Our First Year: TNT Cheer

Our First Year: TNT Cheer

Anyone who’s read our “Starting a Gym 101” series on theCheerProfessional website knows that launching a new all-star program can be a massive undertaking—from setting up the logistics to securing the right insurance to attracting clients. To find out what it really takes for a successful start-up, we spoke with three cheer professionals who’ve just completed their first year at the helm. See how TNT Cheer’s first season went…and what they learned.

First Year Case Study #3: TNT Cheer

Location: Waterloo, Iowa

# of athletes: 125

Inspired by her daughter’s involvement, Amanda Freet took over the TNT Cheer all-star program from a trampoline and tumbling gym, because she wanted to take the program to a new level.

CP: What inspired you to open the gym?

Freet: My daughter. She had been doing competitive cheer at a local trampoline and tumbling center here for a couple of years. As a parent, I sat by the sidelines every day at practice, and I didn’t see the program growing, so I asked the owner what I could do to help move it forward. That’s where it started, and from there, I took the three coaches to a USASF regional meeting. We came home so excited and full of ideas.

CP: What were some of the challenges you faced this year?

Freet: First of all, trying to balance being a parent and owning a gym, especially one that your child cheers in. I want to be there to support her, but I also have to do what’s in the best interest of the gym. We were trying to put together a stunt team, and in my heart of hearts, I wanted my daughter to be one of the flyers on the stunt team, but it wasn’t the best decision for her program, so she didn’t fly in it.

CP: Any special goals for the future?
It’s all about getting people into the gym and getting people exposed to the gym. Especially here in the Midwest where we’re at, nobody knows about competitive cheer, so right now it’s getting the word out about competitive cheer.

CP: Do you do anything special to get new clients into the gym?
Where the competitive program was previously, they just had competitive cheer. We’ve started up a recreational cheer program, and we’ve got almost 100 kids in the recreational program since we opened the doors in October. That gives them an opportunity to come in and try cheer at more of a recreational level, without having the financial and the time commitment that the competitive program has. So that’s been very helpful.

CP: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about starting a gym?
Do your research. Attending the regional meeting through USASF was very eye-opening. It was a great chance to meet different people, and to hear how different gyms started and how they got to where they were. The camaraderie has been amazing for us. I mean, yes, we may be competing against each other [at events], but outside of that competition, you’re calling each other. You’re getting helpful hints from each other, talking about problems and issues that you’ve had within your gym, how you’ve changed things and how you’ve overcome it.

-Lisa Beebe

A Day in the Life: Debbie Love

A Day in the Life: Debbie Love

8:00 am: I do a devotional every day when I wake up; that’s really important to my life, because I’ve been given all these gifts. Everything I do, I want people to see Christ in me.

8:15 am: One of the first things I do is take care of social media stuff: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Messenger is a new one that’s kind of nice. I’m pretty active on social media, especially for my age! About three years ago I decided to post a tweet once a day, either inspirational or informational, about a skill. I’ve been doing that for three years—it’s called #debtips.

8:45 am: Breakfast! I like oatmeal, fruit and cereal—kind of light [foods]. I like eggs sometimes too, but always stuff that’s good for you. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so I try to stay with a diet that’s going to keep that inflammation down.

9:15 am: Whatever I need to do in the house I do in the morning: letting the dogs out (we have two dachshunds, plus my daughter’s two dogs), writing emails or answering messages—I have tons of them!

11:00 am: Errands, and then lunch; my husband Marcus and I like to get soups and sandwiches. We eat really healthy: a lot of water or hot tea, and lots and lots of fruit. Sometimes I’ll have a little bit of sweet tea.

4:30 pm: Getting ready to go to the gym. I go to GymTyme on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and then I work with University of Kentucky on Mondays and Wednesdays. We have to drive an hour and a half to the gym, so we usually grab a snack right before we go in. Many times we eat on the run at Panera, Whole Foods, Subway….

7:00 pm: All-star practice goes until 9 pm, and then college [practice] is from 9 to 11 pm. The schedule I follow for practices is: a dynamic warm-up, a little bit of cardio, exercises with cardio, and then, right before Worlds, we warm up our separate skills in our routine and our tumbling. Then we do it full out a couple of times, plus any parts that need to be worked on. Ideally, we stretch at the end of practice so they’re not sore for the next one.

11:00 pm: On the road back home to Lexington!

12:30 am: I go to bed pretty late around midnight or 1 am. I get a lot of my work done late at night! I just enjoy it. My mind is freer at night. Before I go to sleep, I’ll re-look at my emails to see if anything new has come in, or sit down and make a to-do list for the next day. I might sit and read a book on kinetics or physiology. I was reading Game of Thrones for a while. That was pretty interesting! I like James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks books, too. Or I’ll watch one of my favorite TV shows. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but sometimes late at night it relaxes me. All of the crime shows like “NCIS,” “Law & Order” and “Criminal Minds” are my favorites. I also enjoy watching movies with my husband. He likes old movies, so we’ve watched Gone with the Wind and all of the oldies. The Sound of Music would probably be one of our favorites!

-Jamie Beckman

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.


Keeping the Faith: Faith-Based Programs

Keeping the Faith: Faith-Based Programs

Amanda Dauzat wasn’t always a cheerleader who prayed. The founder of Denver, CO-based Youth Alive Cheer didn’t discover a spiritual connection with cheerleading until she attended a small Christian college. There, through the guidance of her cheer coach, she developed a relationship with the divine. Now Dauzat offers other youth the opportunity to combine athleticism with faith. “The way I view faith-based programs is like any other,” said Dauzat. “We are a cheer program that wants to teach [our students] life lessons. We choose the Bible to be our guide.”

Youth Alive Cheer is one of many programs where cheer and faith collide. In the last year, nearly 100 faith-based teams (comprised of 1,500 athletes total) came together to compete at the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders (FCC) national competition in Orlando, marking a significant increase from the 12 teams and 150 cheerleaders that participated in the event when it began in 1989.

Like all cheer organizations, size and structure varies. Youth Alive Cheer is a dual for-profit/non-profit organization that currently serves 45 students ranging from three to 14 years of age. At Carolina Elite (near Greensboro, NC), Rocky Harmon leads a for-profit organization that is nearly triple that size with 120 students from ages 4 to 18. And Texas-based Be of Good Cheer is a strictly not-for-profit organization whose fees are paid entirely by the fundraising efforts of the team. “I’ve even had the kids earn all their money early, and I tell them, ‘You don’t need to go fundraising anymore, and they still go and [then] donate their [additional] money to the kids who can’t go [out and fundraise] and need it,” says owner Stacy Brumley.

All three programs keep fee structures at the bare minimum to ensure that classes remain open and affordable to all. “I like to joke that we’re a ‘not for much profit program,’” said Harmon.

Finances aside, Harmon, Dauzat and Brumley don’t see their incorporation of faith into cheer practice as a intentional deviation from secular organizations but rather the natural inclusion of a powerful, spiritual connection that fuels their daily lives. “There was never a moment when I made a conscious decision to include my faith in our cheer program,” said Harmon. “Faith is a part of everything in one’s life, so when you start something that faith is already there.”

Still, there are notable differences. “Fun dance moves” are favored over “provocative” ones. Uniforms mimic popular style but lengths are often more conservative and midriffs rarely bared. Like other cheer programs, positive mentorship is a high priority, but for the faith-based programs, this also includes mentorship of the spirit in the form of frequent group prayer and encouragement to seek guidance from above. “[The kids] will come to you with their problems and it’s just natural for any adult to give a faith-based answer,” said Brumley.

According to Dauzat, highlighting a Christian approach to problem solving will enable students to be successful decision makers in the future. “My hope is that through Youth Alive they have been given enough information so that when they are mature they are able to form their own belief and value system,” said Dauzat. “I believe this is just one more tool to add to their tool bag that will help them maneuver through life.”

Recently Harmon received an email from such a student who credits Carolina Elite with saving the “better parts” of her. “I found comfort in coming to CEA and learned respect, responsibility and leadership, and that no matter where we come from, something great can always come from us if we are pushed,” the student testified.

Winning and losing are also given a broader context. At Carolina Elite, competition jitters are calmed with a prayer of surrender. “In pre-performance prayers, I always ask that the girls stay safe, perform their best, and we’ll leave the results up to [God].” At Be of Good Cheer, competition results are received with a bigger picture in mind. “You have to teach them that no matter what happens God has a lesson in it for us, win or lose,” said Brumley.

All agree that while their Christian faith is ever present, everyone is welcome to join. “We strive to make it clear that faith is important in our program; we just don’t try to force it on anyone,” said Harmon, adding, “The goal isn’t to point out that we include our faith every day, it’s simply to include it.”

-Carmen Rodriguez

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

Owner’s Manual: Darlene Fanning

Owner’s Manual: Darlene Fanning

ICE began in 1998 with Darlene Fanning renting space from a local gymnastics facility for a program of approximately 60 kids. According to Fanning, the program “quickly outgrew the space” and two other facilities before landing in their current Mishakawa location in 2007. There she built a 50,000 sq.-ft. athletic center, which houses not only the ICE Athletic Center Fitness Club, but also Midwest Basketball Academy, Network Volleyball, a childcare center and even a Starbucks. In 2009, ICE expanded to Fort Wayne, and in 2011, the program opened a third location in Aurora. This year, a big part of the gym’s growth has been the reintroduction of ICE’s dance program—we asked owner Darlene Fanning to share the details.

Vital Stats:

Name: Darlene Fanning

Gym: ICE Athletic Center

Location: Three locations in Mishawaka, IN; Fort Wayne, IN; and Aurora, IL

Founded: 1998

Size: 800+ athletes

# of teams: 24 all-star teams and five all-star prep teams.

Gym Size: 50,000 sq. ft. facility in Mishawaka, IN; a 15,000 sq. ft. facility in Fort Wayne, IN; and a 35,000 sq. ft. facility in Aurora, IL 

The Dish: Many gyms across the country are adding dance programs. Kids want to compete on a larger stage, and this industry gives them that opportunity where their school cannot. As for ICE, we have had dance teams in the past, but no program for the last two years. This season, we’ve taken a much more serious approach in reintroducing the dance program.

We started hip-hop and pom teams in our Mishakawa location because there really weren’t many options for people who wanted to do competitive dance—especially in the area of pom. There are many local dance studios, but few that offer serious opportunities for high-level competition; lots of people had inquired about it because they knew we had very good competitive cheerleading. With access to the industry via our cheer program, we felt we could offer interested dancers the best shot at high-level competitive dance and national exposure.

Since reviving the dance program, we have been able to increase our numbers without increasing overhead very much because we utilize our space more completely. In our Mishawaka location, we are housed within a 50,000 sq.-ft. state-of-the-art fitness club, so we already have three full-sized dance studio rooms with hardwood floors and mirrors that are used for group exercise classes. We scheduled dance during the off-hours of those rooms, and it has worked well.

The start-up is always the busiest part, but with the right people, it can be a very smooth process. For our Hip-Hop Program, one of our cheer coaches actually had more of a dance background and was thrilled to take on dance, so hiring was not an issue. Our Poms Program was not a terribly difficult process, either. Once word got out that we wanted to start competitive pom at ICE, many of the area high school coaches contacted us and even worked together to help us find our current Poms Director. They were thrilled that we could offer a program for kids so that they would already have experience by the time they got to high school. They really understand the value of an independent, competitive/developmental all-star program for kids and how it can help their own high school squads—it’s been great!

We will start competing with our Poms program next season, but our Hip-Hop Program has been competing at all of the same competitions as our cheerleading program throughout the season. Their very first competition was the GLCC Showdown in Chicago, where they earned a bid to the Dance Worlds. Nearly our entire program was there to watch their performance because none of our kids have really seen an ICE Hip-Hop team. With hundreds of ICE cheerleaders and their families in the VIP section the energy was electric. It is the first time an ICE dance team will be competing at Worlds, so we are very excited.

The fact that they earned a Worlds bid their first time out and that there were so many ICE kids cheering them on really embodied what ICE is all about—we support each other like a family and we work to be the best.

-Dina Gachman

Expansion Case Study: CheerForce, Inc.

Expansion Case Study: CheerForce, Inc.

Creating a thriving program is often the impetus for starting an all-star cheer gym—but what happens when that accomplishment generates considerable demand? How do you answer the call to open another location? CheerProfessional asked three gym owners who took the leap and expanded based on their own initial success. 

Learn how CheerForce, Inc. tackles the challenge while maintaining the integrity of their brand.

Expansion Case Study: CheerForce, Inc.

Locations: 6 (California)
Combined Number of Athletes: 500+

Shawn Herrera, founder of CheerForce, Inc., discusses his strategy and business philosophy when it comes to business.

CP: You’re back in school getting your MBA; tell us about that and why you felt it was necessary and what are you discovering?

Herrera: I went back to school because I realized my skill set wasn’t what it should be. The amount of knowledge I needed to do it right [grow the business] was not there. I needed a whole new level of thinking to solve issues, because really, there are two parts to business: product and process.

CP: What do you mean by process?

Herrera: The process, meaning marketing, recruitment, training, all that structure and procedure you need to operate. It is actually more important than the product. But that is not typically the case—most gym owners believe all you need is a good product.

CP: Why do you think that is?

Herrera: It’s the boring stuff—business basics—and no one wants to talk about it. People open for demand, but never think to ask if it will be profitable. Will it be sustainable? You need to step back and look at the numbers: will it work? You also need to stop and think about the end goal, [which should be] profit. It’s not the revenue, it’s the income—it’s that simple.

CP: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?

Herrera: The scariest part: I realized I wouldn’t do it [expand] the way we did. We didn’t have a process in place; we weren’t ready, and we didn’t have staffing.

CP: How have your practices changed?

Herrera: We are working backward, really. Everything I’m doing now, I’m doing as part of my MBA program and applying in my business. To be financially strong, we need basic processes in place. For example, you need to have an original model that is perfect before you copy. CheerForce wants to be able to duplicate ourselves quickly and successfully. We don’t hit “copy” if I don’t have the process right.

CP: What’s your litmus test for knowing when you are ready to duplicate yourself?

Herrera: If you can go away on vacation for a month, will the gym still function? If the answer is no, you still need to work on your structure. If the answer is yes, hit the copy button and duplicate.

CP: Any last thoughts about owning a multi-location gym?

Herrara: I still strive to succeed with the product but not at the expense of my business, like charging less. It’s not sustaining, and it creates a crazy environment for athletes. We always innovate and test things out at our Simi Valley location. We make sure the original is good enough, regardless of where it’s implemented. For example, we are testing a new DVR system. I am creating a process that can work at every location and then we roll it out. We think of ourselves as one organization with seven teams.lp. Ask anybody and everybody! We are in this industry together and there isn’t a guidebook. Though we are competitors, we are all in it for the kids. 

-Cathleen Calkins


Vetting New Events: A Cautionary Tale

Vetting New Events: A Cautionary Tale

When Jam’s Athletics owner Elizabeth Marsh and her cheerleaders arrived at the Cheer Nation Nationals, they were looking forward to the opportunity to compete; in fact, one of the Jam’s Athletics teams was preparing for their first-ever performance. Instead, they got a heartbreaking surprise.

“The day of the competition, we came in, and there were no mats, pretty much nothing set up,” says Marsh, who was approached by a representative for event organizer Halee Yates to see if they could borrow Jam’s Athletics mats and spring floor at the last minute. This was not only an unusual request from an event producer, but a tall order, according to Marsh. “I don’t have Velcro strips for my spring floor; we actually screw ours in. But I was willing to do it so that the children would have an opportunity to perform. [However,] things went awry from there.”

As reported widely in the media, it turned out the venue wasn’t suited to hold a cheer competition—the ceilings weren’t high enough. Arguments erupted between frustrated coaches, parents and the event organizer, and ultimately, the hotel asked attendees to evacuate because the event hadn’t fulfilled its financial agreement. Teams did not receive a refund. “I had to eat the cost, because I can’t charge my parents for that. I refunded their money,” says Marsh.

Before a big cheer event, there’s often a lot of buzz, but the Cheer Nation Nationals aren’t the only event that turned out to be purely hype. For instance, last year’s Revolution Cheer event sounded like it was destined for success—with powerhouse gyms like Cheer Athletics, Cheer Extreme and Maryland Twisters set to compete—but when the event lost its backer, it ended up getting canceled. Moral of the story? Investing energy, money and faith in new events can often be a risky roll of the dice for any all-star gym.

So how can you vet events properly? Get some pointers from those who’ve learned the hard way:

Do your research. Craig El, co-owner of Ultimate Athletics, prides himself on paying attention to the details before signing his teams up for an event. That’s why he was thrown when the Revolution event went sideways: “I thought The Revolution was a good option,” he shares. “When they chose to come out to the NACCC event that we held at our gym and spoke and did a phenomenal presentation, we bought in 100 percent—not only for the team that they invited, but also with multiple other teams in our gym.”

Is there any way El could’ve foreseen The Revolution’s cancellation? He doesn’t believe so. Even though he always does due diligence, it doesn’t come with any guarantees. “With a lot of these newer competitions, it’s kind of a crapshoot,” admits El. “There really isn’t very much to go off other than previous history of the actual event, and general word of mouth from coaches, owners and industry insiders.” For first-time events, he’s now especially cautious: “If you do support that event, maybe send a few of your teams, not all.

Checking out the event’s background wouldn’t have helped in the case of Cheer Nation. Elizabeth Marsh explains, “There was no way to foretell that this competition wasn’t going to go well or wasn’t going to happen…this was not a brand new event. [Halee Yates’] dad had put on Cheer Nation [events] for years, and it was very successful.”

Trust your instincts. When Elizabeth Marsh was late signing Jam’s Athletics up for the Cheer Nation event, Yates told Marsh that a check would take too long to clear and she didn’t have the ability to process a credit card. Marsh says, “Unfortunately for the first time in all of these years, I paid cash,” shares Marsh. “I never should’ve done that. It was going against every fiber in my whole being, but I did do it.” Other coaches that signed teams up for Cheer Nation reported making checks out directly to Yates, which could be another red flag.   

If an event is having funding issues, they may ask cheer gyms to participate at a higher level than they feel comfortable. Craig El says when The Revolution lost its backer and teams started pulling out, they came to gym owners and asked if they’d be willing to participate at different levels, as well as offering part ownership of the event. At that point, he says, “It was just was something that we were like, ‘Nope, no. Not interested.’” The event ended up getting cancelled because so many gyms pulled out.

With any big event, there’s always a chance something could go wrong—event producers and backers are human, after all. Get as much information as you can beforehand, and you’ll be more likely to protect yourself and your teams from disappointment. 

Editor’s Note: Both Cheer Nation and The Revolution were contacted for comment on this article. The Revolution’s phone number has been disconnected, and Cheer Nation did not respond. A statement on the Cheer Nation website says that they are “working around the clock” to try to compensate those who paid for the cancelled event.



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.

LLC Vs. Corporation?

LLC Vs. Corporation?

As a new gym owner, looming legal and business matters can flummox you—among them the decision whether to file as an LLC or corporation. Infiniti Elite Athletics owner Cari Ann Bulzone says filing as an S-corp was one of the first things she did when she took over the program from its previous owner in 2012—and it was a learning experience every step of the way. “It’s not something to take lightly; gym owners should definitely do their homework,” says Bulzone, who used LegalZoom as a resource and to facilitate filing.

Whether you go the DIY route like Bulzone or consult a lawyer, here are a few things to consider during the decision-making process:

Liability: Trixie Bennett, executive director of finances/services at Copperas Cove, TX-based GymKix, says that when the gym was set up, protection from liability was her top priority. She chose to go the LLC route because it’s cheap and quick: “LLCs are like the “low-fat” versions of corporations. It gave us the same legal protection as a traditional corporation but with half the ‘fat’ [aka red tape],” says Bennett.

However, both models offer some protection from liability, according to Washington, D.C.-based attorney Thomas J. Simeone. “Both a corporation and LLC limit the liability of the owner for claims against and debts of the company. That is vital,” says Simeone. “But setting up and maintaining a corporation can be more expensive and inconvenient than doing the same for an LLC. For example, corporations may require annual meetings, directors, by-laws, etc. So, for newer and smaller businesses, LLC’s are popular.”

Taxes: From the tax perspective, many gym owners might be better off filing as an LLC. “Unlike corporations, LLCs don’t suffer from double-taxation, in which the corporate entity is taxed and then its shareholders’ dividends are taxed as well,” says Bennett. “Corporations have to pay tax on their earnings before passing the profits through to shareholders to be taxed.”

For example, at GymKix (which is an LLC), any earnings or losses “pass through” to the co-owners and are included on their individual tax returns and taxed at their individual income tax rates. “If you’re a single owner, this might not be too good at tax time as all the profits would be added to your individual income tax return,” cautions Bennett.

Healthcare: When David Skaw, owner of Clackamas, OR-based Thunder Elite All Stars Inc. chose to go the corporation route, healthcare was a prime consideration: “For us, the ability to write off 100 percent of health benefits for officers is important. You can’t do that as an LLC.”

Future Plans: Bulzone of Infinite Elite had the big picture in mind when she decided to file as an S-corp. “I like the idea of being able to bring in other partners; that way, I can offer long-term coaches a little bit more in the future should they want it,” says Bulzone. “I have such great employees who work so hard, and increasing their responsibility will only get you so far. Eventually, I can look at them and say, ‘Would you like to own a part of Infiniti Elite?’” She adds that having an S-corp also allows her to leave her own options open: “Should I decide to leave the program, I wanted the option to pass my shares on to someone else so that the corporation could continue thrive without me if that was ever in the cards.”

Multiple Locations: Skaw of Thunder Elite says if you’re a single-location gym, LLC can be a very viable option. However, “if you have multiple partners and multiple locations, a corporation makes more sense,” he advises. And gyms can have it both ways—even if a gym starts out as an LLC, it’s possible to make the switch to corporation as your business grows and multiplies. “Most states have conversion statutes where you can convert from one to the other,” says New York-based attorney Trippe Fried.

However, switching may be time-consuming and/or expensive. “Though you can switch back and forth, there are fees, and in some states like New York, it can be complex,” says Fried. “You [also] have to transfer the corporate documents into LLC documents or vice versa, so there is some paperwork involved.” In some states, gym owners must go as far as creating a separate entity and then merging the LLC into the corporation (or vice versa). “The result is the same, but it’s a little more expensive from a filing perspective and considerably more paperwork,” points out Fried.

-Dinsa Sachan

Visit our blog for a rundown of the different types of corporations that might work well for gym owners! You can also find handy forms and resources in our “Biz Docs” section.

Expansion Case Study: All Star Legacy

Expansion Case Study: All Star Legacy

Creating a thriving program is often the impetus for starting an all-star cheer gym—but what happens when that accomplishment generates considerable demand? Many business owners answer the call for expansion and go on to open multiple locations. To learn more about this approach, CheerProfessional asked three gym owners who took the leap and expanded based on their own initial success. Learn how All Star Legacy tackles the challenge while maintaining the integrity of their brand:

Expansion Case Study #3: All Star Legacy
Locations: 4 including one franchise (Virginia and West Virginia)
Combined Number of Athletes: 700+

Trisha Hart, co-owner and coach, speaks about her motivation to open additional locations.

CP: How did you come to own multiple locations for All Star Legacy?

Hart: We never looked to expand. We never had the intention, but opportunities presented themselves. When things feel right, it’s right.

CP: Was this personal for you, or was it about business?

Hart: I am passionate about the sport and the industry; I wanted to provide athletes what I had experienced. Our philosophy when it comes to coaching style is “kids come first.” Now we have four locations and 700 kids that compete, and that all came from one dream. I didn’t want to be bigger and better, but there is a financial reward.

CP: From a business standpoint, what did you look at before opening additional gyms?

Hart: We looked at profit and loss—it’s a very basic business model. You must make sure each location can operate on its own. You need to know your bottom line: facility and operational expenses, such as utilities, payroll, travel, equipment, insurance and taxes, as well as bank fees, merchant provider fees, competition fees/surcharges, uniform deposits and other associated costs that might show up. If you can’t keep the lights on, you can’t play the music.

CP: How do you deal with the geographical distance between locations? How do you split your time?

Hart: While we are one program with four locations, we make sure each can operate independently. We communicate day and night about concerns. We listen to those concerns, have conference calls and find solutions. We work together and I trust our staff. I don’t have a regimented schedule as to visiting each gym but I am always available. If an issue develops at one location, we will drop everything and travel.

CP: Any parting advice for others looking to grow their cheer programs by expanding beyond a single gym?

Hart: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask anybody and everybody! We are in this industry together and there isn’t a guidebook. Though we are competitors, we are all in it for the kids. 

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.

Behind the Merger: West Virginia Cheer Academy

Behind the Merger: West Virginia Cheer Academy

As the divide between small and large gyms grows wider, it’s not uncommon for gyms to merge in an attempt to pump up profits and competitive power. On the surface, the reasons to merge seem clear—building a larger membership base or having the means to form a stronger coaching staff. But dig deeper and you’ll find that a number of other motivating factors are often at play, from strengthening the local cheer community to wanting to benefit the athletes. For our “Behind the Merger” series, we caught up with three gym owners who opted to merge and discovered the real deal behind making the challenging yet rewarding move to become one. See the third in our series below (and don’t miss our first installment with East Celebrity Elite and second with Legendary Athletics)!

Merger #3: Twin City Stars + West Virginia Cheer Academy = West Virginia Cheer Academy

Locations: Big Chimney, WV, and Marmet, WV (suburbs of Charleston)

Reason for merging: Rapid growth, plus gym owners who were ready to leave the business

Combined number of athletes: 220 (80 competitive)

Kayla Wygal, co-owner of West Virginia Cheer Academy, caught the attention of Twin City Stars, and when they wanted to give up the business to spend more time with family, they gave Wygal a call.

CP: Your situation is unique; you absorbed Twin City Stars into your gym.

Wygal: It’s only our second season (we started in August 2012), but we saw an incredible amount of growth. It was scary; Twin City Stars was three years our senior. We had competed against them and they beat us, but the owners liked what they saw and were interested in turning over the business to us. On August 26, 2013, we took full ownership.

CP: Tell us about the logistics before the merger.
Wygal: We were the smaller gym and were 10 miles apart from Twin City Stars at two separate ends of town. We pull [kids] from eight counties in West Virginia with Charleston at the center.

CP: What were the steps you took to merge your smaller gym with their larger program?
Wygal: We built a relationship with the owners over a couple of months and decided to tell our parents first. There were hurt feelings—mostly the Twin City Stars’ parents were upset that the owners didn’t tell them. But then [the parents] got to know us, and the kids could still do what they wanted to do: cheer.

CP: How are you managing it now?
Wygal: We use the same name but maintain the separate locations. Seniors go to the original location of Twin City because the majority of seniors were from there, and juniors alternate between the two locations.

CP: How has becoming a larger gym helped West Virginia Cheer Academy?
Wygal: We were strong at all-star, and they were better at tumbling. They didn’t have enough to make full teams for all-star and now they do. All-star isn’t huge in West Virginia but we have created a buzz and excitement about the expansion. Gyms are talking about us.

CP: What were the reactions you’ve encountered with the membership?
Wygal: The kids are amazing. They are so resilient and do well. The Twin City location parents love us and have taken us in. I have taken on development at Twin City, and some of our parents feel like I’ve chosen them [Twin City] over West Virginia Cheer Academy. That was a surprise, but they are coming around and now the parents are mingling between the two gyms. The attitude is, “We’ve got to do this together if we are going to be successful.”

CP: Are there other challenges?
Wygal: I’ve learned that how you manage coaching staff is key to your success. We have head coaches at each location, and we want to make sure they know they are important. The coaches that share locations have merged. Getting all the coaches together hasn’t happened organically, and we are having our first “all coaches” meeting. Now we are stepping in and enforcing [the mingling]. It will be fine, and we won’t lose anyone; we just need to explain that together they are stronger.

CP: Looking back, would you do it all over again?
Wygal: I would do it all over again. It’s been fun, but it’s been hard. I work 14-15 hour days, but I’ve met so many great little girls I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s like with children—you never would have dreamed you could love the second one as much as the first.

CP: Any advice for gym owners presented with the opportunity to expand?
Wygal: Don’t be afraid to be ambitious; don’t fear the opportunity. Yes, it is extremely hard work and it’s expensive. But if you are in it for the kids, it is 100% worth it.

Behind the Merger: Legendary Athletics

Behind the Merger: Legendary Athletics

As the divide between small and large gyms grows wider, it’s not uncommon for gyms to merge in an attempt to pump up profits and competitive power. On the surface, the reasons to merge seem clear—building a larger membership base or having the means to form a stronger coaching staff. But dig deeper and you’ll find that a number of other motivating factors are often at play, from strengthening the local cheer community to wanting to benefit the athletes. For our “Behind the Merger” series, we caught up with three gym owners who opted to merge and discovered the real deal behind making the challenging yet rewarding move to become one. See the second in our series below (and don’t miss our first installment with East Celebrity Elite)!

Merger #2: Shine Athletics + Lake Mary All Stars = Legendary Athletics

Location: Longwood, FL

Reason for merging: Creating a new brand of all-star cheer for the community

Combined number of athletes: 300 athletes (in the all-star program)

Sydney McBride, former owner of Longwood, Florida-based Shine Athletics, spoke to us about her recent merger with Lake Mary All Stars—going from two small gyms in the same community (on the same street) to a powerhouse program with benefits more far-reaching than they originally intended.

CP: When did you decide to merge?
McBride: We merged in May [2013]. The gyms, previously run separately, merged together to create a new, larger program with a new name: Legendary Athletics.

CP: Before deciding to move forward, what were the benefits you felt you would realize if you merged?
McBride: The main benefit was to be able to have one large program under one roof and combine all of our awesome staff together as one. Both of our programs were really strong, especially when it came to staff and child/parent relationships. The majority of the kids were friends outside of cheer and went to school together. Combining the two programs helped us bring the entire community together.

CP: How did you structure the teams after the merger and utilize your staff?
McBride: For this first season, we put a staff member from each of the prior gyms together on each team to make sure kids from both programs feel comfortable.

CP: What were the challenges after the merger?
McBride: The biggest challenge was making everyone from both programs understand and adapt to the concept that the merger was an entirely new program. It wasn’t Shine and it wasn’t Lake Mary All Stars: it was a new, larger program with new concepts, new ideas and a new brand with a new feel.

CP: How did the kids and parents initially react?
McBride: Both of our gyms were previously very big rivals, due to the nature that we were so close in geographic location. So when we announced the merger, everyone was very shocked. But after that initial shock, most people understood and stated they were excited to be a part of a larger program.

CP: What other advice would you offer gyms considering a merger?
McBride: I would highly recommend creating a new name and brand if the gyms merging together are rivals. Also, I think choosing a brand-new location was very helpful in making it easier for everyone from both sides to recognize Legendary Athletics as a new gym and equal [territory] for all families.


The Secrets to Moonlighting

The Secrets to Moonlighting

Is it possible to balance a second job on top of owning a gym? We ask three cheer professionals who’ve been there and done that.

As our economy rebounds from the “Great Recession,” juggling multiple jobs is a common conundrum for many people—and cheer professionals are no exception. In fact, for gym owners, balancing more than one job might be a necessity regardless of what’s happening in the economy. As most owners will candidly share, opening a gym is something you do because you’re passionate about cheer, not because you want to get rich quick.

Just ask these three moonlighting entrepreneurs, who know the perks and pitfalls of juggling jobs all too well.

Stefanie Nelson: In 2010, Stefanie Nelson started North Florida Elite with two 6’ x 10’ folding mats and a small rented space. At the time, she was working as a middle school science teacher, but realized that she missed coaching, so she started a tumbling program. Fast-forward to 2013, and her Starke, FL-based gym is now 6,000 sq. ft., with tumbling programs, cheer classes, a special needs team and half-year/all-star teams. Despite the growth, Nelson still juggles her teaching job with the demands of running a gym—something she’s trying to mitigate. Shares Nelson, “My ultimate goal is to not have two jobs.”

Doing double-duty makes for a very hectic life. Nelson works until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and she’s working at the gym until 9 p.m. on Fridays. On Saturday, she’s paying bills and grading papers. She also leans on her “overly organized” husband, who runs the house and helps coach when she needs him. (The gym recently lost a coach so he’s filling in for the time being.) “He’s the glue that holds it all together,” Nelson says.

People who are thinking of holding down their full- or part-time job and opening a gym shouldn’t have any illusions about the dedication it requires, but Nelson says the rewards can make all those late hours pay off. “The main thing is seeing the girls and wanting them to experience success on—and off—the purple floor,” she says.  “I want them to see that there’s more to the world than our little town in Florida.” (A few students have written about Nelson’s influence in their life for their college essay applications, which she says has been especially gratifying.)

Nelson’s advice to future gym owners is to “be organized and do it because you love it and not because of the money. I don’t want a thankless $100,000 a year job. Make sure you get into it for the right reasons. There have been days when I thought, ‘Why not sell the gym and not work 70 hours a week?’” But for Nelson, the thrill of seeing her athletes succeed both on and off the mat is what makes it all worthwhile.

Leslie Pledger-Griffin: Like Nelson, Renegade Athletics owner Leslie Pledger-Griffin understands the sacrifices that must be made in order to get a gym off the ground. Pledger-Griffin first started teaching tumbling out of the wrestling room in her high school at just 15 years old, and she met her husband at a cheerleading competition. They started their all-star program together, and Pledger-Griffin balanced her job in education for a year before leaving to work full-time at their 12,000 sq.-ft. facility in Calhoun, Georgia.

When she was juggling, Pledger-Griffin would leave the house at 6:30 a,m. for her teaching job, work until 3:15 p.m., drive to the gym and work there until 10 p.m. “You are exhausted,” confides Pledger-Griffin. “You still have to cook supper, wash and iron clothes and, on weekends, you often have practice or competitions. Then you start all over again on Monday.”

On that note, Pledger-Griffin advises anyone working and running a gym simultaneously to take ample time for self-care—whatever it takes. “Time is valuable,” she shares. “There is no shame in taking a nap if you can squeeze one in between jobs. Eat and sleep when you can.”

Another of Pledger-Griffin’s keys to sanity is to “work smarter, not harder.” For Renegade Athletics, she utilizes the web-based class management system Jackrabbit so that she can answer account questions or schedule classes from anywhere. “You can do it from your other job, from home or even from your smartphone,” explains Pledger-Griffin. “It’s the best money we spend each month.”

Michelle Epps: Meet Michelle Epps, who owns Cedar Hill, TX-based Twisters Spirit Athletics. At one point, Epps was working full-time, working on her MBA and running a new gym all at the same time—with a staff that had no real competitive cheer knowledge. “We were learning as we were going,” Epps says of those early days. One of her biggest challenges of running a gym while holding down a second job was “keeping a high level of quality at both jobs.” Yet Epps knew from the beginning that if she were forced to make a choice, she would choose her gym: “It was, and still is, my passion and my purpose. It is that thing that I would do for free.”

Epps stresses the importance of knowing when to work—and when to take some much-needed away time to recharge. According to Epps, it doesn’t do you or your athletes any good of you’re burned out and low on energy. Her calendar was and is her “best friend,” and staying organized and coming to realize that you cannot please everyone are also key lessons she has learned along the way.

The ability to delegate is another crucial tool. Epps urges gym owners to accept the fact that you likely can’t—and shouldn’t—try to take on every single duty yourself. Ask people for help, surround yourself with a great support staff and prioritize. It’s easy when you’re multi-tasking to think that every issue that comes up is urgent; learn what has to be tackled today, and what can wait until tomorrow. On the same note, Epps also advises future gym owners to know their niche and focus on making that great, rather than trying to tackle everything at once.

As far as taking that huge leap and quitting your job to focus on the gym, Epps says, “I think the first step in making the decision to work at your gym full-time is knowing that this is your passion. This is the job that gets you up in the morning and keeps you up at night thinking of ways to make it better.”

In other words, work hard, work smart and go into this for the love of the profession and the kids. If you have to balance two or more jobs—as many owners do at first—take one day at a time and remember that you went into this because it’s your passion. Or, as Epps says, “the thing you would do for free.”

-Dina Gachman

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


Pinterest & Instagram: A Crash Course

Pinterest & Instagram: A Crash Course

If Thunder Elite All-Stars coach Cher Fuller has her phone out while her Junior Level 3’s are running a routine, it’s not because she’s texting. She’s boosting the gym’s brand—and bonding with her athletes—by snapping a quick picture or video of their progress to share on Instagram. When she’s not coaching, Fuller works at an ad agency, and she understands how social media can help a business grow. By now, many cheer gyms now have active Facebook and Twitter accounts and know the benefits of connecting with athletes, parents and potential customers on those platforms—but Instagram and Pinterest can develop that connection even further.

“From a business perspective, Instagram is probably a little more lucrative as far as a marketing tool, but Pinterest can be great for building community,” says Kate Boyd, a cheer coach, choreographer and corporate communications expert. Intrigued? We asked Boyd, Fuller and other experts for their tips on how to pump up your gym’s online presence with these powerful tools.

Instagram: Snap a pic that offers a peek inside your gym.

Got a smartphone? Get Instagram. It’s a quick, easy and free way to get your message across. Once you install the app, all you have to do is take a picture, add a short caption and upload it. (FYI: Instagram is primarily for use on mobile devices. You can view photos on a computer, but you won’t have access to your full account.)

Boyd recommends using Instagram to offer a glimpse behind the scenes. “If you’re mixing your own music, take a picture of your computer. If you do your own choreography, take a picture of yourself in the mirror dancing. It gives the people looking at your account a sneak peek at what’s going on,” shares Boyd. Posting fun, candid photos on your Instagram feed will also give followers a strong sense of your gym’s culture. “Everyone wants to win and everyone wants to work hard, but the values embedded in your programs are either a good fit for a family or they’re not,” adds Fuller.

Once you get the hang of it, you can also start employing “hashtags” to get your photos maximum exposure. Adding a simple hashtag like #cheerleading or #Worlds to your post can attract hundreds of eyes to your page and help propel your gym’s name into the social stratosphere.

Pinterest: Pin your way to community connections.

Setting up a Pinterest account can help strengthen your gym’s relationships with athletes and their parents. Pinterest offers community boards where different people can contribute images; Boyd recommends using these to gather T-shirt and bow ideas, as well as a way to solicit suggestions from parents when your gym is planning an event.

If you want your account to attract people to your gym, Boyd suggests creating and pinning your own content as well. She says that the platform can be a good forum for “educating parents regarding behavior, nutrition and sportsmanship. You’re showing parents that you have their cheerleader’s best interest at heart.” A few great examples: the Pinterest pages for North Canton, OH-based NEO All-Stars (which has more than 25 boards on topics like “Conditioning,” “Muscle-Building Smoothies,” “Cheer Moms,” “Cheerleading Worlds,” and “Travel Ideas”) and Marietta, GA-based Legends Elite All-Star Cheerleading (which has boards on topics like “The Summit,” “Cheer Bows,” and “Legends Elite”).

If you’re new to Pinterest, Fuller advises planning ahead. “Sit down with your coaches and your owners and figure out what exactly it is that you’re trying to accomplish. If you want to talk about different stunts that are out there, different bows, different outfits or different teams that you idolize, bucket those into different categories, so it’s not just a chaotic mess.” Creating a Pinterest board for each category (ala NEO All-Stars or Legends Elite) will help keep your account organized as you add more and more pins in the future.

Getting Started

Before you set up a profile, think about how you want to brand your gym. “What kind of message are you trying to get across? What kind of picture are you trying to paint?” asks Sarah Gosnell, owner of Legends Elite All-Star Cheerleading, who keeps those questions in mind as she manages the gym’s Pinterest page.

When you first set up a new account, don’t rush into promoting it. Fuller recommends posting at least 10 pictures before you share the link publicly, so that you aren’t directing people to an empty page. “The best way to populate an account is when you don’t have followers. Get a few pictures up there, so that when you start driving traffic to your account, you actually have something to keep people there. It gives them a reason to come back,” she suggests.

As you build your account, always keep your gym’s goals and desired image in mind. Gosnell advises, “Be sure that whatever you’re putting out there, you’d be okay with your competitors seeing and kids who cheer for a rival gym seeing.” Once it’s set up and you’re ready to spread the word, share the link on your official website and on your Facebook or Twitter pages. If your gym’s athletes, parents and coaches are using Instagram or Pinterest, follow them and encourage them to tag you in posts. And, finally, don’t feel pressured to set up more accounts than you can handle—choose what feels right for your gym and master that platform. As Fuller points out, “There are a lot of great social platforms out there, but if you try to get onto all of them, you’re [likely] to neglect something. Pick what you’re interested in, and focus on those.”

-Lisa Beebe



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

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.

Expert Q&A: Tara Wieland of Michigan Storm Cheer & Dance

Expert Q&A: Tara Wieland of Michigan Storm Cheer & Dance

We received the following email in our inbox from a 13-year-old aspiring all-star cheerleader and enlisted program director/coach Tara Wieland of Michigan Storm Cheer & Dance to share her insights and advice:

Q: Hi, I am a 13-year-old and I love the concept of cheerleading and would love to cheer myself. So can I still be on an all-star team even though I am not be able to tumble and be super flexible? I am super-strong and spirited—and I was wondering if that is enough. Can you please help me? Cheerleading is my dream and passion, and I don’t want to give it all up for not being “extreme enough.”

Tara Wieland: From someone who has been coaching a very long time, I wish kids like you grew on trees! Physical talent can be taught, but the drive, inner passion and self commitment cannot. I’d have to say you’re already much further ahead than some elite level athletes in our industry. If cheer is what you love, go for it! Keep that drive alive in every practice to push yourself further than you ever thought was possible. The cheer world in general needs more kids like you. Good luck and dream big!

Implementing Your Gym’s Social Media Policy

Implementing Your Gym’s Social Media Policy

The following is a guest post from coach, choreographer and social media consultant Kate Boyd:

By now, you’re aware that you need a social media policy, and you may already have one created. So start by giving yourself a high five! Because the first step in implementing a policy is to have one (or at least be in the process of it).

But once you have it, you need to take the next step: putting it into action. You could just hand over a sheet with the guidelines to your team, coaches and parents … but that won’t get you very far if you won’t be taking the steps to also enforce the policy. So below I’ll outline a few ways that you can make sure your guidelines are not ignored.

Make it a part of your handbook or constitution. Show your team that you take these guidelines very seriously by incorporating them into your regular handbook or constitution. Include it as part of your expectations for behavior and consider making your team members—and their parents—sign it to show that they have read it and agree to it.

Assign consequences and follow through. When preparing your guideline,s be sure to think of consequences for infractions or working them into your demerit system (if you have one). Make them specific and create a safe reporting system so others feel as though they speak up about inappropriate behavior on social media.

The most important part is to follow through. You shouldn’t punish every instance reported, since many of them probably won’t deserve that. However, when something does fit your criteria for inappropriate behavior, stick to your guns and enforce the policies you worked so hard to produce.

Empower and encourage your team captains and employees. The truth is that you will not be able to monitor everybody’s social media activity alone. You will have to give some extra direction and power to those you’ve chosen as team leaders to help you out if you want to ensure effectiveness. Tell them what you’re looking for, encourage them to engage online and give them the authority to report or draw attention to inappropriate behavior from your team.

Educate parents. Another part of your social media team could be the parents of your athletes. Take some time to educate them about the technology and threats involved in social media and the policy you have put into place to protect their children. Then encourage them to be a presence on social media by interacting often with their children online and offline about what’s being posted.

Engage frequently. Even though delegation will make the job of enforcing your policy much easier, it doesn’t absolve you from being involved on social media. You should still make an effort to have a presence on the various channels that your athletes use and interact with them there. It will help build accountability as well as relationships.

I know some of this may seem controlling or as though you’re infringing on their freedom of expression, but a solid social media policy is about protecting your athletes as well as your business and reputation. By implementing your policies, you’re creating increasingly social media savvy human beings who will be equipped to make wise decisions and ultimately succeed.

Kate Boyd is a coach, choreographer and consultant whose goal is to make you, your team and your program look its best. Visit kateboydcheerleading.com to learn more about Kate or to find articles about leadership, technique and choreography.


All in the Family: Coaching Your Own Kids

All in the Family: Coaching Your Own Kids

Many cheer professionals wear several hats—not only as gym owners and coaches, but also as parents. And when the two worlds meet, things can get complicated. After all, raising a child is a challenging endeavor for any parent, but the ante is especially raised when doing double-duty as parent and coach. Issues like favoritism, overcompensation and parental guilt constantly arise and have become frequent topics of discussion in private Facebook groups for cheer professionals.

Just ask Cheer Savannah owner Stephanie Britt, who admits that she is often harder on her daughters, 14-year-old Southern and 13-year-old Saylor. Britt expects more from her own kids because she wants them to cultivate a desire to be the best and to form a strong work ethic. As Britt sees it, the best way to handle the issue of nepotism is by not publicly celebrating her girls’ success or liberally praising them; she feels that, as their coach and the owner of the gym, doing so would be unprofessional. Britt believes that this approach has taught her daughters humility and the meaning of earning your spot.

However, in private, Britt is quick to tell Southern and Saylor “good job” and let them know just how proud she is of them. In return, her daughters recognize this approach and have no problem with it. Says Britt, “I don’t want my girls to get their self-worth from cheerleading. I want them to know I love them whether they can flip or not.”

Not Being “That” Parent

In exploring the pros and cons of coaching your own kids, one of the biggest pros noted by coaches was getting to spend time with their children that they otherwise wouldn’t get due to the time demands of the cheer business.  However, the flip side is the issue of nepotism and how one handles walking the fine line between being a coach and being a parent.

Cheer professionals Aaron Flaker and Les Stella know this conundrum all too well—though they don’t coach their kids in a cheer gym, they’re out on the baseball, football and soccer fields living out these scenarios. “You can turn off being a coach, but you can’t turn off being a parent,” says Flaker of The JAM Brands, who coaches his 10-year-old Braxton and 6-year-old Tyce in both baseball and football.

Flaker’s driving philosophy is that in order for a team to thrive, all athletes have to be empowered to do well. He believes strongly that kids should be able to flourish on their own, and the only way to facilitate that is through fairness to everyone. In light of that, Flaker feels that he probably goes out of his way to make sure his kids are treated the same as everyone else—probably to the point that his sons may think he’s harder on them than others. He doesn’t ever want to engage in “Daddy ball,” where parent-coaches tend to focus only on their own kids and their abilities.

“When you’re in the stands, at least you literally have distance from your kid, but as the coach, human nature kicks in and you have to try not to let your kid’s performance affect you,” explains Flaker.

Stella has also seen his share of “Daddy ball,” as he spends up to three weekends every month coaching his kids’ soccer teams. He originally started coaching 7-year-old Gavin and 11-year-old Spencer in order to spend more time with them—after all, his role as USASF’s Vice-President of Rules, Safety & Judging keeps him on the go pretty much 24/7. Stella believes that in order to successfully coach kids, you need to be able to relate to them, and this is where his background as a former cheer coach serves him well. “Know your audience, and coach accordingly,” he advises, adding that it’s vital to know what type of motivation and coaching approach will elicit the best performance from athletes.

At the start of every season, Stella sets the tone with his sons by sharing that if he gets on their case, it’s only because he wants them to thrive. He says that his boys understand this and don’t feel singled out. Stella is very cognizant that as a coach and parent, there is always a bigger picture at play. “At the end of the day, it’s not about you or your children, it’s about the team,” he shares.

Moving Forward After Mistakes

Though Bravo All-Stars head coach Adriane Callahan now coaches her daughter Marina’s Level 3 team, she almost didn’t get the chance to have this shared experience with her child. Before coaching all-star cheerleading, Callahan coached Marina in gymnastics and pushed her very hard in a rigorous program that was challenging for Marina. According to Callahan, Marina felt her mom was unfairly being tougher on her than others and quit gymnastics largely because it stopped being fun.

Things changed when Marina joined Bravo—once she advanced to the level that Callahan coached, the two forged a fresh start by talking about how they would do things differently. Marina came to understand that she would be treated like any other kid, and Callahan realized that it’s okay to let Marina naturally progress rather than forcing it. Callahan now admits that she probably worked Marina too hard in gymnastics because she wanted her to be on par with the others, even though her skill wasn’t yet at that level.

Through this experience with Marina, Callahan learned to let the child’s desire and ability drive how you teach them—and, above all, to make sure that they are having fun. “I believe that every coach has to be true to their individual coaching philosophy much like every parent has to follow their own parenting philosophy,” shares Callahan. Marina’s current success and love of cheerleading shows Callahan that, this time, mom and daughter got it worked out right.


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

Head Games: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Head Games: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Minutes before taking the floor, an athlete crumbles: her heart rate spikes and her breath comes in quick, shallow gulps. While backstage is chaotic, her panic is centered on something else: what will happen next, performing in front of the crowd. As her coach, you’re not sure what to do before she walks onstage—calm her, convince her it’s just like practice or remind her to have fun. Sound familiar?

The hard fact is that helping young athletes overcome performance anxiety or move beyond mental blocks may be two of the most difficult tasks coaches face. The good news: both can be overcome. However, there are no quick fixes, notes sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby, Ph.D.

Anxiety can arise from any number of sources, whether it is a negative outlook about success, concern about injury or a fear of failing. The feeling is most potent when increased expectations collide with decreased confidence, explains Dr. Silby: “Another way to think about it: an athlete’s physical capability is ahead of her confidence.”

Aly Mantell, director of San Luis Obispo, CA-based Central Coast Elite Cheer, agrees with Dr. Silby, but takes it a step further. She’s encountered numerous athletes that were “afraid to move up,” even though they were more than capable. For one child, Mantell found that the solution was to have her attend one extra tumbling class each week. The difference: the athlete was more dedicated. Not only must athletes be capable, “they must want to get that new skill,” advises Mantell. “If they are committed, we can get creative and help them.”

Here are four ways you can help your athletes move past performance anxiety:

See it to believe it via visualization. Mantell accomplishes this by giving her athletes homework. “I ask them to visualize skill progressions at home, away from the gym,” she says, “and write down what they see, like where the arms are during a back handspring.” Mantell then reviews the written record of the image and redirects stressed kids to realize what they are good at and what they need to work on.

Karen Lundgren, a professional adventure racer and youth coach, also believes that visualization is highly effective—when done correctly. As a child athlete, Lundgren found visualization helpful, but not at first. “When I watched myself [during visualization], I made the same mistakes,” she says. “I had to teach myself to picture doing it [the skill] right.” Lundgren thinks this is an error coaches often make: asking a child to visualize without teaching them how to do it properly. She urges coaches to consider the consequences of flawed visualization, sharing that it can often “support self-sabotage.”

Lundgren also puts emphasis on how kids visualize, whether they see themselves as if they were “on television” or “through their own eyes.” While Lundgren concedes neither is wrong or right, she will ask athletes to switch it around. “As they become more aware of the differences, watching versus doing, they gain a better understanding of the power of visualization,” explains Lundgren.

While visualization is easier for older kids, it is often challenging for younger children. “It’s about sitting still,” Lundgren says. “That’s difficult; it’s new to them and you need to talk them through it.” But introducing the concept of “what is going on inside my head” is valuable at an early age. “It helps young athletes grow,” she adds, “because the mental aspect [of performance] is one of the hardest things to notice.”

Put a lock-step system in place to deal with apprehension. Dr. Silby advocates creating a “contract” of sorts with athletes. Her theory is that having an agreed-upon method for execution will prevent the escalation of emotions—both by athlete and coach.

For example, the arrangement could allow an athlete three attempts to do a skill. If an athlete does not perform a skill successfully, he or she must stop and perform an agreed upon action or set of actions (such as attempting another skill or performing any number of measures that serve to clear the head, such as tensing and releasing).

“Allowing an athlete to work through fear in a systematic way begins to produce momentum to move the athlete closer to making up her mind to work through the situation that is making her anxious,” says Dr. Silby. Athletes can concentrate on what they are willing to do as opposed to drawing attention to what they are not willing to do. “The pattern of ‘not going’ is interrupted with a moment to refocus,” she adds.

Mastery over anxiety is achieved by acknowledging mental strengths. “We all possess mental strengths,” Dr. Silby says, “but children very often are completely unaware of these strengths or how they contribute to performance success.” Dr. Silby explains that identifying these assets is essential, as it helps athletes recognize how they control their own performance levels and teaches them to make use of their strong points.

To do this, Dr. Silby recommends what she calls “accomplishment exercises.” For one week after each practice, coaches ask athletes to write down three accomplishments and one action that contributed to that success. This provides an athlete with evidence there is a connection between actions and outcomes, notes Dr. Silby. It also gives adults an opportunity to mention what they noticed. “I saw you take a deep breath and refocus before completing that skill,” Dr. Silby offers as illustration.

Coaches must remain engaged. Dr. Silby calls this “being in it,” saying that coaches can often get frustrated by athletes’ mental blocks and withdraw from the process.

However, engagement doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the issues, she cautions; rather, dialogue should be kept to a minimum. Instead, staying “in it” means helping an athlete “navigate the emotions he or she is experiencing in that moment.” This could be as simple as moving them past frustration to calm down or encouraging the use of breathing exercises to relax. The effect: athletes again make that connection between their own actions and execution of positive results.

No matter your preferred method, arming kids early on with the power to overcome anxiety is as important as proper technique and, as Lundgren shares, “teaching them to enjoy all the steps to get there is invaluable.”


The Big Reveal

The Big Reveal

At Kernersville, NC-based Cheer Extreme Allstars, team placements are no longer simply announced online, but have now become a festive affair with much more fanfare. This spring, owner Courtney Smith-Pope introduced the “Teal Reveal,” a gala event held at a local church. Smith-Pope spent the morning with her team moms stuffing personalized invites for each athlete, and when she yelled “Go!” later that night, the athletes eagerly ran to each decorated table to see which team held their fate. In retrospect, Smith-Pope said she loved seeing the athletes react to their placements—hearing happy screams, seeing them hug their moms, being able to comfort a select few who were disappointed—but the event was also helpful on a practical level.

“We get to say thank you to all the parents personally. They come in, and they’re all dressed up, and we show a video with the highlights of tryouts that gets everybody all excited for the season,” shares Smith-Pope.

Of course, not everyone is always excited by the news at the start of a new season—many gym owners must deal with parental pressure to place their child on a higher-level team. To keep team reveals from being stressful and/or tense, it’s important to set the tone for a positive experience by establishing clear expectations, outlining long-term goals and, of course, communicating with athletes and parents.

Five top tips for a successful team reveal:

1. Have standards—and stick to them. While parents may want to see their child succeed right away, the proper placement is one that will be both safe and challenging for the athlete. The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises on placement day is to be specific about what you’re looking for from athletes at each level and make sure everyone on staff shares your vision. Jessica Bugg Smith, owner of Nicholasville, KY-based Kentucky Reign, advises, “Establish policies and procedures for how you want to run your program, and be consistent across the board. If you say that you need a certain skill set for a certain team, you have to stick to your guns.”

2. Follow your own rules. Gym owners and coaches often face pressure to give certain athletes special treatment, but when you do a favor for one person, word gets around. Other parents will expect you to bend the rules for their children, too. Cheer Extreme Allstars is in its 20th year, and Smith-Pope has learned a few things along the way. “The kid you put on the team because you’re close to them…it never works out in the long run. It gives them a more inflated sense of value than they really actually have. They take advantage of the situation, and it’s worse when other parents find out that something like that happened and you moved a kid or did something after the fact. You have to be on the up and up.”

Letting favors affect team placement also does a disservice to the whole team. Bugg Smith offers this example: “You take a child who’s working on a back handspring, right at a Level 2. You put her on a Level 4 team, and what ends up happening is one of two things: either the kid with the Level 2 skills doesn’t continue to develop her own skills, because in practice, you don’t have time for her—or on the flipside, you focus so much on trying to get that kid up to par that your Level 4’s aren’t getting what they need to get to Level 5.”

3. Build relationships. Create an environment where parents know you want what’s best for their child, so they will trust you and respect your decisions. Bugg Smith communicates with parents as often as possible about their child’s progress, and she makes it crystal clear that coaches and parents are working toward the same goal. “All we all want is success for the athlete,” shares Bugg Smith. “Our coaches’ number one priority is to give their kid the best chance of success. That doesn’t necessarily mean winning every championship, but that the child is progressing and growing.”

4. Create a shared vision.  Proper placement benefits the individual athlete, their current team and every team they join in the future. Bugg Smith advises owners of smaller gyms to think long-term: “It’s very important that we’re focusing on the process of developing the athlete versus just where they are this year.”

If an athlete or parent is disappointed in a placement decision, they may threaten to leave and go to another gym, but according to Smith-Pope, that’s a mistake. “The biggest skill you can have in our sport is competition experience. Sometimes they think, ‘I’ll work on those skills and then come back to Cheer Extreme,’ but in reality, if you want to make the team, you want to be on the floor with us, years prior to that.”

5. Consider how you share the news. A successful team reveal relies on finding the right fit for your gym. At Kentucky Reign, team placement is a relatively casual experience. Bugg Smith explains, “We just need you to come in, see what you can do. Generally people know where they’re going. It’s not a big surprise.”

At Cheer Extreme Allstars’ Teal Reveal, the event acted not only as a fun way to kick off a new season, but also a valuable opportunity for parents to ask questions. In the past, Smith-Pope would field texts and phone calls from unhappy parents at all hours of the night, but she enacted a new policy at the Teal Reveal: “Any question they have has to be asked in person.” She found that parents were less confrontational this way because they wanted to avoid making a scene. Coordinating an event like the Teal Reveal is certainly more work than posting a list, but according to Smith-Pope, “We had the best year ever last year, and this really set the tone [for the new season] right from the start.”

-Lisa Beebe

Meet Our Young Entrepreneur Competition Winners!

Meet Our Young Entrepreneur Competition Winners!

Thanks so much to all who entered our Young Entrepreneur contest sponsored by Nfinity, and congratulations to our winner Madelyn Mize and finalists Cheer 360 and Muddy Cheer Challenge! Get to know these enterprising young cheer professionals and find out what’s coming down the pike.

Meet Our Winner: Madelyn Mize

I’m a 17-year-old, current competitive Level 5 cheerleader with aspirations of cheering in college. As I learned about the process of cheering in college, I quickly realized how inefficient the process is. Colleges do not have the budgets to promote their programs.  Often aspiring collegiate cheerleaders lack the time and money to participate in more than one or two camps. I told myself that there has to be a better way! That’s where Traelo Sports comes in. It exists to link not only the cheerleading and dance world with each other, but with colleges and their programs.

Meet Our Finalists: Cheer 360 and Muddy Cheer Challenge

Cheer 360

Cheer360 is a sport specific strength training, nutrition and mental fitness program developed and run by certified, accomplished and enthusiastic fitness, nutrition and cheer professionals. Cheer360’s goal is to build better cheer athletes by empowering them to achieve, maintain and perform at their highest personal, physical, nutritional and mental level possible. Cheer360 understands that cheerleading is in fact, 100% a sport. Cheer athletes must be as strong as a football player, as coordinated as a dancer and as flexible as a gymnast. Located in Long Island, NY, the Cheer360 program teaches skills that transcend sport and enrich one’s personal life.

Cheer strong! Cheer Smart!

Morgan Fairley: Muddy Cheer Challenge

I created the Muddy Cheer Challenge fundraising company to put the fun back into fundraising and remove all the work and worry.  As a former cheerleader and coach, I know how important it is to find NEW team bonding activities and teaching the athletes how important giving back is.  I also know how important fundraising is to teams and gyms. Selling cookie dough and tumbling clinics are good, but this is so much more fun, different and unique and what more perfect way than to combine all of these things that cheerleaders need into one company? These runs will have something for everyone and will be a family event everyone can enjoy. I want to encourage this to become an annual event for gyms and schools nationwide.

More Than Business

More Than Business

At Mystic All Stars in Apple Valley, CA, signs on the wall proudly proclaim “Family,” and its teams chant “We are Family” at practices and competitions. The close-knit atmosphere at Mystic signifies what is true for so many all-star programs—that gyms can be much more than just places to practice tumbling, twisting and rehearsing for the next big event, but rather places where seeds of meaningful relationships are sown. Strong emotional connections often form between coaches and athletes, thanks to the intense training and shared cheer experiences that bind them together. But are such deep bonds good for business—or risky business?

On the positive end of the spectrum, coaching provides a great opportunity to influence kids positively and instill beneficial traits and habits in them. Mystic All Stars owner Robert Alvey says he and his staff go to great lengths to form special bonds with their athletes. “I have had the pleasure of influencing students of all ages and socio- economic backgrounds,” shares Alvey. “Some of my students come from broken homes and this is the only family they know.”

Coaches can also help students deal with unforeseeable tragedies in their lives. At Cheer Extreme’s Raleigh location, owner Kelly Alison Smith saw this firsthand when an athlete’s mother was recently diagnosed with leukemia. The mother was in desperate need of bone marrow donations, and finding a match was a tall task.

“[The athlete] was devastated and so were we,” says Smith. “Together we devised a plan to set up as many bone marrow drives as possible. We spread the word about how easy it is to donate bone marrow and received hundreds of cheek swap sets.” Within two months, Tonia’s mother got a call that a match had been found. Adds Smith, “The relationship formed between this family and me will be everlasting.”

Seeing the athletes bloom into responsible, productive adults is another heartening byproduct for coaches and gym owners. Very recently, ACE Cheer Company owner Happy Hooper attended the wedding of one of his all-star athletes. “I simply thought, ‘How amazing that I have had the honor to watch her grow into an amazing young person, cheer in college and watch her enter the workforce as a contributing member of a marketing firm,” he says. “Now I’ve seen her achieve yet another outstanding life rite—to marry the person she loves.”

Setting Boundaries

Though relationships shared with athletes are undoubtedly fulfilling, they can also be personally challenging—especially when cheer professionals get too attached. Alvey recalls one male athlete to whom he acted as a “surrogate father,” granting a full cheer scholarship and even allowing him and his mother to reside in his guest home temporarily. When the athlete unexpectedly transferred to another gym, Alvey was devastated. “I have only one flaw and that is I care too much,” says Alvey. “That can sometimes let you down.”

He adds that it’s helpful if you can keep things in perspective and accept that you will be disappointed once in a while: “No matter how hard you try there may be that one kid in a hundred that you just can’t help, and as painful as that might be, you just have to let them go.”

For Alvey, sometimes “letting go” also means recognizing that what’s best for the athlete isn’t always what’s best for the gym. When Brandon Shinnamon, an at-rish athlete whom Alvey had personally recruited and mentored, showed exceptional cheer potential, Alvey decided to refer him to Pacific Coast Magic. There Shinnamon could cheer on its Worlds team “Mysterious,” whereas the highest level offered at Mystic All-Stars was Level 3. “I didn’t want him to miss the opportunities that would be afforded to him [as a Level 5 athlete],” says Alvey.

However, even when you have a tight bond with a particular athlete, it’s crucial to avoid favoring any one person or placing individual needs over the team as a whole. “As a coach or gym owner, you must find that line to make sure you never develop favorites,” warns Hooper. Smith even goes as far as to sometimes overcompensate—she admits that she is usually harder on those she is closer to during practice. “So, from a public eye, it seems the opposite,” she explains.

The bottom line is to not overstep the line. “It’s okay to build relationships, but always make sure you set boundaries and establish them and don’t stray from them. This will help the students to understand when you may have to be stern or help to correct a negative action,” says Alvey.

If gyms have policies stressing that each athlete should get individual feedback and attention, it can help deter coaches from getting too involved with a favorite few. At Cheer Extreme Raleigh, the coaches are tasked with keeping detailed notes on each athlete and how he or she is progressing throughout the season. “We send out individual progress reports to each and every kid in my gym, so they feel the personal touch from the coaching staff,” says Smith.

Ultimately, cheer professionals need to accept the fact that they won’t be able to resolve all of the problems in their athletes’ lives—and that the parents should always be informed about serious issues. “If  a situation begins to approach the inappropriate line, you as a coach should seek the parents’ help. If your attempts to reach parents or family members fail, then encourage the athlete to reach out to a professional counselor,” advises Hooper.

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

Emergency R/x: Handling Medical Issues in the Gym

Emergency R/x: Handling Medical Issues in the Gym

It’s not easy for the staff of SWAT All Stars in Fairfield, California, to train an athlete who has double medical trouble—varicose veins and asthma. The varicose veins can be particularly worrisome when even minor injuries happen on the floor, as they make it difficult for the athlete’s body to produce a scab after bleeding. “In cheer, athletes are always [prone] to being cut, but for her, a simple cut could become an emergency,” says Andres Cantero, the gym’s administrative director.

To ward off issues, the young cheerleader wears compression socks to ease the pain from varicose veins and minimize skin exposure. Coaches also keep asthma pumps handy in case she has an attack, and her mother has to be always around to help in case of emergency. However, the concerns do add an extra layer of work and worry for gym employees. “It is not easy, and there is no manual on how to best do this,” says Cantero.

At Renegade Athletics in Calhoun, Georgia, owner Leslie Pledger has also come across her share of athletes with medical issues—including some that were life-or-death. “One athlete had sustained a brain injury when she was younger and it was very dangerous for her to be inverted, so she couldn’t do any cartwheels or handstands,” shares Pledger, who was able to gain clearance from a doctor for the athlete to join the gym’s special needs squad.

In the gym environment, cheer professionals are sure to encounter kids with a gamut of medical conditions, ranging from asthma to heart disease. Here are a few tips to help you rise to the challenge of coaching and helping these athletes stay healthy:

Make the right call. Most gyms have a release form that parents fill out and sign when an athlete registers at the gym. At Renegade Athletics, Pledger is always diligent about carefully reviewing the medical information area of any release form submitted. “When I see something on the medical history that I don’t know about, I look it up and try to determine if I need a release from a doctor to allow the child to participate,” she says. Pledger adds that irrespective of what the doctor decides, coaches have to take the final call. “Some times the doctor doesn’t understand how strenuous competitive cheerleading is and may clear a child anyway,” she points out.

However, this doesn’t mean that athletes don’t get to participate at all—Pledger simply finds the right fit for each athlete’s individual needs. For instance, an athlete who had injured her shoulder at another gym was placed on Renegade’s semi-competitive team since lifting was prohibited, while another who had a heart condition joined Renegade’s low-impact community performance program.

Take it on a case-by-case basis. Even though there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all medical problems, there are some basic questions that need to be asked every time a child with a medical condition walks into the gym. From there, once any issues are brought to light, cheer professionals can dig deeper and work with parents to create a safe environment. “A plan of action should be made with all parties: the coach, the parents and the athlete,” says Jim Lord, executive director at American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors.

For example, if an athlete has asthma, coaches will need to ask the following questions: Is the asthma brought on by physical exertion or is it stress-related? What steps can be taken by the parent, athlete and coach to minimize having an episode? At that point, provisions can be made to properly accommodate the athlete. “Coaches will need to determine if the athlete needs an inhaler accessible at all times and, if so, where it will be located,” adds Lord.

Have a master plan. Although athletes with pre-existing medical conditions are arguably more susceptible to emergency situations, even healthy individuals can succumb to injuries. As such, it’s vital for gyms to be prepared for any situation that might arise—and that means forming an all-encompassing emergency plan. At Renegade Athletics, the emergency action plan addresses injuries, hazardous materials and weather emergencies. “Coaches and staff should be trained on how to respond to each of these [situations], and the plan should be posted in the gym for parents and athletes to see as well,” says Pledger.

Equip your coaches to handle situations properly. Additionally, most gym owners advocate that at least one employee on-site should be trained in proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) techniques. At SWAT All Stars, all coaches are required to be CPR/AED certified, and much of the early staff training revolves around emergencies and how to handle them.

“We speak on medical emergencies at our first couple staff meetings, and we usually establish and agree upon codes and standards to ensure the safety and health of all athletes,” says Cantero. “Like a fire drill or earthquake drill, coaches need to have a plan in place and everyone on staff needs to know how to react to ensure the best support and services are provided during times of medical emergency.”

Consider requiring physicals to participate. In high school sports, most schools require a physical, but not all gyms have a provision for it. AACCA’s Lord, however, advocates having physicals for all-star gyms. “Gyms should strongly consider requiring PPEs (Pre-Participation Physical Evaluations) in order to minimize the chance of injury due to foreseeable circumstances. They also provide a baseline set of data that can be referenced in the future,” says Lord. 

Reduce your liability. Medical issues raise the subject of liability. At SWAT All Stars, parents must sign a form in which they agree not to hold the gym liable. Cantero also reduces his liability by reducing the time of responsibility they have over their athletes, and he is clear about their capability to handle serious emergencies. “We always let parents know we are not medical professionals, and in cases of emergency, we can only do what is in our knowledge and training capacity,” says Cantero, who immediately refers all emergencies to medical professionals.

In the same vein, Cantero is careful to maintain open communication between parents and coaches. That way, no confusion arises around the way medical issues will be handled. Says Cantero, “Open communication makes the gym aware and allows for coaches and parents to pre-plan and agree how to handle athletes’ medical conditions.”

-Dinsa Sachan

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

Announcing our Young Entrepreneur Competition with Nfinity!

Announcing our Young Entrepreneur Competition with Nfinity!

Is your brain abuzz with a dynamite business idea? Do you think you’ve got what it takes to open an innovative cheerleading business or gym—and just need the resources to do it? We’ve got the goods to get you there, thanks to Nfinity’s Young Entrepreneur Competition.

We’re partnering with Nfinity to offer this exciting new venture designed to help up-and-coming cheer professionals get started on their professional path. Prizes include a $5000 cash prize from Nfinity, booth space at multiple events, a print ad in an upcoming issue of CheerProfessional and graphic design services for your business logo and ad.

To be considered, contestants must be 25 or under and submit the following business plan components to marketing@nfinity.com by 11:59 p.m. on August 16, 2013:

  • projected overhead
  • revenue sources
  • projected revenue
  • start-up costs
  • past and/or present marketing strategies
  • executive summary on your product or service (250 words)

So what are you waiting for? Go get started on your business plan to be the cheer industry’s next big thing!


Operation Thin-spiration: Body Image Issues for Athletes

Operation Thin-spiration: Body Image Issues for Athletes

Lettuce-only salads, one slice of meat per day and strict rules against pasta, soda and bread—these are the staples of a popular “Worlds diet” making the rounds online (where Tweets like “Oops! So much for my Worlds diet” are standard fare). “I often hear my athletes saying, ‘Have you seen that gym’s Worlds diet?’” says Tanya Roesel of Midwest Cheer Elite. “It’s a bad time of year for body image. Everyone’s going to Florida, where they’ll be either in swimsuits or the spotlight.”

Roesel is especially sensitive to the issue of body image, as she’s had two athletes hospitalized due to issues with anorexia. “In one case, it became blatantly obvious as the athlete got thinner and thinner; during snack breaks, the athlete wouldn’t eat at all,” Roesel recalls. “Our coaches were picking up on it, but the parents were in denial.” It was a magazine shoot that finally brought the problem to light for everyone involved. Adds Roesel, “When the magazine came out, we almost fell over—the photo was so shocking. The bones were sticking out in her face and you could count her ribs.” By the time the Level 5 athlete was admitted to the hospital, she weighed 70 pounds.

Of course, not all body image issues are quite as apparent—often presenting in more subtle ways. At Shine Athletics in Orlando, Fla., it’s not unusual for gym owner Sydney McBride to overhear young cheerleaders in the training room talk about having Jamie Andries’ abs or Maddie Gardner’s silky mane. “With the rise of the cheerlebrity trend, I often see pictures of girls in crop tops posting quotes about wanting abs like a certain cheerlebrity or a body like another girl,” says McBride.

The aspirational talk isn’t relegated to just cheerlebrities, as athletes often compare themselves to celebrities, models they see in magazines and even siblings or friends. It’s all part of a deep-seated dichotomy unique to the cheer industry: it’s essential that athletes be fit and healthy, but what’s to prevent them from taking it too far?

The Breaking Point 

Healthy body image is certainly a potent concern for youth across the board, in part due to “unrealistically thin images of females that are so prevalent in visual and print media,” according to expert Ron A. Thompson. Yet cheerleaders may be especially at risk for developing issues—thanks to a perfect storm of unique factors including exposure, scrutiny, self-esteem and pressure (both internal and external). “They are performing in front of spectators, and there is high pressure to look good,” says Thompson, co-author of Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders.

For flyers, the feelings may be even more heightened. “My athlete who got really ill said that every time she went in the air, she felt like she was standing on a scale. All she could think about was whether the bases could tell if she’d gained or lost a pound,” says Roesel. “For that 30 seconds a flyer is in the air, all attention is on her. They’re wondering, ‘Is my stomach hanging out? Do I have love handles on the side of my shorts?’” A September 2012 study by the University of South Carolina corroborated Roesel’s statement, finding that showed flyers had the highest risk of developing eating disorders, and that the risk was directly related to the uniforms they wore.

No matter what role an athlete plays on the team, poor body image can lead to an array of unhealthy behaviors and even put an end to his or her cheer career—affecting performance and general well-being. “If poor body image drives athletes to diet, over-exercise or engage in any form of disordered eating, they will be putting her physical health at great risk,” says Claire Mysko of National Eating Disorders Association.  “They’ll have less energy, strength and focus to devote to their sport.”

The danger of developing eating disorders also looms large. Adds Mysko, “Not every person who struggles with poor body image will go on to develop an eating disorder, but poor body image is certainly a major risk factor.” (See sidebar for a rundown of common eating disorders.)

How You Can Help 

Cheer professionals can make all the difference for athletes who are struggling. “It’s important for coaches to encourage athletes to live their version of a healthy lifestyle and to stop comparing themselves to others,” says McBride. Find out how McBride and others play an important part in warding off issues at their gyms:

Mark what you say: Words can conjure images, and it’s important to make sure you’re not sending a harmful message. “As coaches, we can help encourage a healthy body image by not using words like ‘thin’ or ‘skinny’ and instead using words like ‘fit’ and ‘healthy,’” says McBride. Sean Powers, director of all-star tumbling for Connecticut-based Spirit Zone, agrees. “The word ‘diet’ just screams bad. I use ‘meal plan’ instead,” he says.

Educate yourself, your teams and staff: At Midwest Cheer Elite, Roesel employs a personal trainer who offers free daily strength & conditioning classes and gives frequent nutrition talks; she also makes a strong effort to educate both her athletes and staff on all facets of body image. At Spirit Zone, Powers and his colleagues “try to promote healthy eating, along with appropriate training programs for all athletes.”

Mysko says this type of education is essential for all cheer professionals in the gym environment. “These are complex issues, and knowledgeable coaches are in a much better position to help [athletes] develop a healthy sense of self and intervene when they see problems,” she says.

Instill best practices: Coaches are not infallible and may be partial to cheerleaders who have a certain body type. However, it’s important to be conscious of presenting information in the right way. “Focus on cheerleaders’ abilities rather than weight and appearance when assigning positions because they do notice who gets chosen,” advises Sonya SooHoo, who conducted a study on body image among adolescent cheerleaders at the University of Utah.

Uniforms are another area where coaches can set a positive example. Roesel gives athletes and parents the option of choosing long shells or midriffs, which she says helps set their minds at ease and step out more confidently on the mat. “Allow cheerleaders to choose uniforms that don’t make them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious,” says SooHoo.

Communication is key: Coaches need to convey the message that healthy eating and nutrition are important, and Mysko adds coaches should reach out to the cheerleaders who are likely candidates for body image issues. “A coach can help get her on a healthy path or he/she can reinforce the negative thoughts in that cheerleader’s head,” she says.

Although certain facets of cheerleading do hold high risk for bringing out negative body image, the sport can also be a great platform for instilling positive eating habits, confidence and well-being in athletes. McBride views her role as a way to help develop these essential life skills and encourages other cheer professionals to do the same: “We have the opportunity to create positive role models and teach youngsters to be themselves.”

-Dinsa Sachan


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.

Owner’s Manual: Andrea Fagundes of Athletic Perfection

Owner’s Manual: Andrea Fagundes of Athletic Perfection

In our “Owner’s Manual” column, we ask gym owners to take us “under the hood” and give us their secrets to what keeps their gyms running so smoothly. Find out how Andrea Fagundes and her co-owners at Athletic Perfection handled the transition from small gym to large gym in style:

Vital Stats:

Name: Andrea Fagundes, co-owner (with Jennifer Moore and gym founder Julie Van Os)

Gym: Athletic Perfection Cheer

Location: Tracy, California

Founded: 2003

Size: Eight all-star teams and two all-star prep teams

Gym size: Approximately 6,000 square feet

Debrief: Last summer, Athletic Perfection hit a peak number of 115 athletes—the most the gym has had in its 10 years and a growth of more than 30 percent from the previous season. We spoke with co-owner Fagundes about how her gym is handling the exponential growth—and how they plan to ride the wave of success.

The Dish:

As the class sizes started to grow, Julie realized she couldn’t do it alone, so Jennifer and I came on as partners in May 2012. The biggest thing for the three of us has been to find a balance as far as our respective areas of expertise. In general, I work as the all-star teams director, choreographer, curriculum director and head of merchandise design. Jennifer works on all finance and sales. Julie is call director, along with working on advertising, marketing and choreography. We hold regularly scheduled weekly meetings, which are crucial because they allow us to openly discuss any issues. They also give us time to inform each other of what’s been happening on our end during that week.

Being 100% upfront and organized has been a huge key to our growth. Calendars, conferences and emails are how we stay focused. The three of us had an eight-hour meeting in December during which we planned our entire calendar for 2013. Now we know when picture day is and what days we are open; we have a clear picture of what we need and what we have to offer. The worst thing is for a new face to walk into your gym, and you don’t have an answer for them or a way to keep them in your program. Staying super-organized means that when prospective customers call, we have schedules and dates to share—and they can immediately join a class, team or camp.

Being organized also ensures that, when the gym opens at 5 pm, it’s not a crazy madhouse but instead organized chaos! There are times where it does start to feel a bit crowded in the gym, so we always communicate who will be working—especially during busy hours.

Even as we grow, it’s important to maintain a high level of personal attention. Just like schools have parent-teacher conferences, we offer monthly owner-parent-coach conferences. The gym will not run smoothly if parents are talking about issues among themselves, so we open up the window of conversation. When parents have something they want to address, they can sign up for a 10-minute time slot. The three of us take turns each month [meeting with parents]. We also make sure that at least one owner is available at all times to communicate with parents and kids during business hours.

One of my top pieces of advice would be to never be afraid of having these face-to-face conversations. I probably have meetings once a week with an athlete or a parent. So much of what goes on is usually caused by miscommunication and things getting taken out of context. Ask the parent and see what’s going on—that way, they feel they can get on an even level with you. You get a real read of the struggles an athlete might be facing.

Each staff member is encouraged to choose different athletes each practice and praise them so they know that their work is being noticed. We hand out “You Rock!” postcards, and behind the scenes, we keep detailed binders on each athlete. If we see athletes that haven’t received one in a few months, we do our best to recognize them so they don’t go a whole season without receiving some sort of affirmation.

With more athletes in the equation, it’s important to take a heavier hand in helping them and letting them know that they are part of a family. One of the biggest rewards has been seeing decals for our gym on cars or seeing girls wearing our logo—just knowing that they love Athletic Perfection.


Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Artwork for this article provided by:
Photography by Karissa

Almost as one, the squad held their breath. Their eyes were fixed on a Jenga tower, perilously placed and swaying back and forth slowly. If their teammate could pull out a piece and successfully replace it, they’d only have to do whichever exercise was written on it. But if she were to knock the tower over, it would mean an automatic full-out of the whole routine for them all. She pulls the block out gingerly and…. 

It doesn’t matter whether the tower falls: the athletes are engaged, having fun and training hard. Above all, they’re excited to come to the next practice at Raleigh’s Cheer Extreme just to see what their coach, Sarah Swicegood Macrow, will come up with next. “You can do a game with anything and make it fun, and it ends up motivating them to do what they need to do in a routine,” says Macrow. “By the time they leave practice, they’re sweating and tired, but to them, they just tried to win at Go Fish or Jenga.”

Macrow isn’t alone in believing that there’s more to being a cheer coach than running drills and routines. At Southlake, TX-based Spirit Xtreme, coach Melissa Meriwether kicks off practices by grabbing her iPhone to cue up her athletes’ new favorite game: the “Wheel of What.” The free app features a spinning gameshow wheel that chooses how they’ll train that day. “We always walk that fine line between not wanting to burn them out, but keeping it fresh and fun,” explained Meriwether. “That was one of the reasons I started an all-star cheer gym. I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to be competitive but still keep it fun for the kids.'”

Instead of laps, her girls run races against each other or see who can reach the top of Spirit Xtreme’s climbing ropes the quickest. Athletes are encouraged to work with a buddy or partner—both for support and to develop the team dynamic. It’s all part of an increasingly popular model in all-star gyms: innovation through playful motivation.

The Three F’s: Fitness, Focus and Fun 

Photography by Karissa

Along with teaching new skills and refining routines, cheer professionals are also exploring new, interesting ways to approach training and fitness. At Spirit Xtreme, Meriwether recently realized that while all of her athletes wanted to improve their jumps, many dreaded the thought of doing toe touches every day. Thus began “The 50 Day Challenge,” an optional training regimen that she introduced as an incentive. The premise was simple: start at one toe touch and one pushup, and every day, add another. (Some cheer moms even joined in for fun!) At the end of the 50 days, athletes who completed the challenge were entered in a prize drawing—but, of course, the true rewards came through the added training.

“They were choosing to take part rather than being forced,” shares Meriwether. “I think we can all relate to that: when something is a game or competition, we jump right in—as opposed to when someone says, ‘You have to do this,’ and then it’s not as much fun.”

Trying new ways of learning can also mean simply switching up the way teams conduct practice and showcase new routines. At USA Wildcats East in Norwich, Conn., owner and head coach Ryan Spanich stages real-life “slow-motion replays” to show teams what they need to improve and how to do it. He also encourages individuals and/or small groups to perform for the team at large in spotlight sessions. “[All-star cheer] is such a team sport that a lot of individuals can get lost in it,” he explains. “This particular exercise brings it back to the individual and makes them more accountable for what they do.”

Square Peg, Meet Round Hole

More traditional coaches may balk at such unconventional techniques, but Meriwether and Macrow say that trying something different can work wonders. For those who are hesitant, Meriwether suggests choosing one area of focus and experimenting. “Find an area where you’re willing to make the sacrifice to try something new,” advises Meriwether. “Shaking things up for the kids will work different muscles and keep them excited.”

Of course, there is also the element of added work and imagination on the coach’s part, but it need not be stressful, says Macrow. She cautions other coaches not to overthink ideas, as some of her most popular games involve easy props like yarn or sidewalk chalk. (See “Just Press ‘Play’ sidebar for ideas.) “Each game puts a different spin on what we do, and it helps them keep up with their skills,” says Macrow, who often posts new ideas on ASGA’s Facebook page. “And even though it’s more work, it also makes practice more fun for everyone—including the coach.”

As for any concerns that a playful approach might cause athletes to goof off, it tends to bring about quite the opposite. “I think playing games makes it a more rewarding experience,” explains Macrow. “We work harder and we do a lot more, but they don’t realize it because practice feels like it goes more quickly. They’re not working for Nationals, they’re working to win the game—and that makes them better and builds that team bond everyone is looking for.”

Check out our blog for ideas on how to put these tips in practice!


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


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




Danger Zone: Forming An Intruder Plan

Danger Zone: Forming An Intruder Plan

In the face of tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, gyms and event producers are forming contigency “intruder plans” to ward off potential disaster.

Since a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, the incident has propelled businesses—especially ones involving children—to review their safety procedures. And all-star gyms are no exception: to counter threats, many gym owners are beginning to talk about forming an “intruder plan,” a blueprint that will help them tackle a safety crisis like Sandy Hook.

Guy Beveridge, co-owner of security consultation firm Isaiah Group, says that these gym owners are on the right track. Even though statistically there is no huge uptick in violence at gyms, he believes Sandy Hook should serve as a wake-up call for owners. CheerProfessional spoke with experts like Beveridge, as well as gym owners and event producers to find out what they’re doing to make the cheer world a safer place:

Inside the Gym

Though it’s important for all gyms to have some sort of crisis and/or intruder plan, what works for one gym may not work for another. When drawing up a plan, it’s important to tailor it to your gym’s own individual needs—keeping in mind variables like location, layout and number of available staff. At CAS Cheer and Dance in Chesapeake, Maryland, owner Tracie Jones is always acutely aware of who is coming and going. “As a small facility (3,000 square feet), we don’t have the luxury of a front desk,” she explains. “Our front door is our front desk, and upon entering, one is ‘in the gym,’ so our policy keeps that in mind. We keep a keen watch on people. When someone who is not affiliated with the program enters, we greet them immediately with a ‘Can we help you?’ and place ourselves between them and our athletes.”

In putting together a plan, it may be useful to enlist the services of a third-party firm. Beveridge says most security firms start by doing an initial risk assessment for between $500-$1,000, after which they can identify solutions for the gym’s unique security challenges. Though the investment may be hefty for some, Beveridge says that gym owners may not be able to afford not to do it. “To put that in perspective: a child can learn a cartwheel in a backyard from a friend. However, the performance, execution and safety of that cartwheel will be suspect,” he says.

In states where concealed-carry licenses are legal, some gym owners are in the process of adding another layer of protection and taking things into their own hands. However, Frank Sahlein of 3rd Level Consulting says that being armed isn’t always the best option. “The incident could be well under way by the time the weapon is located, loaded and ready for use,” says Sahlein, who provides consulting services to a number of gyms. “A child could also find the weapon and harm themselves or others inadvertently.”

However, Beveridge believes that it is a personal choice for gym owners and that there is nothing wrong with acquiring weapons for protection. He does add the caveat: “If a gym decides to add a weapon to their facility, they must take the necessary steps to ensure that access to the weapons is limited and that staff is trained in advanced weapon handling.”

No matter what course of action you choose or policy you put in place, it’s important to keep parents in the loop. Some of them may have concerns about gyms installing guns and shouldn’t be kept in the dark about such decisions. “Gyms should hold discussions with parents and address their concerns head on,” says Jones of CAS Cheer and Dance.


At Events

While no facility is immune from the possibility of an intruder, events may be even more at risk than gyms. “With gyms, the safety lies in the front door and the front desk. There are multiple layers of protection, which provides more of a deterrent than an open arena,” explains Dan Kessler, co-founder of The Jam Brands. “[Event] venues are big and wide, and there can be multiple events going on in the convention center simultaneously. With a gym, there are just a few dozen or hundred people per night, whereas an event has thousands.”

In light of this fact, Kessler says that meticulous attention is paid to both prevention and reaction plans. Venue emergency plans and exit door layouts are reviewed six months to a year before an event takes place. Armed police officers and event security are present at all events, and Jam Brands employees are trained to be “vigilant for anyone who looks out of place.” If anyone is indeed found to be taking unauthorized pictures, looking or lurking in inappropriate areas or exhibiting other warning signs, the person is questioned by staff—and, if necessary, removed immediately.

The Greater Midwest Cheer Expo also follows a specific protocol. “Our staff is briefed on all emergency exits for each venue that we attend,” says co-owner Teresa Barbiere, who has been producing events for 14 years. “If there is someone who appears irate or not in full control, all employees are instructed to immediately contact either me or my husband.” (Barbiere’s husband, a co-owner of the company, is also constantly patrolling events throughout the day.)

Parents also add to the system of checks and balances. Kessler says that parents who attend Jam Brands events often alert staff to people that may not belong. “Parents will come up to us and say, “This guy is sitting over here, and he doesn’t seem to be with a group,’” he says. “They bring things to our attention, and then we’ll ask, ‘Who are you with? Who’s the program owner? What’s the coach’s name?’ and other things that can detect whether they belong at the event.”

Renegade Athletics owner Leslie Pledger-Griffin says that this type of vigilance is absolutely necessary. As example, she cites a recent event in Atlanta where another local team experienced a scare—a female athlete’s phone was stolen from her cheer bag in the team room, and when her mother tracked the phone through an iPhone app, they located it in a halfway house for sex offenders.

Kessler says this type of situation points to the need for vigilance and education across the board—not only at events, but at gyms and schools. “There is a level of responsibility to coaches and gym owners to tell kids not to leave their bags unattended,” says Kessler. “It’s important that gyms and schools teach kids to be aware of who’s around them.”

While Sandy Hook has safety on the forefront of many minds, the incident is only the latest reminder of what many cheer professionals already know—that safety is the number one concern when it comes to protecting athletes and youth. Says Pledger-Griffin, “Keeping our kids safe is far more than just stopping someone with a gun.”

 -Dinsa Sachan

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

Tech Tools: Jackrabbit

Tech Tools: Jackrabbit

What it is: Want a cloud-based gym management solution? You should know Jack. Used by gyms like East Coast Nitros, All Star Legacy and Cheer Force One, Jackrabbit provides a web-based way to easily manage registrations, as well as automate payment and other processes. The program can also collect other types of data and connect to other programs like QuickBooks and Payroll Express Plus. Pricing plans range from $45/month (for up to 100 students) up to $245/month (for up to 3000 students); a free trial is available.

Why it matters:  Say goodbye to bulky paperwork and hello to an entirely cloud-based gym management system that can be accessed from anywhere (a plus for gyms with multiple locations). Along with online registration and accounting, Jackrabbit also offers other features such the ability to send mass emails, view customer data, track employee hours and store new leads.  Parents like it, too—for the added convenience factor of being able to register, pay and view their accounts online.

Quick tip: Cut down on collections and save your customers late fees by implementing the auto-pay feature.

Similar services: iClassPro (http://www.iclasspro.com); eSoftPlanner (http://www.esoftplanner.com/cheerleading_facility_scheduling_software.php)

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.”

Healthy Eating: Planting the Seed

Healthy Eating: Planting the Seed

Mo’ meat, mo’ problems? That’s the premise of documentaries like Forks Over Knives, which explore the theory that animal-based and processed foods lead to degenerative disease and other health issues. “Films such as Forks Over Knives, Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation have heightened awareness about our nation’s food system and persuaded viewers of benefits of a plant-based diet,” says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

The popularity of such films—coupled with a mass movement toward healthier eating—points to an overall trend: plant-based diets are hot. A 2012 Vegetarian Resource Group survey found that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian, while 22.8 million others follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. “More people are interested in meatless meals some of the time. They may not be complete vegetarians, but they are interested in moving in that direction,” says Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet.

Why make the shift? Research has shown that bioactive compounds found in plant foods can reduce inflammation and damage to cells, cutting down the risk of chronic diseases like cancer. Plant-based diets have also been documented to keep you leaner and keep lifestyle diseases like diabetes at bay. And, along with long-term health benefits, it may also boost endurance—a welcome development for any all-star athlete.

Of course, plant-based diets are nothing new among performance-centered athletes. Just ask legends Joe Namath, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Desmond Howard and Carl Lewis—all of whom don’t eat meat. And while many school-aged athletes might consider fast food to be one of the major food groups, others might be intrigued by the idea of going flexitarian, vegetarian or full vegan. We asked the experts for their tips on making this lifestyle change work for all-star cheerleaders:

Keep the energy flowing: Long practices and intense competitions call for a high energy level, and athletes who rely too much on vegetables might develop an energy lag. To prevent sluggishness, McDaniel suggests incorporating foods like legumes, soy products, grains and healthy fats like nuts, avocados, seeds and olive oil into the daily diet. “[Athletes] need to make sure they are getting adequate calories, and not just veggies and fruits,” advises McDaniel.

Pacify the palate: Transitioning to a plant-based diet can be tough. “Those in transition can try some of the alternative meats or plenty of tofu, all of which are high in protein and fat,” says Jack Norris, RD, and author of Vegan for Life.

Get your fill of nutrients: People on plant-based diets can miss out on some nutrients, such as iron and vitamins. “Because the plant-based form of iron is not absorbed as easily as iron from meat, vegetarians need to eat plenty of iron-rich foods,” says McDaniel. To remedy this issue, McDaniel suggests eating lots of beans, greens and fortified foods every day. Also, Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, make sure the refrigerator is stocked with strawberries, oranges and tomatoes.

Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D can also present a challenge. The human body can synthesize Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but to get enough Vitamin B12, it’s all about eating more fortified foods. As for calcium, those who don’t eat dairy products will have to obtain their necessary calcium quota from calcium-rich soy products and dark leafy greens.

Keep the focus: Hungry athletes will have to avoid snacking on junk food when they don’t have easy access to plant foods. “Snacking on whole foods and snacks made with whole foods is key,” says Kate Geagan, author of Go Green, Get Lean. She suggests keeping Justin’s Nut Butter packs handy for high protein nourishment on the go. Other healthy snacks include peanuts, walnuts, kale chips, fruit smoothies and granola bars.

Most importantly, remember that this diet isn’t for everyone. Put your athletes in touch with a dietician who can chart out a diet program tailoring to their individual needs before they embark on any diet. 

Other Plant-Based Diets

Not ready to go totally vegetarian just yet? Try these diets:

Semi-vegetarian (or Flexitarian): This is mostly a plant-based diet with meat meals thrown in once in a while. Go for Meatless Mondays!

Pescetarian: Fish are the only animal product consumed on this diet. This is a great way to get your protein and omega fatty acid retirements fulfilled—but keep an eye on mercury exposure.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: People on this diet eat no meat, but consume milk and eggs. (Translation: no calcium and vitamin B12 worries.)

-Dinsa Sachan

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

Yesterday’s announcement about GrowCheer.org and the push for an independent USASF sparked a range of reactions throughout the industry. While USASF has declined to comment on the matter, we were able to speak with Varsity’s VP of Public Relations Sheila Noone to learn their company’s stance. “Everything Varsity does is with an eye towards what is best for the young athletes we serve,” says Noone. “No one has more of an interest in growing all disciplines of cheerleading than Varsity, and we feel we have been a strong partner to the USASF and its members.”

Read a sampling of what event producers and gym owners around the industry had to say:

Independent Event Producers (IEP): The Independent Event Producers, IEP, was not consulted, informed or involved in any formation of this proposal. The IEP fully supports a proposal for a fair and transparent governing body. It is our hope that all constituents of the USASF have equal representation. The mission of IEP remains our focus today. Our main objective is to “collectively influence the cheerleading and dance industry, to promote independence and work to ensure our long-term viability in the industry.”

Dave Sewell (Extreme Spirit): Xtreme Spirit has not renewed USASF membership for the 2012-2013 season due to its Varsity control. We feel the current system is in place to maintain control over the Industy’s growth. We will follow the USASF rules, but with exceptions designed to help struggling gyms retain their higher level athletes and also showcase the advanced tumblers out there that are beyond Level 5.

Jody Melton (Cheer Athletics): This is a very interesting proposal that could potentially lead to some needed reforms for our sport. I like the group’s willingness to at least try to work with the USASF/Varsity to iron out some of the issues, rather than starting by creating a competing organization.

The USASF has given us many positive changes for our industry, and it simply would not exist without the leadership of Varsity and its employees, money, guidance and support. They should be applauded for their tremendous work over the last decade. However, it is time to take another look at the USASF structure to ensure that the entire industry is fairly represented. It seems obvious that no single individual, gym, program, company or conglomerate should have significant & permanent influence over our governing body.

There are obvious details that would need to be filled in and some questions to be answered, but on its surface – this looks like a potentially great way to help transition the USASF into an even better & more transparent governing body.

Scott “Crasher” Braasch (Cheer Tyme): I am a staunch supporter and critic of the USASF. I believe our industry has been served well by those in leadership and applaud all their efforts. Our governing body for the sport/industry of All Star Cheer is not just important to our continued growth, safety and structure—it is a must. For this reason, I have always supported the USASF and its mission. I have also been a critic of the USASF and its origins from the cheerleading industry’s largest vendor. As a huge supporter of Varsity brands, I respect and appreciate their financial and intellectual contributions to the origins of the USASF; however, I believe we have come to a point where USASF should truly stand and govern our all star industry independently. This letter shows a divide in our industry that has been developing for years. A governing body that is so closely intertwined with the largest vendor in our industry does not insure that all decisions made on behalf of the governing body are in its best interest, but rather implies that they are in the best interest of the vendor. What other format in our world today has a for-profit entity that governs or is perceived to govern a non-profit entity whose decisions reflect and/or could reflect the profitability of the for-profit entity? This proposal sounds fair and seems to alleviate reasons why so many question the relationship of Varsity Brands to the USASF. I look forward to the outcome of this proposal and sense yet another defining moment in our sport/industry ahead.

Megan and Casey Marlow (Pacific Coast Magic): Awesome concept. Awesome news!!!! Been in this industry for 15 years. So happy to see something truly moving and changing happening!

Chad Mulkey (XPA All-Stars): This is the best news that has been introduced to this industry since its inception. The stronghold has held back a SPORT that has grown tremendously. While Varsity can be thanked for its contributions for the inception, it is clear that this step is crucial as it grows. Excited, excited, excited!

Pam Swope (Storm Elite All-Stars): I totally agree!!! There should be NO company that controls the USASF – no more than the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is! There can’t be a company profiting from the use of a governing body for a sport to grow and thrive. MLB and the NFL are not owned by NIKE – so Varsity should not have control over the governing body of USASF.


Web Exclusive: The Parent Trap

Web Exclusive: The Parent Trap

You’re a passionate coach and cheer business owner. You work hard to train your athletes and place each one on the best team for his or her ability and the team’s needs. It’s natural to assume everyone will recognize your expertise and respect your decisions.

Unfortunately, there’s always someone who doesn’t see it that way. That someone is usually a parent—a stage mom or stage dad—who seems to want more spotlight shining on their little Ashley. Or perhaps they just don’t understand how progression through the skill levels works. Either way, a parent is second-guessing your decisions. Their tactics can range from gentle suggestions to accusations of favoritism or racism. If you don’t do what they want, some may threaten to quit—and take as many others with them as they can.

Scott Foster, owner of Rockstar Cheer Gym in Greenville, South Carolina, is all too familiar with this conflict. “I have the same things over and over, every year,” he says. “Usually parents want [their children] to move to a different level than the team they’re on. They have a hard time accepting that even if an athlete has Level 4 tumbling skills, they shouldn’t necessarily be on a Level 4 team. There’s more to cheer than tumbling.”

As an example, Foster cites one particular athlete who came into the program with no tumbling experience and progressed to Level 4 tumbling within a year. “The athlete was still too small to be used in Level 4 stunts,” shares Foster. “When it came to flying, the athlete wasn’t experienced enough; since she couldn’t outfly the other athletes, she had to stay in Level 3.”

At Naugatuck, CT-based USA Wildcats, it’s the gym layout that sometimes leads to misunderstandings with parents. The waiting room is blocked off—leaving coach Amanda Daniels and her colleagues open to potentially unfounded criticism. “If something goes wrong on the floor, parents will ask why we were mean to their child or why we picked out their child on this [skill],” says Daniels. “A lot of it is overexaggerated because they’re not on the floor and don’t necessarily know what happened.”

Coaches aren’t the only ones who have to deal with parental drama. Other cheer parents are often acutely aware of conflict and other parents trying to influence gym decisions. “I think there is a disconnect sometimes,” says Nikki Delude, who runs the Cheer Parents Central website. As a parent and parent advocate, Delude sees it from both sides. “You need to understand that if a parent is being demanding, [it’s because] we are trusting you with our children,” she says. “Does that give every parent the right to scream and yell? No.”

As with most relationships, the primary key to managing parental expectations is communication. Lisa Kretschman, owner and coach of Whippany, NJ-based Cheer Pride All-Stars uses several avenues of communication from flyers to motivational texts to regular emails. “I send a major email every two weeks about fundraisers, how the kids are doing, and so on,” says Kretschman. “They know the lines of communication are open.”

To that end, Kretschman says it’s important that gym owners be willing to hold up their end of the bargain; communication must be ongoing and responsive: “If I get an email at 7 in the morning, I’m going to reply immediately. I make sure they know that if they have a problem I will respond. It is a business. You want to make sure that everyone is happy with the services we are providing.”

A big part of successful parent relations is making your program’s expectations crystal clear so that there is no room for interpretation. “We communicate very clearly what we expect from the parents and the kids,” says Kretschman. “We lay out what they can expect from us and make it clear that we’re not going to put athletes out on the floor before they’re ready—and that everyone will be treated fairly.”

Though emails and texts make it easy to keep contact flowing consistently, face-to-face communication is beneficial—especially in the face of conflict or misunderstandings. When problems arise at USA Wildcats, Daniels has a one-on-one conversation with the parent to squash the issue at the outset. “We do our best to make sure that the parent is aware of exactly what happened from step one to step 10,” says Daniels. “There has never been a point where a parent left our gym really upset and less understanding of what really went on. 100 percent of the time, the parent feels better after having a conversation with the coach.”

Group sessions are also effective, especially when it comes to relaying policies and procedures. Foster prefers to discuss levels and progression with large groups of parents. “If you have a parent that is a little more demanding, what better audience than to answer in front of everybody?” he says. “That way, you don’t have to answer it 200 times.”

Holding regular meetings and social gatherings can also play a role in keeping parental competitiveness—the root of many issues—at bay. By fostering a sense of community, gym owners can ensure that everyone feels valued and connected. “I try to really discourage people from comparing their kids to other kids. We try to make everyone feel important, whether they are at Level 1 or Level 4. That’s all part of making sure we don’t have any issues,” says Kretschman.

Over the course of a season, most parents and athletes will learn to trust you and your decisions. To get there, Delude feels there needs to be give and take between parents and coaches. When a coach has to justify her decisions to each of 25 parents, that takes a significant amount of time, and Delude encourages parents to be cognizant of that. “As parents, we need to give a little bit also,” she says. “You have to develop trust over time.”

If a parent is still not happy with your program or with all-star cheerleading in general, sometimes they may need to look elsewhere. It’s better to let one parent and child go than to make everyone unhappy; both sides should be open and honest about whether this is really a good fit.

The need to communicate and deal with parents is an important part of the cheer business that’s never going to go away. Most parents understand and are willing to let you do your job, but a few parents are more demanding. “Just embrace it,” says Foster. “You have to allocate time to educate them and make them understand. I just refuse to let it bring me down—you have to take the good with the bad.”

-Sally Herigstad

What a Powerful Web We Weave

What a Powerful Web We Weave

It’s a lot like the proverbial tree falling in the woods: if a cheer gym doesn’t have a website, is anyone going to hear its marketing message? Not in today’s digital world, according to Jason Silverman of AllStarCheerSites.com. He says that having a dynamic online presence is just as pivotal as having a physical gym—and most potential clients and athletes are going to find your virtual doors before they step through your real ones.

“We all know that you only get one chance to make a first impression,” says Silverman, who is also CEO of Powerful Words Character Development. “When your site is easy to find and easily navigable, your prospects will appreciate it and you’ll be rewarded with a higher conversion rate.”

Ready to turn your website into an unstoppable marketing force? Follow these simple five steps:

Get a Professional Involved
As your first point of contact with potential members, your website needs to effectively reflect the professionalism of your program. The best way to accomplish that is to enlist a skilled web professional to create a visually appealing and easy-to-navigate website. As for content, Silverman says the top priority should be sharing information that potential athletes (and their parents) need to make an informed decision about whether your program is right for them—and vice versa.

Hiring a professional doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune, either. For gym owners on a tight budget, utilizing a template can be a cost-effective solution. Template-based websites are often easier to update and typically cost much less to set up than something designed from scratch. “One of the biggest benefits is the speed at which you are able to get the site up and running,” says Kim Smith, customer service manager for JAM Web Designs, Inc.

As for concerns about originality, rest assured that you can still achieve a unique look even with a template-based site. “Not only do we work with new clients to ensure their site differs from local competitors, but we also retire popular styles that seem to fly off the shelf,” shares Smith.

If you truly want a one-of-a-kind site but have to be mindful of budget, consider a happy medium. Services like St. Louis-based Vault Media offer a custom-designed, SEO-optimized website and one year of web hosting for a package price of $1299 (a fraction of what many web designers charge for a site designed from scratch). They also teach newbies how to use content management systems like Joomla and WordPress so that you can update your site on its own once it’s up and running.

Set the Stage for Success

Design is just the first bridge to cross, as your site also needs to be search engine optimized and meet certain keyword criteria. Silverman says that, generally speaking, parents will research activities for their children by Googling a term like “cheerleading for kids Randolph, New Jersey;” Google will then produce a bunch of results that best meet that criteria—and the higher your website shows up, the better.

For those who want to go the DIY route, there are numerous ways you can ensure your own success with search engine optimization (SEO). Silverman says that using a WordPress site is a “must” for being SEO-friendly, as is installing Yoast’s WordPress SEO plug-in. It’s important to keep your site active by updating your blog regularly and including strategic keywords in your posts. “Think about what a mom would enter into Google when she sits down at her computer,” advises Silverman. After posting, share the link across your social media channels to give it maximum exposure among your audience.

However, Chris Quarles of Vault Media cautions that professional SEO assistance may still be necessary, especially if you live in a market where the all-star cheer business is competitive. When developing their new program, they reviewed almost 500 gym websites and learned that 80 to 90 percent are not properly set up for search engine optimization. “Working with someone who knows how to code properly on the backend with SEO and proper keyword relevance in mind can really help gyms be on top of their game—and on top of the results for their market,” says Quarles.

Don’t Fall for Common Mistakes
Just as important as what to include is what to avoid when designing your site. A common mistake website gym owners make is choosing design over function. “Many of the sites in the cheer world use overly flashy designs, which actually take away from the job that the website is trying to do—get prospective members interested in your program,” explains Silverman. For instance, Flash sites look pretty, but can’t be viewed on Apple devices—frustrating a significant sector of mobile users.

Another common faux pas is not including some sort of “road map” to help visitors get around your site and find information quickly. “Most people don’t know what to do when they get to your website,” shares Silverman. He recommends creating a helpful welcome video that tells them exactly where to go and what to read first, citing PrideCheerGym.com as a great example of this in practice.

Include the Right Elements

From Smith’s perspective, balance is the key to every website. “When selecting a style, you want to make sure to find one with the right type of cheer flair for your gym, so that it compliments your identity,” she advises. Sticking with a clean color palette is extremely helpful as well; Smith says too many colors outside the realm of your branding doesn’t add “pop,” but is actually disruptive.

Silverman believes a lead generation tool/opt-in box is an essential element in any successful cheer gym website. With this tool, potential clients fill out a form with their name and email address, and in return, they get a special report or other information that parents will find helpful. For instance, Tracy, CA-based Athletic Perfection offers a free PDF on “Building Champions from the Inside Out,” while Macon, GA-based Middle Georgia Cheer Extreme offers a free video on improving jumps.

“We call it a ‘shy yes,’ as it’s a way for a prospect to say yes to an offer you’ve made without having to choose whether or not to join your program,” Silverman says. “The key here is that the opt-in box must be in the right place, have the right offer and ask for the right information, or the effectiveness is worthless.”

Promote Your Site
Even the best website in the world will do nothing for you if people can’t find it. Silverman points out you have to “train people” to visit the site often. “We normally suggest blogging at least one time per week, and optimally, three times per week.” Silverman explains. “Get people used to looking for your blog posts.”

When it comes to getting the word out, social media is key. Posting on Twitter and Facebook regularly will drive people from social media to your website—where they can take the next step to joining your gym. You can also encourage athletes to “check in” to your gym on FourSquare to build further awareness. And after that? Just promote, promote, promote. Smith suggests making your web address visible in every possible aspect of your life: your email addresses, signage, bumper stickers, T-shirts, flyers and any other marketing materials.

Quarles agrees: “Social media is where the most eyeballs are at—use it to drive people to your website that way as much as possible. Your website is the tree trunk of your digital presence, and social media acts as branches and little twigs. It all counts.”

Follow these tips, and your website is sure to “click” with its intended audience.

-Diana Bocco

State of the Union, Part 1

State of the Union, Part 1

CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer leaders for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future.

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes or advances we’ve made in all-star cheerleading to date?

Puckett: The best thing that’s happened over [my] 16 years [in the business] is the USASF forming and having the NACCC to work with them—having guidelines to make us a legitimate sport and help all the companies keep things on the same page. It’s given us the structure we needed.

Newby: Worlds has had a huge impact, especially from a recognition standpoint. In some gyms, it’s become such a focus that it’s had some unintended consequences—kids and parents so focused on trying to find a Worlds team to be on, even if it means switching gyms. It’s like the NCAA tournament: you end up with 20 top teams that everyone knows, which you could equate to mega-gyms. For some, their primary goal is to make it to the big dance, and that exists for Worlds in some ways. It might be time to balance some of the attention given to high-level programs that are mega-talented. To address that, we’ve developed The Summit, a more prestigious year-end event geared toward teams that are in non-Worlds divisions. So far, the response to this event has been incredible.

What have been some of the setbacks from your perspective?

John Newby, Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Varsity All-Star

Newby: Having too many divisions/levels/competitions leads to an overall lack of competition. Competition gets watered down and becomes more like an exhibition; teams get spread too thin. You end up with competitions across the country where you have a single team in one division not competing against anyone else. In the end, if we want all-star to be considered a sport, you have to measure your skills against teams of equal [level]. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Kessler: As the sport got more competitive, many gym owners, parents and athletes said, “I want to be number one.” [In light of that trend], the Level 2 Youth athlete who enjoyed working on back handsprings was now pushed to be more results-driven. It became more about having to be successful for fear of losing kids to the gym across the street and less about providing a fun, athletic and educational outlet for the athletes. Kids started getting out of the sport and I feel a main reason was it wasn’t as fun for them as it once was. Cheer is the one sport that does not “cut” athletes.  We have a place for every child and we should embrace that more.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the economy and how that has affected—and will continue to affect—gyms?

Karlette Fettig, Indiana Elite All-Stars

Fettig: I think the economy is going to get much worse. Gyms really have to seriously look at how to keep their programs affordable. What we’ve been doing at Indiana Elite is trying to make programs in our gym affordable to more families. One of those solutions has been starting half-year programs. Also, along with national traveling teams and regional teams that go to surrounding states, we have teams that only compete locally and exhibition teams that don’t compete to keep fees down. It’s important to eliminate barriers to entry—if you’re a program that’s just doing large competitions and traveling, it’s very hard for families to afford that. Get them excited about cheer at a relatively inexpensive level, and once they understand what it entails, they’re ready to take the next step.

Puckett: Gym owners had to be more creative with their resources and not just count on children walking through the door; it became important to offer different things such as birthday parties and other activities. About three years ago, I saw some definite slowdown, but interest overall is increasing back upward. It’s partially the rebound of the economy, but also us being more creative. Our half-season teams have tapped into a whole different market, appealing to the beginning athlete and people coming from rec teams.

What trends do you see coming down the pike as far as events? 

Fettig: Whenever competitions ask for feedback, I press hard to give us what’s really necessary. Stop giving free giveaways, take out the extras and focus on what’s important—spring floors, raised stage (in some cases) and equipment in the practice room. All of the extra goodies are not nearly as important as quality judging and ample teams to compete against. We can forego the “lights, camera, action” if we get those two pieces.

Newby: At the same time gym owners and parents are feeling the pinch, event producers are under significant stress. Event producers are seeing increased expenses from the venues, as well as shipping and transportation costs. It’s a huge challenge to try to manage through these tough economic times and keep from taxing these parents and gyms. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple years digging into cost-saving opportunities. How important are giveaways and trophies and banners? It’s been a highly sensitized issue for us. We’ll do everything we can to manage our costs and keep from passing that on through the customer.

Any thoughts on judging and scoring?

Fettig: Our coaches have felt that in trying to work toward the grid and be more objective in scoring, they’ve taken out the ability to be creative in the routines. I believe event producers have to continue to develop their scoresheets so that there is a good balance between objectivity and creativity.

Newby: As partners with the gyms, the best thing for the industry in the long-term is a modified universal scoring system. It makes sense to me to move in that direction eventually, as long as there are some variables; some event producers can decide on whether the percentages are applied to pyramids and stunts. I think it will take time. It’s not an easy flip of the switch, but I know there are some really intelligent people who are talking about options to be considered.

Dan Kessler, The Jam Brands

Kessler: As the sport became more competitive and results-driven, coaches began asking for a more rigid scoring system. They wanted to know, “If I do this, will I score here?” They asked for less subjectivity and a scoring system that was more black-and-white—so this was reflected in scoring systems across the industry. In the past two years, there has been a new movement. Coaches are now asking for scoring systems to allow for more creativity. They feel the routines have become too “cookie-cutter” and they’ve lost their showmanship. Our industry is market-driven, so we have always listened to our customers. I think some coaches and owners believe that, as event producers, we just create our scoring systems without any input from our customer base. In fact, we do talk and poll tons of customers before we make any changes, as we understand that they are the ones that will really be affected.

We seem to be in an era of more USASF rules and regulations that are causing some divisiveness. What’s your take on that?

Newby: With any governing body, there are going to be conflicting and varying opinions on just about every issue. The organization is young, dynamic and still developing.  When all-star started, there were no rules or regulations, very little organization and few, if any, guidelines—it was the Wild West. Obviously, change is difficult, but necessary. You’re not going to please everyone, but the people working on this are in it for the right reasons and are looking out for the kids. A more unified set of rules has helped to make the sport legitimate and created a strong foundation to take all-star cheerleading to the next level.

Kessler: When you have more rules and regulations, that lessens your ability to be creative and entrepreneurial. We have to allow our sport to foster growth and be creative. If it becomes so strict that a gym owner says, “Man, I can’t be creative because I can only do XYZ,” how good is that? We always get compared to gymnastics—let’s stop being compared. Let’s be a fun sport that isn’t so structured and rigorous.

Fettig: I understand the concept behind the governing body wanting the image to be better for the sake of industry growth. But if you’re going to put rules in place, you better be able to police them. Otherwise it will just lead to a lot of bickering. If they’re not policing it, I’m not sure why it’s being put in place. What are the ramifications of not following [them]?

Read Part Two of State of the Union!

Spotlight: Green Bay Elite

Spotlight: Green Bay Elite

When people think of competitive cheerleading, Wisconsin usually isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Cherokee Greendeer was just 19 years old when she set out to start a cheer gym there in 1999, but she knew she was taking a risk. “I had to be direct; I had to sell the sport, to make everyone see that this is definitely legitimate,” says Greendeer. “Parents thought, ‘Rah rah rah, that’s all our daughter will do,’ but once they saw what it was really about, they said, ‘Wow, this is what our daughter can do?!’”

Despite her youth and her initial difficulties communicating the true competitive nature of the sport, Green Bay Elite thrived. Most of her inaugural athletes came from Green Bay Southwest High School and her own alma mater, Ashweaubenon High School—where she’d cheered for her senior year. (Greendeer first started cheering as a fourth-grader in her home state of Ohio and had also cheered for NEO All-Stars before moving to Wisconsin in high school.) Along with calling on her high school connections, Greendeer began hiring more trained, qualified and credentialed coaches.

Following a building period, Green Bay Elite’s teams outgrew their regional competitors and began traveling to compete nationwide. 2007 marked the first year that a GBE team earned a Worlds bid, and 2010 the first year one of her teams placed in its top three (International Junior All-Girl Level 5)—a significant turning point in Greendeer’s eyes.

“It was quite an accomplishment because these kids had grown up through our program,” recalls Greendeer. “I’d known these little girls since they walked in here and couldn’t do a cartwheel, so to medal in Worlds was a huge accomplishment for us.”

So what’s the secret behind GBE’s success? It’s a combination of love of the sport, insistence on respect and business savvy. “I was so young when I started building the program that I had to learn how important the business part is,” says Greendeer. “In our industry, you have to keep two clients happy: the parents and the athletes. You’ve got to make sure they believe in your program, that they love it with their whole heart, because that’s what keeps them coming back.”

Some lessons she could only learn through failure. Looking back, Greendeer says she wishes she would have hired an office manager off the bat, as she tried to do everything herself with less than desirable results. “Thinking I could do every role was my biggest mistake,” she recalls. “To succeed, you have to learn from your mistakes and realize what you’re good at. Even if you have to start small and hire an office manager just a few days a week, do it—it’s so important.”

Green Bay Elite’s coaches expect a lot from their athletes, both in the gym and in their everyday lives. In today’s text-heavy world, communication and old-school respect are the words to live by. The competitors are reminded often how their conduct reflects on themselves, their family and their program.

“We try to work in real-life lessons to the sport of cheerleading,” says Greendeer. “That’s our philosophy, teaching things through cheering that they can draw on throughout their lives. When they go out into the world, it matters how they carry themselves and how they communicate. We make it fun, but we make sure it’s respectful.”

Today, Green Bay Elite has grown large enough to boast seven all-star teams, including four travel teams, along with offering classes, camps and clinics for high school squads. Recent years have seen the Green Bay Elite teams bringing home more awards and accolades, and in 2009, the program won the “Small Gym of the Year” honor at the Worlds VIP Reception and Awards Ceremony. Two years later, Greendeer was nominated for the “Gym Owner of the Year” award.

For the coaching staff, however, it’s less about winning championships than it is seeing changes in the kids they work with.

“The growth of the sport has been really gratifying,” reflects Greendeer. “I never expected to find myself in my dream job: working with kids, watching them grow and go to college and get married, just having the opportunity to be an influence in their lives and the directions they go.”

-Janet Jay