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Parent Cheer Teams

Parent Cheer Teams

The lights dim, as a local gym’s newest squad takes the floor to show off their newly acquired tumbling skills, jumps and stunts. An MC introduces the group as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” begins to rail from the auditorium speakers. A crowd of teenage athletes holds up signs and begins to cheer wildly for individual members of the squad. Someone proudly yells out, “That’s my mom!” and a team of parent cheerleaders begins to perform.

These days, the above scenario isn’t an uncommon one at all-star gyms across the country. In addition to recruiting for their youth rosters, many gym owners have found themselves forming cheer teams comprised of athletes’ parents. Aside from giving cheer parents a means of getting to know one another, the main reason behind creating these teams is to provide parents with an appreciation for what their children do during a typical competitive cheer season.

“Having a parent team is awesome because they actually get a little taste of what their kids go through,” says Alisha Dunlap, owner of Sherwood, AR-based gym Cheer Time Revolution. “It gives them a taste of how much heart and soul their kids put into the sport.”

While parent teams are certainly open to cheer amateurs looking to give their child’s sport a try, many are made up of adults who used to be all-stars and are longing to get back out on the floor. Scott Mizikar, who teamed up with his wife to coach several seasons of HotCheer’s parent team, explains that unlike adolescent cheer teams—which require extensive tryouts—parent teams are more of a laid-back experience. “We had an open sign-up and encouraged the parents to give it a try,” he shares. “While there are some teams that compete, we did it for the sake of doing it as an exhibition.” (This was also the case with Dunlap’s team, who channeled their competitive spirit into showing their stunts during gym-wide showcases.

Lisa Shaw, who owns Unique Sports Academy and directs the Maryland Twisters in Waldorf, was shocked when several of her cheer parents approached her and asked if they could form a parent team last year. “Most of them have full-time careers and children in the program, [so they are] busy,” shares Shaw. “Everybody had so much fun though that we’re going to do it again this year.”

The best part of hosting the team, says Shaw, is the enthusiasm that it adds to the program. “Their exhibition brought not just the Maryland Twisters to come and have a good time, but other gyms as well. Everyone was laughing and clapping and the parents took it very seriously. It takes a little edge off and adds some fun to the sport,” she says.

While some parent cheer teams refrain from competing, Shaw’s team, “Aftermath,” took their matching T-shirts and choreographed routines to last year’s Reach the Beach competition in Oceanside. “The team is asking to do more competitions this year, so we’re going to add another one in this season,” she adds.

In terms of finances, most gyms tend to charge a nominal fee for their parents to participate on the teams, while others absorb the costs themselves. HotCheer co-owner Kelly Makay collected $10/month as tuition from the adults on her gym’s parent team; in addition, she tallied the total cost of purchasing music for their routines ($500 per mix) as well as the exhibition fees (which averaged $150) and divided those costs between the team’s existing members. Though she saw a huge emotional benefit from the team, especially through the bonding between cheer parents that occurred at her gym, she explains that there wasn’t a financial gain to hosting the team.

“The coaches were paid hourly to coach it, staff members were often wrangled into babysitting team members’ children, and it tied up floor space that I could have rented out to high school teams,” she says.

For Shaw’s Maryland Twisters program, she charges her parent teams a small fee for uniforms ($30), competitions ($40) and music ($30), but unlike the HotCheer team, her coaches volunteer their time to coach the parents. “Our parent team doesn’t affect our bottom line,” she adds. “The goal of the parent team is to have fun and get the parents involved in sports.” Such was the case with Cheer Time Revolution’s Dunlap, who didn’t charge her last roster of parent team members. “It was more about giving the parents a means of bonding and to open their eyes to see how much time and effort these kids really put into the sport,” she explains.

While parent teams have proven to enhance a cheer program, gym owners note that they are often difficult to keep running. One of the biggest challenges can be scheduling, according to Mizikar. “These parents are busy with their lives, their families and their jobs, so being able to count on them for weekly practices isn’t easy,” he explains. “When they can’t show up for 3-4 weeks at a time, it makes it hard to put a routine together.”

Recruiting is also difficult, says Dunlap, who saw her team’s roster dwindle just weeks into the season. To combat the attendance issue, Shaw suggests that coaches schedule practices on Sundays or coordinate rehearsals when their children are also practicing at the gym. And, of course, there is the issue of what athletes think about their parents becoming cheerleaders. “Some of the kids loved it, and some are embarrassed to death,” states Mizikar, who suspects that certain HotCheer parents enrolled on his team just to embarrass their kids.

Shaw has found that her Maryland Twisters kids have embraced their parents cheering so much that they’ve jumped at the chance to coach them: “The kids often stay around for the parent practices and you see them going, ‘Get tighter. Lift your legs up higher. Point your toes on your jumps!’ It’s really rewarding for them to see their parents learning the skills that they themselves have already mastered.”

-Nicole Pajer

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

Wrap the Year Up Right

Wrap the Year Up Right

At Sebring, FL-based Edge Cheer, athletes and their families end the year with a formal banquet full of awards, trophies and certificates. Owner Jenny Rowe says, “In this particular industry where it’s all about the team—and sacrificing and doing what’s best for the team—it’s a really big deal to get to individually recognize the strengths of these kids. We give them an opportunity to stand up in front of their parents and peers, [so they can have] their own particular moment of glory.”

Edge Cheer’s awards include funny categories, like “Most Likely to Get Injured,” as well as superlative awards like “Class Clown.” Rowe says they’re easy to prepare, as many of the awards are simple certificates: “I go to Office Depot and get pre-done certificates and we print them out ourselves.”

The formal banquet takes almost a year to plan, because of the size of the gym (200 athletes, 140 of those all-star). The cost of catering and trophies is funded mainly by ticket sales from an end-of-season recital. Every kid also gets to take home a DVD slideshow of photos taken throughout the season. If organizing a banquet for the first time, Rowe suggests thinking of it as a wedding reception and considering what type of atmosphere you’d like to create. “Do you want something formal? Or do you want something more like a team picnic?”

Karen Brenner of Egg Harbor Township, NJ-based All Star One knows the right answer to that question for her gym. Though this year’s banquet was held at a country club, she plans to borrow an idea from ACX’s Randy Dickey next year and throw All Star One a tailgate banquet with things like a chili cook-off, live DJ and a dunk tank. “We have a huge parking lot, and I know we could make that a great event for our kids, more like a carnival. [Something as formal as a country club] is just not ‘us,’” says Brenner. “The tailgating party is so much more up our alley.”

One of Brenner’s biggest honors she awards is “Team of The Year,” for which she selects the team she was most worried about at the start of the season that has come the furthest by its conclusion. “They get little tiaras with stars on them, like a little crown. They all love that,” shares Brenner. At the banquet, she also distributes branded candy bars with a picture of the team and each athlete’s name, as well as small individual banners that she describes as a “mini-version of a vinyl banner that you’d get when you win a competition.”

Moving Forward

Wrapping up the year doesn’t just mean acknowledging the accomplishments of the year past—it also means planning ahead for the future. One effective way to do that is by conducting a survey to get feedback from athletes and parents on how the season went.

Gerry Richardson, president of Glen Burnie, MD-based East Coast Majestic, uses Survey Monkey to conduct an online survey. She recommends open-ended questions, like: “What do you like best about the gym?” and “If you could change one thing, what would it be?” For Richardson, no question is off-limits, and she advocates other gym owners take the same approach: “If people have thick skin, there’s nothing they shouldn’t ask.”

Richardson asks survey respondents to rank each of the year’s competitions in order of how much they liked them. (“If you get 90 percent of people saying they hated this one competition, you probably should not go to that competition again.”) Richardson also suggests asking athletes, “What level do you belong on?” because it lets her know whether they understand their placement level or not.

Michele Hasson, owner of Pride Cheer & Tumble in Collinsville, IL, conducts prefers in-person and paper surveys to the digital variety. At the end of the season, parents come to a roundtable, during which they are given an option to pick up an additional survey at the front desk. Hasson says, “It’s anonymous except by team, so we can see if there’s a pattern. This team didn’t like this event, or didn’t like this practice day.”

Hasson’s survey is fairly simple. She advises picking five or six things that are important to you as a gym and asking “Yes/No” questions like “Do you feel that the amount of practice time for this team is enough? Do you want weekend practices? Do you feel our attendance policy is fair?”

When conducting a survey for the first time, Hasson recommends including anything you’re thinking of changing for the next season. “For example, if you’re thinking of requiring certain practice clothes for the following season, I think it’s a good idea to get some feedback on that, which is what we did when we started [following that policy],” she shares.

Richardson and Hasson both find an annual survey to be a valuable communication tool between gym owners, parents and athletes.  Opening those lines of communication—even when they’re telling you something you may not want to hear—can help make your gym even more successful moving forward.

-Lisa Beebe

Owner’s Manual: Patrick Fogarty of Cheer World

Owner’s Manual: Patrick Fogarty of Cheer World

Vital Stats

Name: Patrick Fogarty, Co-Owner and Program Director

Gym: Cheer World All Stars

Location: Brecksville, OH

Founded: 2007

Size: 807 athletes

Gym Size: 14,000 square feet

The Debrief: In 2013, Cheer World won the USASF Chairman’s Cup Award, a prestigious award given for outstanding service. Over the years, the gym has donated $200,000+ to Children’s Miracle Network and has also worked with charities like Rush for a Cause and Ronald McDonald House. The efforts have been led by co-owners Patrick Fogarty, A.J. Ganim and Greg Ganim. We spoke with Fogarty to find out why service is such a big part of his gym culture.

The Dish: We have been doing charitable work since the day our doors opened. At Cheer World, we are a family and we believe in being life coaches first and cheer coaches second. To that end, we band together as a family and get involved in our community in any way we can.

Anyone can coach a back handspring. We pride ourselves on working on many other aspects of the kids, not just the athlete. We do it because it’s the right thing to do—both for our involved gym families and the community. Does volunteering at a festival that has families from all over bring attention to our program? Of course. It does bring media attention when you do charity work.

We feel that cheerleaders and community service go hand in hand.  Cheerleaders have great personalities—they light up a room. When you give the kids the opportunity to help other kids, they excel at it.  They love it and feel such a sense of accomplishment in helping; it’s something bigger than them. The athletes build such a sense of how they fit into the fabric of their own communities, and how they can help those around them.

As far as scheduling, it is certainly something to manage, but it’s worth every hour spent. We do a lot of our community service projects in conjunction with our booster club, so we get support and help from our involved parents. It also helps our booster club build relationships with other businesses and programs in our community, which has been helpful.

As far as advice to other gym owners, I would say partner with your booster club. Find a few involved parents and make it an expectation of being a part of your program. Giving back to our community has become as important to our athletes and families as attending practices and learning that next skill. Build it into your culture.

We have a Summer Growth Series, which is a series of events and speakers over the summer. Traditionally, this has only been open to our athletes and kids, but we want to grow it to extend beyond our doors and into our community. We have guest speakers talk about many different things including health and fitness, diet and healthy eating habits, recognizing bullying (and what you can do about it) and other youth-focused topics. We would like to build these talks and seminars into community events where local kids, not just kids in our program, attend and learn. That’s our next focus and hopefully it will be happening this summer.

We tell our athletes and families that it isn’t about what happens on the mat—it is about the footprints we leave when we step off.

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

Choreography: To Hire or Not to Hire?

Choreography: To Hire or Not to Hire?

Your teams have the same skills as the competition, but your competitors are always getting higher scores. Is it time to hire a choreographer to work full-time at your gym? Or is it a smarter move financially to bring in an outside choreographer to craft one killer routine for the season? Each option has its pros and cons.

According to Casey Popp of CheerForce San Diego, one of the major benefits of having a choreographer in-house is ongoing availability. “If you have an injury or financial setbacks for certain families, and your roster changes, it’s nice to have that person in there.” Popp also pointed out that for many gyms, bringing in outside choreographers involves costs above and beyond the choreography itself (such as airfare and housing, depending on how far the choreographer has to travel).

Kyle Gadke agrees, maintaining a balanced viewpoint as both senior choreographer of Platinum Athletics and head of his own independent choreography company, Spirit Fx. “I think you really just have to assess your program and see where you’re at, because there are some programs that probably aren’t ready to have that extra expense. It’s already hard enough for a lot of people to pay for cheerleading. With choreography, I feel like the average goes from $2,000 all the way up to $6,000 per team. If you’re in a small area with only a couple of teams in your gym, that might not be an extra expense that you can divide by the number of kids in your gym, [on top of] uniforms and tuition and all the other expenses that parents have to pay for the sport.”

However, bringing in outside choreographers has its benefits, not the least of which is someone who can view a program with fresh eyes. Anthony Best of Cheer Legendz says, “I can tell you from our experience that as the gym has grown, it’s been better to bring in people from the outside, because you get a different perspective and new ideas.”

Like Gadke, Jamie Parrish choreographs for many gyms alongside his staff position with the Georgia All-Stars. He believes contracting a freelance choreographer is ultimately the more affordable option for many gyms. “What they pay [a choreographer] to do a full routine is far, far less than what they’d have to pay to have someone full-time on staff, or even part-time on staff,” says Parrish. However, he says that cost-effectiveness changes for large gyms that need to create routines for more than five teams: “You might want to have someone full-time [in that scenario].”

Diversity also comes into play. Parrish believes that gyms who do choreography in-house run the risk of every routine blending into each other. “With an in-house choreographer, you have that choreographer’s flair, that choreographer’s style, and all of your teams tend to look the same,” he warns.

So when it is worth it for a gym to hire out? Best of Cheer Legendz says, “I think if you really look at your scoresheets from year to year and they start to say the same thing all the time, then maybe it’s time to look outside. Maybe you can get a fresh, creative idea as to some new ways to help increase your scores.” Gadke agrees, saying it’s essentially guaranteed that any gym is likely to achieve certain results when they bring in an outside choreographer. “If you’ve never hired out before, nine out of 10 times, hiring out should increase your scores and help your program grow.”

If your gym does start hiring out, Parrish recommends working with different choreographers throughout the season: “Having multiple choreographers brought in is not only going to help you with each team being kind of different, but also for your coaches to see our process and learn from different people, which I feel is more beneficial. Sometimes the creative process or something [a choreographer] might do or say can rub off a little bit on your staff.”

Another advantage to bringing in people who’ve worked at other gyms? Their experience is a valuable resource. When Best brings choreographers into Cheer Legendz, he and his business partner take them out for a productive dinner meeting, where they can glean “knowledge from them about other gyms they’ve worked with around the country. How are they doing things? What are fundraisers that have worked for them? Most choreographers have worked in a gym or are currently working in a gym, so it’s a great opportunity to get some new ideas.”

No matter how you choose to hire a choreographer, be sure you know what you’re looking for and whom you’re dealing with. Gadke strongly recommends checking everyone’s references, even if you need someone fast. “If there are no references out there, there’s probably a reason for that. If they can’t show you videos of their work, there’s probably a reason for that. Do your research. Ask around. There’s nothing wrong with asking a choreographer, ‘Hey, can I have a couple references of clients you’ve worked with, and do you have any video samples of work that you’ve done?’ I think it’s important, too, just to see the work, because I know my style of choreography is typically very clean and symmetrical. If you’re someone that’s looking for a very sassy, girly style, that’s not something I personally offer.”

-Lisa Beebe


Our First Year: Ideal Cheer Elite

Our First Year: Ideal Cheer Elite

Anyone who’s read our “Starting a Gym 101” series on the CheerProfessional 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 Ideal Cheer Elite’s first season went…and what they learned.

First Year Case Study #2: Ideal Cheer Elite

Location: Duluth, Minnesota

# of athletes: 60

 Chelsie Waller and her co-owner Ashley Penny are bringing legitimate all-star cheerleading to the Duluth area for the first time—and working with local families to realize its potential.

CP: You bill yourselves as the first USASF gym in Duluth. Has that helped you position yourself and get more credibility?

Waller: Being the first USASF-registered gym in the Duluth area is a really great credential. It catches people’s ear and makes them want to learn more, and kind of validates what we’re doing. However, with the exception of a small rec-style league about 40 miles away, there’s never been an all-star program in Duluth. So when we say we’re the first USASF-registered gym, a lot of people don’t know what that means. We’re doing a lot of educating.

CP: How did you first get started?

Waller: To properly convey passion, you need to meet people face to face. In March, we had a couple meetings where we invited parents, athletes and potential coaches to come in and meet us. At that point, we already had a lot of our business stuff lined up—we had tryout packets set, costs set, uniform prototypes. We did as much as we could to get them to catch onto this craze that we’re so excited about.

CP: What was your biggest challenge along the way?

Waller: For us, it’s a constant struggle explaining to people what all-star is. Even when they see the things we do on the news, read about us in the newspaper or come to an exhibition, people still don’t necessarily get it. We had someone come in to one of our open gyms and ask what color our pompons were. So it’s been about branding all-star and getting people excited about it as a competitive athletic sport.

CP: What advice would you give someone who’s preparing to open a gym?
Remember that if you’re opening a gym, you’re opening a business. We cheer people get so passionate and so busy with the uniforms and the coaching and the choreography, music and competitions [that] it’s easy to leave behind the business aspect—and it’s very important not to do that. I think it’s important for anyone that wants to open a gym to know that you do not need to do it all by yourself, nor should you. As a business, you should hire an attorney, an accountant, a bookkeeper and a payroll service. Don’t be afraid to ask for help on the business side.

CP: What have you learned this year?
We learned the hard way that if you don’t tell parents that they can’t do something, they probably will. We never thought to make it a point to tell people that they can’t put our logo on things until we went to a competition, and there was a group of parents that had hand-drawn our logo onto some T-shirts using puff paint and spray paint. We kind of looked at each other in horror, because there was nothing in our code of conduct or gym rules that they couldn’t do this. So we’ve learned to make a rule for everything, even if it seemed silly.

CP: What are your goals for year two?
Growth. 100% growth.  I’m looking to grow the program in athletes, looking to grow the program in teams, I’m looking to grow my athletes in skills, and I’m looking to get the teams to grow closer. We didn’t do a lot of outside bonding events last year, and that’s a shame, so it’s definitely something I’m focusing on this year.

-Lisa Beebe

Cheering For Charity

Cheering For Charity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spotlight: Debbie Love

Spotlight: Debbie Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jamie Beckman

Our First Year: Pittsburgh Pro All-Stars

Our First Year: Pittsburgh Pro All-Stars

Anyone who’s read our “Starting a Gym 101” series on the CheerProfessional 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.

First Year Case Study #1: 

Location: Imperial, PA

# of athletes: 21

Though it’s not technically Pittsburgh Pro’s first year in business (the gym is actually in its fifth year), first-year cheer director Paige Crimson Priano and two other programs had to start the program from scratch last season with just 10 athletes. The previous year, the gym had about 40 girls, but they all quit and went to different gyms, except for one veteran. Find out how this fledgling program is reinventing itself:

CP: How has your first year in charge of the program gone?

Priano: We got a group of 10 girls that we kept through the whole year—we just had one team. It was a good start for us to see we can handle one team, and now we know we can handle more.  We had a youth Level 1 team, so they were all babies and so eager to learn.

CP: What has been your top priority this year?

Priano: After I took the title of program director, the biggest change I made was communication. I sent at least one email every month to make sure everyone knew the dates coming up. By the end of the season, I was sending weekly emails. Communication helped build our relationship with the parents. I feel like I know every single parent now, and I want to keep that [momentum] going.

CP: Can you tell us about how your “Become a Pro” camp helped grow the program?

Priano: We were supposed to have our last competition in April but had to reschedule it, so we had the whole month of April open, still with only 10 girls. We were trying to think of ways to get our name out there, and I came up with a “Become a Pro” camp. The flyer said, “Try it before you buy it.” The camp was every Tuesday in April for two hours; we taught the girls all the basics of all-star cheer so they could see if it’s the sport for them. 

CP: What advice would you give someone starting a new gym?

Priano: You have to be organized. I keep a lot of lists. Being organized in your brain is one thing, but being able to see it on paper really makes a difference for me.

CP: What’s something you’ve learned this year?

Priano: Halfway through the season, we realized we were focused on the wrong thing with our girls. The girls were hitting the routines every single competition, but they were leaving feeling defeated, just because they didn’t get first. So we switched from focusing on placement to focusing on the improvements they made from the last competition, and not letting the judges’ decisions affect the girls.  Now, they feel more in control.  We didn’t win our big competition at nationals, but we ended up leaving that competition feeling better than ever because of the improvements they made.

-Lisa Beebe

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

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Amanda Kennedy

When Two Become One: Dissolving a Partnership

When Two Become One: Dissolving a Partnership

Like the splitting up of once head-over-heels newlyweds, the parting of ways in business is often tricky, sad and more than a little complicated. Add in the complexities of an all-star cheer business, and breaking up can get downright sticky.

So what happens when one of the partners of an all-star gym wants to retire or pursue other passions?

Legal experts advise not waiting until one person is ready to retire—or wants out—to discuss what will happen with your beloved gym. Business litigator Jay McDaniel, founder of the McDaniel Law Firm, P.C. says it’s imperative to think about not just getting into a business but getting out of it—especially when it comes to cash.

“The cost of not having planned for the exit as one of the principal owners of the business is usually multiples of hundreds of what it would have cost to have done it at the time,” he says.

For Freedom Athletics, Inc. founder and owner Nancy McDowell, buying out her partner in 2006 was pretty straightforward and snag-free, even though she and her partner had never discussed what might happen with the gym if either coach wanted out. At the time they started Freedom from scratch in 2003, McDowell says, “it was just bubblegum and lollipops. We were coaches. And we had all these kids and it was awesome.”

Fast-forward three years, and McDowell’s partner decided she wanted to pursue other career paths. Fortunately, she says, the gym’s attorney was a family member, so the transfer of ownership was seamless. And according to McDowell, there has never been a hint of ill will: “We have a very good relationship. She’s done choreography for me [since the split], so it worked out really nicely.”

D.S. Briggs, Tumbling Director of Metro East St. Louis-based Pride Kids Sports Center, has a different perspective on buyouts. Years ago, he was a staff member of a buyout that was initially treated like a merger so as not to lose key support from its team families and community. In that situation, the gym he was employed by wasn’t necessarily looking to buy or acquire another program, but when they were approached by another gym to join forces to compete with a mega-gym moving into the area, the merger worked—at first.

“Maybe about a year or two later, we ended up buying the program out completely [rather than being equal partners] because things had deteriorated to the point they had no option but to sell,” he says.

Briggs says to make these types of buyouts work, the new owner needs to be sensitive to just who the “old” gym was. “The gym that is taking over has to respect the client and the culture of the smaller gym,” says Briggs. “It takes time to assimilate a whole gym culture into a different culture; it can’t be rushed into or expected to survive without hard work by the perceived leaders in both gyms.”

And, as always, communication is key, says Briggs. “You have to have a lot of open honest discussion about the goals, hopes and dreams, and what really are the personal dreams and philosophies of both programs,” he explains. “You have to figure that out right from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s not going to work at all.”

And when it comes to what McDaniel calls “business divorce” (when one partner wants out), he says most business owners don’t prepare for it when they are just starting out. In his experience, only about 25 percent of his clients have given it real thought. Most, he says, find it difficult to focus on an event that could be 25 years away. “The idea is, ‘we will deal with it someday’ or ‘yeah that’s a good idea’. [They always say], ‘We’ll get back to you,’” shares McDaniel.

Avoid that trap and start planning now for a smooth exit with these helpful tips:

1.   Put in agreements to buy and sell. “You come to agreements on how you are going to value the business and you put in place funding for it,” says McDaniel. “That way, the person who stays has funds to buy the other person out.”

He adds that one effective way to do that is by taking out life insurance policies on the principals of the company. With that method, if one of the co-owners dies, the business will have the proceeds of the life insurance policy to pay their family the value of their share of the company.

And when it’s time for retirement, the business will have the cash value of the life insurance policy to pay the retiring partner or withdrawing partner.

2. Incorporate a deadlock clause. McDaniel also suggests putting a deadlock clause into a well-drafted business plan, which can save a lot of heartache down the line. “It basically says that if we can’t agree, then I can make an offer to buy a proposal,” he says.

3. Steer clear of a DIY split. Things can get particularly dicey when the people splitting up attempt to do it themselves. That’s a big no-no, according to McDaniel: “Never do it yourself. About half of my litigation cases come from do-it-yourself business entities. Get a decent lawyer.”

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. In McDowell’s case, she feels fortunate the process went so smoothly. A key ingredient, she stresses, was talking through everything from the beginning. “Be very honest and upfront from the get-go. Be very clear about what you want. And put it in writing.”

-Lindsay Martell

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

Private Lessons: A Primer

Private Lessons: A Primer

The good news: Private lessons can certainly add an extra layer of perceived value for gym clientele. The bad news: at times, offering privates can also add more hassle for gym owners between scheduling, pay structure, and other considerations. However, in the end, most gym owners, coaches and parents agree that private lessons offer an array of benefits that make it worth the effort. Find out how gyms around the country handle this popular revenue stream:

About Time

The trickiest aspect of offering private lessons in a gym, most say, is scheduling. Some gyms have set times at which the lessons can be offered, while others leave it up to coaches to handle their own schedule.

At the Wilson School of Gymnastics, Cheer and Dance in Chambersburg, Pa., coaches have freedom to schedule their own private lessons—within reason. According to team coordinator Rachel Roberts, privates can’t be scheduled during class times, so most coaches arrange them immediately before or after the student’s team practice.

At Virginia-based Cheer Extreme Roanoke, coaches also have liberty with scheduling, and several use business cards to help parents contact them for privates. Gym owner Bobby Lozano offers assistance with scheduling and pairing up people for privates. “Parents will come to me and say, ‘My daughter wants to work on her back handspring. Who does a really good job working with that age group and skill?’” Lozano says. “I figure out who would best suit that child [and his/her needs].”

Kristen Shimmel, a coach with Cleveland-based X-Cel Athletics, says scheduling is the responsibility of the coaches, but it’s not always easy. “At our gym, the space is always utilized by squads or tumbling classes, so private lessons use whatever free space is available at any one time,” she says. “Space is often an issue, but you just have to get creative!”

Private Benjamins

Where gyms vary more widely in handling private lessons is how coaches are paid. Some gyms allow coaches to keep 100 percent of the earnings as a means of supplemental income (and extra incentive), whereas other gyms take a cut of the cost or expect the coach to do privates as part of their existing salary.

For instance, X-Cel Athletics pays its coaches, including Shimmel, through the gym’s payroll. At Wilson and CEA Roanoke, coaches are paid directly by parents, although both Roberts and Lozano say there is a standard rate for the lessons. And at Georgia-based Renegade Athletics, private lessons are simply another way coaches earn their hourly salary.

“All of our privates are scheduled and paid through the gym,” explains owner Leslie Pledger-Griffin. “Instructors make their hourly pay regardless of what they are doing—office work, tumbling class, privates lessons, teams or whatever.

Lozano says payment for privates used to go through the gym, but the coaches now make 100 percent. “Coaches do the work for it and deserve the money,” he says. “The added incentive for coaches to work more privates is that they’re getting the full amount of money. In the end, it benefits the gym because the kids they are working with cheer for us.”

Why Privates Matter

Offering privates can help assure parents as to the one-on-one attention and education that their child is receiving—helping to ensure gym retention. For Wilson parent Beverly Musgrave, private lessons are a welcome aid to her daughter’s skill development. “The one-on-one time gives her the chance to really concentrate, and focus more on what the coaches are asking her to do,” Musgrave says.

Gym owners and coaches can also use private lessons to help the team at large—targeting needed areas of improvement. For instance, when Roberts was prepping her athletes for U.S. Finals this spring, she worked privately with one particular athlete to nail a key tumbling skill. “We had one athlete who was extremely inconsistent with her standing tuck,” says Roberts. “She wanted to be really sure she was going to hit.”

For Renegade Athletics, privates are about supply and demand. “Our office always tries to push classes over privates, but some parents and kids are insistent so we try to fulfill that demand,” shares Pledger-Griffin.

Regardless of the reasons, private lessons offer lasting benefits for both gyms and athletes. “At Cheer Extreme, we’ve done privates forever,” says Lozano. “It’s the best way, I think, to communicate with kids. You build bonds on a one-on-one basis.”

-Jennifer Deinlein 

Avoiding the Lazy Coaching Trap

Avoiding the Lazy Coaching Trap

It’s Friday night at the Cheer Pride All-Stars gym in Whippany, NJ. Coach Erin Shane signals The Summit-bound Junior Level 1 team to enter the gym. Clad in fire-colored practice gear with bows neatly placed on their crowns, 15 female athletes quietly line up in four rows, hit a “T” and prepare to perform a timing drill for jumps.

Shane begins to clap to the rhythm of her counting to keep the team’s unified left kicks timed to her beat. The team doesn’t flinch as she pauses to hit a strong, poised “T” to demonstrate proper motion technique. The squad reaches 20 kicks smoothly and quickly, then Shane continues the process again on the opposite side.

No matter what activity her athletes participate in, Shane is highly engaged. She spots tumbling, fills in for missing stunters and works out with the team at the end of practice—all after an eight-hour workday as a special education teacher at a North Jersey high school.

Not all coaches are able to master the juggling act as easily as Shane; after all, all-star cheer coaches are faced with the challenge of managing a winning squad all while balancing multiple jobs, families and personal time. In the face of overwhelm, it can be difficult for coaches to avoid falling into a “lazy funk”—an attitude that affects both the team and the gym as a whole.

“It is important that people learn hard work gets results,” said Jodi Gerhartz, co-owner of East Brunswick, NJ-based All Star Athletic Center.

She adds that irresponsible habits, such as sitting down or answering phone calls during practice, also play a role in lazy coaching behaviors. “I had a coach who was always sitting down, talking on her cellphone and yelling at the athletes,” Gerhartz shares. “I have zero tolerance for that type of coaching. I explained to her that the athletes did not respect her because she was not respecting what they are doing.”

Shane also believes lazy coaches “inevitably hurt the team, and the business will suffer. Athletes will have poor technique and skills, resulting in an inability to grow or be successful at competition. [Eventually,] athletes will leave the program to go where their coaches are an active part of the experience.”

Lazy coaching behaviors can also lead to financial loss, poor reputation and lack of indispensable leadership skills cheerleaders can learn from experienced instructors to become successful athletes, students and professionals in the future.

So how can coaches avoid the lazy funk? Start off right by energetically implementing the following tips in their routine at practices:

Stand up. Coaches must lead by active example. Gerhartz believes that on the “first day of practice [and beyond], coaches need to set the precedent. Stand up to coach, and work as hard as the athletes do.”

Plan ahead. Making a blueprint for practice ahead of time can truly pay off, says Shane, who suggests creating practice plans that change in activity every 30 minutes. Pre-planning helps coaches become more aware of what needs to be accomplished in practice—keeping their focus narrowed.

Cater to individual training needs. Every athlete learns differently, whether it be visual, auditory or kinesthetically. Taking the time to teach skills in different ways can help coaches maximize effectiveness—and avoid lazy tendencies in their effort to meet each athlete’s needs.

Ditch the digital world. Coaches must put the cellphones down during the practice to effectively observe their cheerleaders. Consider practice an opportune time to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses rather than respond to parent emails or gym gossip.

-Christina Hernandez is the founder of Rah Rah Routines, a consulting firm specializing in choreography, tumble lessons and routine consultations for cheerleading organizations. She is a cheerleading and tumbling aficionado who has led senior-level All Star teams to multiple local, regional, and national titles. She has more than 23 years of experience as a Pop Warner, high school and all star cheerleader and is contracted to work as a tumble instructor at several cheer and dance organizations in New Jersey. She is a longstanding choreographer for reputable recreation, high school and all–star competitive teams throughout the Northeast region and is a member of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (A.A.C.C.A.), USASF and NFHS. She believes perfecting the fundamentals of cheerleading and tumbling are the key to achieving excellence. To find out more about Christina and her business, visit rahrahroutines.com

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Carmen Rodriguez

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

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

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

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

 Ron Swanson, Program Director, KGDC’s 360 Allstars

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

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

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

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

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

Becky Woodson, Program Director, Daytona Xtreme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go, Go Gadget! MyoSource Kinetic Bands

Go, Go Gadget! MyoSource Kinetic Bands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Make the Connection: Why Mentoring & Networking Matter

Make the Connection: Why Mentoring & Networking Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Vicky Choy and Jen Jones Donatelli

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



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


Do Dance Teams Equal Dollar Signs?

Do Dance Teams Equal Dollar Signs?

Could the addition of a dance program be something to cheer about at your all-star gym? The sector has certainly seen significant growth in the last five years, with the debut of the Dance Worlds in 2008 and many gyms introducing dance teams and programs. USASF dance committees were formed in 2011 to help foster that growth, and 25 event producers are now on board giving bids to Dance Worlds. 

Being part of this emerging trend comes with both risks and rewards for any gym. Though a dance program can diversify your offering and/or boost your bottom line, it’s important to consider elements like scheduling issues, staffing and costs involved. Incorporating dance teams might not be the right move for every gym owner, so it’s important to know the pros and cons before jumping headfirst into those waters.

Rockville, MD-based Shockwave Allstars started offering dance teams and classes last season. Owner Jessie Leone opened the gym with his wife Carrie almost four years ago, and they now have 15 cheer teams, nine dance teams and 410 total athletes in their 15,000 sq.-ft. facility. “My wife runs a very tight ship when it comes to customer service, and we felt that we could bring that same level of commitment to the dance industry,” says Leone. “We also felt it would be a great complimentary use for our facility.”

One of Leone’s top pieces of advice is to “consider whether you can offer a great product with solid margins that can lead you to profitability.” At Shockwave, the Leones incurred a significant amount of build-out expense when they added studios, but because they didn’t expand the facility, the effort didn’t raise their operating expenses other than staffing

Two locations and 275 athletes strong, CNY Storm is now in its 18th year, and owner Kathy Penree added dance teams five years ago when an existing program that already had dance teams in place joined theirs. Though the addition of dance teams hasn’t yet increased profitability for the gym, Penree believes it’s been beneficial as a way of “giving our athletes another outlet for their talent.”

Fitting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Over at Ultimate Athletics of Ohio, co-owners Denise Haase and Ryhannon Haase-Johnston introduced dance teams six seasons ago. Haase-Johnston oversees the dance program at the gym, while her mom focuses on cheer. The mother/daughter team started with a small dance program offering substantial crossover tuition cuts, which facilitated growth into a larger program. Now that the program is well-established, local dance studios have been coming to Ultimate Athletics for guidance and advice, and going on to compete at all-star competitions.

So how does Ultimate do it? A whopping 75 percent of their athletes participate in both cheer and dance. “We make tuition affordable and really try to balance the practice schedules to accommodate those athletes so they aren’t in the gym seven days a week,” Haase-Johnston explains.

They also try to maximize resources in other areas; for instance, the uniforms and costumes have become multi-purpose as a means of keeping overhead low while still looking professional at competitions. “One unique thing we do to cut back on costs is use our cheer top for our pom teams and pair them with black jazz pants and a mesh leotard to cut down on uniform prices,” says Haase-Johnston.

The tactics seem to be working, as the program has gotten bids to the last three years of Dance Worlds. In May, the gym will be merging with Tumble Athletics to become the newest franchised location of Midwest Cheer Elite—and they hope the dance program will continue to grow. “I wish more gyms could see the potential in turning cheer athletes into dancers,” Haase-Johnston says. “With the right training, it works and gives them an option to express themselves in a different way.”

Scheduling & Staffing 

Like Haase-Johnston, Leone of Shockwave sees dance as a growing sector of the cheer world and a great way for a gym to reach a wider market—provided owners have the right infrastructure in place. However, unlike Ultimate Athletics, they try to have their athletes choose between cheer and dance. “Otherwise, when you get close to competition and start scheduling extra practices, it will become an issue,” says Leone.

At Penree’s CNY Storm, most of her dancers are also cheerleaders, so practice days and times are separated out so that most athletes have a break. “It also teaches those athletes time management skills,” Penree says. However, she adds that competition scheduling can be tough—dance is usually at the beginning or end of the day, making it a long day for any crossover athletes. Smaller competitions can also be a challenge, since there is very little time for costume and makeup changes.

Another top consideration is staffing. Many gym owners stress the importance of not having coaches do too much double-duty, as it can lead to scheduling problems and burnout. One solution is to bring in dedicated dance coaches who can focus on that aspect of the program—for gym owners who are able to find the finances, it can be a huge plus.

Ultimately, the way a dance program is run is up to each individual gym owner, because what works for one gym may not click with another. Consider the infrastructure you have in place, your gym’s finances and your future plans carefully before you commit. If a dance program makes sense for your business, it could be well worth the risks. “Every time a new child joins the gym, your profit margins should be the same for cheer as well as dance,” says Leone. That way, “as an owner you do not care which one they join—only that they join your gym family.”

-Dina Gachman

Missing in Action

Missing in Action

Jamie Gumina distinctly remembers being on the bus with her team and about to leave for JAMFest Super Nationals in Indianapolis five years ago. Energy was high, as the team had worked hard to prepare for the event—but that’s when she realized her base was missing. “We called her, and she said she couldn’t come because she was sick,” Gumina recalls. It was a huge setback for the group from Blue Springs, MO-based Gage Center, but cheer director Gumina got to work quickly.

“We reorganized the team in the little aisle of the bus,” she says. “I told the kids to be strong.” Their action plan? Pulling up a girl from another team to fill in for the absentee athlete. They managed to put the setback behind them and come off with flying colors at the event, placing in the top portion of teams and receiving a Worlds bid.

Yet the gravity of the situation didn’t go unrecognized by Gumina. “Missing practices is the single most important item to making or breaking an entire team. If even one person is missing, an entire stunt group stands around and the pyramid can’t go up,” says Gumina.

Dealing with similar attendance issues at your gym? Find out how to deal with the problem head-on:

Form an attendance policy. If your gym doesn’t have an attendance policy, it’s time to form one now. When Gumina set up her business 13 years ago, the gym had no attendance policy—a decision she now questions. “You were just expected to be there, and as one would expect, no one cared about being punctual,” Gumina recalls. She instituted an attendance policy at Gage Center five years ago, and it has made a huge difference in attendance. The specifics: the only excused misses are for mandatory school functions or cases of serious illness. Non-traveling athletes get two excused absences from August through April, as well as pardons for mandatory school functions; Level 5 athletes get three total absences, all of which must be excused.

Be prepared to abide by it. Sometimes you’ve got to be tough on kids who repeatedly defy the rules. Tracy Baker, director of Valley Elite All Stars in Easton, Pa., says the only time athletes are excused is for family emergencies, serious sickness and school grades. “If they miss for any reason apart from these, they’re removed from the program,” Baker says. Similarly, Gumina did not hesitate from removing her best athlete several years ago in light of her missing practice regularly. “It was a tough call, but we had to set an example,” she shares.

Leave no room for excuses. “Well, I didn’t know we had to be there” is a popular excuse many gym owners and coaches hear over and over again. To avoid this, California Flyers All Stars owner Shelly Gramatky puts out her full-year calendar at the beginning of the season. “We include when they have days off, holiday dates, whether we are practicing on school holidays or not (i.e., Veterans Day and Presidents Day). We always post our calendar online and give them a password so they have private access to it 24/7,” says Gramatky. Translation? No excuses for excuses.

Be prepared. Despite your best efforts, athletes will still miss practice at times, so a backup plan is necessary. To that end, Gramatky “keeps rosters of older kids that have moved on but still live in the area to call in case we need them to swoop in and save the day.” Karen Brenner, owner of Egg Harbor Township, NJ-based All Star One has developed a fill-in policy: kids who miss practice have to find someone from another team who can do their job. “So if we have a team of 20 and three kids aren’t attending, we have three fill-ins so we still have a full team,” she explains.

Explain your reasoning. Sometimes simple math can help explain to families how important practice is. Andrea McBride of Denham Springs, LA-based Leaps & Bounds Cheer Energy spells it out like this: “If Susie misses Tuesday’s two-hour practice and Sally misses Thursday’s two-hour practice, then that’s a full week of incomplete practices. That’s four of four total hours of practice busted for the week.” McBride adds that if two more athletes miss practice the following week, then the team then has eight hours of incomplete practice. “So, in four weeks of regular practices totaling 16 hours, only eight were full practices. That is only 50 percent! Who has ever done well at anything with only 50 percent efficiency?” she says.

Make up for what you’ve lost. Some gyms ask kids to do extra burpees or drills if they miss practice, but Gramatky is careful not to make it look like “punishment.” She says, “We try and put a spin on it: when you are late, leave early or miss practice, you lose out on getting stronger with the rest of the team, so adding the extra conditioning into your workout when you miss practices is kind of like a body make-up.” The athletes learn that being able to keep up with their teammates is important to reducing injury. “So we consider it a ‘practice make-up,’” concludes Gramatky.

At the end of the day, Brenner believes that what counts is making your athletes feel valuable: “We tell all our coaches to treat the kids such that they feel irreplaceable. If they believe they’re valued, they’re not going to miss no matter what.”

-Dinsa Sachan


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.



Mission: Fulfillment

Mission: Fulfillment

It may sound like just another trendy buzzword, but “volun-tourism” is a very real trend. A 2008 study by Tourism & Research Marketing found that an estimated 1.6 million volunteer tourists take “ethical” holidays where they have an opportunity to experience another culture while performing philanthropic actions. Yet another 2008 survey by University of California-San Diego researchers found that 45 percent of Americans said they’ve considered taking volunteer vacations, and 72 percent knew someone who had been a global volunteer. If you’re thinking about joining their ranks, get inspired by these three inspiring stories from cheer professionals who’ve been there and done that: 

Bringing Cheer to Belize: Virginia Baldwin

In 2013, Virginia Baldwin, owner of All-American All Star Cheerleading and coach at Mechanicsville, VA-based Hanover High School, traveled with her two daughters and several athletes to Belize, where they conducted youth cheer camps and engaged in community service projects. In a country that places little value on females, Baldwin was gratified to help to raise self-esteem and put smiles on young faces through individualized attention—and some cheer bows. “To see the joy in these little girls’ faces is a beautiful thing. We think we are changing someone else’s life, but our lives are the ones that are changed,” she says. “A little piece of my heart is in Belize.”

Baldwin’s life-changing experience inspired her high school cheerleaders to climb aboard. Last year five of them accompanied her; this year, 10 will make the trip. “To take kids from upper middle-class families to a third world country is eye-opening for them. They see what these kids eat and how they live—but they bond like you can’t imagine,” she says. “I hope the lesson is something that will carry through to adulthood. It’s all about loving one another. There’s no better way to do this than to spend time with someone in need.”

Back home, the experiences in Belize have restored Baldwin’s love for cheer. “It’s given me a new vision for the way I coach. It’s not just about winning. It’s about self-worth. I love having the privilege to coach and want to mentor young girls, to let them know someone believes in them,” she says. “It brings us back to center and makes us realize what’s truly important in life.”

Getting Schooled in Bolivia: Sydney Cottle

The spirit of giving comes naturally to Sydney Cottle. A cheerleader and senior at Portland, OR-based Lake Oswego High School, she participates in the Susan G. Komen Cheer for a Cure event, ties fleece blankets and donates them to the Portland Rescue Mission and volunteers every Sunday with Team Shine (Oregon’s first cheer team for athletes with special needs). But she sought something more. That “something” became a three-week trip with Humanitarian Experience for Youth (HEFY) to Bolivia, where she helped construct a school and worked at an elderly care facility.

During her stay, she and 20 other teens from across the country engaged in some heavy-duty construction work. “Things were very prehistoric there. We didn’t have any big machines to mix cement; everything was done by hand,” says Sydney’s mom, Michelle Cottle, who accompanied the group as a parent helper.

In addition to intense labor, the group played with the Bolivian children and attempted to teach them the English alphabet. Even though Spanish is the country’s native language, the language barrier proved to be only a minor challenge.

Originally intended as a way to initiate change outside of her immediate community, the trip fostered a transformation in Sydney. “I’m a lot more grateful for what I have. These people have so little, but they always manage,” she explains. “I’m happier and more outgoing. Just to see what others go through on a daily basis is eye-opening.”

From Reluctant to Rewarded: Melanie Randolph

Unlike Cottle, Melanie Randolph was not initially sold on the idea of an overseas mission trip. “I thought staying at a Holiday Inn was roughing it,” says Randolph, who owns Danville, CA-based Spirit Force Cheer & Dance. But she changed her mind when she and her husband were recruited by a missionary in 2007 to travel to Pazardzhik, Bulgaria. There they taught Christian drama stories in several gypsy villages and also helped feed the citizens; the trip was so impactful that they made it an annual endeavor from 2007 to 2011.

In retrospect, Randolph emphasizes that she received ten-fold back what she gave to the Bulgarian people. “God’s given me so much. All I can give them is me,” says Randolph, who is a member of the Christian Cheerleaders of America (CCA) advisory board. “I’ve gotten more out of it than they did.”

Randolph also points out that the experience for the children who also made the trip with Macedonian Outreach was life-changing. “To get the kids to experience this is very important. It took me almost 50 years to do something like this. Imagine what I could have done if I started earlier,” she says. “When you step outside your comfort zone, it changes your heart.”

Extras, Extras! (Are They Worth It?)

Extras, Extras! (Are They Worth It?)

Looking for ways to diversify? Find out which “extras” can help you boost revenue—and get insider intel to determine which ones are the right fit for your gym. 



Birthday parties ACX owner Randy Dickey views birthday parties as a great way to woo potential clients. “When you have a birthday party, a kid from your gym brings 20 of their friends in who’ve never even heard of your company before,” says Dickey. He suggests capitalizing by “handing out a coupon to every kid for a free class, or offering some type of promotion [like], ‘Hey, if you come in within a week, you’ll get X amount off your first month’s tuition.’” Make sure you have the right people working the party. Dickey explains that you don’t want “some high school girl that’s on her phone Facebooking the whole time and not paying attention.” Also, be sure you have the bandwidth to do it right—if the facility isn’t ready when people arrive, it leaves a bad impression on potential new clients: “You want a smile behind the desk when everyone walks in and somebody to inform them where to go. From head to toe, you have to put on a show.”
After-school programs Parents don’t see these as an “extra”—they see them as an essential, and your gym can profit by supplying that demand. Marilyn Noon, co-owner of Polk Aces, says, “Working parents need childcare. Parents pay consistently because you offer a service they need. If they don’t pay you, they will still have to pay someone, so it’s typically already built into their budget.” Before getting started, Noon recommends conducting a market survey within your own gym to find out if enough parents are interested. Also, arranging pickups from multiple schools can be tricky. To maximize profits, familiarize yourself with local dismissal times so you can pick up from as many schools as possible with just one vehicle.
Gym rentals Midwest Cheer Elite rents gym space to a personal trainer. Owner Tanya Roesel appreciates that the personal trainer brings new faces into the gym. “We get a lot of moms that come in while the kids are in school, and I bet 50 percent of them sign their kids up for tumbling,” she estimates. “The personal trainer does a [fitness] class at 7 pm, and the kids will tumble with us while their moms work out.”


To protect your reputation, it’s crucial to perform due diligence on your new affiliation. “Make sure you do background checks on whomever you’re renting it out to because you’re basically giving them access to your business,” cautions Roesel. “Anyone coming into your gym and running a business out of it must have good morals and ethics, because if they have a bad background, it could ruin the name of your gym.”
Mommy & Me classes Roesel also offers Mommy & Me classes at Midwest Cheer Elite, and she’s happy with how they’ve worked out so far. She says, “Mommy & Me does pretty well, and it’s in the daytime when we don’t have as much going on. During the school year when the older siblings are in school, it’s busy.” If you want to offer Mommy & Me classes, find a time during the day. Roesel explains, “That type of class is not going to work in the evenings. Unless you have a dedicated area for pre-school tumbling, you aren’t going to want 2- and 3-year-olds running through your gym at 7 pm when you’re working with Level 5 athletes.”
Dance team Rena Blanchard, director of operations at Charlotte All Stars, points out that offering a dance program can make life easier for your clients. “We have a large base of athletes who have siblings who dance, so the families like the convenience of being able to bring the dancer sibling to our gym, rather than going to two different locations.” Blanchard emphasized that it’s important to find the right person to lead the program. “Since dance is not our expertise, we needed to bring an expert in to work with us.“ She also suggests researching other dance studios in the area and checking which ages they serve. Blanchard believes it’s best to start slow— Charlotte All Stars offers dance at just one of its five locations. “Eventually we’d like to turn that into a competitive team, but right now it is strictly instructional.”
Tween dances Bel Air, MD-based Eastern Elite All Stars holds a series of dances called “Second Saturdays.” Trisha Quinn, president, describes the set-up: “We have a dance room that has some wood flooring, and we bring down two sofas. We also rent little circle tables, a popcorn machine and a pizza oven. It’s $10 to get in, which includes a black light lounge. We only offer it once a month so it becomes a special event.” Knowing your audience is key. Quinn says they avoided catering to high school students because their “biggest concern was if they were going to try to sneak in alcohol or do inappropriate dancing.” Instead, they started off holding dances for middle-schoolers, but learned a surprising lesson: “Believe it or not, the kids that are taking to it are the younger, elementary school kids.  They absolutely love it.”

-Lisa Beebe

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

Expansion Case Study: Stingrays

Expansion Case Study: Stingrays

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 the Stingrays tackle the challenge while maintaining the integrity of their brand.

Expansion Case Study #1: Stingray Cheer Company, Inc.
Locations: 4 (Georgia and Alabama)
Combined Number of Athletes: 1500+

Casey Jones, owner of Stingray Cheer Company, Inc., talks about his gym’s growth to meet the needs of the community and his staff.

CP: Tell us about the various Stingrays locations.

Jones: We now have four locations including our new gym in Alabama, which will open in May 2014. The other three locations are in Georgia—Marietta and Johns Creek, as well as one overflow gym in Kennesaw.

CP: How do you typically split your time between locations?

Jones: Right now I work at two locations—Marietta and Kennesaw—because that’s where I live. I go to Johns Creek one day a week. We haven’t taken over the Alabama location yet so there hasn’t been a need for me to travel there.

CP: Take us through your expansion history into a gym with multiple locations.

Jones: We started in Marietta, and before opening any additional locations, we wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could there. But we had maxed out our space and it was time to grow.

CP: Was it a function of supply-and-demand, too? How did expansion into Alabama come into play?

Jones: Our All-Star program grew by 200 kids with Johns Creek so we decided to open Kennesaw as overflow. Kennesaw is only five miles away from the Marietta facility; they really function as one gym. Alabama was different—we had a long relationship with the gym there, so we partnered with them before taking over entirely.

CP: What do you perceive as the main risk when it comes to expansion?

Jones: The biggest risk is growing too quickly. You have to have the resources to service the locations (resources being time, funding and staffing). If you don’t, it’s best not to do it at all. For us, I look at the demographics of an area and the population. How many kids are there? How many schools? Is there opportunity to work with the school system, which in turn will feed our all-star programs? But overall, [my advice is to] grow slow and expand when you have to. I’m conservative: as I’ve gotten older in the industry, I just don’t want to chance it [failing at business].

CP: What makes Stingray Cheer Company so successful?

Jones: We wanted to offer a great product and now, with our growth, we are able to offer more people access to Stingray Cheer. We also wanted to provide career opportunities for our instructors and employees; our growth creates that for them.

Day in the Life: Dan Kessler

Day in the Life: Dan Kessler

5:00 or 6:00 am: I get up early in the morning to work out before the girls wake up. (I have two little girls: 3-year-old Ruby Jane and 1-year-old Eleanor.) 90 percent of my workout is straight running—right now, I use the treadmill because it’s been so darn cold [in Kentucky], but I’ve done a couple marathons and a bunch of half-marathons and smaller races. Then I shower, drop Ruby Jane off at pre-school around 8:30ish and come to the office. 

9:30 am: I don’t sit down and check email right away, because that totally distracts you from everything. Instead, [I make] a to-do list. I leave it on my desk, and then try and visualize my day and where I’m going to put my time.

10:00 am: Time for some emails! I really try to sit down and tell myself, “Be productive and don’t sit here for eight hours and get five hours of work done.” When I leave, I’m done for the day. With two young kids, I’ve made an emphasis to get stuff done before I get home; I try not to let it seep in [to home life].

11:00 am: We couldn’t become JAM Brands without the people we have. I normally check in with Tara Harris, VP of Sales and Development, to see what’s going on. Early in the week, I definitely check in with our brand leaders to see how the weekend went, hot buttons, whatnot—and, obviously, to discuss the next week’s events. It’s the same thing every week, in terms of events ending and events starting. (This dialogue continues throughout the day.)

Noon: For lunch, I try to do 50/50, bringing lunch and going out to eat, but it doesn’t usually work out like that.  There’s a rotation of places around the office I go to: Qdoba, Jason’s Deli, Backyard Burger, Chick-fil-A, Subway….

2:00 pm: Check in with the judging department to see how they’re doing. It’s important to make sure that I’m staying up to speed on what’s going on.

4:30 pm: Head home to be back with the girls. The girls take an afternoon nap, so I spend the rest of their waking hours with them until they go to bed. We do anything from arts and crafts to going downstairs to the playroom. Just being a present dad is the most important thing, and I’m lucky that I can do that. That’s my wife Shannon’s time to step away from the girls for a bit.

6:00 pm: Lucky for me, Shannon likes to cook! She makes very good, healthy dishes for us; we love her chili and fish dinners.

7:45 pm: The girls go to bed around 7:30, so Shannon and I try to go downstairs and have adult talk about how our days were. (Even during dinner, it’s a lot of Ruby Jane saying, “Mom! Mom!”)

8:00 pm: Like most people, we have shows that we like to watch on DVR; it’s just trying to enjoy quality time being together. We’re addicted to season one of “Breaking Bad” right now; we also got hooked on “Nashville” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Shannon and I are really big sports fans, so on Saturdays, we’ll be watching games like football and basketball depending on the season.

9:30 pm: Jokingly, but seriously, I’ve been known to fall asleep on the couch. It’s kind of like, go ‘til you’re done, and then you shut it off. There are nights when I could stay up all night and watch meaningless TV, but I have to get up at 5 or 6 am!



Spotlight: Dan Kessler

Spotlight: Dan Kessler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes the hard work worth it?

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


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.

A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.


The Wide World of Supplements

The Wide World of Supplements

In Morgantown, W. Va., all-star gym Champion Training Academy sells USANA nutritional supplements and weight loss products as part of its adult weight loss/group fitness program. Over in Katy, Texas, Xcel Athletics All-Stars hosted a Valentine’s Day shopping event earlier this year at which one of the vendors was Advocare (a company that markets energy, weight loss, nutrition and sports performance products). Some gyms are also selling Advocare on-site, such as Green Bay-based Tri County Gymnastics & Cheer, and many cheer professionals moonlight as Advocare reps in addition to their work at the gym, including Tori and Jason Cuevas (Legacy All-Star Cheer & Dance), Sherry Gomez (Ultimate Cheer & Dance) and James Whitaker (Cheer Time Revolution).

According to Whitaker, it’s not surprising that many in the cheer industry are embracing supplements. “Both coaches and athletes put a lot of stress on their bodies—heavy lifting, multiple repetitions, fatigue, muscle breakdown, dehydration,” says Whitaker. “And not only that, but our time is very limited. When you supplement, it allows you to overcome those obstacles.”

Whitaker isn’t alone in his penchant for supplements—in 2012, the nutritional supplement category hit $32 billion in revenue, and by 2021 it will be almost double that at $60 billion (according to the Nutrition Business Journal). While these numbers signal blockbuster business for the supplement industry, the surge also means consumers will need to work harder in order to sift through the barrage of advertising, studies and claims that are sure to follow.

So how can cheer professionals begin the tedious process of navigating the supplements market? Understanding supplements and what they do will assist in deciphering which ones make sensible, safe choices for you—and your athletes.

What are supplements? The definition of a supplement “is simple,” explains Dr. Jenny Abercrombie, an El Segundo, CA-based naturopathic doctor. She describes supplements as an “adjunct to nutrition,” meaning that supplements are not meant to replace the foods we eat, but rather “to fill in the gaps.”

Whitaker believes supplements also help him set a good health example. “I use Brad Habermel and Cheer Athletics as an analogy,” he shares. “He is in great shape, [so] his teams are in great shape. He coaches with high energy, [so] his teams perform with tons of energy. They are a direct reflection of him. His healthy lifestyle helps him not only coach at a high level but gives him credibility when he demands that same healthy lifestyle from his athletes.”

How powerful are they? Supplements support and even enhance body function, including offering remedies when certain issues arise (such as fatigue caused by stress, lack of sleep or over-training). “They help prevent burnout and improve recovery and performance,” says Dr. Abercrombie. The magic happens at the cellular level by improving the muscle’s utilization of sugar, “which is where we get energy from.”

But Dr. Abercrombie cautions that too often people—especially active adults and athletes—rely solely on supplements for nutrition. “It’s much easier to take a supplement,” she says, “and much harder to identify and eliminate poor food choices that cause poor performance, anxiety, mood swings and depression.”

Chris White, the Georgia-based owner of Spirit Supplements Nutrition, LLC, says he witnesses the effects of poor food choices on a daily basis. “All too often, I see kids show up for competition with empty fast food wrappers and an energy drink, and they wonder why they don’t feel good or perform well,” he says. Though White commiserates with families and the busy lives they lead, he believes there are alternatives to mainstream unhealthful grab-n-go foods—supplements that can be both fast and nutritious. “A protein shake is quick and easy, too,” he adds.

Which ones are worth it? Stephanie Beveridge, FDN, agrees. “I always recommend a whole, nutrient-dense lifestyle of food for everyone (including athletes), but supplements can assist in wellness,” says Beveridge, who is the executive director of programs for Copperas Cove, TX-based GymKix. Two supplements Beveridge often recommends for overall health: vitamins A and D. According to Beveridge, Vitamin A is essential because it supports healing, while Vitamin D reduces internal inflammation—both effects that can serve to cut an athlete’s downtime between a hard practice and a competition.

What to watch out for? Beveridge is quick to point out that quality varies between brands; she also makes the broad claim that almost all mainstream and heavily advertised supplements likely contain toxins. “Most have artificial food colorings and sweeteners,” explains Beveridge. “[These] have been linked to negatively impact the brain and the central nervous system.” Beveridge recommends reading labels and avoiding brands that list aspartame, sucralose or saccharin as ingredients. Instead, she advocates buying supplements that use natural sweeteners like stevia, honey and maple syrup.

Are there alternatives to relying on supplements that will get the same results? The answer is “yes,” says White. Before turning to taking supplements, White recommends getting back to nutrition basics with what he calls “clean eating.” He believes athletes and active adults can meet their dietary needs by consuming adequate amounts of hormone-free meat proteins, fruits and vegetables, as well as fats from foods like avocados.

“If kids still aren’t performing well, I give parents a checklist,” says White. The checklist includes questions regarding a child’s overall well-being, such as hydration, stress level, sleep patterns, social challenges and medications. The answers help White educate parents and develop a strategy to remedy issues with performance through a combination of good nutrition and supplementation.

-Cathleen Calkins

Visit our blog for a rundown of suggested supplements for you and your athletes!


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. 

Make Your Mark: Protecting Your Gym Brand

Make Your Mark: Protecting Your Gym Brand

You’ve worked hard to establish your own gym, creating a unique identity with colors, logo and uniforms. A few years later, having built a solid reputation, you’re at an event when in swaggers a brand-new team—wearing colors very similar to yours, a logo that looks awfully close to yours and (wait for it) practically the same name as yours, just with a different spelling.

Is this a scenario for yet another Bring It On movie? Unfortunately, no. It’s an all-too-common occurrence for many all-star cheer programs. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Leslie Pledger-Griffin and her Renegade Athletics teams a few years ago. “We’re at a competition, they walk in [with] our same colors, same name, very similar uniform,” she says. “My kids and the parents were like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Adam Rufkahr’s St. Louis, MO-based Platinum Athletics has seen its own imitators as well. “We actually have had two gyms that have started up using a version of our gym name or trying to copy older versions of our uniforms,” he says. “Thankfully they weren’t anywhere around us, so they didn’t really cause us too many problems, but it is frustrating.”

And Courtney Smith-Pope, owner of Cheer Extreme, was even surprised to find herself in the competition event business—or so it seemed when a company popped up called “Cheer XTREME Events” using actual photographs of her athletes in uniform, complete with her gym logo.

All three gym owners had put a lot of thought and effort into creating a brand for their own gym, so to see imitators was not something to be taken lightly.

“We have taken steps to protect ourselves locally and to keep things like our logo, uniform, routines, etc., safe from others trying to duplicate them,” says Rufkahr. “For instance, we ordered fully custom uniforms from GK to make sure that not only are we getting the best product in the business, but also they will not use or duplicate our design for any other program.”

Renegade Athletics and Cheer Extreme both have trademarked logos, according to their owners, but even that is not foolproof. “We went through the whole trademarking process several years ago, and unfortunately you can only trademark certain logos and certain words,” says Pledger-Griffin, giving the example of another team that is Renegade All-Stars—which she cannot prevent: “We can only protect Renegade Athletics.”

Logo is another entity that can be hard to make bulletproof. Adds Pledger-Griffin, “I can protect my certain logo that is on my website and my uniforms and things like that, but if [others] put any kind of discrepancy in that logo that would not make it exact, then you can’t really [prevent] that.”

Smith-Pope says that she uses her gym’s logo on all uniforms, rather than the words “Cheer Extreme,” as protection for her brand. “It’s harder to own the words ‘Cheer Extreme;’ it’s much simpler to trademark an actual brand symbol,” she says. “Any picture that involves any of our athletes automatically has our logo in it and subjects it to our rights. If things are going to be photographed, include your logo and (have) your logo trademarked.”

Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, says that the first step to protecting your brand is to look at your gym as a business, not just something you love. Trademarking your team’s name or logo is simply protection, he says, because if you find your gym in conflict with another, having the paperwork registering your trademark is proof in your pocket.

Details matter as well: “The more specific you are about what you’re protecting, the better you can do,” Lord says. “You’re going to have a hard time protecting the words ‘Elite Cheerleading Center’ [because] it’s already all over the place. But what [you] could do is have ‘Elite Training Center’ and have a special way you put it together, our logo, whatever our mascot is, so you have a specific mark, that then really becomes more of what you can trademark.”

Lord also recommends gym owners go to their chamber of commerce for guidance on local laws. Having an attorney on retainer is helpful, he says, because they can be familiar with your business and ready to go to work for you.

“In some cases, a simple cease-and-desist letter from an attorney is going to be enough to make somebody change,” says Lord. “[It can] make the [imitator] re-think, do you really want to go to court over this or do you just want to come up with your own logo?”

Can there be a happy ending to these situations? Smith-Pope, for one, resolved the problem easily after a conversation with the event producer. “He was great about it, he took all the words down, he took down the pictures,” she says. “He understood and had an appreciation for the work that we’ve done and what we’ve built.”

Rufkahr says he felt it best to take the high road and that gyms with the same name can possibly co-exist. “I think it comes down to focusing on your gym and your product and making it the best it can be,” he says.  “One thing my mom always told me is, ‘Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,’ so when you look at it like that, really, it’s a compliment.”

-Jennifer Deinlein

Intrigued? Visit our blog for more tips from lawyer James Astrachan on the legal aspects of protecting your brand!

Timeline: Industry Innovations and Trends

Timeline: Industry Innovations and Trends

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


Rebate Plans

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

2006 — Varsity Family Plan is introduced

2008 — The JAM Brands introduces the JAM Rewards

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

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

2011 — Epic Brands introduces Epic Rewards

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

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

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


Custom Uniforms

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

2008 — GK Elite makes its debut

2011 — Xtreme Spirit launches Allstar Apparel

2012 — Spirit Innovations merges with Varsity

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

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


Free Admission

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

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

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

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

2012 — Reach the Beach Daytona adopts a free admission policy


Multi-Brand End of Season Events

1996 — Xtreme Spirit debuts its Elite International Championship

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

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

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

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

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

2013 — US Spirit debuts THE ONE Cheer & Dance Finals

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Red Carpet Events

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

2010 — Varsity introduces Encore Championships

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

2013 — Xtreme Spirit debuts Premier Series events

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

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


By-Invitation Events

2012 — The JAM Brands debuts The Majors

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

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

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


Consolidation and Acquisitions

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

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

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

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

2011 — ACDA/Spirit Unlimited become The Epic Brands

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

2013 — Xtreme Spirit acquires Wisconsin Spirit


New on the Scene

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


Test Your Trends Knowledge!

Test Your Trends Knowledge!

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




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

a)    Ozone

b)   Teamleader

c)    Rebel Athletic

d)   Chasse’

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

a)    1998

b)   2001

c)    2006

d)   2009

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

a)    Varsity

b)   Spirit Brands

c)    The JAM Brands

d)   Epic Brands

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

a)    The Revolution

b)   The Majors

c)    All-Star Games

d)   Champions League

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

a)    The Summit

b)   The Reveal

c)    The Debut

d)   Future 5

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

a)    Cheer Kingdom

b)   Cheerlebrity

c)    Crown Jubilee

d)   Reach The Throne

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

a)    Cheersport

b)   American Cheer Power

c)    JAMFest Cheer Super Nationals

d)   Coastal Battle at the Capitol

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

a)    International All Levels Championship

b)   The Road to Worlds

c)    Battle of All Levels

d)   All Levels Challenge

9. Which two companies combined to form EPIC Brands?

a)    COA and Coastal

b)   Americheer and Great Lakes Cheer Championships

c)    ACDA and Spirit Unlimited

d)   Xtreme Spirit and Twisted Spirit

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

a)    American Cheerleader

b)   The Cheer Leader

c)    Inside Cheerleading

d)   CheerProfessional


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

State of the Union 2014

State of the Union 2014

Tammy Van Vleet, GSSA and Aloha Spirit Productions

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

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

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

Billy Smith, Spirit Celebration and Amazing! Championships

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

What are the emerging event trends?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do you stand on the universal scoresheet?

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

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

Brian Harris, United Talent Cheer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your stance on the cheerlebrity phenomenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some other growth areas emerging for gym owners?

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

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

What’s the bottom line?

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

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.

Two Sides: Stay to Play

Two Sides: Stay to Play

Stay-to-play requirements have become a hot button topic for competitive gyms and the event producers who serve them. CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the debate.

Many gym owners—and parents—have long appreciated the autonomy of making their own travel arrangements for competition, due to the flexibility and options afforded by this approach. However, more event producers are now requiring “stay to play” (requiring that teams stay in a designated room block set up by a third-party company in order to compete). The practice has sparked debate inside the industry: some gym owners are boycotting these types of events, on the grounds that rooms are being egregiously marked up and that it creates less choice for budget-conscious families. However, event producers maintain that stay-to-play is necessary in order to maintain ongoing relationships with the venues and cities their customers have come to love. See what Cheer Zone owner Tamara Reed and Cheer Power’s Regina Symons have to say on the topic.

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

Tamara Reed, Owner, Cheer Zone Cheerleading

Tamara’s take: We are a small gym with four full-year teams, as well as a few mid-season teams that don’t travel as much. Every year, we do at least a few travel competitions. We are big enough for [booking travel] to be a pain and small enough where event producers don’t care about us. This year, we’re doing the American Championship in Chicago and JamFest Super Nationals, both of which require stay to play—as it seems almost every single major competition does now.

On why she opposes it: For us, our parents aren’t willing to just throw down money. Our travel competitions are very well thought-out and we try to give lots of notice [with the details]. With stay to play, you have to go through these companies and don’t have a choice as to where you’re going to stay.

Two years ago, we went to the American Classic, and our parents loved it and begged to go back. Now that they follow stay-to-play policies, we’re running into problem after problem—our group can’t stay connected, we’re far away from the venue and now families have to rent a car since we’re not staying nearby. It seems like stay-to-play just comes with the territory now—and if you want to compete on a national level, you have to put up with these hassles.

On housing company issues: Right now for Super Nationals, we are about 15 miles away from the venue; when we inquired about NCA in Dallas last year, we were told we’d stay 20 miles away. For American this year, we still don’t have a hotel at this point. We were told they didn’t have any hotels available—and that we have to wait until they find more partner hotels and can locate a block with enough room. We never came across any issues like this until event producers started doing stay-to-play.

On issues with parents: We’ve had problems with parents going online and finding a room at the exact same hotel for cheaper. Initially for SuperNationals, they put us at a Jameson Inn near the venue for $95/night, but if you went online, the Jameson Inn website was offering rooms for $50/night. Our parents wanted to know why they couldn’t get it at that rate, and we’re the ones dealing with the upset, angry phone calls. The parents assumed we were upcharging them and trying to get our coaches’ rooms free—but it didn’t include any kickbacks for us. We had to pay the same prices parents were paying.

In the end, we called the hotel company and asked for somewhere further away that was better. Now we’re paying $110/night for a room that is about 20 minutes away from the venue. Our parents are already paying thousands in competition fees, travel, uniforms and everything else—we’re constantly asking them to shell out, and it makes it so much harder when they don’t have choices. Stay-to-play has taken away some of the options as far as parents feeling like they had a say in where their money was going, and the gym owners look like the bad guys.

On possible solutions: I think “Inform To Perform” is great; obviously, we would much prefer to just ask parents where they’re staying and make a list, as it would be much easier. I understand the event producers need to know exactly how many rooms, but it seems like there are other ways to do it, whether it be Inform To Perform or something else. I don’t think they need to be the ones that dictate where we’re going and what we’re paying.

I’m not saying competition travel should be a free-for-all, but it should be very easy for event producers to say, “We’ve got 20,000 kids performing and this is how many parents are here.” Most cities should consider it pretty reasonable to look at your competition numbers and estimate the total from those.

The bottom line: Our industry has gone this long without needing stay-to-play, and I’m not sure why all of a sudden it’s so necessary. I think it benefits event producers and has taken away from gym owners and parents. We have parents who can’t afford to stay at a $200/night hotel and others who can—and I’d like for them to be able to make that choice.

It’s basically become a “Deal with it if you want to compete” type of attitude. Other coaches have said, “Just don’t go [to competitions that require stay-to-play],” but if you want to compete at big competitions outside your local area, that’s not an option anymore. It is what it is, but I’d like to see it change.


Regina Symons, CEO, American Cheer Power

Regina’s take: Until a few years ago, Cheer Power did not participate in “Stay to Play.” I believe in staying where you want for the price you want to pay, so I resisted all housing companies’ requests for stay-to-play. However, I had to change that way of thinking.

A few years ago, Cheer Power had 500 teams in the Alamodome—but the city showed only 200 rooms for this event. They had a nice, long chat with me and indicated I may lose the facility if I was ever challenged by another group bringing more rooms to the city! I also could not get my dates years in advance. That was a real wake-up call for me.

On why it’s necessary: That meeting was definitely the motivation for Cheer Power to get correct room counts in order to keep the venue—this season, we have three large national events where this is needed. For instance, in the Midwest, we use the Columbus Convention Center; so does every other cheer company that holds competitions in Columbus. This is our World Bid event, and I cannot even think about the possibility of losing the convention hall due to not showing enough rooms. We use the Alamodome for our Southern Nationals with the same possibility.  There are no other venues large enough to house these competitions.

At our Cash Bash in Galveston, the city promises $20,000 to Cheer Power, but we have to satisfy their requirement for rooms for the weekend. Cheer Power gives the $20,000 back to the athletes!  We have to have an accurate room count and satisfy the city’s requirement or risk losing $20,000.

On housing company issues: We have held meetings with our housing company and made it very clear that our parents need to have rooms within their budget. If parents want the River Walk, great, but if they need a more reasonably priced hotel, our housing company has promised to find it for them. If gym owners experience any problems with a housing company, you should contact the event producer directly. When we receive complaints, we contact the owner and get an immediate response.

On issues with parents: Many gyms send a link to parents and they all get their own rooms, which is the easiest thing for the gyms to do. (Our housing company provides the link to send out.)  Certainly, we want to make this easy for our coaches and gym owners.  We also want to offer rooms in every budget.

We never require booking a room if a hotel is not necessary. Some gyms are close to the competition, some stay in RV’s, some stay with friends.

On incentives/rewards: I have instructed our housing company to give coaches free rooms when requested.  Normally you get 1 for every 50 rooms booked.

On gym owners boycotting Stay to Play: Refusing to compete where there is a stay-to-play event doesn’t make sense if the hotel price is reasonable and housing company is handling the event professionally. Price gouging is completely unacceptable! Anyone having any issues with a housing company should get in touch with the event producer and let them know. The housing company works for them and their customers, and they should remember that at all times. Coaches, owners, and parents have too much going on to deal with unprofessional people.

On gym owners’ obligation: I do believe that every gym should abide by stay to play if it is required. Certainly, it’s not fair for only some to do so! We have been a lot stricter this year because we feel like we can find a hotel for every budget. If I feel we are being fair and the prices of rooms are right, then it’s easier for me to enforce.

The bottom line: Pressure from City Chambers of Commerce in order to keep venues is our main concern. They are going to put the group that brings the most rooms to their city in the more desirable venues that they own. It is my wish that gyms could understand the importance of getting these room numbers! We want to give them a great location for their National Championship and keep it from year to year—and accurate room counts are necessary to continue doing so.

In saying all of that, we need to make this easy on the gyms and reasonable for parents. If we can do this, then I feel like all of the gyms will be supportive.  

Go, Go Gadget! Review: Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal

Go, Go Gadget! Review: Cheer Balance Pro Pedestal

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to get it: www.cheerbalance.com


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.


FAQ: Champions League

FAQ: Champions League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CP: What will the prize(s) be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owner’s Manual: Danielle Johnston of Twister Sports

Owner’s Manual: Danielle Johnston of Twister Sports

Less than a year after starting Twister Sports, co-owner Danielle Johnston has made the leap to full-time to foster her all-star gym’s rapid growth.

Vital Stats:

Name: Danielle Johnston, co-owner and coach

Gym: Twister Sports

Location: Warrensburg, MO

Founded: March 2013

Size: 320 athletes

Gym size: 14,500 square feet

Debrief: Though the program began just a year ago, Twister Sports has grown rapidly to 300-plus athletes—necessitating a gym expansion and the full attention of co-owners Danielle Johnston and Angie Fritsch. In light of the enthusiastic response, Johnston quit her job of seven years in October to focus on the gym full-time.  

The Dish: I’ve always been used to a very busy schedule, having worked full-time for the last seven years and also having gone to college for several of those years. My journey toward running an all-star program started in 2009, when I began helping a friend who coached rec cheerleading at our Air Force base. I volunteered that first year, running two squads with her. The following year, my friend moved away and the base offered me the contract.

After graduating college in 2011, I started devoting a lot more time to the program—adding dance to the curriculum and doing some major marketing efforts. By 2012, our enrollment had grown from six to 35 kids, and as a result, the local community center offered me a position. I started teaching cheer and coaching a competitive squad there; they were very supportive but we quickly outgrew the space. It was also missing a spring floor and the right equipment to teach tumbling properly.

The popularity of the community center’s competitive cheer program sparked the idea to start Twister Sports. I’d been dying to start my own gym, but had never really seen it as a possibility—there was already one other gym in our small town of 21,000, plus another dance studio. Once I saw that it could be a reality, I reached out to Angie [Fritsch, now co-owner of Twister Sports], who taught tumbling at both the base and the community center.

Together we had a combined number of about 100 students, and last January, we signed a lease for a 9,000 sq. ft. space in the back of a shopping center. I marketed like crazy on Facebook and through email, but tried to save any money for the opening expenses. I knew I’d have to keep working, and really, I didn’t start Twister Sports for the paycheck—anyone who knows anything about cheer doesn’t do it because it makes a lot of money. We do it because it’s what we love.

We opened the doors to the business in March, and by May, we had outgrown our new space completely. It had only been two months, but our program required major expansion. We got with the landlord and arranged to break down the walls to expand to our current size. On my end, the growth was exciting but also challenging, since I was working about 90 hours per week between the gym and my full-time job in public relations at the base. On top of the two jobs, I am also a reservist in the Air Force, so I was also balancing the requirement of one weekend a month for that.

At first, it was really hard—the biggest challenge was finding time for the “easy” things. I have four kids, ages 3 to 10, and I still had to pay bills and wash dishes and do laundry; also, on top of all that, I have an obligation to stay in shape for the Air Force, and while cheer and tumbling are very athletic for coaches, they’re not the right kind of exercise needed for the Air Force.

The biggest thing that saved me was writing down everything and scheduling almost every single minute. I had to be extremely prepared in the morning to make sure I had everything for the whole day (from clothes for the gym to food for my kids). What I learned is that there’s no way to have a successful gym without sacrifice, and holding down two jobs is often part of that. One job pays you, and the other will take your money if you don’t do it right—both are equally important. A new business is a lot like a baby, so if you have a business partner, make sure it’s someone you could live with…literally. Luckily, Angie and I work extremely well together.

In October, I quit my full-time job at the base to go full-time at the gym. It was a big leap of faith, because [my former job] was fantastic with good retirement benefits—but I had to go with the job that made me happiest. Also, I believe that you get to a point where your business will plateau if you don’t go full-time to take it to the next level. We can’t wait to see where it goes!

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

Behind the Merger: East Celebrity Elite

Behind the Merger: East Celebrity Elite

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 first in our series below!


Merger #1: East Elite + Celebrity Cheer = East Celebrity Elite

Location: Tewksbury, MA

Reason for merging: Remaining profitable in a challenging economy

Combined number of athletes: 400+

Cheryl Pasinato, former owner of East Elite, discusses her gym’s 2009 merger with Celebrity Cheer and the payback of moving forward.

CP: Why did you decide to merge?
Pasinato: It was a mutual merger [between East Elite and Celebrity Cheer]. I knew them for a while; we were two of the biggest gyms numbers-wise in the area. But when the economy took a downturn, we both started to lose kids.

CP: What was the motivator, aside from the economy, to merge with Celebrity Cheer?
Pasinato: To stay competitive nationally, we felt we needed to do something. It was to position our gym as a bigger, non-local program competing at the national level. We also had a philosophy to offer our kids the best coaches and the best staff. With diminishing numbers, we didn’t think we could do this on our own; we felt we had to merge.

CP: Describe the landscape before merging.
Pasinato: We were 8-10 miles away from each other and, if a kid didn’t make it at one of our gyms, they would go to the other one. People [parents and kids] started to create competition between us. We were the worst rivals ever. Our staff didn’t get along; we were really competitive with each other. Essentially we merged with people we didn’t even speak with—but we did it for the business and the kids.

CP: The merger must have been challenging. How did you make it work?
Pasinato: We both had strong staffs with different philosophies and strengths. But we felt we could learn from each other. We also felt we could use each other’s strengths to come up with the ideal program. For instance, tumbling coaches are hard to come by, so combining our coaching staff would benefit our kids. It was a better talent pool.

CP: What else made the merger challenging?
Pasinato: Selling it to the parents. For the most part, everyone was excited after we made the announcement, but we had been rivals for all these years who wanted to beat each other. After a couple months, there were indeed issues, but mostly with the parents (loyalty-type issues on little things).

CP: How so?
Pasinato: It was pride-based—things that kept the parents separate like colors and competition. We had pride in our [respective] identities and names and our colors, but this went away after the first year because the kids had a really good year.

CP: What was the key to making it work?
Pasinato: Compromise. There was a facility issue: [Celebrity Cheer’s] was cheaper and more centrally located. We felt bad for the kids leaving their gym behind, but we had to compromise. We did things to help the kids feel comfortable, such as using their [East Elite] colors. We talked to the older kids and told them we needed their support to make this work and for them to be examples to the younger kids. We merged right after tryouts and kept all the teams separate except the minis and Junior 5 teams. After the second year, we merged everyone.

CP: Any other examples of how you compromised?
Pasinato: We were more conservative about attendance; they weren’t. Together we adopted a [joint] policy that was less conservative but one that motivated everyone to come to practice.

CP: What was most surprising to you after the merger?
Pasinato: What surprised me most was how the four of us [the original gym owners] got along. We all had these ideas about each other; that we were so different. But as we came together, we realized we were more similar [in our business and coaching attitudes]. We all had the same goals too: providing a better experience, fostering growth and more profit, making [cheer] a career.

CP: How has the merger made you more competitive?
Pasinato: We have a lot of different levels now—division and age groups at every single level. We are giving kids the opportunity to progress using their skills and offering them more opportunities.

CP: What is your advice for other gyms considering a merger?
Pasinato: I think you have to consider the reasons why. If it’s financial, that’s good; if it’s for a better name, that’s not a good reason. The name doesn’t necessarily bring the kids. A good reason is to be competitive and have more resources, such as revenue and cash flow.

Vision Boards: Your Success GPS

Vision Boards: Your Success GPS

Walking into Cheer Fusion in Fredericksburg, Virginia, it’s hard to miss the colorful posters lined up above the mirrors. Filled with platitudes like “Practice Like a Champion” and goals like “I would like to cheer for college and get a scholarship,” these homemade vision boards provide a creative source of motivation for the gym’s teams—as well as a much-needed means of focus and direction.

Ever since Mandi Spina, program director at Cheer Fusion, first implemented the practice of making vision boards two years ago, she says they’ve had a big impact on her gym. “We ask the teams what they see in their future and [how they envision] the epitome of cheer,” says Spina. “We give them a month to work on the vision boards and then showcase them [in the gym]. The kids explain why they used the photos they did and talk about what’s special to them.”

Spina notes that the finished boards feature a variety of photos, many depicting complex moves or memories with fellow teammates. Many of the athletes get creative, making door hangers or even video recordings. Age often determines the content; for instance, the 5- to 8-year olds focus on big bows and trophies, but the older girls emphasize goals.

The practice effectively enhances performance, especially for youth cheerleaders. “A lot of the younger athletes amaze me with their visions. They post pictures of stunts they want to do,” she asserts. “They want to become those pictures on the boards. It pushes them toward their goals and provides a constant reminder.”

A Powerful Roadmap

Joyce Schwarz, founder of The Vision Board Institute and author of The Vision Board Book, defines vision boards as visual maps comprised of pictures, power words and affirmations depicting changes you’d like to make in your life. “They represent the best of what’s to come. It’s really about living and appreciating what we bring to others,” says Schwarz.

Schwarz utilizes an acronym, GRABS (Gratitude, Receive, Acknowledge, Share), when teaching others about vision boards. “[Creating vision boards] should be coming from your heart, not your head. Work with the senses, do word association with colors,” she advises. For instance, an athlete who wants to go to Worlds might picture the experience of traveling to Disney World—and all the sights, sounds and emotions that would entail—while creating his or her vision board. Adds Schwarz,

“Envision what you want to accomplish and act as if it’s already happening.”

At Diamond Springs, CA-based All Star Elite Cheer, vision boards are an integral part of the gym’s annual Team Bonding Night. Each member of the team contributes to the creation of a group board, using supplies from its Vision Box. “The process itself was great because it led to some great conversations about the things that were important to them as a team,” says gym owner Karen Wilson. “We now have the boards in the gym, and at every practice, we go over to them and remind ourselves of the things we put on there. It has been a great tool.”

What’s Your Vision?

Manifestation isn’t just for athletes—many business owners swear by the practice as well, even in corporate America. Three years ago, Kim Lawton, COO/Partner at the Inspira Marketing Group, heard about the concept at a leadership seminar and introduced the idea to her staff. “Every year, we incorporate the vision boards to kickstart discussions about our mission, core values, what clients we want and our revenue goals,” says Lawton. “It is a cultural thing and turns into a bonding moment.”

Lawton finds employees will depict personal dreams and goals, as well as professional aspirations. “People are creative. They start with a blank canvas and are totally open to making the vision board more impactful. It has meaning and purpose,” she says.

Vision Board Book author Schwarz points out that many people continually update their vision boards as a living work-in-progress, keeping the focus positive and productive. “This is more than creating a collage. It’s a GPS system that guides you to immediately take steps toward your vision every day,” she says.

Want a step-by-step guide to creating your vision board? Check back on our blog this Thursday for some trusty tips!

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