved so constricting that “the fabric was actually like rubber bands around certain parts of [the athletes’] biceps.” The conversation intrigued GK Elite, and the collaboration resulted in an innovative uniform made of “super-stretch fabric” that granted athletes a fuller range of motion while redefining industry standards in the process.

Last year, Cain was at the forefront of another industry leap—helming the NACCC judging committee and leading the charge towards a unified scoring system. The system, scheduled to see its first full implementation at The Cheerleading Worlds 2015, is, according to Cain, “a great change for the industry.”

So what’s next for the Maryland Twisters? Cain’s keeping her options open but admits more growth is on the horizon. “I would love to launch other sports programs. Maybe I’ll just get a bigger building and be more of a sports complex, but cheerleading will always be my first love,” Cain muses.

-Carmen Rodriguez

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Should event producers be permitted to hire judges who are currently (or were once) affiliated with a gym competing at that event? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the issue.

It’s a question of objectivity—can judges “turn it off” when they take the stand? Some gym owners and coaches say “no,” taking issue with event producers who allow judges that have some form of past or current affiliation with programs on the competition roster. Others say that because of the prevalence of cheer gyms, it’s almost impossible to find a whole panel of judges that don’t have some sort of knowledge or background with at least one of the gyms involved; they also argue that judges should be trusted to be professional and impartial. So who’s right? We spoke with Ron Swanson of Kansas Gymnastics & Cheer and Becky Woodson of Daytona Xtreme to explore the issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

 Ron Swanson, Program Director, KGDC’s 360 Allstars

Swanson’s take:  I’ve seen some bias on the judges’ stand every year, but this season, I was able to find some pretty significant facts. At a regional competition, two of the judges were high school coaches in the area, and I’ve discovered that they have a strong affiliation with one of the local gyms. That gym won just about everything with their 12 teams—they’re a quality gym with a few really good teams, but they’ve never dominated a competition. At another competition, I found out two of the tabulators worked at a local gym that was competing there; also, one of the people working the competition was wearing a jacket from that gym, so it was obvious the gym had strong ties to that event. I’ve noticed this type of issue across the board with a few different brands.

Swanson on objectivity: Many judges may think they can be unbiased, but when you work in a gym, you become strongly passionate about that gym’s style and stunting techniques. Regardless of how professional anyone tries to be, they’ll always have a personal bias to that gym. I judged for about five years in Texas, and I understand the relationship on the judges’ stand. You spend the entire weekend with that group, and you’ll have casual conversations that could possibly sway opinion.

Swanson on where the line should be drawn: It’s not acceptable for anyone who is currently (or was once) affiliated with a competing gym to judge that event. I know a lot of judges who are very professional and pulled themselves out of events for that reason; they make it a point not to judge in the areas where those teams compete.

Swanson on possible solutions: I believe strongly that there needs to be a federation or association for judges—and that they all need to belong to it. There should be a system in place to rank judges, and their names should be attached to that. As judges become more qualified, they should be known not only to the event producers, but also to the gyms who are getting judged by them. Right now, judges are completely hidden from the process; no one knows who they are or what their level of experience is. If they make a bad call, their name and credentials should be on the line, just like an NFL ref.

Also, I see companies giving out too many trophies and banners—I don’t need a third place banner or sixth place trophy. That’s a few thousand they could be using to pay judges better or fly in impartial judges. I’d rather see that money invested in judging than unnecessary paraphernalia.

Becky Woodson, Program Director, Daytona Xtreme

Woodson’s take:  On most judging panels I’ve been on, there has been someone who has some sort of background or affiliation with one of the programs involved—whether through choreography, coaching or another capacity. I’ve actually been in that position myself multiple times at smaller competitions. For instance, I was the head coach of Bristol University for two years, and one year after I’d resigned from the position, I found myself judging their team (with athletes I’d coached) at the ICC University Nationals. I believe it is definitely possible to be objective when judging; the key is to look at things from an unbiased point of view and assume the mindset of someone who doesn’t know what that team is capable of doing.

Woodson on objectivity: I focus on how the routine plays to the scoresheet for that specific event producer. As a coach, I expect objectivity from the judges, so I conduct myself the same way when judging. I think most experienced people are able to do that. You have to stay strong and have strong morals to make it work.

Woodson on where the line should be drawn: Choreography or past affiliation may be one thing, but having someone judge who currently coaches in a competing gym is pushing the boundaries a little much. There are enough qualified judges out there where event producers shouldn’t have to pull from the same pool [of registrants]. Event producers should definitely make an effort not to hire judges who are involved with a program at that competition. If event producers want to grow their business, it makes a lot of sense to show that there is a sense of fairness and impartiality. Not everyone will always like the results, but if you provide the most professional experience for a client, they’ll keep returning to your event.

Woodson on possible solutions: Having a substitute judge for the division [where the team is competing] could be one idea—but if you’re going to hire a substitute judge anyway, you might as well just have that person judge the whole event [to ensure impartiality].

Looking at the big picture, judges need to be more qualified and a universal scoresheet should be implemented by USASF. At most of the competitions I’ve judged around the world as well as here in the U.S., the scoresheets have been completely different. This has caused some of the issues—coaches may blame their undesirable results on the fact that a judge used to work with a certain program, when that may not have been the case.

Go, Go Gadget! MyoSource Kinetic Bands

Go, Go Gadget! MyoSource Kinetic Bands

For our “Go, Go Gadget!” review feature, we asked the athletes at Oklahoma Twisters to road test the MyoSource Cheer Kinetic Bands.

What It Is: Designed to improve jumps, flexibility and overall performance, MyoSource’s Cheer Kinetic Bands are leg resistance bands geared at ages seven and higher. They come in two sizes (for those under and over 110 pounds). The product also comes with a flexibility stretching strap (available in four colors) that can help ease stress on joints and provide a practice tool for scorpions and heel stretches.

Our Testers: Athletes at Oklahoma Twisters (Oklahoma City), led by coach Craig Hallmark

How and why they used them: According to Hallmark, jumps have always been one of the strong points of the Oklahoma Twisters program—and he’s open to anything that helps lengthen that legacy. “I liked the idea of Cheer Kinetic Bands because it adds another layer to make our jumps even stronger,” he shares. “When I work with [external] programs on choreography, it always surprises me how much poor technique there is on jumps and that people don’t spend more time on them. At Oklahoma Twisters, we spend at least 30 minutes during every practice.”

For the purposes of the product test, Hallmark introduced the Cheer Kinetic Bands during private jump and tumbling instruction with various athletes from ages 8-14. “We started by doing kicks, then did jumps, followed by conditioning at the end,” shares Hallmark.

What they loved: Hallmark says he prefers Cheer Kinetic Bands to similar products he’s tried in the past. “The other ones we’ve used had a thicker Velcro thing and it was more of a nuisance,” shares Hallmark. “I liked that the Cheer Kinetic Bands had interchangeable bands with differing resistance, making it accessible to more age groups. It allows for a wide range of athletes to use the product.”

What they thought could be improved: “Some of the kids who are small for their age group had a problem keeping the Velcro on; it was slipping down just a little bit, so we’d have to readjust and tighten up again,” says Hallmark. “However, I recognize that it can be difficult to target a whole age group.” Hallmark is also curious to see how the longevity of the product stacks up: “These bands are thinner than those I’ve used in the past—that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m eager to see how the wear-and-tear is.”

The verdict: Though some of the athletes were skeptical at first, their reactions were positive after testing Cheer Kinetic Bands. “I heard athletes saying things like, ‘These are really going to help my jumps,’” says Hallmark. “In the end, I think these bands will help build muscle memory and strengthen the muscles that are needed for jumps. Repetition will be key—using them over and over again—and I plan to use them as a station when we do conditioning, as well as in privates.”

How to get it: www.myosource.com/cheer-kinetic-bands/


Make the Connection: Why Mentoring & Networking Matter

Make the Connection: Why Mentoring & Networking Matter

Love the new USASF junior coaches’ training curriculum? Thank Courtney Kania-Young of Ohio Extreme All-Stars, whose idea sparked the initiative—with a little help from her mentor, Orson Sykes of Twist & Shout. 

Hungry for better safety/emergency initiatives? You’ll be appreciative of the work being done by Houston Elite’s Joshua Johnson (mentored by Ann Lehrman) and Karrie Tumelson (mentored by Debbie Love). Johnson’s proposal for Standardized Emergency Action Plans and Tumelson’s recommendations for Universal Safety Standards for the warm-up room will soon be implemented at USASF events during the 2014-2015 season.

These efforts are part of “Leadership USASF: Mentoring Leaders” program, which started in 2011 under Courtney Smith-Pope and continues under Karen Wilson. Each “class” of 12 finalists is selected by the National Advisory Board to participate in this yearlong program and implement new initiatives that they feel are needed in the industry—with the guidance of a high-profile mentor.

It’s all part of an increasing spirit of collaboration and networking permeating the industry, both online and off. For instance, more than 1800 gym owners and cheer professionals are connecting and sharing inside intel and advice on the All-Star Gym Association (ASGA) private Facebook page. No topic is off-limits—from pesky parents to legality questions to questionable vendors. Platinum Athletics coach Kyle Gadke is one of its many active members and testifies it’s been his gym’s “strongest year to date,” thanks in large part to ideas gleaned from the group.

For instance, at last year’s ASGA meeting in Chicago, he was inspired by Ultimate Athletics’ “team shifts” two weeks after tryouts—an approach they’ve implemented at Platinum with great results. The long-time Level 2/Level 5 coach has also used ASGA advice to improve his own Level 1 coaching skills. “I’d never coached Level 1 and didn’t know the rules; thanks to ASGA, I learned how to coach a back walkover,” he laughs. Gadke also relies on his virtual contacts for feedback on competition routines: “If I’m gearing up for a Varsity event, I can talk to ASGA friends and have them evaluate a video to see what we need to improve on.”

Fellow ASGA member Stephanie Kennedy agrees. Since her gym, Panther Cheer Athletics, is based in Richmond (a suburb of Vancouver, BC), she says it can be easy to feel isolated and out of touch with the rest of the industry. The ASGA group helps her stay plugged in. “I’m overwhelmed by the amount of support I’ve received by other gym owners and their willingness to share information—everything from lesson plans and videos to business forms,” says Kennedy. “Gym owners need to know the knowledge is out there, and making those connections is the key to growing your business.”

Like Gadke, Kennedy has also made invaluable contacts at cheer conferences. It was at the Varsity Gym Owners Conference in Las Vegas that she and PCA co-owner Dawn Silver first connected with Midwest Cheer Elite’s Tanya Roesel, whom later became an invaluable resource as a business/marketing consultant—helping their gym boost revenue via a hip-hop program along with providing technique and safety training.

Working with Roesel was highly inspiring for the her, Silver and the PCA staff, says Kennedy: “Sharing ideas and connecting with other gym owners give you a sense of validation that you are doing it right, just like the big gyms.”

-Vicky Choy and Jen Jones Donatelli

Visit our blog Thursday for testimonials from cheer pros who strongly believe in the powering of mentoring and networking.



Game Changers: American Elite

Game Changers: American Elite

It’s not uncommon for parents to become close when their kids cheer together. What is unusual is for that friendship to blossom into a full-fledged, profitable and fun business. 

For Wanda and Gary Whipkey, Caryn Hale and Laura Dudley of Tallmadge, Ohio, starting American Elite Cheerleading in 2005 made sense because of their combined enthusiasm and experience volunteering at the all-star gym where their daughters trained. They just weren’t the ones who came up with the idea.

A bit of background: the gym owner they’d invested their time with wasn’t eager for bigger numbers despite them tripling after the parents started helping coach. When the Whipkeys, Hale and Dudley met Elaine Pascal of New Jersey’s World Cup All Stars at a conference, she remarked that the four of them should consider opening a gym.

“She said, ‘You could do this on your own,’” recalls Wanda Whipkey. Coming from the owner of one of the country’s most successful cheer gyms, those words resonated. Little more than a week later, the four budding entrepreneurs had a loan, a building, equipment and clients.

Now, with American Elite Cheer heading into its 10th year this July, the owners and their athletes have plenty to be proud of besides longevity. The all-star cheer program, which started out with 50 athletes, now boasts around 300. They’ve been nominated for the USASF’s Chairman’s Cup twice, have received full paid bids to U.S. Finals and have been Worlds bid recipients for the last seven years.

The gym’s Cheer Charity Classic event gives them even more to rally around. To help support the Akron Children’s Hospital’s Reach Out and Read program, American Elite hosts an annual competition that has donated around $150,000 total and collected tens of thousands of new and gently used books for kids in need. Giving back is a big part of the gym’s culture with many ongoing service projects.

However, American Elite’s success hasn’t come without growing pains. Early on the owners realized that all-star tuition wasn’t going to sustain the business, particularly since their season runs June to March to allow for a training break. Whipkey reached out to other gym owners to tap into their success strategies, but “there wasn’t anything they could point to that made them successful other than that they had these routines that stuck.” She knew it would take more than killer choreography and top notch coaching for the gym to succeed financially.

Drawing on her prior experience in the consumer electronics industry, Wanda pushed to hire a consultant in 2006. Though initially nervous about the cost, the team ended up hiring Frank Sahlein from 3rd Level Consulting, and his recommendations paid off.

On his suggestion, Whipkey and crew turned their energies toward the budget and alternative ways to generate income. They diversified by utilizing the large space and equipment to start new programs—particularly the non-competitive American Elite Kids recreational program, which proved to be very successful. Building on that success, the owners created additional programs, including preschool outreach, parents’ night out events, Saturday classes and birthday party services. They also began renting out the gym to recreational cheer teams for their tryouts and hosting a for-profit competition for high schools and recreational teams.

The next year they added a separate choreography business, DZine, and have plans for a summer camp this year. There are now more than 2,400 clients who utilize the gym’s various programs. All-star cheer still makes up the biggest part of the gym’s revenue, but the rec classes are a close second. The fastest-growing program is the preschool outreach with its mobile gym, which is due in part to its director’s ambition.

“It’s not hard to come up with ideas for how to diversify,” shares Whipkey, who hopes to open a second location. “The difficult part is finding the key people and partnering with them, having people in your organization to problem solve and take something and make it a career.”

They fine-tuned the organizational structure with concise job descriptions. Putting dependable, dedicated directors in place to focus on key components of the business enabled ownership to remove itself from the daily tasks and work on bigger-picture projects. “Once we did that, our business grew about 150 percent,” says Whipkey.

While that was all good advice, there were still more tweaks made along the way. The American Elite Kids program, they realized, needed rebranding. “Our building is full of trophies, but we had to think about how to reach those moms who don’t necessarily want their kids to compete,” says Whipkey. They hired a branding company to help drive the message home that the program’s focus was health and fitness.

“One of the things I like to tell people is give yourself the gift of having a coach,” Whipkey says, whether that comes in the form of consultant, external company or actual coaches at your gym. “We felt we should be able to figure it out from our combined experiences, but we realized we did need the outside help.”

-Arrissia Owen

Spotlight: Dan Kessler

Spotlight: Dan Kessler

When JAM Brands co-founder Dan Kessler tried cheerleading for the first time at the University of Louisville after two years of playing collegiate soccer, his friends told him he was a natural at stunting. But he still had to learn the techniques from the ground up: a toss hands, then a toss hands extension, then a liberty, then a top hand. “[Stunting] was a new athletic skill that I had to conquer and try to perfect,” he says. “That addiction of getting better kept me going to practice and working.” 

One could say the same thing about the way Kessler approaches his business: taking one huge blowout cheerleading event, JAMFest, executing it, fine-tuning it and ultimately growing it into a 130-event-a-year production company, The JAM Brands, whose competitions young cheerleaders and dancers all over the continent clamor to attend.

In 2000, Kessler joined JAM Brands co-owners Aaron Flaker and Emmett Tyler, two of his old college buddies who’d started JAMFest in 1995, and made the team a “triumvirate,” as they call it. “People say [not to] mix business with pleasure or friends with business, but the personal relationship and appreciation and care that we have for each other [is what makes us different]. We like to see each other succeed in life, and that’s helpful,” Kessler says.

As far as splitting up the work goes, Kessler credits Flaker for JAM Brands’ marketing success—right down to the fonts on the signage—and Tyler for a “top-down” perspective, including calculating dollars and cents). Kessler says his own contribution to the triad has been a strong focus on product development, as well as  vision for the energetic, fun vibe and look that JAM Brands events are known for. He’s also a pro at “relationship-building,” a strength that’s paid off in spades—for instance, the ideas for both the Majors and the U.S. Finals grew from listening to what cheerleaders, parents, coaches and industry professionals had to say.

“Customer service and listening to people is very important. I try to listen to what is wanted and needed and then bring that into our products,” Kessler says.

To pull off events of JAM Brands’ caliber and visibility is a feat that Kessler says is attributable to several business must-dos:

Keeping the lines of communication open: Kessler heavily relies on personal communication with coaches and gym owners to disseminate information, and he leans on his office staff to facilitate that end. “Our staff is there to answer and make calls, answer emails as quickly as possible and get out the information as quick as possible,” he says. “You’ve got to have people communicate [your] message.”

Using social media to your advantage: Banners advertising event hashtags and Twitter accounts have become invaluable tools, as has using social media to “pre-promote” logistics information. “We try to tell the coaches and owners to tell the families to like us, follow us and hashtag us, so they can always be up-to-date,” he says. “That’s one of the things unique to us, even now, is the ability to get [information] right away.”

Viewing others’ successes as good for the industry as a whole: Even when competitions similar to JAM Brands pop up, Kessler welcomes new entries into the event business. “We feel pride that we can put out great products and services that other people want to replicate or duplicate or imitate, because that means it’s good,” Kessler says. He’s also keenly aware of how more events can aid the bigger picture of growing the sport in general: “Ultimately, our goal is to get as many kids to walk through the doors of a gym as possible—because that’s the most important thing in our industry: growing the number of participants.”

Making it about the kids: Kid-friendly bells and whistles like inflatable “fun zones,” Jammy the mascot, interactive video technology, social media participation and humorous gags like coaches or grandmas dancing together are all hallmarks of JAM Brands events. These elements are designed to encourage children to have a blast—and their decision-makers to attend the next JAM Brands event.

In event-speak, these are “external fun factors,” according to Kessler. “We invented or created many of the things you see on the all-star market today, and it started with focusing on the kids—that’s why we went with the name JAMFest,” Kessler says. “When you think of JAMFest, it has nothing to do with cheerleading. Back in the day it was NCA, UCA, MCA…very ‘alphabet’ companies. This idea was, ‘We want to have competitions, but we want to remember that these events are fun.’”

Fun is also a personal value of Kessler’s, right down to regular evening playtime with his two daughters and his legendary annual Kentucky Derby party, famous in Louisville for providing what Kessler calls a “slow start” to the long weekend, by way of conversation and bourbon cocktails. This year, his wife Shannon’s new company, Primp Style Lounge (a hair wash-and-style service similar to the popular Drybar chain), is slated to make an appearance at the festivities. 

Kessler is proud that his other half shares his entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re America,” says Kessler. “You watch cheerleading competitions and you say, ‘I can do it better.’ [Same with Primp Style Lounge]—it’s along the lines of what we see in New York and Chicago and LA. [Shannon thought], ‘These ‘dry bars’ and blowout places are great, so we’ll bring it to Louisville.”

Now that’s what we call Kentucky fried business smarts.

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

At this stage in her cheer career, Jackie Lindom does it all. Besides managing the Twisters Elite Cheer & Dance Gym in Lake Villa, Ill., Lindom also coaches, helps with choreography for various teams and judges for Xtreme Spirit and several rec competitions. (Oh, and she is just 21 years old.) Having been a cheerleader since age five, Lindom made the transition from competitor to coach/gym manager shortly after competing at Worlds in 2010 and has continued to expand her role—inside the gym and out—throughout the years.

As yet another busy season comes to a close, we caught up with Lindom amid her jam-packed schedule to discuss her career, her balance techniques and her affinity for the sport.

How did you make the transition from athlete to cheer professional? 

Lindom: As an athlete during my last three years cheering (up until when I was 18), I was always helping out at the gym. My coach on Senior 5 brought me up and transitioned me into the coaching aspect. I worked my way up and coached the Tiny Team for two years, then coached minis while still on Senior 5. After I competed in Worlds in 2010, they hired me [as an employee]. Just being in the gym and learning under my Senior 5 coach taught me everything I needed to know. I’m passionate about my job.

Share more about your various roles and how much time they each take.

Lindom: My number one [focus] right now is Twisters. I pay most of my attention to the gym, making sure it is running smoothly and that the athletes are doing everything they should. I am still very much involved in choreography, traveling all over the place for school and rec teams. I also helped out with skill clinics over the summer; we hosted one at Twisters, and Gabie Dinsbeer, Erica Englebert and a few other “cheerlebrities” came in. I got to work side-by-side with the best of the best. I also judge every weekend. (I didn’t have a free weekend from February through Memorial Day!)

What are your tips on balancing various facets of a cheer career?

Lindom: I just like to go with the flow. I am always just crazy busy; it’s normal [for me]. I do take on a lot, but I get it over with and do the best I can.

What do you think would help improve the competition experience on both sides (for judges and teams)?

Lindom: I think overall, all judges should be trained better on the [specific] scoresheet that they are judging from. I know there are coaches and judges who judge across the board for [various] companies, but I don’t think that some of them have the best knowledge on [every] scoresheet. More training is necessary.

What issue seems to come up often with parents in your gym, and what’s your top tip for handling it?

Lindom: There are always parents complaining or getting into drama with the other parents. I try to stay out of drama, and I handle each situation differently. Some require immediate attention; others fizzle out a little bit [over time]. Parents are irritated at that moment and they want to snap at you, [but ultimately] it’s not that big of a deal.

What makes the hard work worth it?

Lindom: As a coach, I’m passionate about seeing my athletes on stage—it’s a breath of fresh air. They practice so hard to be on the mat for 2.5 minutes, and [the reward is] seeing all their hard work pay off.


A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

We’re all familiar with the cheer powerhouses, organizations like Top Gun, California All Stars and Cheer Athletics, whose names and accolades easily come to mind. But among these giants, Brandon All-Stars has slowly and quietly emerged out of Brandon, Fla. (a suburb of Tampa), and is poised to take its place in the spotlight.

Brandon’s road to the big leagues began in 2005 when co-owner and President Peter Lezin took over the reins from founder Rhonda Cummings. When Cummings first opened Brandon in 1995, it was a recreational organization, whose attention slowly turned to competition. For Lezin, a veteran head instructor for NCA and former USF cheerleader/coach, the biggest challenge in the takeover was leaving that recreational mentality behind. “A billing system had to be put in place and a professional attitude needed to be displayed as well in all areas of the business,” says Lezin.

Enter Joslynne Harrod, Brandon’s Vice President and co-owner. A former Florida State cheerleader and four-year head instructor for NCA, Harrod and Lezin formed a friendship in the late 90s when both worked for the national cheer organization. In Harrod, Lezin found a unique opportunity—an accomplished, competitive coach with a head for business.

“I am a CPA by trade and am always thinking about the numbers,” Harrod said.  “Peter is definitely the more free-thinking, creative part of our business.”

If the results are any indication, this is a successful collaboration. In the near-decade since their formed partnership, Brandon has tripled in size, currently training upwards of 300 all-star athletes per year from Levels 1-5. They’ve also turned out consistent performances that fuel their growing reputation for solid stunting and snatch top rankings—most recently at Jamfest Supernationals, Athletic Championships and Worlds, (where in 2011 and 2012, they earned Gold and Silver, respectively, in the Small Senior Limited Coed 5 category).

Lezin says when it comes to training they focus on technique, as well as “perfection before progression,” with the aim of zero deductions during judging. Their motto on the floor is simple: “If you do hit, you might win…if you don’t hit, you won’t win.” The rest, says Lezin, “is up to the judges.”

That attitude of “do your best and don’t worry about the rest” has helped Brandon navigate Florida’s all-star culture—one that in the past, Lezin admits, was “hostile” but grows increasingly cooperative as “more and more gyms [find] their niche.” To that end, Brandon has developed strong relationships with many of their cohorts: Cheer Corp, Top Dog, Top Gun, Premier and Cheer Florida to name a few. The kids have followed suit. This movement towards cooperative connectivity, aided by the rise in social media and the cheerlebrity phenomenon, may have driven what Lezin calls the industry’s latest trend—a shift from “team” to “individual” recognition. “I think that’s just the nature of the beast because the kids are all so connected now,” said Lezin, “whereas before all you knew was a certain team and not the individual.”

So what’s next for Brandon? The goal is two-fold. First and foremost, Lezin and Harrod aim to shape their cheerleaders into productive members of society, whose athleticism will serve to broaden their educational opportunities. Second, they want what every competitive cheer organization standing on the verge of greatness wants: to secure their place among the giants, as an industry leader and household name.

In April, they came one step closer to realizing that dream when Brandon marked its cinematic debut in Champions League, a “cheer documentary” that traced one night of fierce competition among 30 of the country’s most celebrated teams. Says Lezin, “Champions League is a game changer [for Brandon].”

We shall see.


Timeline: Industry Innovations and Trends

Timeline: Industry Innovations and Trends

Did you ace our industry quiz? Enhance your knowledge even more with our comprehensive timeline of industry trends and innovations—from rebate plans to stay-to-play to custom uniforms—and find out how they came to fruition. (Please note: this is a living document! We are continually updating and adding more information. If you would like to add updates to our timeline, please email us at info@thecheerprofessional.com).


Rebate Plans

2005 — Spirit Celebration creates its own rebate plan (attend 2 events = 15% back; 5 events = 20% back; 6 events = 20% back + a cruise)

2006 — Varsity Family Plan is introduced

2008 — The JAM Brands introduces the JAM Rewards

2010 — Cheer Ltd. and Mardi Gras Spirit Events join the Varsity Family Plan

2011 — IEP launches its I-Deal rebate program with companies like US Spirit on board

2011 — Epic Brands introduces Epic Rewards

2012 — Twisted Spirit introduces “Totally Twisted” gym profit program including elements of business advising, branding help and choreography service

2013 — Xtreme Spirit introduces Partner Brand Rebates (with partners such as Elite International Championship Series, Allstar Apparel, GlitzGirl Cosmetics, and Platinum Bows)

2014 — 15 companies including ACDA, Epic Brands and WSA join forces to introduce the “Season Pass”


Custom Uniforms

1999 — Teamleader launches its line of custom uniforms made in the U.S.A.

2008 — GK Elite makes its debut

2011 — Xtreme Spirit launches Allstar Apparel

2012 — Spirit Innovations merges with Varsity

2013 — Rebel Athletic signs on as Title Sponsor for Spirit Celebration’s 2013-2014 season

2014 — GK Elite launches a new sublimation line, “ink’d by GK”


Free Admission

2003 — All JAMFest events (except JAMFest Cheer Super Nationals) adopt a free admission policy

2011 — Spirit Celebration comes on as partner for “Cheer for Charity,” a free competition in Waco, TX benefiting cancer research co-hosted by Heart of Texas all-star gym

2011 — All Great Lakes Cheer Championship events (except Showdown Nationals) adopt a free admission policy

2011 — Epic Brands’ Reach the Beach Daytona event starts offering free admission to attendees

2012 — Reach the Beach Daytona adopts a free admission policy


Multi-Brand End of Season Events

1996 — Xtreme Spirit debuts its Elite International Championship

2004 — USASF hosts the first Cheerleading Worlds competition in Orlando, FL

2006 — NLCC companies (American Cheer Power, AmeriCheer, Eastern Cheerleaders Association, Cheer America, Spirit Unlimited and American Cheer and Dance Academy) hold the first Final Destination event in Baltimore

2008 — JAM Brands and NLCC (Epic Brands and Spirit Brands) collaborate to rebrand and reimagine Final Destination as The U.S. Finals

2009 — UCA/UDA hold the first International All Levels Championship

2010 — Xtreme Spirit holds the first Elite International Championship series, to which teams earn bids throughout the season at partner brand events

2013 — US Spirit debuts THE ONE Cheer & Dance Finals

2013 — GSSA signs onto the U.S. Finals team to produce its West Coast event

2013 — Varsity debuts The Summit, an all-levels national championship, to replace the International All Levels Virtual Championship

2014 — Powered by Twisted Cheer & Dance, the “aerial sporting event” All Star Games has its inaugural event in Las Vegas with multi-brand partnerships with Nfinity, GK Elite, COP Brands (Mexico), New Zealand Cheer Union and the All Star Games Federation.

2014 — Nfinity and Aloha Spirit Productions launch The Champions League with accompanying feature film debut



2005 — The Aloha International Spirit Championships in Honolulu begin requiring stay-to-play

2011 — Epic Brands events including Reach the Beach (Daytona, Ocean City All-Star and Ocean City Rec/School) and Battle of the Boardwalk join the stay-to-play fold

2011 — American Cheer Power adopts stay-to-play policies

2012 — Spirit Celebration switches from stay-to-play to “inform to perform” (providing flexibility to stay anywhere as long as accommodation information is provided)

2012 — NCA/NDA All-Star National Championships move to stay-to-play

2014 — JAMFest Cheer Super Nationals and Coastal Battle at the Capitol adopt stay-to-play policies

2014 — Cheersport institutes a stay-to-play policy starting with its 2014 National Championship


Red Carpet Events

2007 — The JAM Brands debuts LIVE! The Authentic Red Carpet Experience

2010 — Varsity introduces Encore Championships

2012 — Spirit Celebration launches AMAZING Championships, where teams compete to benefit a charity of their choice and get to promote their cause on the red carpet

2013 — Xtreme Spirit debuts Premier Series events

2014 — Spirit Celebration debuts the Crown Jubilee, a “royalty-themed” end-of-year event with a masquerade ball/awards ceremony the night before the competition and a red carpet at the event

Note: All U.S. Spirit Nationals events are now red carpet events (no date available)


By-Invitation Events

2012 — The JAM Brands debuts The Majors

2013 — GK Elite signs on as official outfitter of the All-Star Games

2013 — Epic Brands debuts The Reveal, The Debut and Future 5

2014 — GSSA/Aloha Productions partners with Nfinity as the event producer for The Champions League


Consolidation and Acquisitions

2003 — Spirit Celebration becomes official partner and host of CGA Small Gym Nationals; State Fair of Texas Championship; State Fair of Louisiana Championship; Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Fall Championship/Nationals events

2007 — The JAM Brands acquires America’s Best and Coastal

2008 — The JAM Brands acquires Great Lakes Cheer Championships and COA

2008 — America’s Best Championships and Spirit Innovations join the JAM Brands

2011 — ACDA/Spirit Unlimited become The Epic Brands

2012 — Spirit Innovations announces that it will now operate under Varsity Spirit Fashion

2013 — Xtreme Spirit acquires Wisconsin Spirit


New on the Scene

2010 — Twisted Spirit expands its focus beyond choreography to start offering events, starting with the Twister Treat event in New Zealand and Makin’ Noise for Toyz in Bloomington, followed by the launch of custom “3D events” (with live performances by Kickfull band) in 2012, and Unplugged (smaller-scale events) in 2013


Test Your Trends Knowledge!

Test Your Trends Knowledge!

With all of the developments in our ever-evolving industry, it can be hard to keep up. For handy reference, we’ve compiled a thorough timeline of how some of today’s hottest trends and innovations came about (and the companies that pioneered them). But before you check it out, take our quiz below to find out how much you know—then check out the answers below!




1. Which of these companies debuted its custom uniform line back in 1999?

a)    Ozone

b)   Teamleader

c)    Rebel Athletic

d)   Chasse’

2. What year did Varsity introduce its Varsity Family Plan?

a)    1998

b)   2001

c)    2006

d)   2009

3. Which of these companies was not among those who originally launched US Finals?

a)    Varsity

b)   Spirit Brands

c)    The JAM Brands

d)   Epic Brands

4. Which of these invitation-only events made a splash in 2014 with an accompanying feature film?

a)    The Revolution

b)   The Majors

c)    All-Star Games

d)   Champions League

5. In 2013, Epic Brands debuted three new events. Which of these was not one of them?

a)    The Summit

b)   The Reveal

c)    The Debut

d)   Future 5

6. What’s the name of Spirit Celebration’s royalty-themed end of year event?

a)    Cheer Kingdom

b)   Cheerlebrity

c)    Crown Jubilee

d)   Reach The Throne

7. Several events adopted stay-to-play policies in select cities in 2014. Which of these was not one of them?

a)    Cheersport

b)   American Cheer Power

c)    JAMFest Cheer Super Nationals

d)   Coastal Battle at the Capitol

8. What was The Summit called in its previous iteration?

a)    International All Levels Championship

b)   The Road to Worlds

c)    Battle of All Levels

d)   All Levels Challenge

9. Which two companies combined to form EPIC Brands?

a)    COA and Coastal

b)   Americheer and Great Lakes Cheer Championships

c)    ACDA and Spirit Unlimited

d)   Xtreme Spirit and Twisted Spirit

10. What current publishing company were the original founders of Cheer Biz News?

a)    American Cheerleader

b)   The Cheer Leader

c)    Inside Cheerleading

d)   CheerProfessional


1.) B: Teamleader debuted its custom uniform line in 1999.
2.) C: Varsity introduced its Family Plan in 2006.
3.) A: The event producers that originally launched U.S. Finals were Spirit Brands, JAM Brands and Epic Brands.
4.) D: The invitation-only Champions League event debuted in 2014 with an accompanying feature film.
5.) A: Epic Brands’ three new events in 2013 were The Reveal, The Debut and Future 5.
6.) C: Spirit Celebration’s royalty-themed end of year event is Crown Jubilee.
7.) B: American Cheer Power adopted its stay-to-play policies before 2014.
8.) A: The Summit was formerly called International All Levels Championship.
9.) C: ACDA and Spirit Unlimited combined to form Epic Brands.
10.) D: The publishers of CheerProfessional were the original founders of Cheer Biz News.

State of the Union 2014

State of the Union 2014

Tammy Van Vleet, GSSA and Aloha Spirit Productions

For the second year in a row, CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer “leaders” for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future. Check out our “State of the Union” panel for 2014 and read what they have to say:

There seem to be a lot of varying opinions about what needs to happen with Worlds—from venue changes to divisions to bids. What’s your take on the future of Worlds?

Van Vleet: Being from the West, we’ve always felt our teams have been geographically challenged. When you give bids of $650 to an athlete from Miami and another from LA, that’s a huge difference for getting to Orlando. That said, our teams have been able to come out and win and perform well. Personally, I would like to see the location move to include additional parts of the country; I know there are a lot of bigger convention centers that could accommodate this event.

Billy Smith, Spirit Celebration and Amazing! Championships

Smith: Steve Peterson has done a great job coordinating the many companies involved in Worlds. To use a biblical analogy, the problem is now that Worlds has become the “Golden Calf”—I’ve seen it change our industry. It has ruined friendships and caused a lot of dissension in our industry. Now that it’s in its 10th year, I’m not sure there is an event producer out there that doesn’t wish it would go away, but no one will get out because they’re afraid of losing the teams. I’ve been very blessed: my teams that I’ve spent the big bucks on have won gold, silver and bronze, but my numbers of participating teams trying to get bids go down because people don’t want to compete with the gyms that win year after year.  I can also promise you a lot of gyms have been hurt by it; small gyms have lost so many kids to large gyms. There are also gyms that are scholarshipping everyone so they can pull kids from all over.

What are the emerging event trends?

Smith: We’re seeing a trend of specialty events, such as the Majors, the Revolution, Amazing! and the Champions League. As our industry evolves, we are definitely seeing event producers and gym owners get more creative in an effort to try and lure customer dollars. Everything has to evolve, and [this trend] is creating lots of options. Also, I believe everyone is creating something different so that Worlds isn’t the end-all and be-all. With the Summit, Majors, the One, Amazing, etc. brands have positioned themselves so that they don’t need Worlds.  If Worlds goes away, we’ll all be ready for it.

The United States Cheer Officials Survey and the formation of the NACCC judging committee has sparked a lot of conversation about conditions and compensations for judges. What are your thoughts on the way the industry treats our judges?

Kathy Penree, CNY Storm All-Stars (Albany, NY and Syracuse, NY)

Penree: This is something we discussed at length in Doral. There are two sides [to the issue]: the first is that we need to help judges be protected as far as compensation and working conditions—making sure judges are rested, fed and paid well. We also need to ensure event producers are hiring trained judges. Some of the event producers really stepped up this summer with more in-depth training, and I think we’ll all see great results from that during the season.

However, the other component is that the judges who sign up for the events need to fulfill their responsibility. When judges don’t show up or need a last-minute replacement, [EPs] are sometimes forced to go further down in the pool of judges as far as experience level and knowledge. That’s part of the problem that I go through as an event producer.

Van Vleet: I saw that survey, and I don’t agree with it because we don’t treat our judges that way. We go to great lengths to choose flights and hotels that are more than satisfactory, provide ground transportation, have meals brought in, etc. There are so many event producers—judges can decide where they spend their weekends working, gym owners can decide where they spend money to compete.

Where do you stand on the universal scoresheet?

Penree: Kristen [Rosario] and John [Metz] are leading this effort on behalf of the NACCC; we’re going to try shadowing it at events this season in hopes of rolling it out for 2014-2015 season. It will be easier for us as coaches and gym owners if we can train our teams to one scoresheet. I also like that it will bring back the creativity that’s been taken away by the standard routine. Without divulging what’s on the scoresheet, I know that’s one of their goals.

Van Vleet: I am in favor of a universal scoresheet because it would eliminate teams having to change their routines from weekend to weekend. That has to be frustrating for kids and coaches to be shooting at a moving target. However, I feel like [GSSA] has continually improved our judging and scoring system and we are not involved in the development of the universal scoresheet so I’m not able to provide insight on this.

Brian Harris, United Talent Cheer

Smith: Now that everyone is under USASF safety guidelines, it’s been a huge relief for the coaches. However, now that it’s evolving into the scoresheet, I’m worried that USASF will say all judges have to be trained through them. I don’t want them to set the amount I pay my judges; that should be up to event producers. Also, coaches are likely to be frustrated because they will expect the same scores every week—and that’s not going to happen. Judges evaluate differently; we are a subjective sport. However, I won’t say that it’s not going to work because it has never been tried; if the coaches want to try it, I’m game.

How do you feel about the direction of the USASF as our industry’s governing body?

Harris: I believe there needs to be a governing body, but anymore in this industry, it seems as though everyone is out for themselves. Across the board with competitions, USASF, the biggest companies and Varsity, I think almost every aspect has lost perspective on what the objective is and what most of us are attempting to do. Are we in this for ourselves or are we trying to better our athletes and the sport? When you look at these kids coming in, they just want to learn the basics and have a good experience; most are not familiar with Worlds or cheerlebrities. I feel like the industry is moving in a direction that could eventually have a negative impact if it keeps going the way it’s going. I’d like to see the governing body become more focused on the true purpose and meaning behind what this sport should be.

Smith: Paying off the loan was step one, the new building was step two, but what’s wrong with USASF now is that the Board of Directors is out of balance. It is so Varsity-heavy that until they have an elected board, it’s still a smoke-and-pony game. Even though Jam Brands and the IEP have many teams going to Worlds, they have considerably less votes [than Varsity]. The coaches got another non-voting position last year, but the number of voting members is still Varsity-heavy.

Van Vleet: We are a member of USASF and we choose to support that. I don’t like to tear apart something that I’m a member of—I’d rather offer solutions and make something better instead trying to splinter off and do something separate. We should be united as an industry.

Any other USASF developments you’d like to comment on?

Van Vleet: I’ve been happy to see the credentialing program evolve, but there’s still room for improvement. The requirements should be a little bit more stringent; we can’t mess around when we’re dealing with kids. Our sport needs to be safe and legitimate—and the faster, the better. I think every coach needs to be credentialed and have a background check. This year, we’re making sure all of our staff [meets those requirements]; the goal is to be leaders in the industry and go one step further to make sure the environment is safe for our participants.

Penree: I like that the industry is paying attention to image [with regulations on uniforms and cover-ups] and that we’re taking a stand in promoting a good image for our athletes. Unfortunately, it’s something we have to self-police because the USASF doesn’t have the manpower to walk around and enforce those policies. I’d like to see more programs take the responsibility among themselves to do so. It’s also about how the outside world perceives the cheer world; people don’t understand when they see children walk around the mall in a sports bra. We need to keep the image respectful and athletic.

What’s your stance on the cheerlebrity phenomenon?

Harris: I don’t feel [all-star cheerleading] is as healthy as it used to be. One of the biggest problems is that too much emphasis is being placed on the wrong things at competition. To look the part, young athletes feel pressure to be the prettiest or wear the most makeup, the smallest/tightest uniform, the most glitter. The industry allows for glorifying elements of the sport that aren’t meant to be glorified. Athletes should be spotlighted for their athletic abilities at every level, [but] the idea of “cheerlebrities” creates an expectation and status that few will reach. Kids can’t feel good about themselves because they’re trying to live up to the image of what the perfect all-star cheerleader should be—instead of focusing on their own training.

Van Vleet: I have mixed feelings about it. If [cheerlebrity status] is used in a positive way, it can be very good for our industry, but I’ve seen situations where individuals put themselves above the team, and it doesn’t sit well. There are also safety considerations—this year, we made sure to have barricades around stages so kids can get to and from them safely, as well as maintain their focus on the team competition. We have to think about that because of the visibility these kids have; people are so excited and want pictures and autographs and 15-year-olds don’t know how to navigate that.

Smith: I think it’s unfair to the kids what the magazines have created. I feel sorry for those kids that are cheerlebrities because there is nowhere to go with it. It doesn’t help you get a job, and once it’s over, your life will never be normal. These kids are on a pedestal and, if they do anything wrong, it will be devastating to see how they handle it. Social media can be very cruel to everyone, especially teenagers.

What are some of the other issues affecting gyms and athletes?

Penree: There are discussions about whether [our sport] is too demanding. If you’re walking in off the street and don’t have elite tumbling, there is a lot of pressure to [obtain] that skill, but it’s not something that comes quickly. People have to be invested and train for several years. Some are intimidated by the skill level that they perceive that they need to have; they don’t always realize that there are other levels and that everyone can cheer.

Another discussion we have at NACCC and [the USASF] board is making sure athletes aren’t getting everything at such a young age. If you’ve been to Worlds three times by age 14, you’re like, “Okay I’ll do something else now.” The retention rate is a concern.

Harris: The ever-growing and changing industry puts pressure on both kids and gym owners to keep up. From rules to divisions and even the latest trends, athletes and their gyms must continually adapt to stay ahead of the game. Also, because gyms need revenue, many times athletes are pushed into a competitive program before they are ready, causing unneeded stress on the athletes and their parents. Emphasis on competition pushes gym owners into attempting to build multiple competitive teams rather than diversify—which can be financially detrimental. In my experience, all-star cheerleading is not the driving force behind our program; our stability is created with non-competitive/rec programs that keep costs lower and gain more numbers.

What are some other growth areas emerging for gym owners?

Harris: Obviously, there are many more cheerleaders to be had in Levels 1-3. Levels 4-5 are more select. As gym owners, if all we do is put emphasis on building a Level 5 program, we will eventually fall off because we are not nurturing our other growth areas (including prep teams and non-competitive programs). A major mistake is the approach of making the elite cheerleaders the most important team in the program. It is hard to sustain the “best” team year after year when you don’t have kids coming up from the other levels.

Penree: Gyms are finding that they need to diversify their business since there is such a large overhead with these facilities. Lots of gym owners now realize it’s necessary to do more as far as offering more camps, clinics and classes to outside kids. Training high school teams is a very successful approach and one that every gym owner needs to pursue. Also, [another consideration is] adding things like Pilates/dance or after-school programs; one successful gym in Ohio has even added a pre-school.

What’s the bottom line?

Van Vleet: We should all take this amazing opportunity of doing what we love every day very seriously. Don’t take it for granted; at the end of the day, it’s about the kids at the events. I think we have to be very thankful and protective of the kids involved. I had the opportunity to speak at my high school’s graduation ceremony, and they wanted me to talk about how I took an activity I did in high school and turned it into my career. Let’s be very careful with what we have, because I think it’s pretty amazing.

Go, Go Gadget! Review: Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal

Go, Go Gadget! Review: Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal

For our new “Go, Go Gadget!” review feature, we asked the team at Georgia Tech to road test the Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal.

What It Is: The Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal is geared at boosting strength and helping to build athletes’ balance for stunting and other cheer skills. Founder David Ciolkosz was inspired by two circus veterans (one a world champion and the other a Guinness World Record holder for balance), who introduced the concept to him using handstand poles. The natural vibration of the pedestal’s pole creates shockwaves of energy, resulting in improved balance strength.

Our Testers: The cheer squad at Georgia Tech, under the direction of coach King Harrison. Harrison owns four Cheer Balance pedestals, which he rotates among his flyers and uses during summer training. Each flyer follows the same circuit: liberty, arabesque, stretch, scale, bow & arrow, scorpion. “When you pull all of those, you really have to work your hip flexors, abs, core, ankle and leg—really focusing on keeping yourself centered over the pole,” Harrison explains.

What they loved: “I teach stunting a lot like people teach tumbling; I’m very focused on body alignment and positioning,” says Harrison. For those reasons, he’s a big fan of the way the Cheer Balance pedestal shows athletes how to position themselves in the air and hold their weight properly. He also appreciates the “instant feedback” the product provides: “If your weight isn’t centered, you’ll fall right off,” he explains. 

What they thought could be improved: “It doesn’t teach you how to do a full-up or how to be sharp [in a stunt], but that’s not the point,” says Harrison, who also was a stunt coach at Stingrays for six years.

The verdict: “[The Cheer Balance pedestal] is fun to stand on and do different body positions. It’s not a cure-all, like ‘Bam! I’m a better flyer instantly!’ but if used properly, it can really help flyers find their balance and center,” says Harrison, adding that he recommends it most to newer flyers or those who need to work on flexibility.

How to get it: www.cheerbalance.com


FAQ: Champions League

FAQ: Champions League

Can’t stop hearing about the Champions League? CheerProfessional has your need-to-know guide to one of this year’s biggest debut events—we caught up with Nfinity’s marketing director Hillary Dwyer to find out what cheer professionals and athletes can expect from the new Champions League event (and movie!). Find out what she had to say in our Q&A:

CP: Explain the concept of the Champions League and what makes it unique from other events.

Dwyer: The Champions League is a select group of up to 30 teams that represent a tradition of past, present and future excellence in Level 5 Cheerleading and come together to host a competition of epic proportions. Not only will the teams compete across all divisions, but they will also compete across several formats (including All-Girl versus Co-Ed), with one overall Grand Champion. There will also be opportunities for teams not originally included to earn their way into the League. The bottom teams each year will be subject to attrition to allow for new teams to rise up and take their place. In addition to The Champions League competition, teams of all levels and divisions will participate in the event in a regular two-day format. The registration lottery will be open to ALL programs and teams beginning September 10 and conclude, at the latest, September 15. First registered, first to attend and space is limited.

CP: How did Nfinity and GSSA/Aloha Spirit first forge a connection and decide to spearhead this event?

Dwyer: Nfinity approached the gym owners first. After speaking with the gym owners and multiple producers to find someone that everyone felt would be a good partner, the league voted to select Tammy Van Vleet with Golden State Spirit Association and Aloha Spirit Productions as the event producer for the 2014 Champions League. GSSA/Aloha has a wonderful reputation in the industry and has turned out to be the perfect fit for this exciting event.

CP: What is the format of the event, and how did you select Atlanta as this year’s venue?

Dwyer: Teams will compete for the following honors: Champion of the All-Girl teams, Champion of the Co-Ed teams and Grand Champion of the League. In addition, the average score of all the Co-Ed teams will be tallied to compare with the average score of the All-Girl teams. The “team” with the highest average will be crowned each season. The two-day event will also feature teams in all divisions and at all levels and will be based on a 50/50 total for division championships.

Atlanta is Nfinity’s hometown, so it felt right to kick-off this epic experience in our backyard. The plan is to choose a new city each year to host the Champions League.

CP: How are the 30 Level 5 teams selected? How does the “League” come together?

Dwyer: 2014 League members were selected based on a combination of the following factors: a) a culmination of the last decade of competitive success at events, and b) historical ability to attract a “fan base” from outside the respective team’s organization.

CP: What will the prize(s) be?

Dwyer: In lieu of traditional prize(s), the Champions League athletes decided to compete for charities. The winning team(s) will donate their prize money to the charity of their choice.

CP: Talk about the open championship component and any other key parts of the event.

Dwyer: An All-Girl Level 5 and a Co-Ed Level 5 team will advance to the Saturday night “show” from the competition on Saturday morning. The highest score from these divisions will compete in The Champions League on Saturday night as the Wild Card teams.

CP: How did the idea crystallize to bring the event to the big screen? What can viewers expect?

Dwyer: In the midst of formalizing a plan for an exciting and unique cheerleading competition, Tate Chalk saw something else. He approached some of the sports most decorated cheerleading coaches about the competition and saw fascinating stories unfold. With an eye for innovation and the unexpected, Tate then approached Fathom Events with a unique movie concept. He wanted to tell competitive cheerleading’s story to the world and showcase the athleticism & dedication that today’s cheerleaders possess.

CP: How does the Champions League speak to current industry trends and where events are headed?

Dwyer: We like to think of this event as setting a trend and raising the bar in the industry by giving the power to the people who have created these amazing programs. It has changed the dynamic of cheerleading and brought owners and coaches from different programs together as a united front to help spearhead growth and ensure a positive and lengthy future for our industry.

CP: Where can our readers buy movie tickets?
Dwyer: Tickets can be purchased at http://www.fathomevents.com/event/nfinity-cheerleading

Go, Go Gadget! Review: KONTAQ

Go, Go Gadget! Review: KONTAQ

For our new “Go, Go Gadget!” review feature, we asked the team at North Florida Elite to road test the new KONTAQ sportsbra.

What It Is: Touted as a “revolutionary sports bra,” Kontaq is designed to prevent breast pain and injuries caused by sports contact. The bra utilizes special removable inserts made from StuntShield (a special contact-absorbing material that is flexible, breathable and antimicrobial). Estimated to reduce 90% of the energy of impact, Kontaq supports athletes’ chests and holds them in position to reduce impact, bounce and movement during routines.

Our Testers: Two athletes on the Senior Sapphire team at North Florida Elite

What they loved: Abby Darty, a senior back spot/baser/tumbler, confirmed that KONTAQ greatly reduced impact and made her less “scared to catch [her] flyer when they were falling on [her] chest.” Brooke Hygema, one of the main bases on the team, was a big fan of the padding, as well as the ample support. “I could catch however I wanted to and not worry about the rough impact,” shares Hygema.

What they thought could be improved: Both of our testers felt that the bra trapped heat and could be a lot more sweat-resistant; one suggested adding air holes or making the bra lighter. Overheard: “I wish it didn’t get so sweaty” and “Maybe y’all could make [the bra] where it doesn’t hold so much sweat.”

The verdict: Two thumbs up. Coach Stefanie Nelson says, “Both athletes told their teammates that they have to get one and that they’re legit!”

How to get it: www.kontaq.com


Spotlight: Randy Dickey

Spotlight: Randy Dickey

Professionalism, the importance of checks and balances and family are three of the moral tenets that ACX Cheer owner Randy Dickey lives by. Actually, if it were up to him to reorder those terms, family would come first, specifically Dickey’s wife Amie (whom he met in college at an Atlanta honky-tonk) and his 9-year-old daughter Macie.

“I honestly think that, in cheerleading, the way you treat your family will show through in your character in the industry,” he says. “[When] people treat their family bad, disrespect their marriages or do things like that, [that behavior] says a lot about who they are in the industry. I believe that your family comes first.”

A proponent of honesty and accountability in cheer, Dickey started the All-Star Gym Owners Association in 2008 as a free resource group for gym owners to share knowledge and obtain group discounts through volume buying. However, it soon turned into a respected outlet to vent concerns about the industry and, eventually, somewhat of a renegade watchdog group.

Specifically, in 2012, after new rules were handed down two weeks before Worlds—including one limiting the tumbling skills allowed (thereby reducing a revenue stream for gyms)—owners took to the ASGA Facebook page in droves. The complaints culminated in a giant conference call beyond anything Dickey could have imagined: “We anticipated having 50 people on the phone call, and we had over 1,000 show up,” he says. “Everyone was listening, and people were taking turns talking. It was refreshing to see that much interest and passion in the sport and our rules.”

As the number of ASGA members grew, the grassroots group began to sway the industry’s governing bodies and apparel companies. “If something is not right for the industry, truly just not right or not fair, they’re going to listen to 1,500 people a lot more than they would just one gym…so it’s kind of like checks and balances,” Dickey says.

Despite the organization’s efforts to influence rules, vendors and event producers, Dickey still considers the knowledge shared among gym owners the group’s biggest achievement. At retreats and on the ASGA Facebook page, they discuss everything from how to deal with irate parents to how help athletes push past tumbling plateaus to how to organize fundraisers.

The collective goal? Longevity. “[Fellow ASGA leader] Courtney [Smith-Pope] and I want to make sure the industry is still around when our kids take over the gym,” Dickey says. “There’s an astounding rate of gyms going out of business, and we like to think we’re reducing that.”

Dickey’s own road to cheerleading was an unconventional one—he was on both the football and the wrestling teams at his high school until he injured his arm during junior year right before state championships. (He still competed, with his arm taped to his body.) The next year, everything changed for Dickey. He intended to play football as planned, but an athletic director dissuaded him because he wasn’t getting a scholarship in the sport. “Well, what am I supposed to do to stay in shape?” Dickey remembers asking him. As far as Dickey was concerned, cross-country was definitely out. “[I considered] running a punishment,” Dickey says. “I just figured that something similar to wrestling would be gymnastics.”

After he saw a VCR tape of a UCA summer camp, where the guys were stunting with women, Dickey was sold on cheerleading. He joined the squad his senior year of high school and scored both a wrestling and cheer scholarship to Georgia State. Post-college, he worked at Pro Cheer and later opened locations for industry veteran Tate Chalk.

Now Dickey not only owns ACX Cheer Gyms with two locations, but also produces his own cheer music—taking inspiration from his saxophonist father (who played with acts such as Aretha Franklin and The Drifters) and sometimes using his daughter’s voice on tracks. Next up: he’s planning to franchise ACX, a brand he’s worked hard to perfect.

“I don’t want to own any more facilities, per se,” he says. “However, if people want to take the business model that I have, use our name and have weekly meetings via Skype, [I’m willing to] just have my own private kind of gang, so to speak, of ACX gyms. They would own them and do their thing and just pay a monthly fee to run it like we do, and they can reap the benefits. I think that [approach] is a good, safe place to go for me, one that will help secure my future and basically help me enable gyms to stay successful that may have struggled.”

That hard-won reputation in the industry and desire to help other gyms grow is especially important to Dickey for personal reasons. “The reason I’m so passionate about cheerleading is because of everything that it’s given my family,” he says. “I’ve really never had any other job, so…without cheerleading, I wouldn’t be where I am right now, with the family that I have or the home [that we own]. That’s why I’m so passionate about giving back—because of what it’s done for me.”

-Jamie Beckman

Candid Coach: Alisha Dunlap

Candid Coach: Alisha Dunlap

Fresh off Season Two of TLC’s “Cheer Perfection,” Alisha Dunlap’s gym and life have taken the spotlight once again. Find out what challenges and opportunities the exposure has brought this spirited coach and owner of Cheer Time Revolution, and learn what advice she has for other coaches hoping to follow in her footsteps.

“Cheer Perfection” just finished its second season. How has exposure from the show positively and/or negatively impacted Cheer Time Revolution?

Dunlap: At first the “cheer world” was not behind the show, so [my husband] RD and I took a lot of flack over it, but I knew, with time, it would show us as we truly are. For the gym, it has been so positive. It has put our name out there and also shown everyday kids that anyone can learn to cheer.

Since the show premiered, has it changed the way you interact with parents in your gym? Have their expectations shifted at all?

Dunlap: The show hasn’t changed the way I do things at the gym, but it has made me deal with the parents a little differently. I really have too much of an open line of communication with them; this “open door policy” may have given them a bit too much accessibility to me, but I still wouldn’t change this [approach]—as it has made Cheer Time Revolution the family that it is. As for expectations, I am not sure those have changed; our gym parents have always liked to win and want their kids to be the best they can be.

What tips do you have for gym owners who would like to gain more exposure for their gym? 

Dunlap: Just put yourself out there by becoming more involved in your community, city and state functions. I never realized how getting your name out there could draw so many new clients. Our athletes do halftime performances at various collegiate basketball games, and we’ve been very involved in events such as Race for a Cure; we also work hand-in-hand with the City of Little Rock Tourism Bureau as city ambassadors. We believe it’s important to give back to the city and communities that have supported us.

What advice would you give to those who take part in a reality show?

Dunlap: Enjoy it. Have fun with it, but stand your ground and be you. Don’t let anyone tell you who they want you to be. My family and I have been so lucky to have a crew that has let us be “us.”  You can’t let the spotlight get to you. Always remember that when the cameras and fame go away, life goes just right back to how it was before.

What has been the biggest challenge that “Cheer Perfection” has presented in your off-camera life—at the gym or otherwise?

Dunlap: The biggest challenge is trying to please all the fans at competitions. I am there for a reason, and that reason is to get my teams on the floor so they are able to do their best. I have to give my team my attention. It can be really hard to try to do it all! It gets to the kids, too.  When hundreds of kids want their photos and autographs, I have to keep their focus on why they are there as well. But we love everyone that supports us and wish we had the time to see and visit with all of them!

Besides increased exposure and clientele, what opportunities has “Cheer Perfection” presented that you may not have anticipated?

Dunlap: We have had lots of great things come our way.  We are doing lots of traveling to other gyms in other states for consulting, clinics and meet-and-greets. The supporters of Cheer Time Revolution are amazing, so we always embrace opportunities to meet them. We are also looking forward to our European tour and summer camps in 2014. Seeing other gyms and how they do things is a ton of fun; we love learning as much as we love teaching.

Are there any themes that “Cheer Perfection” has not yet addressed that you’d like to see highlighted in a future show?

Dunlap: I would really like “Cheer Perfection” to show more teams and how children of all ages and skill levels do it.

What are your short and long-term goals for the gym? How does “Cheer Perfection” fit into those plans?

Dunlap: The short-term goal is to have a great season at CTR and have our teams do their very best and learn a lot this year.  The long-term goal is that I want CTR to be the place to be; I want to teach athletes to be their best. “Cheer Perfection” will always have a place at CTR—the experience has been so much fun for these kids and families.

-Sara Schapmann

Meet the first 10 Americheer/Ameridance/CheerProfessional Coach of the Year Finalists!

Meet the first 10 Americheer/Ameridance/CheerProfessional Coach of the Year Finalists!

What is a coach? Is a coach a leader, teacher, mentor or friend? If you ask the individuals who nominated their coaches, they’d say a coach is all of these traits and more. AmeriCheer and AmeriDance are partnering with CheerProfessional to award the Coach of the Year award at the AmeriCheer & AmeriDance InterNational Championship, held at Walt Disney World Resort®, on March 22-23, 2014.

“To celebrate 20 wonderful years of memories and magic at Disney, we wanted to do something special to commemorate this landmark event. We chose to honor 20 coaches, nominated by their peers, athletes, friends and family, with VIP treatment at our InterNational Championship,” said Elizabeth Rossetti, AmeriCheer & AmeriDance President and Founder.

At InterNationals, the 20 finalists will enjoy a luxurious limo ride to a private reception within the InterNational Victory Party at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There, they will gain access to the exclusive VIP Coaches Club tent and will receive custom jackets, a champagne toast and a bag full of goodies. One of the 20 finalists will be awarded Coach of the Year at the awards ceremony, held on March 23rd, and will be featured in an issue of CheerProfessional. The winner will also receive a custom Coach of the Year jacket, designer tote and invited back to InterNationals as a VIP guest in 2015.

“Each year we are proud to announce the Coach of the Year winner at our awards ceremony because at AmeriCheer & AmeriDance, we know how important coaches are to their teams,” explained Missy Richard, AmeriCheer & AmeriDance Brand Manager and National Event Coordinator. “Many of us have been coaches and we know how much time, effort and dedication it takes to be a coach; we want to celebrate the efforts these coaches haven given to their teams.”

10 of the 20 finalists have been selected, but 10 spots still remain. Do you know a coach who deserves to be on this list?  Download a nomination form by visiting AmeriCheer.com or AmeriDanceInc.com and submit it by March 1, 2014. In order for coaches to win, they and their team(s) must compete at the 2014 InterNational Championship. Register by calling 1-800-966-JUMP or download a registration form at any AmeriCheer family of brands websites. Show your coach how much they mean to you by nominating them for Coach of the Year.

10 of the 20 Finalists:

1. Cookie Jamison McGowan

School/Gym: Maximum Cheer All Stars

City/State: East Greenville, PA

Years Coaching: 25 years in Pop Warner, High School, College, and All Star

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Cookie made our first trip to America and attending the AmeriCheer InterNationals unforgettable with her constant support of the our team, the BCA Allstars.”

2. Amy Faulkner

School/Gym: North Star Studio

City/State: Sunbury, OH

Years Coaching: 20 years

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Amy’s leadership for all of her teams not only exemplifies her dedication to the sport and spirit of cheerleading, but also to the molding and shaping of young people into productive good citizens.”

 3. Kelli Marin

School/Gym: Spirit Enhancers

City/State: Portsmouth, VA

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Kelli’s vision and dedication have allowed her to transform inexperience young squads into confident, award-winning teams.”

4. Erica Brunow

School/Gym: Findlay High School Dance Team

City/State: Findlay, OH

Years Coaching: 10 years coaching Findlay High School Dance Team

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Erica demonstrates amazing coaching through her devotion to our team, her encouragement during our competitions and her ability to push our team to be our best not only in dance, but in our everyday lives.”

5. Brandy Horn

School/Gym: Pazazz All Star Cheer

City/State: Marion, IN

Years Coaching: 6 years

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Brandy is fair and impartial; she always does what’s best for the entire squad. She teaches them to respect one another and is a positive role model.”

6. Shannon Callen

School/Gym: Kalaheo High School Cheerleading

City/State: Kailua, HI

Years Coaching: 13 years

Quote From Nomination Submission: “From practices turning into late-night tutoring sessions, Shannon is our teacher, our strength, our confidant, and she never stops believing in our abilities, pushing us to achieve goals beyond our own expectations.”

7. Tammy Strouse

School/Gym: Rangeview High School Dance Team

City/State: Aurora, CO

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Tammy is an extraordinary coach; she always puts her team first and encourages them to be their best.”

8. Elsa Gomez

School/Gym: Notre Dame High School

City/State: Lawrenceville, NJ

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Elsa strives to make her team the best at every practice and every event.”

9. Jennifer Pulizzano

School/Gym: Wayne Valley High School

City/State: Wayne, NJ

Years Coaching:

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Jennifer is a great coach.  Her team knows how much time and dedication she gives to them and they work hard to make her proud.”

10. Julie Hallam

School/Gym: Titanium Athletics

City/State: New Freedom, PA

Quote From Nomination Submission: “Through thick and thin, good and bad, injuries, tears, excitement. . . Julie always has a positive attitude and is always there for her Bionic cheerleaders.”

Game Changers: Midwest Cheer Elite

Game Changers: Midwest Cheer Elite

You may know Tanya Roesel as the determined entrepreneur behind the Midwest Cheer Elite empire, but long before her all-star cheer days, she first made a name for herself as a deejay—spinning at Cincinnati nightclubs and eventually opening for major acts like Prince back in the 80s. The road to notability, however, wasn’t exactly smooth: as the only female DJ in town, she was often told she couldn’t succeed because she was a woman. “I love when people tell me I can’t do something because it just makes me want to do it more,” she says.

Roesel took the adversity and spun it into a specialized personal business, finding out what her clients were trying to sell and nailing the kind of demographic they wanted to bring in at large parties. “I loved the challenge of ‘How big can we make this event?’” she says.

Roesel came away from those early gigs with a finely tuned business sense and insider knowledge of the effect music has on human psychology. After spending three years commanding the turntables, she went on to coach high school color guard and rifle teams; in 2000, she was coaxed into coaching her first competitive cheerleading squad—despite never having cheered a day in her life.

Flash forward 14 years, and her gym Midwest Cheer Elite has nearly 500 all-stars, three gyms in Ohio and a brand-new location in Fort Myers, Florida, which went from zero to 300 athletes in four months. Back in Ohio, she is planning to build a bigger gym in Westchester (which has outgrown its original facility) and open three more gyms: a fourth in Ohio, and two more outside the state.

Roesel attributes the rapid growth of Midwest Cheer Elite to an empowered staff that helps each other, attends weekly meetings and is required to know the name of every single child in the gym within 30 days. She strongly believes that personal touch translates to repeat business. “I know my customers, treat them right and, because of that, all I hear is, ‘It’s different, it’s like a family,’” she says.

That said, marketing is also a key part of Roesel’s success strategy. To make Midwest Cheer Elite a household name, she blankets her towns with fliers, posting them everywhere from Kroger’s supermarkets to malls or handing them out the old-fashioned way. One of her tongue-in-cheek mottos: “If it breathes and walks, it gets a flier.”

At the new Florida location, the marketing strategy went beyond paper. The staff built a “haunted” maze out of hay in the gym as part of a fall festival, which created excitement among both the parents and the kids. “When people take a Friday night off and they want to be at the gym, then you know it’s a good thing,” Roesel says.

Roesel’s expertise has become so coveted that she has forged a new career as a consultant, traveling to gyms across the continent to help them course-correct if they’re having difficulty staying in the black. Recently, she met with Panther Cheer Athletics in Canada, where she troubleshot their problems with both their facility and their niche—encouraging them to move into a smaller space that felt more intimate compared to their current tiny slice of a giant stadium and to adopt hip-hop, which no other gym in the area was offering.

Though the advice Roesel doles out to her clients is highly tailored, she has encountered a few common mistakes that many gym owners make. Her top tips on how to avoid them:

Offer plenty of options for parents. Midwest Cheer Elite offers everything from $1 tumbling for an hour on Thursday nights to $175 summer season passes to pricy full-travel packages. If a parent questions how expensive a product is, Roesel offers them a half-season or a single class to bring in customers on all ends of the spectrum. According to Roesel, this approach mitigates unpaid bills and brings in referrals.

Think with your head, not your heart. Don’t let parents avoid paying their bills, Roesel advises. One ways she keeps payments coming in is averaging the services for the entire year and sending monthly bills for the same amount. “You’ve got to keep it simple for the parents, and [your services] have to be budget-able,” she says.

Empower your employees to speak up. Make your office a safe space for staff to feel comfortable talking to you about what’s working and what’s not working in your area. Bottom line: hearing their candid feedback and ideas will increase business and profits.

Embrace competition. If another gym opens up on your turf, look at it as an opportunity rather than a stressor. “I love competition. I love other gyms opening up, because it makes me stop and reevaluate my product,” Roesel says. “What are they doing that we’re not doing?”

Choose music the judges will love. Millennials may dig Miley Cyrus, but nostalgia could work in your favor with 30-something judges, Roesel says. One of her senior co-ed squads recently used “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” by the S.O.S. Band, a tune that topped the charts in 1980. “I always tell my coaches, ‘Get in the heads of your judges,’” she says.

For cheer professionals looking to carve their own niche in the industry, Roesel’s advice is straightforward: “Find out the need and how you can sell that need.” That’s exactly what Roesel herself did, first in her DJ days and now as an all-star cheer expert. “Before I was doing the consulting, I saw that people didn’t know how to run their business,” she shares. “They got into it for the right reasons, but at the end of the day, gyms were shutting down because no one knew how to be a business person.”

Her other guiding motto? When you’ve come up with that big idea, act on it—fast. Otherwise, it’ll become stale and you’ll be seen as a follower, not a leader. “Sometimes you just have to take the risk and execute it as fast as you can, and then figure out what to fix,” she says. And if Roesel’s success is any indication, being a risk-taker pays off in spades.

Spotlight: Kyle Wright of ACX

Spotlight: Kyle Wright of ACX

Randy Dickey of Columbia, SC-based ACX Cheer thought so highly of Kyle Wright that after his stint cheering for ACX, Dickey asked Wright to run his gym in Charleston. “Athlete, coach, gym manager, Kyle does it all,” says Dickey of Wright’s work today.

Like many other cheer professionals, Wright was initially a gymnast. When asked to cheer in high school, he was hesitant at first but finally gave in because, “I figured there would be girls there.” Once Wright began training at ACX, he got hooked. He had always been interested in coaching even while competing and started bugging Dickey to let him give it a try. To gain experience, Wright started teaching tumbling classes at summer camps and eventually landed a coaching position at the gym, going full-time after graduating from college.

Wright says he learned much of his coaching techniques from watching his own teachers—having insight into team dynamics is what he sees as one of his greatest strengths. Having been in his athletes’ shoes, Wright knows that resolving team issues is a large part of a coach’s job description. As such, he relies heavily on team-building exercises and uses them to help make the program more successful. ACX Charleston is a relatively new gym, and Wright’s goal is to have their first team ready for Worlds in 2015. However, day-to-day goals are just as important: “At the end of the day, I want my customers to feel good about themselves. And sometimes that may mean that even though they couldn’t get a certain skill that day that they go home with a goal for tomorrow and feel positive.”

Spotlight: Megan Carmean of Elite Cheer

Spotlight: Megan Carmean of Elite Cheer

This December, we’re running a series of spotlights on athletes-turned-cheer professionals. Meet Megan Carmean of Elite Cheer!

26-year-old Megan Carmean, aka “Carmeano,” considers herself an “in-betweener” because she was able to experience the evolution of the all-star world from the time she first began her cheer career at age 10 at Omaha, NE-based Elite Cheer to now. While competing as an athlete, Carmean also played the role of assistant coach in many of the national championships the team won. Since 2006, Carmean has been Elite Cheer’s Head Coach, Safety Coordinator and Youth Program Director (all while holding down a full-time job as a nurse).

“Having the experience of previously being an all-star cheerleader helps significantly in my day-to-day coaching,” says Carmean. “I feel it helps me relate to the current athletes in a unique manner. I understand the parts of practice they dread and the parts they love.”

Carmean uses her own experience to explain why the “boring” stuff is just as necessary as the “fun” parts of practice. She can also relate to the kids when it comes to time management: “I missed many school activities and birthday parties for practices and competitions, but when I can explain to the girls that it was worth it, it helps them cope.”

As a veteran who still remembers competing on a college cheer blue floor instead of the standard spring floor of today, Carmean looks forward to the day that the athleticism of all-star cheerleading is fully recognized as a sport and receives the respect it deserves.

-Vicky Choy

Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

This December, we’re running a series of spotlights on athletes-turned-cheer professionals. Meet Ambrel Mitchell of Cheer Athletics!

Most people don’t equate cheerleading with computer science, but global systems engineer and former all-star athlete Ambrel Mitchell Brannon has successfully been able to juggle all the above. Currently a coach at the famed Cheer Athletics gym in Dallas, Brannon completed a Masters degree in computer science at Southern Methodist University while coaching several teams and competing on an open coed team. Now retired, she works her day job as an engineer and spends her nights and weekends coaching at Cheer Athletics. (It’s a good thing that Brannon’s husband also coaches at the gym—otherwise, they might never see each other!)

“You choose what you spend your time on,” says Brannon. “To me, coaching isn’t a job, it’s a passion, so I love being at the gym.”

Brannon credits her time management skills to her background as a competitive cheerleader. She started gymnastics at the age of six and, after moving into cheerleading, has never looked back. Brannon also has the distinction of being the only athlete that has competed at all 10 Worlds championships (when she started, cross-competing was still allowed). Having medaled every year she competed, Brannon cites one of her best memories as winning two gold medals at Worlds when she was 18. “I had to skip prom but it was worth it,” she shares.

These are the kinds of experiences Brannon now shares with her CA athletes. Since she can relate to most of the feelings the kids have, she knows how to advise them—consoling them when they feel defeat and teaching them what true winning can be. “Defeat is always a learning moment and every athlete should experience it to really appreciate success. I tell my students to not focus on winning but to aim for hitting routines you can be proud of. To me, that’s true winning.”

-Vicky Choy

GTM Spotlight: Scott “Crasher” Braasch

GTM Spotlight: Scott “Crasher” Braasch

Scott “Crasher” Braasch’s nickname is hard to ignore—especially in cheerleading, a sport that tends to frown on crashes of any kind. Braasch is quick to mention that the nickname doesn’t reflect how he drives or stunts, but the Cheer Tyme titan still remembers the moment he got the moniker, when his wild-eyed, excitable high school football coach congratulated him after a game-winning play.

“He grabbed me by the face mask and said, ‘You’re the Crasher, Braascher! You crashed ’em!’” Braasch recalls.

The nickname started off as a joke, but “Crasher” as a concept has informed the way Braasch coaches—by viewing his back spots, bases and flyers as individual athletes with unique skills, just as a football team would its quarterbacks, running backs or offensive linemen. That also means requiring his athletes to train with drills, conditioning exercises and sport psychology.

“I’ve always had sort of a very authoritative way of coaching, and it’s been something that my athletes responded to,” he says. “I got into cheerleading in its very early stage, when cheerleading was trying to fight for its sport identity, [and] it really was a blessing for people to see somebody like myself who approached it truly like it was a sport.”

A series of career-ending injuries cut his football career at the California University of Pennsylvania short, but a former football buddy of his (the first male cheerleader at the school) and Braasch’s girlfriend (also a cheerleader) encouraged him to come to the games and, later, join in on stunting. The prospect of being surrounded by females—and tossing them in the air with the ease of flipping a coin—certainly helped convince him.

“I remember the first time I did a walk-up chair and thinking that was the coolest thing ever in the world: ‘I can’t believe I just picked this girl up and held her up,’” he says. “It was probably a year later that I was going full-up awesomes and rewinds.”

He was instantly hooked on the sport. He watched TV competitions and VHS tapes of top squads to study up on new stunts and gain inspiration for creating his own. Now, in the YouTube age where VCRs aren’t necessary, he owns three Cheer Tyme locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. He even invented the Full Up Machine, a four-inch-tall rotating contraption that looks like the cushy top of a barstool, to help flyers learn and stick their full ups, half ups and double ups. Braasch says the machine enables mobile repetition, which is key to nailing stunts safely—but without beating up back spots and bases, a nearly unavoidable casualty of the learning process.

Braasch says the response to the Full Up Machine was very positive, but the machine is no longer being manufactured by Core Athletix, the company that helped develop it. He hopes to see it rise again in the future, he says, but until then he has several other top-secret inventions in his back pocket.

Safety in the industry has long been one of Braasch’s top priorities. He says he wants to emphasize simple cheerleading basics like “step, lock, tighten” and “perfection before progression” to increase safety in stunting, which has become more complicated—and, thus, potentially more dangerous—in recent years. Next up for Braasch is his newly won national at-large seat for NACCC, where his top goals are to 1) unite cheer coaches, 2) increase communication among gyms of all sizes and locations and 3) make it easier for parents of potential cheerleaders to see that the sport is a safe one.

“We have to be more and more safety-conscious. When we put pro athletes in jeopardy, then we put our sport in jeopardy,” he says. “Those things can’t happen if we want to have longevity as a legitimate sport and a respectable sport. Otherwise we’ll create things so crazy that they’ll look at us like the early days of the UFC, which was just unsafe, and was frowned upon. It’s already tough in the media as it is.”

In fact, with his new position, you could say that he’ll be the Crasher all over again.

“I don’t think that will ever go away,” he says. “For whatever reason, it has stuck, and I guess it was meant to stick. It’s who I am.”

Two Sides: Universal Scoresheet

Two Sides: Universal Scoresheet

The buzz around adopting a universal scoresheet has reached an all-time high—will one finally be adopted next year? CheerProfessional explores the pros and cons of going forward with this initiative. 

One of the hottest topics at this year’s NACCC conference in Doral? The idea of a universal scoresheet. Cheer professionals Kristen Rosario and John Metz are among the industry’s outspoken advocates for this development, and the 22 member companies of IEP announced their collective endorsement of having a universal scoresheet back in 2010. However, respondents to a CheerProfessional survey in June were evenly split, with half for and half against (and one stipulating that she would support a universal rubric rather than scoresheet).

Many believe a universal scoresheet will help introduce more consistency among competitions, improve consistency and eliminate headaches for event producers. However, others think that a universal scoresheet will create less event choices/competitive advantages for cheer programs and make choreography more homogenous.

So who’s right? To dig deeper into what’s behind the universal scoresheet debate, we talked with Shea Crawford of Brandon All-Stars and Mikey Hobson of Top Notch All-Stars to get their take on this hot-button issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

Shea Crawford, Tumbling Director & Coach at Brandon All-Stars

Shea’s take on the universal scoresheet: This is something that’s been discussed for at least five years, and the time has finally arrived to make it happen. I first realized the need for a universal scoresheet several years ago when we got the lowest score the first day at a Cheersport competition, then made a very minor change to the routine and got the highest score on day two. We also finished first at a different event two weeks later with the same routine.

So many teams throw amazing routines, but when you have no idea how it will be rewarded, it’s very frustrating. My job should be to read one scoresheet, not five of them. I feel like it’s asking a lot of kids to work on these skills and train and synchronize—something as simple as changing one count is difficult for a lot of these kids. I just want to be able to prepare the same routine for wherever we go—if it was up to me, it’d be the same routine day 1 through day 365.

On how it will affect judging: I think the universal scoresheet will push for [the formation of] a judges’ association. A universal scoresheet will force judges to be better, and when that happens, it will produce more consistency. The importance of deductions will increase and it will serve to clean up routines. It will also allow event producers to focus on the event a lot more and have a lot less scoring discrepancies.  Everywhere you go, you’ll be accountable for the same stuff.

On how it would impact choreography:  One of the biggest arguments against a universal scoresheet is that people don’t want to see cookie-cutter routines. My argument against that is that every single team who goes to any one competition is competing on the same scoresheet [that day]. There are 900 teams that go to Dallas [for NCA], and I have yet to see one cookie-cutter routine there. For me, that nullifies that argument.

On how it will produce more consistency: Gone are the days where you can go to a competition and really predict who won. I have been to so many competitions that I watch as a knowledgeable coach—but when I think I’ve pinpointed first through fourth place I’ve never been more wrong in my life. Right now, our industry sorely lacks consistency, and a universal scoresheet will provide that.

On how it will affect event producers: My opinion is that not having a universal scoresheet works against the event producers. There are a lot more Varsity events than other brands, and I personally would rather go on a similar scoresheet more often than not. It hurts [other EPs] more than it helps by having a different scoresheet.

What’s every EP’s biggest headache? Judging and scores. 99 percent of the problem at any competition stems from judging—wouldn’t they rather concentrate on maintaining the schedule and setting up warm-ups? I don’t understand why event producers don’t embrace it so that all they have to do is worry about hosting the event.

A universal scoresheet wouldn’t be that hard to implement—when I look at Jam Brands and Varsity, the scoresheets are different, but not so different that it’s game-changing. With a universal scoresheet, coaches will no longer say things like, ‘Last week, when I was at another competition, it was legal,’ or ‘I’m going to go to Jam Brands because I can score well there.’”

The bottom line: I think a universal scoresheet will help the industry and that is what is important to me. It doesn’t matter so much which scoresheet it is—good coaches will adapt. The industry needs something; I know entire programs that have folded because they lost competitions they shouldn’t have and the gym down the street beat them. A universal scoresheet will help grow the industry through more consistency and a way for coaches to train better.

Kyle Gadke, Owner/Choreographer at Spirit FX and Coach at Platinum Athletics

Kyle’s take on the universal scoresheet: I come at this topic from both a choreographer and coach perspective, and as I see it, the biggest negative against a universal scoresheet would be the elimination of options for playing different scoresheets.

When working with various gyms as a choreographer, we talk at length about ways to hit the scoresheet. Based on my experience, I feel personally that more people are against a universal scoresheet than for it. I believe that it has become a hot topic because more people are doing research on ways to hit the scoresheets and understand the difference between rubrics.

On how it would affect small gyms: My question is: what’s the ratio of small gym owners that want a universal scoresheet versus medium or large gyms? Most smaller gyms want and need more options, so I’m curious if that plays a role in the discussion. It’s no secret that the Midwest isn’t a game-changer yet—we’re holding our own, but we’re not North Carolina or Texas or Kentucky. We’re always trying to stay ahead, and we like to have choices.

Also, on a broader level, it could take people a long time to get used to a new universal scoresheet, and teams may not win as much—which could directly affect new people coming to our gyms.

On why consistency across the board isn’t necessarily a good thing: We’ve gone back and forth between Varsity and JAMfest—our gym is very stunt-oriented, and we don’t typically score as well at Varsity as we do with JAM Brands. Having various scoresheets gives you options if your style doesn’t hit [at one specific event producer]. Competition wins help you be recognized in your area—having options where we feel confident that we’ll score well helps our success in the long run.

On how it will affect judging:  I can actually see how a universal scoresheet could have a pretty positive impact from the judges’ standpoint. It would make everyone more knowledgeable and efficient knowing one scoresheet instead of five.

On how it would impact choreography: I feel like choreography has already become somewhat cookie-cutter. As for how a universal scoresheet would further that issue, it depends. If it does happen, I would like to see it mirror the Worlds scoresheet approach, where there isn’t really a rubric and they’re just judging the routine you put out on the floor. There aren’t all of these numbers to hit—it’s more about the performance element.

On how it will affect event producers:  From a coaching standpoint, I love the option of picking what style suits us best. Each event producer also has their own niche they like to go for: for example, JAM Brands is fun and game-oriented, while Varsity is more competitive and awards-oriented. It also translates to each EP’s focus: the JAM scoresheet is more about counting skills while Varsity awards creativity. If you take our options away and put everyone on the same scoresheet, you might have more people going to competitions they don’t enjoy. The more options in the market, the better.

The bottom line: If this is going to move forward, then we need more clarity on what exactly the universal scoresheet will be. Will people still be able to add more style? Have choices from an event producer standpoint? All the talk is great, but what specifically will it be? There needs to be more specifics before we can form opinions and move the conversation forward.


Using the Force: Vancouver All-Stars

Using the Force: Vancouver All-Stars

Liz Gigante Ulrich awakes every day with a mission in mind. As the owner of G Force Gym, home to the Vancouver All Stars, she walks the talk she preaches to her athletes and coaches about the importance of a purpose-driven life.

Based in British Columbia’s Port Coquitiam, the gym’s cheer program consists of 20 teams Levels 1 through 5 made up of 400 athletes in uniform, with an additional 150 on half-year prep teams or taking classes. All the teams fall under the guise of Gigante Ulrich and more than 20 credentialed and certified coaches. The program’s IO5 Ice Queens, coached by Gigante Ulrich, took home the silver in April in the international open category at this year’s Worlds competition.

The elite crew’s complicated walk-in paper dolls, Shushanova-inspired basket tosses with half-twists and full-around pyramid—combined with eye-catching sass—helped the Ice Queens drive home the message that Canada is a force to be reckoned with on the international cheer scene. Their style, a reflection of Gigante Ulrich herself, is trending, too. The trademark Ice Queen Stomp has been sighted stateside in routines, and some teams have taken their style cue, sporting tiaras à la the royal crew.

Such achievements aren’t what Gigante Ulrich envisioned as a high school cheerleader, or while cheering at university, taking six classes and working three jobs. Goal-setting helped her earn her bachelor’s in kinesiology and a master’s in education, opening the door for her teaching career starting in 1995. That gig offered the chance to create a cheer program at Port Moody Secondary School.

Not long after starting the school’s cheer squad, Gigante Ulrich coached an all-star team through a camp with students from surrounding high schools. That experience motivated her to open G Force Gym. The 8,340-sq. ft., state-of-the-art training facility opened in 1999, becoming the first cheer gym in Western Canada and the first in Canada to offer two full-sized mats.

Gigante Ulrich still strives for more. She is in the process of relocating G Force Gym to a much larger location with a $3 million price tag. To help make that happen, she joined the Entrepreneur Organization in Canada in 2011 to become more business-savvy by learning from successful business owners from industries outside the cheer world. “I was able to learn a lot more from looking at them than by looking at other all-star gyms,” she shares. “Looking at CEOs and owners of successful businesses, you notice that they all have very similar characteristics and traits about them and the way they deal with issues. That inspires me.”

The organization taught her the importance of investing in her staff and crunching numbers. “I figured out which numbers mean something in my industry to make sure that I am on target,” says Gigante Ulrich. To work toward the expansion, she runs a tighter ship and built a more comprehensive pro shop. She also tweaked G Force’s core values and mission statement, while shifting her own focus: “I am now focusing more on big picture while empowering staff in managerial and choreographer/head coach roles.”

To stay in the mindset, Gigante Ulrich begins her day researching motivational quotes to stay aligned. The gym’s walls and social media outlets are covered with the sayings lest someone forgets to wake up feeling excited to be alive. But at G Force Gym, that rarely happens.

“I get feedback from parents about how much the kids love it, how they breathe it and it is their passion,” Gigante Ulrich says. Families report increased confidence, optimism and ambition in their cheerleaders. “When I hear those things, I feel like I am living what I am meant to do, like that’s my legacy.”

The staff helps members strategize their goals by setting short-term and long-term goals. They also make sure to celebrate the milestones so they feel a sense of accomplishment. “Dream big, don’t give up and go for it,” Gigante Ulrich says, repeating one of her mantras. “We can achieve goals if we set out on a path and stick to the plan.”

-Arrissia Owen

GTM Sportswear Spotlight: Top Gun

GTM Sportswear Spotlight: Top Gun

As love stories go, gym owners and power couple Kristen and Victor Rosario have one that’s straight out of a Nicholas Sparks movie. (No wonder they’ve been referred to as the “Brangelina” of the cheer world.) A simple ride home from high school was the catalyst for their relationship—and, a few years later, ended up being the foundation of Miami-based gym Top Gun All-Stars, well-known for its reputation as an industry innovator.

The plot at a glance: Kristen was a 10th grade ballet dancer and Victor a senior cheerleader when they first struck up a friendship. She would often watch after-school cheer practices while waiting for a ride home from her friend (who was also a cheerleader). Normally quiet and reserved, Victor found himself chatting easily with Kristen about gymnastics and cheer. He still gets a little gushy about those early days. “It’s easy to open up and talk to her when she looks like she does,” says Victor.

When Victor later floated the idea of starting an all-star cheerleading program, Kristen hopped on board, melding her knack for organization and book balancing with his cheer experience. They began slowly, with one team that practiced in a park, and built that into what is now Top Gun—a nationally respected gym known for creativity, flow, and trend-setting routines. But the path to prominence hasn’t been a total cakewalk: Victor says accepting the gym’s strengths and weaknesses and viewing itself as something of an underdog has been key to its success.

“We’ve never been a super-powerhouse gym with 700-plus kids and a 30,000 sq.-ft. facility and 40 staff members,” he says. “We came from humble beginnings, and we’re still considered a smaller-scale gym. Our talent is great, but it’s not the most amazing out there, so we’ve had to learn how to be creative and find the things we’re good at.”

That spirit of scrappiness and innovation has led to the gym pioneering stunts that are now prerequisites at high levels of competition (like the pike open basket)—and taking chances on out-of-the-ordinary, memorable routines that often tell a story. After one of their squad members, Omar Moreno, died in a car accident last year, the gym dedicated their 2012 Worlds routine to Omar and other “Fallen Jags,” complete with uniforms studded with angel wings and carefully chosen music ranging from Swedish House Mafia to Bette Midler.

According to Victor, the tragedy ended up making the team stronger than ever. “A lot of our athletes were close with Omar personally. It just kind of inspired them and made them realize that life is really short, and we’ve got to…live every day like it was our last and try to make the most of it,” Victor says. “We just kept them on track and said, ‘We’re going to put the best routine on the floor, and we’re not going to go out there with our fingers crossed that they’re going to hit. We’re going to capitalize on our creativity.’”

Another pioneering move is Kristen’s push for a universal scoresheet, which has been a hot topic amongst widespread complaints about competition results. To further the cause, Kristen led a discussion recently about the topic at the NACCC coaches’ conference.

“It’s hard for the average parent to be able to even look at our sport legitimately, because today, 9.0 was the best routine out there on the floor, and tomorrow, [you get] a 365, you just lost, and you’re in second place,” Kristen says. “They don’t seem to understand it, and our thing was, ‘How do we make it better?’ When we started looking at it, we realized that most of the scoresheets all say the same thing. They’re all judging the same thing, but with a different point scale or rubric.”

She’s hoping that the new scoresheet she’s helped propose will be set into motion by the end of this year.

Kristen and Victor credit their mutual love for cheer and that hard-won thing known as balance—his strong but silent demeanor balancing out her talkative pragmatism—with the success of the gym and their own marriage. Sometimes the two intertwine: Kristen cites one example of traveling to Spain on cheer business when a person she was working with stiffed her $5,000. She still remembers what Victor said to calm her when she called in tears: “Baby, it’s okay; these things happen. I will pick up another camp; I will do what I have to do. I just don’t want to hear you cry.”

The pair has two daughters now, ages 10 and 12. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn they love cheerleading as much as their parents do.

-Jamie Beckman

Secondhand News: Buying Used Equipment

Secondhand News: Buying Used Equipment

As a new gym owner, it can be a challenge to make ends meet with a small budget. One surefire way to save cash when just starting out is to buy used equipment. Be warned, though: this route can be fraught with thorns, and it’s important to keep several caveats in mind during purchase. When in the market for used equipment, consider these need-to-know tips from top equipment experts:

Do your homework. Be curious. Know what you want—and then ask intelligent questions. Stacy Finnerty, vice-president of Tumbl Trak, a Michigan-based provider of cheerleading, dance and gymnastics equipment, has a list of some helpful basic questions to ask the original manufacturer: What was the original retail price of the item? Were there any product recalls of this particular item? What value would the manufacturer place on the used item? What is the life expectancy of the item? Is the manufacturer able or willing to look up the original bill of sale to confirm the age of the item? Contacting the original manufacturer may seem like extra work, but it can go a long way in helping you determine whether a piece fits your needs or not. 

Network like mad. You can visit a dozen equipment stores or spend hours digging out deals on Ebay, but nothing works like networking when trying to get good deals on used equipment. When Josh Kennedy, owner at Horseheads, NY-based Intensity Cheer Elite, was looking for a used tumble track and a portable mat, he posted profusely on social media about his requirements. He conveyed his requirements to other gym owner friends and even personal friends. Through networking, he stumbled upon a golden lead—a woman who was shutting her business down and looking to sell items quickly. Kennedy got a tumble track and a mat at throwaway prices.

Consider age and depreciation. A question you’ll be asking a lot when in the market for equipment: “How old is this piece?” Yet old is not always bad. “The number of years someone has owned a piece of equipment is not necessarily a factor,” says Matthew Miller of Gateway Sports Source, a St. Louis-based supplier of cheer and gymnastics equipment. “If it is a small club, an item could still be in great shape after eight years. But, if it is a big gym with lots of athletes using that item every day, it could be ready for the dumpster.”

Moreover, some items like balance beams can be robust enough for use even after 25 years, says Ross Athletic Supply owner Ross Morreale—but he adds that you wouldn’t want to buy a mat that’s been used that long.

Seek credible sources. Though there’s nothing like personally checking a piece of equipment out, most gym owners don’t have the time to actually visit a supplier. Your best bet is to ensure that you’re buying from a credible source. “The longer someone has been in business, the easier it should be for you to trust them,” says Morreale. “Ask people in your gym and other gyms for references; that’s one of the best ways to find credible vendors.”

Carefully vet any online purchases. Sites like Ebay and Craigslist can sometimes yield great deals, but exert caution right from the word “go” when dealing with online vendors. “We’ve heard horror stories from customers who purchased stuff off eBay only to find three out of four parts of a piece not working,” says Finnerty. He adds it’s usually okay to buy mats and other foam products from these sites as long as you’ve seen pictures and are aware of the item’s condition.

Morreale says once someone on a site sells you something, you’re probably not going to hear from them again. “You don’t know the person you’re dealing with on the other end, so it’s always a bit risky,” he says. If and when you do buy online, consider using PayPal, as they offer buyer protections such as a dispute resolution center where you can request a refund for items that don’t match the description.

Capitalize on event attendance. Cheerleading events can be a great avenue for scoping cheap equipment for your gym. “Generally, such pieces—called demo pieces—have been used once or twice and are as good as new,” says Morreale. While demo pieces are more expensive than your standard used equipment, you can get anywhere from six to 15 percent off, and they typically have a longer shelf life.

Check our blog tomorrow for tips on how to inspect prospective purchases before you buy!

-Dinsa Sachan

Candid Coach: Samiha Alexander of Georgia Heat

Candid Coach: Samiha Alexander of Georgia Heat

Ever since the Georgia Heat opened its doors six years ago, Samiha Alexander has been at its nucleus—coaching winning teams in almost every level. As one of this year’s USASF Coach of the Year nominees, she knows the importance of coaching safely in tandem with grooming top-notch teams. We asked Samiha to share her hard-earned insights on safety and success:

How has your USASF Coach of the Year nomination impacted your career?

Alexander: I think [I was nominated because] I love my kids and I set high expectations for them. I believe that they’re athletes, and I train them that way. I was very humbled by the experience and the fact that someone thought enough of me to nominate me. Now I want to make those people that believed in me proud and continue to build our gym and build those athletes to be the very best they can be.

Have you ever experienced an athlete injury or safety issue that taught you the importance of safety?

Alexander: Absolutely. Last year we had some concussions, so we had to retrain our athletes and rethink what we needed to do to keep that from happening. We worked with the bases to teach them how to cradle and catch correctly, and the flyers on various ways to fall more safely. It was important that they learn to fall tightly with their arms by their sides—the natural reaction is to put your arms out to brace the fall, but that can make a base take an elbow to the temple.

We also had a girl break her femur, and her doctor said that there was a previous injury in her case. [In light of that], we try to teach our kids that if there’s an injury, we need to know about it. We also try to explain that after injury, athletes won’t be able to walk back into the gym and be where they were three months ago. We remind them that they will get back to where they were, but we have to do it slowly.

I also talk to my girls about getting too comfortable in their skills, or not always being as focused as they need to be. Something really careless can happen and it causes an issue. When you lose focus, that’s when an injury occurs. This was not happening with new skills, but instead skills they’d already done and mastered. The coaching staff had to come together and discuss we needed to do to help the kids stay safe.

What are some of the biggest safety issues in the industry, and do you have any suggestions for solutions?

Alexander: One of the worst is athletes doing skills they’re not ready for. I think athletes need to master certain things before they’re allowed to do them, especially in competition. I believe that the industry is moving in the right direction as far as getting coaches and athletes to go through training. I also think coaches have to be honest with themselves, as well as with the athletes and their parents. We need to tell them that we’re going to put them where it’s safe and where they will become stronger athletes.

Tell us three things you wish other coaches would do more.

Alexander: I would like to see more coaches teach their kids the importance of sportsmanship. It bothers me when it comes down to the last two [teams], and when second place is called, first place is jumping up and down and screaming. I think it’s rude. Another thing I would like to see coaches stop doing is down-talking other teams. Coaches are role models for the kids they coach and shouldn’t demean other professionals. Also, coaches should teach a clean routine. Usually a clean routine means the kids can do the skills safely, not just to get points.

-Mandi Hefflinger

Judges Speak Out: Survey Results

Judges Speak Out: Survey Results

In July, the findings of the United States Cheer Officials Survey were released.  Get a snapshot of the judges’ responses in this recap, or click here to download a PDF of the entire survey.

Just the Facts

  • The current number of judges estimated to be working in the all-star cheer industry is 250; 106 participated in this survey.
  • 36% of respondents have judged 6-10 years, while 29% of respondents have judged 11-15 years.
  • The companies most strongly represented in the survey include Varsity All-Star (70% of respondents), Jam Brands (62%) and Spirit Sports (45%).
  • Not all respondents answered every question, and participants were guaranteed anonymity.


Conditions & Compensation for Judges

Hours worked: 73% of respondents work a 8- to 12-hour day, while 26% responded that they work more than 12 hours at an event.

Lunch breaks: The majority of respondents (55%) said they receive between 20-40 minutes for a lunch break, while 29% of respondents said they receive less than 20 minutes.

Compensation: 54% of respondents receive between $100-$199 for a one-day competition, and 42% said they receive $300-$399 for a two-day competition.

Reimbursement: When asked about reimbursement, 72% answered negatively about travel time; 51% answered negatively about baggage fees; and 44% answered negatively about dining expenses.

Number of Judges: Only 6% of respondents felt that competition companies hire the appropriate number of judges for the amount of teams competing.



45% of respondents felt they had been properly trained on the scoresheet, while 38% felt they had been properly trained on the skills rubric.

26% of respondents felt that competition companies select judges based on their level of expertise for high-stakes divisions.

Only 11% of respondents “strongly agreed” that competition companies select judges based on strength of knowledge.


Survey Recommendations Based On Input

  • Standardize judge selection across brands
  • Implement a judge appraisal process
  • Develop more meaningful communication of rule changes/clarifications
  • Develop a judging organization that is separate and distinct from competition brands
  • Provide for a Head Official at each event
  • Implement a consistent travel reimbursement policy
  • Develop an online voucher system
  • Develop a travel arrangement site that gives judges’ control over flight selection
  • Develop a pay negotiation process
  • Provide Judges’ Break rooms at all competitions
  • Implement a judging hour maximum
  • Close registration the week before scheduled competitions
  • Provide a pay amount consistent with industry standard


Sound Bytes

“I hate the rubrics. I feel that it has taken away all creativity and that the sport of cheerleading has become boring. I hope they will give this sport the freedom it deserves and give more opinion back to the judges—otherwise, they should just calculate what teams are doing by computer and not even have judges.”

“I feel that there should be a ‘rule’ put in place that any competitions with over eight hours of judging involved should use a two-panel, division-rotating panel.”

“I believe that judges need to be compensated more and have more of a say in travel times, etc. Respect for time and appropriate compensation both need to improve in order to increase the quality of judging panels.”

“There definitely needs to be a more universal training and qualification for judging. [I’m] tired of sitting next to judges who are judging just because they know so-and-so.”



We asked Cheer Industry Insights expert Jeff Watkins for his thoughts on the survey’s validity:

“This appears to be a sound study and well-reported. Any time a study can get half of their population to participate, it is definitely representative [of the collective opinion]. It is good for the judges to be able to make an anonymous statement without consequence. The only issue I see is that it was conducted, written, and edited by cheer judges—I believe the study would carry a lot more weight if done by a non-judge.”


GTM Sportswear Spotlight: Les Stella

GTM Sportswear Spotlight: Les Stella

Ahh, the holidays—the perfect time to get away from work and relax, right? Not the case for Les Stella. From Easter to Christmas Eve to Thanksgiving, no day is too sacred for the hundreds of coaches worldwide who call Stella day in and day out to clarify USASF rules. “The only day I haven’t gotten a call is Christmas,” shares Stella. “Calls come in at all hours, since we do this for the world, not just the U.S. It’ll be the middle of the night, and I’ll get a call from Australia. It’s all over the map.”

Most would probably draw the line at giving out their personal cell phone numbers to an entire industry of cheer professionals, but Stella considers it all in a day’s work as USASF’s Executive Director of Rules. He keeps his iPad on him at all times for easy reference and to double-check for accuracy.

“My role is basically the keeper/enforcer of the rules,” says Stella, who is currently developing a database that will make it much easier to reference rules and their interpretations. “A lot of people assume that it’s the world according to Les Stella, but I’m just a part of the committee. However, at the end of the day, there has to be a ‘bottom line’ person—and that’s me.”

So how did Stella amass such an encyclopedic knowledge of all-star cheerleading and its intricacies? Attribute his passion and penchant for cheer to 30 years spent in the sport. Stella first started cheering in 1983 as a De La Salle High School student in New Orleans after his karate troupe was approached by a group of cheerleaders: “I was outside with a few buddies working on our [karate] form, when three attractive females came up to us and said, ‘You have really sharp motions—want to try a stunt?’ I was hooked ever since.”

After high school, Stella went on to cheer for three different colleges and become a UCA camp instructor. From there, his cheer career included coaching positions at Germantown High School and The Ultimate Cheer School (TUCS), as well as at a large gymnastics gym in Georgia. While taking his teams to competition, Stella was keenly aware of the fact that routines had to be altered constantly to fit the rules for each different event. This observation caused a light bulb moment for him in 2003: what if there was a governing body that could help regulate and create more consistency?

Stella quickly set up a meeting, asking for two hours of Bill Seely’s time and two hours of Jeff Webb’s time. “All the years I’d worked for UCA, I’d never asked for a favor, so I called one in,” he remembers. “[They said], ‘The good news is: you have great ideas and we like everything you have to say. The bad news is we just started a governing body. The ham sandwich is that we want to make an offer to you to move to Memphis and help start the USASF.’”

Les Stella with Morton Bergue, Elaine Pascale and Dan Kessler at NACCC

In his decade with the USASF, Stella has become one of its most recognizable faces and figures. He is known as the “Rules Guy,” running the committee and traveling to regional meetings to train safety judges on interpreting the rules. Though his job can often be tension-filled and stressful, Stella says he understands when coaches hotly debate a penalty. “When I was a coach, I needed someone to turn to for answers, so I can have empathy for coaches in those situations,” says Stella. “I don’t take it personally—they’re just defending their business, their kids, the way they pay their mortgage.”

That isn’t the only way Stella supports other cheer professionals. He soon plans to revive the “Les Stella Coaches’ Challenge,” a motivational Facebook group dedicated to fitness, and “Good for Cheer,” an initiative Stella is spearheading to create more media awareness around the positive side of cheerleading. “I get so sick and tired of mainstream media only talking about cheerleading when something bad happens,” shares Stella. “I’m collecting stories that provide a counterpoint to those negative ones.”

It’s all part of a deep passion for cheer that drives Stella every single day. “I’ve seen what cheer does for kids—thousands and thousands who come out of their shells and develop skills that follow them for life,” he says. “It’s such a cliché, but that’s what I truly believe.”

Game Changers: Maximum Cheer

Game Changers: Maximum Cheer

In an industry driven largely by dollars, Maximum Cheer owners Pat McGowan and Cookie Jamison McGowan walk the talk of truly making it “all about the kids.” Their program is entirely non-profit, yet has managed to become a formidable competition presence—creating not just a unique success story, but also valuable opportunities for athletes who might not otherwise be able to benefit from all-star cheerleading.

Open to all kids, Maximum Cheer began simply back in 1995. “We started with five flat mats at the Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club,” says Jamison McGowan, adding that it was one of the first all-star programs in the state.

Today the program operates out of the Power and Grace tumbling facility in Quakertown, Penn., where they can take full advantage of the spring floor and other tumbling equipment; they rent the space for three days per week. Neither of the McGowans nor their nine coaches take a salary—rather, they put all the money paid by those athletes who can afford it back into their program, which they keep at about 75 athletes annually. Athletes hail from 12 different school districts and range in age from three to 32 years old.

Thanks to its non-profit status, Maximum Cheer is not beholden to the traditional limits of a for-profit business. For example, the McGowans have a strict policy against bullying and don’t allow parents in the gym during practices. Athletes or parents who violate these policies are released from the team. They also subscribe to the idea of attraction versus promotion—they don’t advertise, yet their program is consistently full and very strong. “We are not a ‘yes’ gym,” says McGowan. “People stay because they really like the system.”

Each year, Maximum Cheer competes at an array of events, including Americheer, InterNationals, JAM!Live and U.S. Finals; last year, its Level 4 team took five grand championships and five division championships. Viewing the experience as a means of building teamwork and character, the McGowans insist that all athletes travel together by bus, instead of individually with parents. (“The kids sit together and bond, which shows during competition,” explains Jamison McGowan.) Maximum Cheer athletes are also taught to root on every team at competition—regardless of ranking or reputation. “Trophies are nice, but good sportsmanship is far more important,” says McGowan.

Service and personal achievement are also emphasized. Maximum Cheer athletes need to maintain a 3.0 grade point average to stay active and must complete two community service projects annually. (Past philanthropic projects have included a Giving Tree, Stockings for Kids and Alex’s Lemonade Stand, among others.) Athletes have also established a peer-tutoring program where they help one another with schoolwork. “We teach the kids the ‘three R’s:’ respect for others, respect for self and responsibility for your actions,” says Jamison McGowan. Adds McGowan, “We attract a different, no-drama breed.”

Of course, keeping Maximum Cheer afloat requires no small amount of sacrifice. Both McGowans are employed full-time in other jobs (McGowan as a computer engineer, Jamison McGowan working with autistic students), and outfitting Maximum Cheer with the proper resources can be a time-consuming endeavor. “Our greatest challenge is finding corporate sponsorship so that all kids can continue to share in our program—with the economy in its current state, businesses are not as eager to give,” shares Jamison McGowan.

But to the McGowans, the end result is worth it. They continue to run Maximum Cheer both for the love of the sport and for what it does for kids’ personal development. 18 years later, their original mission still holds true: to serve all kids—regardless of financial means—and to keep it both fun and positive. Says Jamison McGowan, “Being non-profit and having a volunteer staff has allowed us to reach families from all walks of life.”

-Jenn Kennedy

Candid Coach: Karrie Tumelson

Candid Coach: Karrie Tumelson

After nearly a decade running the all-star program at St. Peters, MO-based Spirit Elite, Karrie Tumelson is on to a new adventure doing choreography, camps and clinics—with plans to eventually open her own gym. Nominated by The JAM Brands as “Coach of the Year” in 2010 and USASF certified through Level 5, Tumelson has learned a lot in the trenches about inspiring athletes to achieve their best. For our “Athletes” issue, we asked Tumelson to share her hard-earned secrets for coaching success:


What are some coaching flubs you’ve made throughout the years, and how did you learn from them?

Tumelson: [I’ve learned that] skipping steps in the foundation of skills to progress is definitely not a good idea. In stunting, it’s important to make sure kids have solid foundational Level 1 skills before moving on to Level 2 skills. You might have kids that come [onto] a Level 2 team, and you may just start working at the beginning of that season on Level 2 skills instead of going back and reinforcing the foundation of a level lower. Over time, I’ve learned to take time in the summer to reinforce those skills rather than jumping right in.

Do you often encounter parents who think their child should be on a different level team? How do you handle that?

Tumelson: Education is key in getting parents and athletes to understand proper progressions, as well as the different levels and how the scoresheet works. It’s also important to build strong relationships with parents so that they trust your opinion. We’ve had people leave because they wanted to be on a different level, but you have to be consistent and do what you believe is right. A lot of times, they go to another gym and, in time, the concerns I had come to fruition. When you put a young one on a senior team, they’re often burnt out in two years—they’ve already done all there is to do.

What are the issues you most often encounter around athletes?

Tumelson: The biggest obstacle is getting athletes to understand the nature of a team sport and accept all teammates for who they are and tap into everyone’s strengths. Obviously there will be personality clashes on every team, but a team who can’t see the bigger picture will struggle. A team that gets along can do great things.

One of your athletes at Spirit Elite, Janie Pascoe, dedicated the winnings from her America’s Best “Athlete of the Year” award to Sandy Hook Families. How do you encourage athletes to give back?

Tumelson: We always talk about providing for the less fortunate, and every holiday season we adopt a family to provide for kids that are less fortunate [than] they are. We do a lot of volunteer work; we’ve always done the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure every year as a gym. We’ve also done food drives. I think a lot of it, too, is just awareness. Cheerleading is a very expensive sport, and not every child can afford it. So we continually remind them of being appreciative of what they do have, and remind them of those children that don’t have these opportunities because of financial stabilities or whatever the reason may be. [We] try to expose them to that so they do appreciate what they have more, and it also encourages them to get involved and give back.

-Mandi Hefflinger

Spotlight: Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Cheer Athletics

The co-founders of Cheer Athletics eye the wide expanse of blue mat and white-and-blue Panthers in front of them as the speakers thunder the lyrics, “We don’t know how to fail—Small, Medium, or Large, we’re tougher than nails and we’re gonna leave the other cats chasing their tails.” The lyrics are no empty boast: Cheer Athletics is arguably one of the most successful all-star programs in the nation. To date, the program boasts 33 Worlds medals (14 more than the next winningest team) and more Worlds championship titles than any other program—not to mention a long list of resident “cheerlebrities” and illustrious alumni (such as Justin Carrier and Matt Parkey).

Things used to be different. When Jody Melton and Angela Rogers formed Cheer Athletics in North Dallas almost 20 years ago, they were just a couple of coaches with just a few kids practicing on the greenish-brown grass of a city park. Then the kids told their friends, and their friends told their friends—and a powerhouse was in the making. Cheer Athletics took home its first national title in the NCA Open Division in 1995, and the program more than tripled in growth the following season. (Co-owner Brad Habermel joined the fold in 1996.) The “hugs and high-fives” reinforcement and family atmosphere—along with high standards and high ambitions—also helped to attract greater numbers of motivated athletes from the Dallas area and beyond to their gym home in Plano.

“We didn’t have a formal mission statement, but we knew we wanted a team that would be the biggest and the best,” says Rogers of their initial approach. “As we grew, we learned it’s not just about being a great athlete—it’s about being great people. We obviously want to win, but that’s not the ultimate goal. It’s about growing and teaching our athletes to be respectful of themselves, their teammates and other people.”

For years, the partners have toyed with the idea of expanding, and this year, things have fallen into place: Cheer Athletics is opening a second gym, this time in the heart of Austin, TX. (A former CA Wildcat happens to own the 11,750 sq. ft. gym.) Though Austin doesn’t have the same concentration of cheer gyms as other big cities in Texas, Cheer Athletics Austin co-director Gerald Ladner said that he was looking forward to changing the perception of cheer in the Austin area.

He’ll have plenty of opportunities: so far, the reception has been staggering.  CA Austin—”CLAWstin” to those in the know (or at least the Twitterverse)—went from nonexistent to the biggest gym in town overnight. “We’d been assuming we would start off small, but turnout has been beyond our wildest expectations,” says Melton. On the first day signup for classes were offered, they filled up in three hours, and in its first year, the gym will have seven teams competing.

Amid large-scale changes and growth in all-star cheer over the past two decades, Cheer Athletics has remained one of the industry’s most notable programs. A big part of that success can be attributed to the behind-the-scenes balance: Habermel runs the all-star program, Rogers handles most of the financial duties and oversees retail, and Melton manages the technology and communication side.

“I think all three of us are fortunate that we really complement each other; like the [cheerleaders], we each have individual skills, but I feel like one of us is really strong at nearly every aspect of business, so we’ve always had our bases covered,” says Melton. “We work together but we’re not the same. We all have different strengths and interests and I think that’s led to a really healthy partnership.”

Between the two locations, CA now has 35 all-star teams (28 in Plano and 7 in Austin), and their growth and triumphs don’t look to be stopping anytime soon. So how do those cats stay on the top of their game?

“One little piece of advice: don’t rush to make it easier, make yourself better,” reflected Rogers. “A lot of times it’s very easy, especially in a competitive sport, to look to other variables as to why something might not be successful, when really we should look to ourselves and what our teams are doing.” And with all eyes on Cheer Athletics, she certainly won’t be the only one laser-focused on what Cheer Athletics’ teams will accomplish this year.

-Janet Jay

Fast Facts: At-Large Bids

Fast Facts: At-Large Bids

Are too many at-large bids being given to The Cheerleading Worlds? Before you read our “Two Sides” debate on the topic, get the facts and stats surrounding it.

**209 at-large bids were awarded to Worlds in 2013. 86 full paid bids and 12 partially paid bids were also awarded. (Source: TheRoadtoWorlds.com)

**In 2013, each paid and partially paid bid to The Cheerleading Worlds cost sponsoring event producers between $7,000 and $25,000. (Source: USASF.net)

**During the 2012-2013 season, event producers classified as “Tier One” were permitted to award three at-large bids for each fully paid bid at the same national championship. Event producers classified as “Tier Two” were permitted to award one at-large bid for each partially paid bid at the same Worlds qualifying event. (Source: USASF.net)

40 event producers awarded at-large bids to Worlds in 2013. The most were given by NCA All-Star Nationals and Cheersport Nationals (18 apiece). See the breakdown by event producer:

18 at-large bids

NCA All-Star Nationals

Cheersport Nationals

10 at-large bids

UCA International All-Star Championship

Cheer Power Midwest World Bid National Championship

7 at-large bids

Jamfest Super Nationals

One Up Championship

6 at-large bids

ACDA – Reach the Beach All Star Nationals

American Cheerleaders Association Cheer Nationals

Champion Spirit Group Super Nationals

Cheer America Cheer Bowl National Championships

Cheer Tech – Spirit National Championships

COA Midwest National Pure Championship

Coastal Corporation – Battle at the Capital

GLCC Grand Showdown

JAMZ All-Star Nationals

Spirit Fest Nationals

Spirit Sports – Duel in the Desert

USA All-Star Championships

WSA Grand Nationals

21 other event producers awarded at-large bids (with five awarding 5 bids; two awarding 4 bids; five awarding 3 bids; four awarding 2 bids; and five awarding 1 bid.) (Source: TheRoadtoWorlds.com)

Candid Coach: Randall “Big Dog” Harper

Candid Coach: Randall “Big Dog” Harper

His birth certificate may read Randall, but it is “Big Dog” Harper who has risen to the top of the cheer world at Midwest Cheer Elite in West Chester, Ohio. Named the USASF’s Cheer Coach of the Year in 2012, Harper says that it’s the strong bonds he cultivates with his athletes that keep them all striving for excellence. Find out more about this larger-than-life cheer professional in our exclusive Q&A: 

What are some of the unique challenges of coaching an all-star team?

Harper: I wish I’d known that when you’re an all-star coach, you’re not just a coach, but also a psychiatrist. You’re the big brother and the father figure.

As far as challenges go, every athlete is different. Some need you to be stern to motivate them, while other athletes just need you to put your arm around them and say, “It’s okay.” The real challenge is knowing how each athlete on your team ticks. I [make it my business to] know what their family situation is like; I know what they’re doing at school. I can see their body language—if they’re good or if they’re sad—so I know when I need to go up and ask, “Everything all right?”

You’re known as a coach who treats his athletes like family. Why does this work?

Harper: The one thing I know I do best is coach with my heart. And that’s how I want them to compete—with their heart. I treat each athlete like family because it is a family sport. I stop by at birthday parties and graduations, and if someone gets injured, I go to every surgery. I’m there when they go to sleep, when they wake up and at the house afterwards to see if they need anything.

If you treat them like family, they’ll put forth the extra effort for you. They feel like, “He’s got my back, he saw me through my surgery or that hard time in my life, so if he says, ‘Give me that double one more time,’ I’ll do it.” If I’m there for them, they’ll do what I ask them to do without second-guessing.

What’s some advice for someone starting out who dreams of competing in all-star?

Harper: Be yourself! I see tiny kids who look up to others in the gym and they want to be like them. You see kids get burned out when they say, “I want to be a Level 5 athlete right now,” and they’ll try to cheat to get to where they want to be, rather than doing the work and repetitions necessary to truly gain the skills to move forward. Other kids push and push and get burned out, and then they lose the love of the sport. Go at your own pace, and let your own skills dictate when you’re ready to move forward.

How would you describe your coaching strategy?

Harper: They’re the ones who make me look good! Listen, my role is: if the team wins, they get the glory. If the team loses, that’s when I step forward; they need someone to guide them and tell them it’ll be okay. I’ll be the first one to step in front of them and say, “You may have messed up, but you won’t deal with this on your own, and you’ll get better.” And I’ll get a better performance the next time, because they know that Big Dog has their back.

Spotlight: California All-Stars

Spotlight: California All-Stars

“Eat, cheer, sleep”—it may sound like a gym wall mantra, but it’s actually one of the taglines for California All-Stars’ online web series “Cheerleaders.” Featuring coach Eddie Rios and cheerlebrities like Gabi Butler, Jenee Cruise and Kiara Nowlin, the AwesomenessTV show has followed the program’s famed “Smoed” Level 5 team and its highs and lows throughout the season. To date, the series has gotten more than one million overall views on YouTube—impressive exposure for what has already become one of the industry’s most recognizable brands.

“Cali Smoed has gained attention since the show—the most sought-after items in our pro shop are currently the Smoed T-shirt and bra,” says co-owner Tannaz Emamjomeh. “However, while our staff and kids appreciate the notoriety, nothing takes precedence over the program as a whole.”

According to Emamjomeh, finding balance in that regard has been one of the primary challenges of shooting the show. Certain athletes are featured more prominently than others—but, off-screen, it’s important that all 885 athletes between the program’s five locations feel just as valued. “We were working through some minor conflicts on our Smoed team because some of the veteran members were questioning if the show was a distraction,” admits Emamjomeh. “Our priority is team success, so we addressed it right away by reminding the staff, kids and parents how much we value team over anything.”

Of course, there have been plenty of upsides as well. The gym receives a stipend that will go toward offsetting Worlds costs, and Emamjomeh says the Smoed athletes have gotten thousands of new Instagram and Twitter followers. For her and co-owner Jeff McQueen, the show has also provided an international means of showcasing the gym. They’d been approached for reality shows in the past, but this was the first time the pitch aligned with their vision.

“The producer is a former cheerleader herself, so she understands competitive cheer,” says Emamjomeh. “Her goal was in sync with ours: showing the competitive aspect, athleticism and hardcore training behind the scenes. We felt comfortable that the show wouldn’t impact us negatively, but rather give viewers a glimpse of high-level training.”

Filming started last September and is now concluding after Worlds, where cameras weren’t allowed to capture the competition but caught the action off the mat. There’s talk of making the show into a televised reality show, but Emamjomeh has plenty to focus on until that happens. She and McQueen are currently opening another location in Ontario, CA (joining the five others in California and Nevada), and the program just came off an impressive showing at Worlds with not only Smoed, but also its Sparkle and Black Ops teams taking home gold.

It’s all part of a West Coast cheer empire that only seems to be gaining traction—something Emamjomeh and McQueen never anticipated when they started out in 2001. “We didn’t have any hopes other than winning NCA nationals. We had no inkling that we would ever expand, nor was it a goal of mine,” says Emamjomeh. “Opportunities fell into our laps, and therefore, the business model had to change to maximize success for a multi-location gym.”

She attributes much of the success to the program’s strong sense of identity and level of exposure. “The Cali brand has evolved and grown over the years; I think it’s necessary for any gym to define and shape the culture of the program,” says Emamjomeh. “Our Worlds teams have elevated our exposure and we’re grateful for that. It’s been a fun and exciting ride.”

Eyes Off the Prize: All-Star Prep and Half-Year Teams

Eyes Off the Prize: All-Star Prep and Half-Year Teams

Are all-star prep and lower-level teams the future of all-star cheerleading?

Over this past weekend, hundreds of athletes converged on Walt Disney World for an epic cheer competition. Worlds? Not exactly. This year marks the debut of the Summit, a Varsity All-Star event catering to teams in non-Worlds divisions. Following a similar template to Worlds, the Summit awarded 107 paid bids and 355 at-large bids to more than 450 teams of all levels. “[The aim] is to allow some of the very best non-Worlds teams to compete head-to-head at one time and in one location,” says Varsity’s John Newby.

It’s all part of what appears to be a movement away from the ultra-competitive focus on Levels 5 and 6—and toward a return to the more recreational aspect of cheer. “So much emphasis has been put on the highest-level teams in the country trying to qualify and be part of Worlds that the majority of programs haven’t had the same opportunity,” adds Newby. “We think this [event] will balance some of the attention to only the highest-level teams and create some exciting new opportunities.”

Another recent development in this vein is the introduction of All-Star Prep, geared toward half-year and less competitive teams. USASF treated the 2012-2013 season as a pilot period for this new division, which is characterized by a shorter two-minute routines, a simplified tumbling category and a “no crossovers” rule. Currently non-sanctioned, the All-Star Prep division does not count toward a Worlds bid and is offered by event producers like Epic, CheerSport and Jam Brands.

“The prep division has really helped us because we can take inexperienced kids and give them a taste of competition without going the full gamut with a Level 1 or 2 team,” says Karlette Fettig, co-owner of Indiana Elite in Noblesville, Indiana. “[Gym owners] should be focusing on bringing kids in at a lower level because they’ll be the Level 4 and 5 cheerleaders one day.”

What’s driving this relatively new trend? In CheerProfessionals recent “State of the Union” panel, experts including Fettig attributed the shift to the economy. With many families struggling, all-star gyms must find ways to make their programs affordable in order to retain clients and continue to attract new athletes.

“This remains a very difficult economic time,” says Fettig’s co-owner Bethe Beaver. “Families have been forced to make some tough decisions, and we are very fortunate that so many of our families have been able to remain at the gym.”

Fettig and Beaver credit that level of retention to their introduction of half-year teams, a method that a growing number of gyms are using to get cheerleaders through their doors. These teams start later in the season (usually in December) and keep costs down by attending local competitions, choosing less expensive uniforms and not requiring matching practice wear. They also have lower tuition, but still receive benefits such as tumbling classes and clinics.

East Celebrity Elite is another gym finding a new niche through half-year teams. Owner Cheryl Pasinato believes half-year teams serve two main purposes: 1) giving children an introduction to all-star cheer and a taste of competition, and 2) ensuring there are athletes in the gym—even if they can’t make a full-year commitment. Pasinato knows all too well what it’s like to feel the financial pinch, as the state of the economy played a role in necessitating her gym’s merger four years ago. (And East Celebrity Elite is far from the only one—Beaver says that many gyms in her area have merged, taking the number of gyms within a 20-mile radius from 10 to just three.)

Both Pasinato and Beaver also cite another benefit to the half-year programs: the opportunity to develop relationships with local recreational cheer programs. “Throughout the year, we work with several local organizations and their recreational cheer programs,” says Beaver. “Typically, the feedback from the organizers and parents involved was always very positive, but we had been struggling to find a way to get them more involved with what we do. The half-year program seemed to be the perfect starter program for many of these families.”

Pasinato takes it a step further, often recruiting coaches to come coach East Celebrity Elite’s half-year teams. “We have a good relationship with the youth coordinators and a lot of them do encourage their kids [to participate in half-year teams],” says Pasinato. “A lot of them are very good coaches, and they’ve done a really good job.”

Of course, not all gyms are heading in this direction. Top Gun All-Stars, known to many as a “Worlds gym,” has taken some measures to make its younger teams more affordable—but co-owner Kristen Rosario says that change is due more to parents’ reluctance to commit to such an expensive sport before getting a full indication of their child’s interest.

“Other than that, we really have not made changes to our all-star program as far as pricing,” Rosario explains. “We did, however, decrease the number of out-of-town competitions [to which] we travel.” She adds that this still gives Top Gun teams plenty of opportunities to compete, as there is an “overabundance” of competitions from which to choose while still staying closer to home.

Regardless of their current direction, gyms are still providing many opportunities for young people to get into all-star cheer—from the more recreational focus to the strongly competitive bent. And they remain optimistic about the futures of their programs.

For Top Gun, keeping families invested is about providing a quality experience backed up by a strong legacy. “I do believe that the name that many gyms have built for themselves can, in fact, be some help,” Rosario says. “Obviously, if you’re going to pay for something that is as expensive as cheerleading, you’d rather pay for it in a place where you know that you’re going to get good training and see good results.”

For Indiana Elite, it’s about staying flexible and conforming to clients’ needs. “Bottom line—we are open to adding new classes and programs that we believe will benefit the families in our program and/or in our area,” says Beaver. “It is our goal to provide a program and an atmosphere that is positive for our team members and their families, and it is our hope that if we can continue to provide an environment that the kids and their parents like, then we will prosper.”

The 411 on Credentialing: 5 Things You Need to Know

The 411 on Credentialing: 5 Things You Need to Know

The road to coaching all-star teams involves a regulated process. Before anyone can coach all-stars, they must be credentialed through USASF.

How it works: The current credentialing process focuses on three subjects: tumbling, tosses and stunts. To be certified, all first-time coaches must complete a written test, a practical field experience form and a hands-on test that Amy Clark, USASF’s national director of membership, describes as a “one-on-one kind of verbal assessment of the coach’s ability to teach skills.”

Three years after receiving credentials, coaches must be re-credentialed—a process that consists of a different written test and another verbal assessment focusing more on safety, progression and troubleshooting. “The verbal test tells us much more about a coach then the written test,” Clark says. “When you ask probing questions, it really examines their coaching to the core.”

How it started: The USASF was actually created to help provide structure to the certification process. “For all intents and purposes, most people say the all-star industry started around 1986 or 1987—very small, regionally,” Clark says. “It started to grow nationwide in the early 90s. [At the time], it was a developing sport that had no governance. It had no guidelines and no certification or credentialing specifically for all-star. So when we started 10 years ago, our goal was to create this umbrella of an organization that could actually get everybody credentialed and get the stamp of approval on people that basically possess life experience.”

What it costs: The process currently costs around $15 per category and level for first-time coaches and $35 for those being re-credentialed. For coaches that work at gyms that are not members of the USASF, they must also pay a $40 annual membership fee.

Why it matters: The goal of the credentialing process is to help ensure the safety of the athletes. “It basically is the assurance to their customers that they possess the skill and knowledge to be working with their children,” Clark says. “The only place that is currently required to have credentials are those coaches of Level 5 or Level 6 teams, and they’re going to take their teams to Worlds.”

Where we’re headed: The USASF credentialing process is expected to change in the summer of 2014. Coaches will face required instruction, more comprehensive classes and more resources including online training videos, according to Clark. Credentialing will take place primarily at summer regional meetings.

“There are new gyms starting where people have little experience, and there are new coaches coming in that were athletes and not coaches and don’t have the coaching experience,” Clark says. “That’s why we have this need to change.”

Debbie Love, who assists with the University of Louisville’s cheerleading program, wants to see even more stringent requirements. “I feel that there needs to be required hands-on training for tumbling instructors, and that coaches should have required injury prevention training either online or in person,” says Love who is also a tumbling expert. “We are taught to spend a good deal of time with each person we credential, so it is a very thorough process.”

Love says other safety courses should also be a requirement for coaches. “I also feel AACCA should be required by all,” Love says. “It is a great general safety course. I don’t feel you can have too much education. The minute we stop learning, we fail.”

Effect-ing Change: The Sparkle Effect

Effect-ing Change: The Sparkle Effect

Just over a decade ago in 2001, the Kentucky Elite Showcats were the first and only special needs cheer team in the country. Today, the trend has exploded with more than 500 squads in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and divisions popping up at major events like Cheersport, NCA and Worlds. At the forefront of the movement? 19-year-old Sarah Cronk, founder of the Sparkle Effect—a non-profit that has spawned more than 87 special needs teams in its singular quest to make cheer an inclusive sport for all.

To the casual observer, Cronk might resemble any other go-getter college sophomore—she’s a senior resident adviser in her dorm at Whitman College, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister and certified yoga instructor. Yet Cronk has been an active entrepreneur and changemaker since the age of 15, when she was first inspired to spark the Sparkle Effect. At the time, Cronk and her teammates from Bettendorf, IA-based Pleasant Valley High School had just conducted a cheer clinic at the Iowa Special Olympics. During the experience, Cronk was struck by how easy it was to adapt cheerleading across varying skill levels—and the way it gave everyone an opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

That revelation, coupled with the fact that her autistic older brother was thriving on the school swim team, planted the seedling for Sparkle Effect. “I wanted to use cheerleading, which was my passion, to do the same for other kids,” says Cronk. “It’s so fun, too! You get to see everyone’s smiles. Communities rally around cheerleading and we found that tying inclusion into that really creates a perfect storm.”

Originally, Cronk’s efforts were tied exclusively to Pleasant Valley HS, where she and her squad created the Spartan Sparkles—the country’s first high school-based inclusive cheer team—by securing grants from Do Something and local rotary organizations. Yet when inquiries started pouring in about how to start a similar team, Cronk knew she was meant for a bigger mission, and the Sparkle Effect was born.

SVia a free “Quick Start” kit on the Sparkle Effect website, interested parties can download a full toolkit for starting a special needs team (such as fundraising tips, grant applications and step-by-step advice). Cronk and her team have also partnered with Varsity for a uniform grant program, and Sparkle Effect reps travel around the country offering free on-site training to new special needs startups.

As president of the non-profit, Cronk’s day-to-day duties run the gamut from planning campaigns, managing various teams, assisting with trainings, handling public relations and overseeing the board of directors and part-time employees. Last summer, she spearheaded the promotional “Are You In?” tour, traveling to various UCA and UDA camps to generate interest in the Sparkle Effect. “The scope I learned as a cheerleader about mobilizing people to take action and fostering a spirit of community has definitely taken me a long way,” shares Cronk.

Not that the road has always been smooth—at the outset, Cronk was a teenager with virtually no business experience, and she occasionally struggled with being taken seriously. Yet by staying the course and securing corporate partners like Varsity, Cronk and the organization were able to truly take off. These days, her biggest challenge is often juggling the demands of attending college and running a non-profit simultaneously.

“It’s taken a lot of practice, and it’s not always easy,” Cronk says, adding that she’ll often delegate duties when she can’t leave campus. “It’s really just about staying on top of things. Sleep sometimes goes by the wayside.”

If recognition is any indication, Cronk’s efforts have certainly paid off. In 2012,  she was named a CNN Breakthrough Woman and a L’Oreal Woman of Worth, and the Sparkle Effect was a Classy Awards regional winner for Human Rights Charity of the Year. However, Cronk hopes for a day when this work isn’t seen as unusual.

“Ultimately, my biggest dream is that inclusion is as big a part of cheerleading as pom-pons are,” she says. “I hope that eventually people don’t need to get that fired up about it—and that it’s just the norm.”

-Jennifer Deinlein

Making Headway: Handling the Rise in Concussions

Making Headway: Handling the Rise in Concussions

Jamie Woode raises her hands to show the crowd she’s okay.

When Orlando Magic cheerleader Jamie Woode fell on her head last November in front of a packed crowd at Amway Center, the accident caused shockwaves throughout not only the audience, but the cheer world at large. In light of Woode’s injuries (which included three fractured vertebrae and a broken rib), the University of Florida decided to ground-bound its own collegiate cheer squad—a decision that has since only been partially reversed to allow very basic stunting.

They’re not the only ones making headlines. In February, ABC News reported that the University of Georgia’s cheer squad had incurred a higher percentage of head injuries than its football team—with eight of 52 cheerleaders getting concussions, as opposed to nine of 152 football players.

The incidents coincided with a highly publicized American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report that urged classifying cheerleading as a sport. Its argument was that doing so would help provide better resources comparable to other sports, such as more qualified coaches, better facilities, access to athletic trainers and improved injury prevention methods.

AAP’s report also provided some eye-opening statistics culled from multiple studies. Among the findings: cheerleading has accounted for about 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries in female high school athletes over the last 25 years, and cheer injuries have steadily increased in both severity and number. College squads had the highest injury rate, followed by elementary school, high school, all-star, middle school and rec cheerleaders, respectively. Across the board, the most likely causes of injury were basing and spotting (23 percent), tumbling (14 to 26 percent) and falls from heights (14 to 25 percent).

Concussions accounted for between four and six percent of all cheer injuries—a number that, though lower than other sports, had increased by 26 percent every year from 1998 to 2008. The vast majority (96 percent) of those concussions happened during stunting, and pyramids were responsible for the majority of head and neck injuries.

Though the AAP study focused primarily on school-based cheerleading, experts say the issues are the same: safety must come first. “In order for cheerleading to continue in a form we all know it to be, I think safety has to be taken very seriously,” says The Spirit Consultants’ Dave Kirschner, citing the rising number of concussions and emergency room visits as chief concerns. “Coaches have to have a very close look at what they’re doing to keep their kids safe.”

Taking Action

Cheerleading isn’t the only activity experiencing a rash of concussions.  “All of the sports we deal with [as athletic trainers] have seen an increase in head injury rates—it’s been our most pressing issue,” says Karen Lew, a University of Miami athletic trainer who often works at Varsity-branded events. “Our goal is to try and reverse these trends.”

Lew and her colleagues set out to do just that by creating a protocol that could help coaches and gym owners determine when an athlete was ready to resume competing. “There was no previous [formal] reintegration process for cheerleaders,” shares Lew. “Rather than recreating research that has already been done, we wanted to develop a guideline for medical management of concussion as it applies to cheerleading.”

The result? Step-by-step guidelines to help coaches implement various levels of rehabilitation—based on five stages of incremental activity. (The minimum criteria they set for returning an athlete to the mat was being symptom-free for at least 24 hours and having physician clearance.) “Coaches need to understand the inherent risk they face by not following the appropriate progression,” says Lew.

Jessica Funke, an athletic trainer with Adventist Health System, agrees. She says that when athletes are injured, there is often a natural inclination to return them to competition right away—but that may be a dangerous proposition. When consulting for gyms like Wauconda, IL-based Ultimate Athletics, Funke uses a baseline assessment test called ImPACT. The purpose of the computer-based test is to assess athletes after they suffer concussions, and Funke says it is used by doctors and psychologists around the country. “It’s a really great objective test for concussions, one of the best that I’ve seen on the market,” Funke says.

Funke uses the test as a preventive measure, typically testing athletes before they even face an injury. The screening takes about 20 minutes, during which it tests both verbal and visual memory; athletes are also tested on their reaction time after an injury, compared to their normal reaction time. “The baseline test is performed when they have no symptoms and no concussion, so that when they do have a concussion, we know what their ‘normal’ is,” Funke says. “It basically lets us know what their brain function is like before they become injured.”

If an athlete suffers a concussion, Funke tests him or her again using ImPACT. She also uses her own set of tests such as checking the reflexes, vision, cranial nerve and cognitive functioning. She then makes injured athletes perform jumping jacks, sit-ups and push-ups to test their physical exertion, all in an effort to keep them safe.

“When the parents or athletes get upset because I’m not letting them practice, I remind them that ‘Cheerleading is wonderful, and I want you to be able to do it for a very long time, but if you don’t listen to me now, this might be it,’” Funke says.

Along with advanced assessment and testing, new equipment is being introduced to help prevent concussions. Case in point: Cheercussion, a rubber foam safety headpiece currently in development that aims to prevent concussions and is designed for use mainly during practices. However, Lew says she believes that the main emphasis should be on proactive prevention. “I would rather train the industry’s focus on having higher quality coaching and development of action plans,” says Lew. “Injury prevention is the key to any sport, so we have to be smart about it.”

-Karen Jordan


GTM Sportswear Spotlight on: Happy Hooper

GTM Sportswear Spotlight on: Happy Hooper

Watching cheerleading genius at work in Birmingham is as simple as buying a movie ticket. If the showing you choose happens to fall just right, you’ll see Claude Cornelius “Happy” Hooper III—Happy Hooper for short—in a dark theater, hunkered down at a commercial film like The Hobbit, watching the screen but not entirely focused on what’s playing. Instead, he’s mentally projecting images of perfect formations and flawless pyramids rising, spinning and flowing onto the screen. It all plays into the bigger picture back at the gym with his award-winning squads at ACE Cheer Company.

“A lot of times in the movies, I will zone out and use the screen as a way to kind of see what I want—different transitions, formations, pyramid pictures and transitions [that are] supposed to happen,” he says.

In fact, if it weren’t for entertainment media—TV, movies, music—Hooper says the cheerleading-themed ticker tape that’s constantly running in his brain would never stop spooling. “I have to sleep with the TV on, and if I’m ever [alone] in a room, I have to have music playing. Otherwise, I’m always just thinking about cheerleading,” he says.

Though it’s hard for Hooper to narrow down his favorite films, he’d probably go with The Goonies or Steel Magnolias (a pick he attributes to “the Southern woman in me!”). It’s hard not to notice that both have ensemble casts: ragtag individuals banding together to overcome assorted problems. In the truest sense of the word, they’re teams—or, in ACE-speak, “tribes.”

So in-demand that he guest-starred on last year’s CMT reality show “Cheer” as the special guest consultant tasked with making over the Central Jersey All-Stars’ Worlds routine, Hooper is something of a legend in the cheerleading world. It’s not terribly hard to see why: watch that episode and you’ll see Happy—at first unassuming in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers—go into full-on savant mode, giving the squad rapid-fire direction for a new pyramid, making tiny gestures and miming transitions in triple-time. It’s like watching John Nash scribble equations on the library windows in A Beautiful Mind. The girls look at him wide-eyed. You can’t blame them: it’s hard to keep up with a visionary like Hooper.

Hooper’s company, ACE All-Stars, has 58 squads in five states and employs more than 100 people. It’s a mini-empire in cheer world, one that requires constant attention. When the company was smaller, Hooper prided himself on personally coaching every team. Now that the company is more spread out, it’s impossible for him to shepherd all of them in person—though he wishes otherwise. (It’s clear that Hooper’s inability to be 58 places at once pains this perfectionist who admits point blank, “I like to win.”) So Hooper goes for the next best thing: viewing their routines via YouTube videos that his coaches are required to upload daily. They get his notes within 24 hours.

Credit Hooper’s steadfast work ethic to his upbringing—Hooper’s parents both coached high school sports, and his mom even has a gym named after her. “I was in the baby rocker, and I would either be at cheer practice, softball practice, football practice or basketball practice. I grew up not knowing any other way to live other than working hard,” he says. “Playtime was sports, so to me, life and play go hand-in-hand with what I’m blessed and fortunate enough to call my profession.”

Hooper first realized cheerleading was his calling when he saw Alabama compete on-screen at UCA College Nationals, thanks to a rare glimpse of cable during a visit to his aunt and uncle back in the ’80s. “To this day, I remember their entire routine was to ‘Rockit’ by Herbie Hancock, and that was just the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life,” he says of the “a-ha” moment. “I knew I always loved cheerleading, but the competitive side, I’d not really seen.” There was no going back: Hooper was officially enamored with that slice of the sport.

He went on to cheer on scholarship at Sneed State Community College in Boaz, Alabama, for two years, then Columbus State in Georgia before coaching at University of Alabama and opening his first ACE gym in Alabama. He’s gone on to have incredibly high career highs, such as winning Coach of the Year and Worlds in 2011, and low professional lows, namely closing his Columbus, Georgia, gym four years ago. (Families from the area now drive three-plus hours to Birmingham or Atlanta in order to cheer at one of Hooper’s gyms.)

“Knowing when a gym isn’t making you money, when to call it a day, that’s very tough. As humans, we let our pride and ego get in the way,” he says. “You have to be a strong business person to know when to say when. You feel like you let everyone in the community down; you feel like you let down all the athletes. I took it very hard. But, financially, the company was much stronger after that.”

As for the state of cheer today, he has two major beefs: the idea of “cheerlebrities” (“After we got off the floor last year in Dallas, there were people pulling two of my athletes to take pictures with them… That’s not okay. This is a team sport; it is not about individuals”) and professionals’ desire to splinter off into disparate groups, which he says damages the industry as a whole rather than bettering the structure that already exists.

When it comes to giving advice to cheer professionals looking to replicate his success, he has dual keys to surviving and thriving: classes and communication. “Classes are going to make you money and afford you the luxury to hire who you need,” says Hooper. “[As far as] communication…even if you can’t answer an email right then, I stress to my staff and everyone in the industry to at least reply: ‘I have received your email, I don’t know the answer to this as of yet, but I will get back to you.’ And I try to put a little caveat in there, that if you haven’t heard back from me within a day, send me another email, call me.”

Though Hooper is the heart of the operation, he’s quick to share the success with those around him. “I get a lot of the—I don’t want to say ‘glory,’ but I don’t know a better word for it—but I would never be able to do what I do without everyone within the company,” says Hooper. “We have business directors, gym directors, and they all work their butt off for me and for the company. Our turnover is virtually none, which I find very warming to my heart that we must be doing something right. We retain staff, and we just get to add to our family.”

In the movie of Happy Hooper’s life, that sounds like a true happily-ever-after ending.

-Jamie Beckman

Open Letter from GrowCheer.org to USASF & the All-Star Cheer Community

Open Letter from GrowCheer.org to USASF & the All-Star Cheer Community

The purpose of this letter is to discuss the USASF’s letter dated April 10, 2013. Growcheer.org applauds the USASF for responding to our proposal and initiating a self-improvement process. We would also like to thank everyone who offered invaluable insight and suggestions into our proposal, provided ongoing support and raised issues on their own to the USASF that we hadn’t even considered.

YOU were the impetus for the USASF to begin addressing many of the important (and long overdue) issues that have been plaguing the all-star cheer for years. Now that you’ve “got the ball rolling,” we are hopeful that the USASF will run with it. To be sure, in these busy times, it is imperative that we collectively work with the USASF to ensure that these issues remain at the top of their agenda, so that meaningful, timely progress can occur in our sport.

With that, we respectfully submit the following comments to the Board of Directors of the USASF:

USASF: A 501c status is used primarily for organizations that receive donations, which the USASF does not.

Growcheer.org: While this is a factual statement, Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) provides for organizations that are “organized and operated to foster national or international amateur sports competition.” With rare exceptions, all other national governing bodies for US sports are organized as 501(c)(3) organizations and operate with full transparency to its members. Furthermore, the ability to accept donations is a positive aspect that could serve to generate additional revenue for the USASF, strengthening its financial position and reducing the cost of participating in Worlds for its members.

USASF: The corporate structure is controlled by the USASF Board of Directors and could be changed if the board decided it was in the best interest of the members.

Growcheer.org: We suggest that the Board conduct a third-party administered survey that objectively outlines the advantages and disadvantages of the existing structure and a 501(c)(3), and let the members decide what is in their best interest.

USASF: …it is obvious those bylaws could be improved upon. But remember, when written there was no reason for a formal set of complete statutes. The bylaws made all of the original board seats permanent in order to assure the organization stayed true to its mission. They also required a unanimous vote to change the bylaws. This stipulation is probably not ideal today.

Growcheer.org: We agree 100% with the USASF’s statements that their bylaws could be improved upon. Despite the USASF’s original intentions in establishing permanent Board seats, we believe the mission of the organization should be guided by its members, not a couple of for-profit companies. Successful organizations need to be able to adapt to change, and certainly all-star cheer has undergone significant change since the USASF’s inception nine years ago. Although not specifically addressed in their letter, we urge the Board to put aside their self-interests for the good of the sport and to eliminate permanent Board seats and the unanimous vote provision. We believe that making these changes are, by far, THE most important steps the USASF can take to ensure that the sport of all-star cheer continues to grow and meet the ever-evolving needs of its members.

USASF: This [the Varsity loan] has been an incredible benefit to our organization and members, and it would have been impossible for the USASF to survive without it.

Growcheer.org: While we acknowledge Varsity’s support has aided the USASF, the admission that without it the organization would have ceased to exist altogether is alarming, especially given the sport’s growing popularity over the past decade. This brings into question the validity of the USASF’s business model and/or the financial competence of the Board. Growcheer.org, comprised of management teams of diverse, complex business enterprises, would be willing to work with the USASF gratis in this area in an effort to improve the operating performance of the organization. The USASF’s pledge to publicly disclose their complete, audited financial statements in a few weeks will be an excellent starting point.

USASF: We look forward to working with our entire community to insure we continue to build an even stronger and more effective USASF.

Growcheer.org: Again, we congratulate the USASF for taking this historical step. Growcheer.org’s sole purpose is to do its part to effect positive change in all-star cheer. In this spirit, we offer our services to the USASF and pledge to keep members focused on these important issues by keeping the conversation at the forefront.



Cheer Zone

GK Elite Sportswear, L.P.

GTM Sportswear, Inc.

Motionwear, LLC

Nfinity Athletic, LLC

Rebel Athletic

Team Cheer




Open Letter from USASF To Its Members

Open Letter from USASF To Its Members

The purpose of this letter is to inform our members about some questions which have been raised recently relating to our structure and operating procedures. We will address those questions below, but more importantly, we would also like to share with you our view for the future.

When the USASF was founded in 2004 the All Star community was much different than it is today. There were no rules, no safety guidelines and no competition standards. There was also no true recognized national championship. If we had had a crystal ball at that time and had been able to see how All Star would develop in the following 10 years, there is no question many things would have been set up differently. However, since we did not have the luxury of what is now hindsight, it is important to understand the history of the organization in order to better appreciate why USASF made some of the decisions that are now being questioned.

We accept some of the questions that have been raised as a legitimate attempt to strengthen the organization, and we welcome that dialogue. Like all organizations, ours is not perfect, but we remain committed to doing what is right for the athletes, coaches and organizations that make up All Star Cheer and Dance.

History of USASF

USASF was founded in 2004 by Varsity and CHEERSPORT. At that time, both companies believed that there needed to be an organization that could bring stability to the sport and serve the athletes and coaches by standardizing rules, promoting safety and providing sanctioning standards.

In evaluating how to legally establish this new organization, Varsity and CHEERSPORT determined that a non-profit entity was the preferred structure. Therefore, USASF was chartered as a non-profit corporation in Tennessee as this was viewed to be a cost effective ($100 fee) and a quick and efficient way to start the organization. There was never any serious discussion about setting it up as a 501c corporation because this would have added unnecessary complexity and delay. A 501c status is used primarily for organizations that receive charitable donations, which the USASF does not. The corporate charter for USASF is posted on our website. To be clear, USASF is a separate legal entity from, files taxes independently of, and is not a corporation owned by Varsity. The corporate structure is controlled by the USASF Board of Directors and could be changed if the board decided it was in the best interest of the members.

As the USASF was being formed, it wrote its bylaws and appointed its first Board of Directors. Viewed today, it is obvious those bylaws could be improved upon. But remember, when written there was no reason for a formal set of complete statutes. The bylaws made all of the original board seats permanent in order to assure the organization stayed true to its mission. They also required a unanimous vote to change the bylaws. This stipulation is probably not ideal today, but frankly it was originally proposed by CHEERSPORT as protection to insure that it could not be voted out at some point in the future. JAMfest was also granted a permanent seat when they joined based on similar concerns. The bylaws have been amended several times over the years to broaden membership and representation to include coaches, gym owners and other event producers. The bylaws and amendments can be seen on our website.

After USASF was formed, Varsity provided an interest free line of credit to the USASF. At its peak, the loan balance was $1.8M. As of December 31, 2012, the balance on the loan was $565K.Varsity has allowed the USASF to have complete flexibility with our repayment schedule. The loan has been completely interest free to the USASF. This has been an incredible benefit to our organization and members, and it would have been impossible for the USASF to survive without it. Varsity has also continued to guarantee a substantial “rainy day” fund to insure USASF could withstand any type of unforeseen natural or financial disaster such as having to cancel Worlds one year. There has been no “co-mingling of funds” or any other impropriety. Just as any lending institution would do, Varsity secures the loan by retaining certain rights to the USASF trademark and intellectual property.

Moving Forward

As previously stated, the USASF and its board recognize that change is needed within the organization. The board met via conference call on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 and agreed to initiate a process to systematically manage this change. We want to move promptly but do not want to make the mistake, which has occurred in the past, of making significant changes without taking the time to solicit input from all members and stakeholders.

The issues we have identified to address are as follows:

  • Board Make Up: This will include, but will not be limited to, structure of the board, balance of representation and accountability within the USASF.
  • Bylaw Revisions: Revise the bylaws to accurately reflect the current environment and govern USASF properly.
  • Worlds: A comprehensive analysis of everything relating to Worlds including the pros and cons of utilizing Walt Disney World as a venue.
  • Location of USASF Office.

As this process unfolds, there may be other areas we examine based on feedback from our membership. We will utilize our existing committees, the NACCC and our USASF Regional Meetings to insure our entire membership is heard and considered as we address these issues.

One area the board felt needed to be improved now was that of financial reporting. Though we have nothing to hide, we believe a more detailed financial report would eliminate some of the inaccurate statements from our critics. As always, an independent certified public accounting firm will review the books and records. In addition, moving forward into 2013, a report by that public accounting firm will be included in a calendar year annual report that will be provided to our members and available to the public. This new annual report will also address a general update of the status of the USASF, as well as its future plans. In about three weeks we will post the 2012 financial report for the USASF on the website, along with more detailed information than has been presented in the past.

The board also agreed to move forward aggressively on several programs that we feel are critical to serving our athletes and coaches. We will consider and investigate options for an enhanced athlete membership program with an outstanding and affordable individual insurance option component and provide information in the upcoming weeks. Our professional membership program will also be improved, including reviewing the option for background checks for everyone working with our athletes. Also, we have already asked Les Stella to develop a more dynamic and comprehensive FAQ section on our website to provide a better way to field and answer the most common questions. These are types of initiatives that only USASF is in a position to accomplish and we are committed to getting them done expeditiously.

In closing, we would like to thank all of the hundreds, if not thousands of people who have volunteered their time and efforts to create and build the USASF. The organization would not have accomplished what we have without their dedication to make our sport better. We look forward to working with our entire community to insure we continue to build an even stronger and more effective USASF.

USASF Board of Directors

Morton Bergue
Mike Burgess, Vice President
Justin Carrier
Jim Chadwick, President
Brian Elza
Jeff Fowlkes
Tara Patton Harris
Happy Hooper, Secretary/Treasurer
Mack Hirshberg
Dan Kessler
Colleen Little
Catherine Morris
John Newby
Elaine Pascale
Kathy Penree
Steve Peterson
Kristen Rosario

Read the GrowCheer.org response to USASF’s open letter here.

Going for the Gold: 10 Years of Worlds Winners!

Going for the Gold: 10 Years of Worlds Winners!

This month marks the 10th annual Cheerleading Worlds in Orlando, Florida—the countdown begins! Get prepped by taking a look back at the gold medalists in each division since the beginning. (We’re looking forward to filling in the blanks for 2013.) Check out the wonderful wide world of worlds, and don’t miss our 10-year retrospective in the summer issue of CheerProfessional!


Senior All-Girl: Cheer Athletics

Senior Coed: Miami Elite



Small Senior: Stingray All-Stars

Small Senior Coed: Spirit of Texas

Large Senior: Maryland Twisters – F5

Large Senior Coed: Miami Elite



Small Senior: Cheer Athletics – Jags

Large Senior: Cheer Athletics – Panthers

Small Senior Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars

Large Senior Coed: Cheer Athletics – Wildcats

International Open All-Girl: Georgia All Stars

International Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars



Small Senior: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior: World Cup Shooting Stars

Small Senior Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars

Large Senior Coed: Top Gun

International Junior: World Cup – Starlites

International Junior Coed: Flip Factory

International Open All Girl: Encore Cheer Company

International Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior All-Girl: World Cup Shooting Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: Top Gun

Large Senior Unlimited Coed: Spirit of Texas

International Junior All Girl 5: World Cup – Starlites

International Junior Coed 5: University Cheer Junior Air Force

Small International Open All Girl: Cheer Athletics Fierce Katz

Large International Open All Girl 5: South Elite Allstars

Small International Open Coed 5: Cheer Athletics Pumas

Large International Open Coed 5: Gym Tyme All Stars

International Open Coed 6: Stingray All-Stars

International Open All Girl 6: PACE Phoenix Allstars



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior All-Girl: World Cup Shooting Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: California All Stars

Large Senior Limited Coed: Spirit of Texas

Small Senior Limited Coed: Brandon All Stars

International Junior: Maryland Twisters Supercells

International Junior Coed: Cheer Athletics Jags

International Coed 5: Cheer Athletics Wildcats

International All Girl 5: Cheer Athletics FierceKatz

International Coed 6: Gym Tyme All Stars

International All Girl 6: UPAC Miss Panthers (Chile)



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Small Senior Limited Coed: Premier Athletics Kentucky Elite

Large Senior All-Girl: Cheer Extreme

Large Senior Limited Coed: Spirit of Texas

Large Senior Semi-Limited Coed: Georgia All-Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: Top Gun All Stars

International Junior All-Girl 5: Maryland Twisters Supercells

International Junior Coed 5: California All Stars

International Open All-Girl 5: Gym Tyme – Pink

International Open Coed 5: Top Gun All Stars

International Open All Girl 6: Gym Tyme All Stars – Orange

International Open Coed 6: Gym Tyme – Infinity



Small Senior All-Girl: Cheer Athletics – Panthers

Large Senior All-Girl: Maryland Twisters – F5

Small Senior Limited: Brandon All Stars – Senior Black

Large Senior Limited Coed: Twist and Shout – Senior Obsession

Large Senior Semi-Limited Coed: ACE Warriors

Senior Unlimited Coed: California All Stars

International Open All-Girl 5: Gym Tyme – Pink

International Open Coed 5: Top Gun All Stars

International Open Coed 6: Bangkok University (Thailand); Gym Tyme – Nfinity



Senior Large Coed: Cheer Athletics – Cheetahs

Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars – Orange

Senior Large All-Girl: Cheer Extreme Senior Elite

Senior Medium Coed: Spirit of Texas

Senior Small Coed Level 5: California All Stars – Smoed

International Open Coed Level 5: Gym Tyme All Stars – Black

International Coed Level 6: Twist & Shout – Genesis

International Open All-Girl Level 5: Gym Tyme All Stars/Louisville Cheer & Dance Inc.

International Open All-Girl Level 6: Cheer Athletics – Lady Katz

Universal Scoresheet: Will It Ever Happen?

Talk of a universal scoresheet has permeated the industry for years. In 2010, the Independent Event Producers (IEP) made an official recommendation to the USASF stating that its 22 independent companies felt a universal scoresheet would be in the industry’s best interest. “We have made great strides toward legitimizing our sport and scoring is one area where we have not achieved legitimacy,” says Cheer America’s Colleen Little, who sits on the board for IEP. “The IEP recognized that our sport had reached the point where a universal scoresheet was the next logical step.”

Though the initiative stalled, talk resurfaced at the NACCC meeting in Doral last May, and in October, the NACCC released a position statement from its Universal All-Star Judging System Summit. “In order to enhance the integrity of the industry, the NACCC along with event producers have implemented a plan to develop a Universal Scoring System for All Star Cheerleading competitions,” the statement reads. “To ensure quality, fairness and consistency, a committee made up of judges, coaches and event producers will utilize their expertise and experience to create a structured scoring system to benefit the athletes, coaches, spectators and event producers. The development process for the system is scheduled to take up to 24 months which will include careful analysis of available systems, assessment and editing.”

As development and discussion continue over this 24-month timeline, the debate continues among some circles about whether it will truly be beneficial. Karlette Fettig of Indiana Elite sees both sides. “From the gym’s perspective, it would be easier not to have to worry about the differences between competitions; once you put a routine together, you know you won’t have any nuances from competition to competition,” she says. “However, I do understand from an event producer’s perspective that it takes away a piece of their individuality. I’m not sure it’s fair to them.”

Spirit Celebration’s Billy Smith is one event producer who’s all for it. “I am so excited to see the coaches getting organized and taking control of their industry,” says Smith. “This idea has been presented for years and shot down by the USASF without the support of the larger event producers. Now that the coaches are leading the crusade, I think it can really happen.”

It All Counts: Scoresheet Breakdown

It All Counts: Scoresheet Breakdown

In the cheer world, it comes down to knowing the score. With a variety of complex scoring systems in competitions, it can be a challenge making sense of it all. Here are some things you need to know about how some of the major players in the business add it all up.

Many companies and event producers use Varsity’s All Star Scoring system, which was introduced three seasons ago. Its scoresheet is primarily composed of four main categories: Building Skills (which accounts for 40 percent); Tumbling Skills (30 percent); Overall Routine (20 percent); and Overall Creativity (10 percent). Depending on the level, those categories are then broken down into further subsets such as pyramids, jumps, motions/dance and performance.

This year, the scoresheet was further refined with a new scoring rubric, according to Justin Carrier of Varsity Brands. “We took every one-point range for difficulty and broke it down even further into low, medium and high ranges, setting black-and-white expectations for those teams trying to ‘max out’ their difficulty score,” says Carrier. For instance, 8.0-8.2 would be considered “low,” 8.3-8.6 “medium” and 8.7-8.9 “high.” Adds Carrier, “It makes it less of a guessing game as to where you’ll fall.”

Another significant update is the list of new elite building skills required to reach the highest level-appropriate range for stunts. “We re-categorized elite building skills because the teams have gotten so talented,” Carrier says. “The teams have pushed the envelope with difficulty, so it forced us to reevaluate.” In addition, Levels 3, 4 and 5 of the senior co-ed stunting teams (with some select exclusions) must now perform single-based, unassisted stunts.

Also of note is that coaches and judges receive the same information. “Our process is totally transparent,” says Carrier. “The presentation we give the judges is the same presentation we give the coaches as to how the system works.”

Along with all Varsity brands, companies like Cheer America, Universal Spirit, CheerSport and Americheer have adopted the Varsity scoring system. According to Americheer’s Jeannine Kranchick, the company relied on feedback from coaches, judges and industry leaders to determine which scoring system to use. “We felt this was a great fit for our customers,” says Kranchick, who acts as Americheer’s Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator. “It is easy for judges to calculate and easy for coaches to understand the scores.”

At Jam Brands, category judging is utilized. This scoring system consists of three panel judges in the areas of 1) tumbling 2) stunts and pyramids and 3) jumps, tosses and dance. Along with objective points earned for difficulty, judges also give subjective scores on technique, execution and overall impression. For instance, a score of 7-8 is “fair,” 8-9 “good” and 9-10 “excellent.”

“Difficulty scores are based on required elements that are allowed in different levels per the USASF,” says Jeremi Sanders, the company’s scoring director. “We use a rubric for all of our objective scores. We give a separate technique score, because we encourage teams to execute elements in their routine that promote safe skill progression.”

Each year, Jam Brands updates its scoring system to meet the needs of coaches and teams nationwide, according Sanders. “All of our judges are vetted and trained,” says Sanders. “They are required to take and pass a test based on our scoring system. We continue training throughout the year with weekly conference calls and event-specific clarifications.”

Sanders says Jam Brands was the first in the industry to introduce a unified scoring system back in 2009. Other strides include the creation of a department solely dedicated to judging and scoring and the introduction of co-ed specific scoring and quantity scores for whole team participation. Last year, the company also designated its own scoring representatives at events who can answer questions asked by coaches and oversee the judging panel.

Regardless of the scoring system in use, there may be a bigger picture to keep in mind. “A successful system is usually a consistent one, so coaches and judges don’t have to relearn it every year,” Carrier says. “A lot of emphasis is put on the scoring system, but it’s really the judges and the judges’ training that ultimately affects the outcome.”


[sidebar] Universal Scoresheet—Will It Ever Happen?

Talk of a universal scoresheet has permeated the industry for years. In 2010, the Independent Event Producers (IEP) made an official recommendation to the USASF stating that its 22 independent companies felt a universal scoresheet would be in the industry’s best interest. “We have made great strides toward legitimizing our sport and scoring is one area where we have not achieved legitimacy,” says Cheer America’s Colleen Little, who sits on the board for IEP. “The IEP recognized that our sport had reached the point where a universal scoresheet was the next logical step.”

Though the initiative stalled, talk resurfaced at the NACCC meeting in Doral last May, and in October, the NACCC released a position statement from its Universal All-Star Judging System Summit. “In order to enhance the integrity of the industry, the NACCC along with event producers have implemented a plan to develop a Universal Scoring System for All Star Cheerleading competitions,” the statement reads. “To ensure quality, fairness and consistency, a committee made up of judges, coaches and event producers will utilize their expertise and experience to create a structured scoring system to benefit the athletes, coaches, spectators and event producers. The development process for the system is scheduled to take up to 24 months which will include careful analysis of available systems, assessment and editing.”

As development and discussion continue over this 24-month timeline, the debate continues among some circles about whether it will truly be beneficial. Karlette Fettig of Indiana Elite sees both sides. “From the gym’s perspective, it would be easier not to have to worry about the differences between competitions; once you put a routine together, you know you won’t have any nuances from competition to competition,” she says. “However, I do understand from an event producer’s perspective that it takes away a piece of their individuality. I’m not sure it’s fair to them.”

Spirit Celebration’s Billy Smith is one event producer who’s all for it. “I am so excited to see the coaches getting organized and taking control of their industry,” says Smith. “This idea has been presented for years and shot down by the USASF without the support of the larger event producers. Now that the coaches are leading the crusade, I think it can really happen.”

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

Anyone who encounters Cheer Extreme All-Stars’ Courtney Smith-Pope need not wonder where she gets her effervescent passion for the sport—after all, it’s all in the family. Her mom and co-founder, Betsy, acts as the financial and admin guru for all 9 CEA locations around North Carolina, while her sister, Kelly, oversees its Raleigh and Greenville locations. She first met her husband of 10 years, Ben Pope, back when he owned a Premier Athletics gym in Asheville—today he runs CEA’s Winston-Salem location and coaches tumbling and stunting, while their two daughters cheer at the Kernersville location (which Smith-Pope calls “the mothership” of the operation).

And at the center of it all is Smith-Pope, the feisty nucleus that acts as the face and creative force behind CEA. Named USASF’s “Coach of the Year” in 2009, Smith-Pope has brought CEA to international recognition—with her teams taking home gold medals from Worlds in 2010 and 2012. “People buy our T-shirts from 62 different countries from my mom’s little store—orders come in from Seoul, Singapore, South America and Canada,” shares Smith-Pope.

Part of the program’s notoriety comes from Smith-Pope’s considerable social media presence—she has amassed more than 6,300 Twitter followers and partners with online channels like CheerLIVE to air the annual CEA showcase. (Her Facebook photo is a close-up of her eye with the CEA logo imposed.) “Jeff Webb told me I had a social media addiction—to which I responded that he needed to get with the program,” she laughs. “I’m not personally visible in our 9 locations every day and that’s the way kids who cheer for me can contact me. We’re lucky that the Internet provides that visibility and [opportunity for] commentary; it’s important to have a great image virally.”

Pope and her sister Kelly Smith

Though CEA is now considered one of the industry’s premier programs, it stems from somewhat humble beginnings. Smith-Pope originally aspired to be a gymnast, but fell in love with cheerleading in middle school. When her sister wanted to follow in her cheering footsteps but couldn’t find a team, Smith-Pope and her mom decided to start a recreational league. “Soon 20 of the best rec kids were paying $5 apiece to practice in our backyard,” she remembers. “That was in 1993 and I was 14.”

By the time Smith-Pope was cheering at Wake Forest University, the newly minted all-star program was practicing out of a gymnastics facility—she traveled home to be there every Sunday throughout college. As a biology major, Smith was poised to enter medical school, but true to form, cheer intervened. “We had 80 kids going into the last tryout before I took the MCAT, and 150 kids showed up [to try out],” Smith-Pope remembers. “With each of them paying $10/practice, I decided to make a go of it.”

As CEA has grown over the years, the self-described “cheer fanatic” has kept that homegrown mentality—and partly attributes it to the program’s success. “Being so young, I got to watch a lot of people make a lot of mistakes, like building a facility you can’t support,” she shares. “I saw a lot of people go out of business who were working just to make rent. In the model we have, we’ve never not made a profit—everything we do is related to the number of kids we have.”

This translates into a business model in which many of CEA’s locations are based inside gymnastics facilities (the two entities split the tuition, with CEA providing staff and running the program in exchange for space); Pope-Smith then pays her employees per athlete coached. “They work for retention, not by the hour,” she says. “Everyone gets to feel like their own boss that way and see the effects of their hard work.”

Riding the momentum is another key to CEA’s longevity. On the heels of last year’s Worlds win, Smith-Pope recently opened a new location in Charlotte and has surpassed the 1,000 athlete mark across all locations. She’s also in the public cheer eye thanks to her outspoken co-leadership of the All-Star Gym Association, which she helped start in 2008 but blew up in membership and visibility last year. It’s all part of Smith-Pope’s bigger mission to spread her love for the sport: “I hope to inspire new entrepreneurial event producers and new ideas—people coming into the industry with passion and love,” she says. “We’re all part of a rising tide. It’s time for a return to the optimism that inspired [this industry’s] growth in the 90s.”

With Smith-Pope at the helm, anything is possible.