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Two Sides: At-Large Bids

Two Sides: At-Large Bids

Are too many at-large bids being given to The Cheerleading Worlds? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the debate.

More teams than ever are making the annual pilgrimage to compete at the Cheerleading Worlds in Orlando, and the packed stands this year were a testament to its soaring popularity. Yet some cheer professionals are questioning whether too many at-large bids are being given out to the event—resulting in scheduling issues, overcrowded venues and a perceived loss of prestige. We spoke with Capital Elite’s Debbie Sprague and New Jersey Spirit Explosion’s Theapia Best to learn more about their opposing perspectives.

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

Debbie Sprague, Owner, Capital Elite All-Stars

Debbie’s take: In my opinion, the number of at-large bids given shouldn’t be restricted. I think at-large bids reward the small gym teams and athletes who work hard to get to level 5. Most small gyms like mine aren’t trying to go to Worlds to win or even place top 10 (at least for right now). We just want our athletes to be exposed to the best of the best—it inspires them and gives them goals.  I’ve heard that some people think that all the Level 5 teams out there are going, and I know they’re not.

Her program’s Worlds background: My team was Senior Restricted for most of the year, and we gave a Worlds bid one shot in March at One UP. We got an at-large bid, and it was our first time going Senior 5. At Worlds, we were very happy to hit our routine on the floor, and it was an incredible experience for these kids and myself.

[Once we got back], our teams were like rock stars, and it really helped grow the industry here in Springfield. We had our local TV station do a 30-minute segment and there was also newspaper coverage. We got a lot of athletes from outside our area—I was shocked at the number of kids that turned out for tryouts.

On the ripple effect the amount of at-large bids has on the industry: USASF has to have the income from the small gyms to hold such an amazing event. If the small gyms couldn’t get bids, then there wouldn’t be as many paid and partial paid bids for the bigger gyms. That’s the trickle-down effect.

Also, the audience for Worlds grows because of small gyms like ours. My aunts and uncles now want the ESPN airdates—these are people over 60 who would never be interested if I hadn’t taken my team to Worlds! And the list goes on and on. That helps our sport grow; you have to have a viewing audience to be successful.

On how it affects the prestige level: I think [having more bids] has made Worlds even more prestigious. The top teams we all thrive to watch are getting better and better every year, and all of the small gyms help feed the excitement for the big gyms.

I even buy Cheer Extreme, Top Gun and World Cup apparel to use as training incentives in my gym. I have given away T-shirts that they can earn for skills like standing full, double full, etc. It’s amazing how hard kids will work for them.

If Worlds was just the top three teams in the country, I wouldn’t pay to travel and attend. The whole excitement is in trying to get the bid, be on the floor and be in the atmosphere of so many great teams. If our teams weren’t going to Worlds, what would we be working for? There always has to be an angle. Gymnasts work toward the Olympics, and this is our far-reaching goal. It keeps us going.

On perceived schedule/overcrowding issues: I think that Worlds definitely needs more seating or a bigger venue. However, with a packed arena, it’s really nice for those upper-level teams who come out to a screaming crowd. It’s just awesome and makes them feel good for all the work that they do.

On possible solutions: I disagree with co-ed and all-girl teams having to compete against each other for bids, since we don’t compete against each other on the floor. If you want to get the best of the best there, limit the bids to a certain amount of both all-girl and co-ed teams.

The bottom line: Cutting at-large bids means less revenue and we all know USASF needs money. Who cares if there are lower Level 5 teams there as long as kids aren’t getting hurt? Not everyone will be as good as CEA, Top Gun and Cali. We love those teams and that’s who we look up to and learn from.

Again, we didn’t go to win or even place top 10—we went for the experience. My kids loved the chance to walk on that same floor as the best. It inspired them, it changed the way we practice, it changed the way my younger teams work at practice. It changed the way I coached and the way we look at our athletes before placing them on any team! We’ve learned so much.

Theapia Best, Owner, New Jersey Spirit Explosion

Theapia’s take: As Worlds has evolved and more companies have gotten bids [to give out] in the last three to four years, I think that all level 5 teams just assume they will compete at Worlds at this point. There are so many bids that, by the end of the season, even last place teams are awarded at-large bids. I can’t even think of a Level 5 team in NJ that didn’t get to go to Worlds last year—it seemed like every team in the state got to go. The issue this creates is that it makes attending the event more of a level 5 right than a privilege.

Her program’s Worlds background: We have three Worlds teams, and we’ve attended the event at least seven or eight times. I think we only missed it the first two years, and we’ve gone on full paid bids every year. Last year was the first time we ever sent a team without a paid bid (our international team); this year, all three teams got paid bids.

On the ripple effect the amount of at-large bids has on the industry: Worlds has definitely increased the event size of all competitions that give out bids. Teams travel for World bids, not just for trophies anymore. When you plan your schedule [as a coach or gym owner], you plan it around competitions that are giving Worlds bids; before, it was determined more by what was convenient date-wise. Now when there are events that don’t give bids, many teams don’t even go because there is no opportunity to secure a bid. What’s the point? They’re saving their money to try to secure a Worlds bid.

On perceived schedule/overcrowding issues: The biggest issue this creates is overcrowding at the event. So many of the parents stress out about getting up early to go get in line. I think [USASF] thought that decreasing the number of teams that make it to finals would also decrease seating/capacity issues, but it actually made it worse. All of the kids at Worlds love cheerleading, so if they’re not competing, they’re getting up and going to watch—whereas if they were able to compete, they wouldn’t be able to do that.

On whether Worlds still holds the same prestige: The first few years of the Cheerleading Worlds, the bids were so exclusive that only the best of the best were invited. Now that things are different, I can actually see it both ways. There are some smaller gyms that are not going to Worlds to win, and I can see them getting more customers who are interested in being on Worlds teams. If it became so exclusive that everyone wouldn’t have an opportunity to go, then those gyms wouldn’t exist and our sport wouldn’t be growing.

On the other hand, I do feel it could be a bit more exclusive, so that teams that are Senior Restricted or Senior Level 4 but going Level 5 for just one competition aren’t getting bids.

On possible solutions: I can’t come up with a solution without knowing the true intent of the Worlds competition. Ultimately, it needs to be decided: what is the goal of Worlds? Is it the right of  every Level 5 team to be represented?

If so, it needs to not be so difficult to make finals. Teams spend so much money to go, and they only take 10 teams to finals when there are twice that amount of great teams. The divisions go on for so long—do the judges get it right the first day? The division starts at 10 am and goes until 4 pm, and they’re only taking 10 teams to finals. What are the chances those teams are ranked correctly for a division that’s been going on for six hours?

Some [cheer professionals] have proposed the idea of regionalizing the bids, but the regions all have different divisions, so it would be hard to do that. Also, some regions have great teams, and some regions have very weak teams. You wouldn’t get a good representation of what the true best programs are, which is what Worlds is supposed to be.

The bottom line: Is the intent for all Level 5 teams to be represented? If so, then they need increase the number of teams by percentage that make finals. If the intent is to make the teams feel like being invited is a privilege, then they need to decrease the number of at large-bids given so earning a bid becomes a big deal in itself.


Fast Facts: At-Large Bids

Fast Facts: At-Large Bids

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

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

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

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

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

18 at-large bids

NCA All-Star Nationals

Cheersport Nationals

10 at-large bids

UCA International All-Star Championship

Cheer Power Midwest World Bid National Championship

7 at-large bids

Jamfest Super Nationals

One Up Championship

6 at-large bids

ACDA – Reach the Beach All Star Nationals

American Cheerleaders Association Cheer Nationals

Champion Spirit Group Super Nationals

Cheer America Cheer Bowl National Championships

Cheer Tech – Spirit National Championships

COA Midwest National Pure Championship

Coastal Corporation – Battle at the Capital

GLCC Grand Showdown

JAMZ All-Star Nationals

Spirit Fest Nationals

Spirit Sports – Duel in the Desert

USA All-Star Championships

WSA Grand Nationals

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

Announcing our Young Entrepreneur Competition with Nfinity!

Announcing our Young Entrepreneur Competition with Nfinity!

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

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

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

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

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


Summer Issue: Sneak Peek!

Summer Issue: Sneak Peek!

The summer issue of CheerProfessional is headed for a mailbox near you! Designated as our “Athletes’ Issue,” this edition is designed to help you get up to speed on all things athlete-related. From collecting overdue bills to hiring an athlete onto staff, you’ll find it all in our pages, along with stories like:

The Long & Winding Road for LGBT:  Have the industry truly come a long way? CheerProfessional explores the treatment of gay athletes in all-star cheerleading, talking candidly with cheer professionals from FAME All-Stars and ACE Cheer Company to see where we stand.

Shades of Grey: Our writer Janet Jay talks with gym owners from Cheer Athletics, CheerGyms.com and more to find out where the line should be drawn between “good” and “bad” recruiting. Has your gym been on the receiving end of dirty recruiting? Tell us about it by emailing jen@thecheerprofessional.com.

More Than Business: Forming strong bonds with athletes is par for the course, but where should cheer professionals draw the line? This article explores the close-knit relationships many cheer professionals form with athletes—and the positive and negative ways they can affect the gym as a whole.

Two Sides: Are too many at-large bids being given to Worlds? Debbie Sprague of Capital Elite All-Stars and Theapia Best of New Jersey Spirit Explosion debate.

Cheer Pro-files: This issue is chock-full of great profiles of some of the industry’s most prominent faces and figures. Don’t miss our story on USASF “rules guy” Les Stella (and get a peek into his “Day in the Life!”) Also, meet the trio behind Texas’ perennial powerhouse Cheer Athletics—Brad Habermel, Jody Melton and Angela Rogers—and find out how they went from humble beginnings to hit machine.

Those are just a few of the stories we have in store for you this season—can’t wait to hear your feedback!





The Juice on Juicing

The Juice on Juicing

7:30 am: workout. 10 am: marketing strategy meeting. 3 pm: tumbling class. 5 pm: all-star practice. 8 pm: perfectly balanced, high-nutrition meal you lovingly prepared at home. If you found yourself nodding until that very last part, you’re not alone—amidst all the demands of a typical day at the gym, finding time to eat ideal meals is often a tall task. So how do celebrities and star athletes stay energized and fit on their jam-packed schedules? The whispered word on the street is “juicing.”

No, we’re not talking illegal drugs. This juice is the grandma-approved kind: fruits and vegetables, liquefied through a juicer (or blender, if you prefer to retain more fiber). What makes juicing so special is that devotees say the right combos can help them lose weight, power up even more than from caffeine and even improve their looks and body function.

“Juicing has lowered my cholesterol about 90 points, and along with working out, it helped me lose about 18 to 20 pounds,” says Carlos Onofre, co-owner of Chatsworth, CA-based West Coast Rush, who favors green juices like wheatgrass. “I usually have it in the morning at least three times a week; I use it as a meal replacement.” Though Onofre admits that cleaning out the juicer can be “a pain,” he thinks the results are well worth it.

Wondering if juicing is worth your time and effort? Get a sense of what it’s all about:

Small sips, big impact: For those who think juicing can’t replace a big salad, think again. “In a fairly small glass of pressed juice, you’re capturing much of the nutrition found in several handfuls of produce,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, sports nutritionist to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays and author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Vouches Onofre, “It’s incredibly energizing; you instantly feel it.”

Careful about calories: Keep in mind that juicing sugary fruits can be a quick way to swallow more calories than you would if you were chewing. To keep sugars in check, “make sure to include green veggies and that no more than one-half to one-third of the ingredients come from fruit,” recommends Jared Koch, nutritional consultant and founder of the healthy eating site CleanPlates.com. “Spinach or kale are great options, and adding lemon is also a [lean] way to enhance the flavor.”

Not so fast: An increasingly popular trend is the extreme “juice fast,” in which participants replace all their meals with juices for a set number of days. Some say the challenging ritual eliminates toxins and facilitates quick weight loss, but experts say it’s actually smarter to add juice to a healthy diet. “Without protein, you lack the building blocks needed to maintain or heal the muscle mass you have, or build new muscle tissue,” cautions Sass. “Also, if you aren’t taking in enough fuel, your metabolism may slow down in an attempt to become more fuel efficient.”

As far as the energized feeling that some claim they get from fasting, that could be your body going into starvation mode. “I’ve seen many people rebound-overeat after ending a juice cleanse because they felt so starved and deprived during it,” says Sass. “That yo-yo pattern can result in losing muscle during the cleanse and gaining body fat afterward.”

You get what you pay for: Kiwis and mangos and beets, oh my! Though it may be tempting to buy non-organic produce in order to save money, Koch is an advocate of playing it safe. “To avoid pesticides, choose organic—especially for fruits that go into the juicer with their skin on,” he recommends.

The type of juicer you choose matters, too. Traditional centrifugal juicers grind produce against a round, spinning blade and tend to be cheaper than “cold press” juicers. However, cold press juicers compress instead of grinding fruits and veggies, yield more juice and do a better job of juicing greens. Also, because cold press juicers don’t heat up, the juices tend to be more nutrient-rich.

An adventure for your taste buds: And the final reason to try juicing? The taste. “Today, I had celery, spinach, orange, carrots and a piece of pineapple,” says Onofre. “It might sound kind of disgusting, but I’ve actually let the kids try it, and they love it. It’s shockingly good.”

Visit the CheerProfessional blog for some awesome juicing recipes from our experts!

-Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh

A Day in the Life: Happy Hooper

A Day in the Life: Happy Hooper

Get a glimpse into the day-to-day life of Ace Cheer Company tribe leader Happy Hooper.

8:00 am: Wake up. The first thing I do is check emails—this morning = 45 new messages overnight. I try to answer them all, even sending an email to say I’ll get back to them when I have an answer to their question. I check Facebook and Twitter too—and I just joined Instagram, Vine and Path.

9:30 am: Grab Starbucks. My drink of choice: a grande nonfat no-foam latte.

10 am: Go into the office and meet with my business and state directors to go over financials.

11 am: Time for coach mode! I review tapes of run-throughs on every gym’s YouTube account. Afterward, I contact the site director about tapes from the day before. In terms of thinking ahead, I always try to do memos every week for our coaches to know what to do better for [maximizing] the scoresheets.

Noon: Every Thursday, we have a directors’ conference call to discuss what worked and what didn’t at the gyms—just to tackle what happened this week and prepare for the week to come.

1 pm: Zoë’s Kitchen for lunch! Now it’s a national chain, but it started here in Homewood (where the Birmingham gym is located). Zoë Cassimus is a great friend of mine. I ate there every day for three months and ordered the exact same thing: a lean turkey pita with fruit and pasta and an unsweetened tea. Since I’m such a creature of habit, all my staffers know how to order for me anywhere we go to eat. I find it comforting. 

3 pm: Make playlists for the gyms from services like HitDisc and PrimeCuts. I make sure to have music playing in the gym at all times. It seems like every song has some bad words in it, so we have to make sure to use the “clean” version. Music is very important not only for our teams, but for setting the energy level for the gym during classes. I think the high energy helps to create an atmosphere that makes kids want to be there.

3:30 pm: Meet with class, all-star and staff directors on anything needed and objectives going forward.

4 pm: Classes begin. I try to walk around the gym or lobby once every hour to high-five athletes and say hello to parents during classes.

6 pm: Teams begin practice. I try to allow the coaches to coach but at the same time ensure that routines and athletes are being prepared properly according to the scoresheet we are approaching.

9 pm: Classes and teams finish.

9:15 pm: Call my parents after I leave the gym, as I do every night. When I leave the gym, my mom knows that more than not, I’ll be calling them. We talk about cheering issues, athlete issues, even scoresheet stuff; we’ll also go over the teams that we’re competing against. Their biggest advice to me is: “You’re never gonna please everyone; you’re never gonna win every one.” As long as you know that, then you can be of somewhat sane mind.

9:30 pm: For dinner, I always go to GianMarco’s and either get the daily special or lasagna. GianMarco’s is a very local Italian restaurant and it’s amazing—the place I go and relax. Not only is it feeding my body and helping me decompress mentally, but socially and business-wise, I get to network. Any given night, you can catch the ACE staff at GianMarco’s.

11 pm: Head home and spend time with my husband. Every night before we go to bed, I answer emails and check social media from my phone (sometimes he gets frustrated with me for doing that). Then I turn on “Law & Order: SVU” and try to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow!

Operation Thin-spiration: Body Image Issues for Athletes

Operation Thin-spiration: Body Image Issues for Athletes

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

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

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

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

The Breaking Point 

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

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

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

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

How You Can Help 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dinsa Sachan


Two Sides: STUNT

Two Sides: STUNT

Will the growing popularity of STUNT have detrimental effects on all-star? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the debate.

Has the quest to make cheerleading a sport finally hit its stride? With the formation of College STUNT Association and STUNT, USA Cheer’s answer is an emphatic “yes.” Designed to meet Title IX requirements, the sport of STUNT follows a four-quarter format focused strictly on athletic and technical skills including partner STUNTs, pyramids, basket tosses, group jumps and tumbling. All teams must perform the same choreography and technical sequences, and there is no crowd-leading element—differentiating STUNT from both school-based and all-star cheer.

Currently, USA Cheer is taking steps to secure STUNT as an NCAA emerging sport, but not everyone in the cheer industry believes that STUNT is a step forward. We spoke with Randy Dickey of ACX Cheer and Kim Gaskin, high school cheer coach and president of New Jersey State Coaches Association, to find out their perspectives.

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

Randy Dickey
Owner, ACX Cheer

Randy’s take on STUNT: I’m not a big fan. If this becomes an Olympic sport and/or NCAA starts riding the train, there will then be scholarship opportunities, as well as possible Olympic hopefuls—all of which outshines the benefits of all-star cheerleading. If STUNT is suddenly the way to get scholarships and cheerleading as we know it goes away at the college level, what’s the next step after a kid graduates high school? High school cheerleading will follow what the NCAA does. The minute that STUNT gets mainstream NCAA [status], high schools will segue over to [that format]. I really believe as soon as that happens, it will open the door for gym owners to take a backseat.

On dual participation: As a gym owner, I personally think that STUNT definitely could pull kids from all-star. Depending on when the STUNT season takes place and how it interlaces itself with the existing cheer season, it could greatly affect dual participation. If a child cheers on their school team, that’s an 11-month commitment in many cases. Many schools already have a stigma about letting kids do all-stars in the same season; this opens the door for more coaches who don’t understand the value of all-star cheer.

On its impact on all-star: I know a lot of choreographers are very concerned about the whole STUNT idea because it could become compulsory over time, and if the competitive aspect of the 2:30 routine goes away, then there is no longer a need for choreographers. I know there is also concern on the music mixer side because they could also give out compulsory music, which would negate the need for original music. I know there are people on different sides that are nervous about it. Whether or not those are legitimate concerns or just people being worried, I’m not sure, but I do know that there are people who are scared of those types of things going on.

About STUNT’s relationship to the Olympics: I believe that there is a push from somewhere trying to get cheerleading in the Olympics, and I believe that it’s a race to see who will the biggest and baddest. Gymnastics and cheer have been going head-to-head for many, many years. If cheer were to become an Olympic sport, there are powers that be [in the cheer industry] that want it to be in their control and not gymnastics’ control.

However, gymnastics has more clout than cheerleading, and they are only going to allow cheer in the Olympics if it doesn’t compete with its sports. Therefore [the Olympic version of cheer] has to look completely different than gymnastics—hence the motivation for STUNT.

To me, the tumbling [in all-star cheer] is already very diminished. There is a huge drive even in international competitions to dumb down the values for tumbling. There has been talk of eliminating the tumbling skills for safety reasons, but sometimes you wonder if it is to help fall in line with the demands of what would create a conflict for gymnastics.

99.9% of our income is off tumbling classes, and when you make rules that dumb down tumbling, you’re affecting my income. When you do that to high school, it’s not affecting their income. Your rules can greatly affect someone’s paycheck. I always look at things from a business aspect and make sure the future is bright enough to keep the lights on.

The bottom line: I don’t believe that the all-star/competitive cheer [industry] for high schools has finished evolving yet. I’m a big fan of it and I don’t want to see anything take away from that. All-star cheer is my life, it’s kept me in business for [xx] years and I don’t think it needs something to take away from it.

Just like gymnastics would be nervous about cheer overpowering it in the Olympics or taking away participation in the lower levels, I believe STUNT could take away from all-stars. We already have to share our kids with football, basketball, school cheerleading—now there is one more thing to pull them in a different direction.

I love all-star cheerleading the way it is, so these are my concerns. Anything that could change that in any way, shape or form would make any business owner nervous about the unknown.  However, I do support all types of cheer, and I will support STUNT—I’m just not excited about having sport to compete with the all-star world.

Kim Gaskin, President of New Jersey State Coaches Association and Head Coach for Burlington Township High School

Kim’s take on STUNT: The value of STUNT as it continues to grow will show that there are requirements that every great cheer team should know how to master. Those requirements are then benchmarked and put in a routine where each team has to do the same skills. In a normal [all-star] competition, every team has an opportunity to be as creative as they wish. [In contrast], STUNT allows teams to be matched up on the same skill; it does have a little creativity, but not as much complexity as a choreographed routine. It goes to the baseline of what makes great athleticism in cheerleading. I think judging our athletes on their tumbling skills, basket tosses, pyramids and partner stunts really is kind of fun for participants because they are measured on the same routine. STUNT is new, it’s evolving and it will find its place.

On dual participation: All coaches have an opportunity to determine whether they want to participate and make it part of their curriculum, as they would with any competition they choose to attend. I don’t see lines of division yet as opposed to an appreciation for the value of what STUNT can do both on college and high school level. Some of the elements of STUNT are basic skills that will get you to the more elite skills that will put you in national competition. The same cheerleaders who are on your cheer team can participate in a STUNT event. Coaches have to look at their program and decide what’s best as far as how STUNT fits into their overall competition [plan].

About STUNT’s impact on all-star: When you look at high school, all-star and college cheer, not only do you see the element of competition, but also a lot of creativity as well. STUNT was developed for a different purpose than to hurt any of those functions. Title IX is a positive way of recognizing athletes, and we need to find ways that we can align ourselves with any regulations that can benefit our athletes. This kind of venture doesn’t really take away [from other types of cheerleading], but continues to create value. Anyone who is a coach or cheerleader knows that our athletes are hard-working, dedicated and great leaders in the schools they represent; being able to allow them to get some of the financial benefits or recognition [that other sports enjoy] would be amazing progress.

About STUNT’s relationship to the Olympics: Right now, Worlds is really the hub of cheerleading around the world. The beautiful part of Worlds is that you see teams not only show great athleticism, but also bring a part of their country to the mat. Whether the team is from Mexico or Thailand or Jamaica, you see the diversity of the athlete. Because STUNT is so new, it could evolve to [that level], but you’re still talking about two different buckets—due to the technical aspects of what makes a great Worlds champion versus what makes a great STUNT champion. As cheer evolves, we have to be open to allowing these organizations and companies to get it right. Sometimes things aren’t perfect, but at the end of the day, the athletes are the ones who benefit. These are big platforms that allow cheerleaders to go out there and prove to the world that we are taking cheerleading to a whole new level.

The bottom line: I am an advocate of great cheerleading. Whether it’s high school, all-star or college, our job as an industry is to represent cheer in a way that’s positive and helpful for every athlete. The choice of which way an athlete decides to endure cheerleading is up to that person. There are so many kids out there—just look at the feeder and rec programs around the country trying to get kids interested in cheer and get them on that journey. For those that stick to it, we all need to encourage the kids filtering into our sport, rather than debating who is taking athletes away from whom. I’m not really one to take sides, but I’m all for anything we do as an industry that elevates our kids from both athletic and Title IX requirements, and I think everyone should think of it that way.

Mind and Body Medicine: Meditation!

Mind and Body Medicine: Meditation!

Ozell Williams has always been a man in motion. When not cheering at games or competing with his squad at the University of Colorado – Boulder, Williams is entertaining Denver Broncos fans with his power tumbling team, the Mile High Tumblers. Though stillness doesn’t come naturally for the college junior and Tumblers’ founder/CEO, Williams swears by regular meditation—a habit he says helps to heal his body, recharge his mind and optimally manage his multiple endeavors. 

“To connect with others, you need to learn how to tap into your emotions, but first you need to learn to connect with yourself,” says Williams. “Meditation helps me do that.”

So what is meditation, exactly? Put simply, meditation is the practice of calming the mind in order to achieve a state of deep contentment and/or reflection. (Translated from Sanskrit, the term means “peacefully abiding.”) For nearly half a century, Westerners have known about meditation, but many still don’t fully understand the practice or its benefits. Scientific studies show that meditating can decrease stress and burnout; enhance creativity; promote relaxation and restful sleep; and maximize oxygen efficiency.

“Meditation is one of the best tools we have to go beyond the mind’s noisy chatter and experience the peace of present moment awareness,” says Kyla Stinnett, a certified primordial sound meditation instructor at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. Intrigued? Get a primer on achieving this mystical mindset:

Dispel preconceived ideas. The uninitiated may believe meditation involves sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop for hours on end. Not so, says Michael Miller, who operates meditation centers in New York and London. “Meditation is very much for the modern world,” he says. “People often think meditation is having to adopt a philosophy, belief system or religion—but it’s a simple mental technique.”

Indirectly, meditation can help coaches and gym owners become better role models for athletes—offering a prime example of good self-care, adds Miller.

No incense or candles needed. University of Connecticut alumna Kimberly Daniels had accumulated a laundry list of injuries during her days as a cheerleader and UCA camp instructor. In 2000, she discovered meditation, which not only nourished her mind but also diminished the pain from her cheering-related injuries.

Now a meditation teacher, Daniels indicates that the practice can be done almost anywhere for any length of time. “Try to find a comfortable place, close your eyes and focus on the breath. Listen to the sound of each inhale and exhale, acknowledging thoughts but letting them go,” she says.

While daily practice is ideal, Daniels notes that in today’s overscheduled world, it’s necessary to be flexible. When time poses a challenge, a quiet nature walk is better than nothing. “You could even meditate for five minutes in the car on your way to cheer practice,” she adds. “See what works for you. Once you start making time for meditation and you skip a day or two, you really miss it.”

Carve out some downtime. Williams manages to incorporate meditation at least twice a day, often when relaxing in the steam room. “I listen to music and relax my body, going into my deepest thoughts,” he says. Not only does it help Williams decompress, but meditation is also key in helping him navigate his attention-deficit hypertension disorder—bringing about more focus and patience as he goes about his day.

Though the results are well worth it, it does take considerable time and dedication to incorporate meditation into everyday life. Like most habits, it takes 21 days for meditation to become ingrained; it’s important to establish routine by practicing at the same time for as many days as possible (even if just for five minutes). Though calming the mind can be challenging at first, stillness often becomes easier over time. The best way to reap the rewards, according to Stinnett? “Stick with it.” 

Peace Be With You: A Quick How-To 

To begin, find a comfortable position either 1) sitting on the floor with legs crossed loosely or 2) in a chair with feet flat and knees bent. Keep your spine erect but not stiff, and place your hands on the thighs, palms up. Relax your fingers, jaw and tongue and tuck in your chin slightly. Close your eyes and listen to the breath. (You may choose to play some soft music or burn incense and/or a candle, but this is optional.) As you turn your awareness inward, notice any thoughts or emotions that come into your mind. Don’t try to force them away, but gently bring your attention back to the breath. Continue breathing in your normal pattern.


Apply Yourself: Smartphone Apps for Gyms

Apply Yourself: Smartphone Apps for Gyms

“We’ve got an app for that.” 

For gym owners, this is no longer just a trendy catchphrase—in fact, they now can utter those words with confidence. A growing number of all-star programs are recognizing the popularity and usefulness of mobile apps by developing customized apps specifically for their gyms. And the timing is right: more than half of mobile subscribers now use apps instead of Web browsing on their smartphones, according to Internet marketing research company comScore.

For the tech-challenged, a mobile application (or “app”) is a program designed for mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers. Apps are distributed through application distribution platforms that are operated by the company behind the device’s operating system. For instance, iPhone users download apps from iTunes and the Apple App Store, and Android users download from Google Play.

How does this all play into running a cheer business? Most gym owners create an app to meet two main objectives: communicating with existing customers and marketing to new ones. Find out how it works—and whether it’s worth it.

Just the Push Your Clients Need 

At Future Extreme Cheerleading in Loganville, Georgia, gym owner Micah Redden is currently developing an app that he hopes will help ease his workload. Not only will he be able to notify parents and students of schedule changes and class openings, but the app will also update the online schedule so that he doesn’t have to maintain the gym website separately. Since Redden needs to communicate with various groups, the app will also allow him to choose what information to send or “push” to selected people. “Basically what gym owners want from an app is to advertise, publicize and notify,” says Redden.

Like Redden, many gym owners use push notifications to alert their app users of special events, schedule changes, promotional offers and other updates. The perk of push notifications is that they get more attention than emails and texts, since they automatically appear on a user’s smartphone and demand instant attention. Depending on the app’s design, gym owners can either schedule a specific day and time for the notification or send it themselves.

Another increasingly popular feature is the Quick Response (QR) code, a square bar code that can be scanned by smartphones to quickly access a website. Tanya Roesel of Midwest Cheer Elite in West Chester, Ohio features QR codes prominently when advertising to potential athletes. QR codes are on many of Midwest Cheer Elite’s marketing materials, offering easy access to event information, promotional discounts and links to social media. “What’s great about QR codes is that they don’t take up a lot of space and they provide an automatic link to us,” Roesel explains.

To DIY or Not to DIY? 

Though it may be tempting budget-wise to attempt designing your own app, most experts caution against it. Do-it-yourself mobile app classes are readily available online, but it’s best to hire a professional for apps intended for business use. Apps created in DIY courses are generally based on standard templates, resulting in a somewhat cookie-cutter look; also, gym owners who want their app to be available to iPhone users (currently about 53% of the U.S. market) will need to get approval via the rigorous Apple Review Process. Since Apple prides itself on beauty, design and functionality, they usually will reject any app that looks like a template. (Android phones are less discriminating; they approve and accept all apps.)

When choosing an app designer, it’s also key to hire a company that offers ongoing service support in light of the ever-changing market. Whenever new devices or updated versions of smartphones are released, they require updates in order for an app to work properly. So, unless you’re a software wizard, most would advise leaving the design and maintenance to a professional.

Another advantage of hiring a mobile app developer is the ability to check analytics. “My customers like the easy access to usage reports that can tell them how many people have downloaded and used their apps,” says Gene Cook, owner of 1BoxApps, a mobile app design company in Temecula, CA that has designed apps for Matrix All-Stars, Cheers Unlimited and Five Star Athletics.

Depending on the company, Cook estimates the cost of most apps (including development, design, Apple submission and maintenance) to be between $500 and $700. Though the investment can be steep for some, any business owner knows that long-term profitability means adapting to new technology and keeping up with the evolving times. As for whether all gym owners will eventually adopt apps for their gyms, Roesel predict, “The smart ones definitely will.”

Candid Coach: Randall “Big Dog” Harper

Candid Coach: Randall “Big Dog” Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you describe your coaching strategy?

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

Growing Pains: Going from Small to Large Gym

Growing Pains: Going from Small to Large Gym

The line between small and large gym is drawn by USASF, which defines small gyms as having 75 or less athletes and having one physical location. So is crossing the threshold can be as simple as the difference of just one athlete? Far from it—as making the jump from small to large status can often multiply the risks, rewards and responsibilities associated with running your gym. 

Just ask Candace Guilford, owner of Florida-based Winter Park Cheer Athletics. Guilford relocated her gym in May 2012, shifting from a 4,200 square-foot facility to a 12,000 square-foot space. She felt that the gym was “bursting at the seams,” which prompted the move. Though the extra floor space has been a plus, Guilford says it’s managing the extra bodies that can be a challenge. “I don’t think I expected all of the fires that I am constantly putting out,” says Guilford. “Spending time with coaches, dealing with the kids—when you go from three or four small squads to eight or nine larger teams, it’s a jump. It can be a scheduling nightmare.”

Like Guilford, Pattie Brower of Tri-State Cheer in Havertown, Pennsylvania, has wrestled with similar challenges after expanding her gym. The expansion doubled the gym in size to 14,000 square feet and added a second 54’ x 42’ spring floor and 42’ x 48’ flat floor. Since the ribbon-cutting ceremony last year, Brower has focused her energy on finding ways to keep the space afloat. “Structurally, scheduling teams was never a challenge,” she says. “The challenge is that off time, the fill-in time that offsets the cost of expanding. I just thought, ‘What am I going to do since my costs have doubled?’”

For Brower, the answer so far has been renting space to outside athletes and teams. However, she cautions that gym owners should seriously consider these extra costs when thinking about expanding or moving—rather than just jumping into the decision because they feel like bigger is better. It’s easy to feel energized and optimistic by the success of mega-gyms, but many owners who’ve made the leap say that athletes and their safety should be the primary focus, rather than shiny new equipment or gigantic facilities.

“Don’t get bit by the industry bug and think you definitely need a bigger gym and better equipment,” Guilford continues. “You could easily end up in debt.”

Timing is Everything 

For both Brower and Guilford, the right time came when they felt they had no other alternative. “Making that huge jump was scary,” says Brower. “We waited until we had the right amount of athletes, and we became so large that [it was necessary] to break through the wall and expand.”

Guilford is also an advocate of waiting until your program has physically outgrown its space to make any major decisions. For her, the right formula was waiting until every minute and every inch was optimized before making a move. “All you need is a floor if you have great coaching,” advises Guilford. “Don’t try to jump into a larger location too fast—instead, use your floor time wisely. Don’t move until you maximize your space seven days a week.”

Proper budgeting is also paramount to determining feasibility. It’s important to connect with owners of similar-sized gyms to get a realistic idea of monthly costs, as well as to work closely with a bookkeeper and/or business consultant to estimate projected expenses. (To determine a “break-even budget,” ACX’s Randy Dickey advises taking all of your bills and dividing the total by how many hours the gym is open—it may be helpful to compare your current number and the projected number to see how much they differ.) So is it the right time? Let your ledger do the talking.

Keeping the Small Gym Feel

Stephanie Hoot-Whiddon has been through it all at Richmond, TX-based Texas Thunder—from growth to downsizing to an upcoming move in June to a larger facility. (The Texas Thunder website says it’s “Where Large Gym Talent meets the Small Gym Atmosphere!”) Keeping that close-knit, personal feel is important to coaches like Hoot-Whiddon, and like Guilford and Brower, she does not think bigger always equals better. “This industry is constantly changing,” says Hoot-Whiddon. “A lot of people in this industry don’t do this to get rich, and there’s a lot to be said for smaller gyms. I really do it for the kids.”

That seems to be a common thread between owners who have expanded their gym size. It’s easy for kids and athletes to get lost in the shuffle when the numbers grow, so owners must make extra effort to make them feel like they’re an important part of the gym family. For example, Brower’s gym has team bonding events and sleepovers, and Guilford places top priority on making sure “the kids aren’t just a number where you don’t even know their names.”

For Hoot-Whiddon, “finding a responsible staff is the biggest challenge” when a gym is expanding in size. After all, when growth necessitates hiring more coaches and employees, it can be doubly challenging to find the right employees—and make sure they match your values. “My ultimate goal was to have a bigger program but also keep that one-on-one, fun, friendly atmosphere. Losing that was my biggest fear,” Guilford admits in retrospect. 

For many gym owners, it boils down to whether you’ve done the proper legwork, whether the timing is right and whether you’re expanding for the right reasons. As Brower says, when all those things come together, “The reward outweighs the risk.”

Owner’s Manual: Andrea Fagundes of Athletic Perfection

Owner’s Manual: Andrea Fagundes of Athletic Perfection

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

Vital Stats:

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

Gym: Athletic Perfection Cheer

Location: Tracy, California

Founded: 2003

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

Gym size: Approximately 6,000 square feet

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

The Dish:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spotlight: California All-Stars

Spotlight: California All-Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Artwork for this article provided by:
Photography by Karissa

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

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

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

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

The Three F’s: Fitness, Focus and Fun 

Photography by Karissa

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

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

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

Square Peg, Meet Round Hole

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

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

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

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


The 411 on Credentialing: 5 Things You Need to Know

The 411 on Credentialing: 5 Things You Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effect-ing Change: The Sparkle Effect

Effect-ing Change: The Sparkle Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jennifer Deinlein

Making Headway: Handling the Rise in Concussions

Making Headway: Handling the Rise in Concussions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Karen Jordan


Tech Tools: CheerLive!

Tech Tools: CheerLive!

Tech tool: CheerLIVE! (www.cheerlive.net)

What it is: Obsessed with watching routines on YouTube? Take your viewing habit up a notch with CheerLIVE!. The website provides both live streaming and video on-demand of various gym showcases (such as Cheer Athletics, Spirit of Texas and Cheer Extreme) and competitions like The MAJORS. For free, guests can listen to the CheerLIVE! radio library and watch top videos, and for a subscription fee of $9.99/month, members get full access to all benefits including video in-demand and competition webcasts.

Why it matters: During competition season, it’s important to stay current on who’s getting bids, who’s wowing the crowd and who’s setting the trends. CheerLIVE! provides a central place to watch national competitions around the country and put your finger on the collective all-star pulse. If you’re interested in broadcasting your own gym’s showcase, it can be a viable option on that front as well.

Quick tip: Want to get the most bang for your buck? Sign up for a full-season pass for $49.99 (a savings of $70).

Similar services: Varsity TV (www.varsity.com/VarsityTV); IASF Video On Demand (http://iasfworlds.org/worlds/video/)

GTM Sportswear Spotlight on: Happy Hooper

GTM Sportswear Spotlight on: Happy Hooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jamie Beckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Open Letter from USASF To Its Members

Open Letter from USASF To Its Members

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

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

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

History of USASF

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

The issues we have identified to address are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

USASF Board of Directors

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

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

Danger Zone: Forming An Intruder Plan

Danger Zone: Forming An Intruder Plan

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

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

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

Inside the Gym

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

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

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

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

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


At Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 -Dinsa Sachan

GrowCheer.org Survey Results: Where The Industry Stands

GrowCheer.org Survey Results: Where The Industry Stands

In March, Cheer Industry Insights founder Jeff Watkins conducted a study of more than 500 cheer professionals and parents to see where they stand on the issues raised by the GrowCheer.org proposal. We conducted a Q&A with him to find out more about the collective response:

Looking at your research on the whole, what were some of the things that stood out most in your findings?

First of all, it became very clear how much most of the industry is craving a change right now. They’re seeking changes in the way USASF is currently being run, particularly with its reliance on Varsity and the perceived imbalance in the decision-making process. Most of the survey respondents are excited that there are people out there starting to take action to try to affect that change. I don’t know that they see the GrowCheer.org proposal as the immediate answer, but they are hopeful it will get the ball rolling. It has provided good grounds for conversation.

What were the most commonly perceived strengths and weaknesses of USASF?

Clearly people recognize USASF for what it has done in getting all-star cheer organized and under the same set of rules, and they acknowledge Varsity’s help along the way. They appreciate the efforts toward increasing the safety of the sport, and people also commented on how successful the Worlds competition has become. The weaknesses that clearly rose to the top were the financial reliance on Varsity and its unbalanced influence (as far as the number of people sitting on the board and stronghold they have on decisions). Those concerns accounted for 30 percent of all things noted as weaknesses, mostly by gym owners and coaches. Another weakness often mentioned was that USASF has outgrown the Worlds competition and has lost flexibility in terms of venue. The other main thing believed to be hindering the growth is that staffing at USASF is insufficient for the growth they’d like to see it take.

How would you describe the overall response to the GrowCheer.org proposal among your respondents?

Roughly 30 percent of survey-takers had some hesitation or maybe a bit of distrust that the seven companies are doing this without any financial motivation. Although it wasn’t the majority [of respondents], it’s enough that the GrowCheer.org companies should pay attention. They’ll have to convince the industry that their motives are the best interest of sport and not for their bottom line. The keyword is transparency and gaining their trust. It also needs to be noted that there was a clear group of respondents (about 15 percent) that had nothing good to say about the proposal—I’d call them Varsity loyalists. They were filled with doubt about the intentions and saw it as a desperation move by these companies to stir up an angry mob.

As far as the number of respondents who said they would be more likely to support the seven companies backing the proposal, this was polarizing. 42 percent of these people said 8 or higher, but the Varsity loyalists really brought that number down. If I’m [affiliated with] Varsity and I see that number, I’m freaking out because these companies are all in direct competition with Varsity. If 42 percent of gym owners are identifying as highly likely to go ahead and buy from these other companies, I better listen to what these guys have to say. That’s a considerable amount of potential loss.

Your research found that different criteria were important to different groups. Can you expand on that a bit?

Responses across the board were quite similar, but there were differentiators. The gym owners are the ones who want this change, who are demanding this independence. They want to be assured that all their hard work and investment and risk won’t be swept out from under them because of a dysfunctional governing body. There is a sense of betrayal from when they originally signed on to the USASF idea.

The feeling among parents is that they’re forking over all of this money for their kids to cheer and they’re not 100 percent convinced it’s going to an organization that is supporting it being a sport or anything more than a rec activity. As for the athletes, they were quite verbal and vocal. I think they’re pretty upset and pretty frustrated with last year’s rules changes. They felt like no one really cared what they thought and they’re mad at USASF.

Download the full survey results here: Reaction to GrowCheer proposal2.


Going for the Gold: 10 Years of Worlds Winners!

Going for the Gold: 10 Years of Worlds Winners!

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


Senior All-Girl: Cheer Athletics

Senior Coed: Miami Elite



Small Senior: Stingray All-Stars

Small Senior Coed: Spirit of Texas

Large Senior: Maryland Twisters – F5

Large Senior Coed: Miami Elite



Small Senior: Cheer Athletics – Jags

Large Senior: Cheer Athletics – Panthers

Small Senior Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars

Large Senior Coed: Cheer Athletics – Wildcats

International Open All-Girl: Georgia All Stars

International Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars



Small Senior: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior: World Cup Shooting Stars

Small Senior Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars

Large Senior Coed: Top Gun

International Junior: World Cup – Starlites

International Junior Coed: Flip Factory

International Open All Girl: Encore Cheer Company

International Coed: Gym Tyme All Stars



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior All-Girl: World Cup Shooting Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: Top Gun

Large Senior Unlimited Coed: Spirit of Texas

International Junior All Girl 5: World Cup – Starlites

International Junior Coed 5: University Cheer Junior Air Force

Small International Open All Girl: Cheer Athletics Fierce Katz

Large International Open All Girl 5: South Elite Allstars

Small International Open Coed 5: Cheer Athletics Pumas

Large International Open Coed 5: Gym Tyme All Stars

International Open Coed 6: Stingray All-Stars

International Open All Girl 6: PACE Phoenix Allstars



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Large Senior All-Girl: World Cup Shooting Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: California All Stars

Large Senior Limited Coed: Spirit of Texas

Small Senior Limited Coed: Brandon All Stars

International Junior: Maryland Twisters Supercells

International Junior Coed: Cheer Athletics Jags

International Coed 5: Cheer Athletics Wildcats

International All Girl 5: Cheer Athletics FierceKatz

International Coed 6: Gym Tyme All Stars

International All Girl 6: UPAC Miss Panthers (Chile)



Small Senior All-Girl: Stingray All-Stars

Small Senior Limited Coed: Premier Athletics Kentucky Elite

Large Senior All-Girl: Cheer Extreme

Large Senior Limited Coed: Spirit of Texas

Large Senior Semi-Limited Coed: Georgia All-Stars

Senior Unlimited Coed: Top Gun All Stars

International Junior All-Girl 5: Maryland Twisters Supercells

International Junior Coed 5: California All Stars

International Open All-Girl 5: Gym Tyme – Pink

International Open Coed 5: Top Gun All Stars

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

International Open Coed 6: Gym Tyme – Infinity



Small Senior All-Girl: Cheer Athletics – Panthers

Large Senior All-Girl: Maryland Twisters – F5

Small Senior Limited: Brandon All Stars – Senior Black

Large Senior Limited Coed: Twist and Shout – Senior Obsession

Large Senior Semi-Limited Coed: ACE Warriors

Senior Unlimited Coed: California All Stars

International Open All-Girl 5: Gym Tyme – Pink

International Open Coed 5: Top Gun All Stars

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



Senior Large Coed: Cheer Athletics – Cheetahs

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

Senior Large All-Girl: Cheer Extreme Senior Elite

Senior Medium Coed: Spirit of Texas

Senior Small Coed Level 5: California All Stars – Smoed

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

International Coed Level 6: Twist & Shout – Genesis

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

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

Operation Dream Team

Operation Dream Team

The path to championship glory is paved with good intentions—and smart strategies. To help you discover the right road map for your program, we asked several gym owners for their secrets to success:

Be mindful of the trickle-up effect. Focusing too much on any one team can compromise long-term success, says Orson Sykes of Twist and Shout, which has 20 teams and three Oklahoma-based locations. Several years ago, Sykes performed a thorough assessment of the program and realized that more effort needed to be dedicated to nurturing rising talent. “We realized that we had good upper-level teams, but our younger teams were lacking a lot,” admits Sykes, whose teams have won more than 200 national titles to date. “Our mini and youth programs weren’t excelling as much as they should.”

Sykes reallocated his efforts and resources, and today the gym boasts a successful Youth Level 5 team. “That makes me more proud than anything because I know we’ll be able to compete at a high level for a long time,” he says.

Require a high level of commitment. At Arlington, TX-based Spirit of Texas, cheerleaders are required to attend all practices year-round regardless of illness or outside obligations (the only exception being school functions that result in a letter grade). Mandatory practices are held twice weekly for up to five hours, which co-owner Brett Allen Hansen says helps to elevate the level of excellence. “At Spirit of Texas, everyone is equally committed because everyone is equal—no one is so amazing that they get to miss practice,” shares Hansen, who co-owns the gym with Brad Vaughan. “Not having your entire team at every practice is mind-boggling to me.”

Rock Solid All-Stars in Pinellas Park, FL, takes a similar approach, but only during Nationals season from January until Worlds. Practices are held three times per week, with a “no-miss” policy firmly in place the week before any competition. “’Get better or get beaten’ is our motto,” says owner Carol Bariteau. “We work hard, because we know there is always another gym out there working harder.”

Make sure your staff is in the know. At Rock Solid All-Stars, Bariteau makes a point of requiring her employees to follow industry policies and rule changes closely. To do so, her staff members attend coaches’ meetings as often as possible and stay abreast of updates on the USASF website. “It’s all about the numbers game and knowing how to work the scoresheet,” says Bariteau, whose program has been to Worlds every year since 2007. “Not knowing the scoresheet has hurt our teams in the past, so that’s where your staff really needs to be on top of its game. Since there are so many grey areas, knowing how to get the wow effect while staying within the rules is a big deal.”

Find your “thing” and nurture it. Whether it’s jumps, daring stunts, or stand-out choreography, having a signature strength can be a surefire strategy for standing out from the rest of the competitive pack. To pinpoint your program’s secret weapon, Spirit of Texas’ Hansen recommends honing in on one particular strength during training and playing it up in routines. “Most groups in the top tier have something that they are the best in,” says Hansen. “Really push those areas where you’re great, but don’t forget to also nurture the weak areas so they don’t wash each other out.”

Zero in on stunting potential. In Tampa at Brandon All-Stars, president Peter Lezin places a strong emphasis on finding skilled stunters during the tryout process, saying they “pick [their teams] like a football team, all based on stunting positions.” Hansen does the same at Spirit of Texas, designating a certain amount of slots for bases, spotters, and flyers. He adds that they like to keep the same stunt groups together every year, so it’s important to choose wisely.

“When we’re putting together our team, we look at having 24 people on the team and how they fit into the six stunt groups,” says Hansen. “If you get a whole squad of girls that do double twists but all of them weigh 95 pounds, who will hold each other up? If all of your kids can’t build and do stunts, they won’t be competitive.”

Sykes of Twist & Shout agrees. “We use to take all the kids with fulls and doubles and put them all on one team, despite what they could do stunting-wise,” he shares. “Now, I have kids who can’t do a full to save their lives but they can base any stunt. Stunting has become so important to your overall score that it makes them extremely valuable on our teams.”

Encourage skill mastery. Though many programs have certain minimum requirements in order to make various teams, Bariteau says she’s mindful of assessing true skill level beyond the selection process. “Many athletes are able to hit a skill under pressure during tryouts when the adrenaline is flowing,” she says. “Then, at practice, you end up dealing with kids that don’t have the skill mastered and that poses a problem. We want to be able to effectively run our practices without having to do the skill over and over again when one person doesn’t hit.”

To avoid this issue, Bariteau performs random skill checks throughout the year, and says that she makes athletes aware that “they can be moved at any time to another team if they’re not up to par.”

Learn from the best. Though Twist & Shout is widely regarded as one of the top programs in the industry, Sykes says that he’s constantly seeking ways to become better. “We don’t ever get to a point where we feel like we’ve ‘arrived’ or are too big to learn,” says Sykes, a frequent conference attendee and speaker. “If you want to stay successful, you have to keep pushing yourself to learn more and more.” One way Sykes encourages his teams to learn is by exposing them to other successful squads; at competition, Twist & Shout teams are required to watch the others perform. Says Sykes, “We look at how top teams handle and perform in high-pressure situations—we try to learn from the good and the bad.”

Another effective method is practicing with other teams. Sykes often honors requests from other coaches who want to bring their teams to his gym to observe and train together, and Twist & Shout has its own “buddy team” that they work out and practice with every year at Worlds. “It’s beneficial for both of us,” says Sykes.

Stay united. At Spirit of Texas, Hansen makes a concerted effort to keep teams intact from tryouts through the end of the season. “The team that wins a Worlds bid or goes to Nationals is usually the same time that tried out—once we make selections, rarely do they change,” says Hansen, adding that his motivation is to develop the utmost team camaraderie and dynamics. “When a team has one heartbeat as the walk onto the floor, it’s noticeable and gives you an edge every time.”

Tech Tools: Jackrabbit

Tech Tools: Jackrabbit

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

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

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

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

Update from GrowCheer.org

Update from GrowCheer.org

Many cheer professionals have been asking for an update about the GrowCheer.org proposal and whether the USASF has responded. The companies affiliated with GrowCheer.org have sent us the following update to share with the community:

GrowCheer.org would like to thank all of those in our industry that have voiced their support for our efforts, both publicly and privately. We would also like to thank Jim Chadwick and the USASF BOD for recognizing GrowCheer.org and agreeing to an initial dialogue after receiving our formal proposal. It is out of respect for the USASF, and an earnest desire to make all of the changes that we have proposed, that we will not be commenting publicly while discussions are ongoing.

Since the creation of GrowCheer.org, we’ve all noticed an increase in discussions about additional changes that should be made in the future with the USASF and our sport in general. While it is this kind of creativity and “what if?” thinking that will eventually make our industry better and growing again, we emphasize that the primary mission of GrowCheer.org is simply to create an independent and transparent USASF that can tackle these issues in the best interest of all of our members.  

We also reiterate that while we are prepared to financially help the USASF gain independence, our only expectation in return is a truly independent and transparent USASF. To repeat, NONE OF THE FOUNDING COMPANIES OF GROWCHEER.ORG HAVE A DESIRE TO REPLACE VARSITY AS THE CONTROLLING ENTITY OF THE USASF.  No sport or industry should ever be controlled by special interests within that organization if it truly wants to grow and get better.



Balancing Act: Athletes That Do Double-Duty

Balancing Act: Athletes That Do Double-Duty

Whether an athlete wants a leg up on the competition or extra tumbling training to perfect that standing back tuck, many do double-duty on both high school cheer squads and as all-star gym athletes. Having kids involved in both is a balancing act—one that gym owners deal with all season long. It’s a process that involves patience, communication and one heckuva big calendar.

In many cases, the key is careful cooperation with high school cheer coaches. Kate Brahney learned that the hard way after she opened Ireland’s Xtreme Gymnastics and Cheer in Auburn, New York, last February. Of her 19 seniors, six also cheered for the local high school team. Brahney attempted to find a happy medium by creating a flexible tumbling class schedule and reducing practices to once a week; however, that practice still overlapped by a half-hour with the school squad—and the coach wasn’t willing to budge.

After several unsuccessful attempts to appease the high school coach, Brahney ultimately decided the best solution was having her athletes choose between the two teams. “The problem was that these girls were my bases, so I ended up with no full stunt groups during high school practice, and by the time they got to us, our practice was half over,” she explains. “The girls and their families pay a lot of money for this training, and it wasn’t fair to those who were there.”

Ultimately, only one of her students chose the high school team, so Brahney retained 18 of her 19 athletes. However, she’d have preferred a different outcome. “If all-star coaches and high school coaches could collaborate, wow, what an experience these athletes could have,” she says. “If [schools] are the cheer experts and we’re the tumbling and stunting experts, the cheerleaders get a complete package and it benefits everyone.”

Making It Work

Though Brahney wasn’t able to make it work for her gym this season, there are many gyms bringing her vision to life. At Cheergyms.com in Concord, California, kids can do both, and many do. Owner Morton Bergue believes forging alliances with school coaches has been critical to his own program’s longevity: “We embrace the schools. We want their business.”

His facility serves roughly 20 high school squads in the area on a regular basis, primarily in the areas of choreography and tumbling practice. For athletes that do double-duty, Bergue puts a heavy emphasis on scheduling, carving out a hefty chunk of time at the beginning of every year to go over upcoming competitions, training camps, etc. Athletes can then review their options and make sure it will be feasible to participate in both activities.

“We sit down with high school coaches and advisors with a big old calendar and work it out. It’s about plugging in dates and times,” shares Bergue. “You get them on your side, they like you, and you’re gaining their trust.”

When it comes to getting athletes to make all-star cheer a priority, Bergue says requiring kids to sign on the dotted line is key to reinforcing their commitment. “We make them fill out a contract, and we have lots of parent meetings. We have the upper hand and we don’t fool around,” he says.

Other factors also play a role—all-star cheerleading costs upwards of $4,000 a year, he says, so many parents make their kids make it a priority. Hiring a stellar cadre of instructors also makes a huge difference: “The coaching staff has to be good for the kids to want to come to practice; we make it so you don’t want to miss out.”

Cutting Through Red Tape

Of course, coach relations and scheduling aren’t the only obstacles. In some cases, state law can make the balancing act difficult. In Oregon, where Thunder Elite is based, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) decrees that a child can’t compete twice in the same venue on the same day—making it difficult to attend any local or state competition that caters to both all-star and school cheer squads.

“The OSAA ruling hurts everyone involved and makes it more difficult for kids to do both,” says co-owner David Skaw. “Not impossible, but certainly challenging.”

Eric Contreras of Scottsdale, AZ-based Desert Storm Elite has dealt with similar setbacks. In 2009, the Arizona Intercollegiate Association (AIA) disallowed high school squads from competing or practicing with all-star teams. (AIA classifies cheerleading as a sport, whereas in most states, it’s considered an activity.) Contreras considers it a shame, as prior to the AIA ruling, he enjoyed a great, stress-free relationship with the school coaches. “We helped each other coordinate schedules so that wherever they were going [to compete], we didn’t interfere with that,” he remembers.

The Problem with Poaching

One of the most important ways to get school coaches on your side is to squash any fears of poaching athletes. At Thunder Elite, Skaw says “it’s a non-issue because it’s something with deal with upfront.” He enforces a strict-no poaching rule with his staff when it comes to high school athletes.

“I’m a firm believe that if a kid wanted to do all-stars, they’d be in the gym already. Coaches are trusting us to train their kids, not to pilfer their squad while they’re under our roof,” he says. “I feel it’s not only immoral, but also just dumb business.”

Bergue agrees. He says his program has been accused in the past of poaching high school kids, but he attributes his overall solid relationship with local schools to his focus on creating a peaceful co-existence. “It’s hard, but in the long run, it’s best to keep the high schools happy,” says Bergue. “We want them to like us enough for them to use us for many different things.”

Keeping the athletes in check is also important. Contreras says he was always quick to tell athletes that if they wanted to ditch their school squad for all-star, that wouldn’t fly with his gym: “We’re big on commitment and follow-through. I would tell them, ‘You tried it, so stay with it. Whatever it is in your life that you’re doing, stick with it.’”

-Lindsay Martell


Owner’s Manual: Darlene Fanning of ICE All-Stars

Owner’s Manual: Darlene Fanning of ICE All-Stars

In our “Owner’s Manual” column, we ask gym owners to take us “under the hood” and give us their secrets to what keeps their gyms running so smoothly. Find out how Darlene Fanning finds her balance by keeping high schools happy below:

Vital Stats 

Name:             Darlene Fanning

Gym:               ICE

Locations:      Aurora IL, Fort Wayne, IN and Mishawaka, IN

Founded:        1998

Size:                350 athletes; 18 teams (cheer and special needs)

The Dish

I really like to work with the high schools. I encourage [our athletes] to cheer for their high schools because that’s something that others outside our gym can see and say, “Wow, this child has these skills and that’s great.” Sometimes high school coaches are worried that we will try to pull them away from high school cheerleading, but that’s not my intent at all. It’s to make them better so that they can do something for their school. Both of my daughters who cheered all-star also cheered at school and we made it work. There were a few weekends where they missed games for competitions, but there were also times when they missed my practices to cheer at games.

Coaches working together is the key—as long as high school and all-star coaches are willing to do that, I think it can be a win-win situation for both. That’s what I really try to push for. I like to talk to the high school coaches and say, “Is there a camp coming up? Is there something you’ve got that I need to change my practices?” It’s all about letting your ego and everything go and saying, “Okay, what’s best for the kids?”

Sometimes high schools practice right after school, so we start our practices later so that they can get to the other one first. Obviously, as an all-star coach, I have to work around their schedule; however, high school coaches have to understand that they need to do the same in order to allow the kid to do both. Otherwise what can end up happening is that high schools lose their most talented kids—and that’s a shame. Many times when athletes are made to choose between competing and cheering at games, those more talented kids will choose all-star. They understand that’s where they’re challenged cheer-wise. A lot of high schools don’t compete, so [that style of cheer] is more just supporting the team and your school.

As far as recruiting, you don’t want to get a bad reputation as a gym owner who steals athletes or takes them away from high school programs. That’s not good for the kids or for either program. Even when high school cheerleaders are training in my gym and taking classes, no coach is allowed to approach them. Only when a kid comes to us and says, “I think I’m not going to do high school cheerleading next year, I’m going to do all-star,” will we talk to them. High school coaches need to know that their athletes can go to ICE for training and not have to worry about the kids being recruited.

I haven’t had a problem with high school coaches because of that rule. I’m a smart enough business owner to know that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by trying to recruit a few of those kids and making the high school coach mad. That’s why we’re so diligent about that, and that’s how we strike a happy balance.

It All Counts: Scoresheet Breakdown

It All Counts: Scoresheet Breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[sidebar] Universal Scoresheet—Will It Ever Happen?

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

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

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

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

Candid Coach: Heather Zidek

Candid Coach: Heather Zidek

Avon, Ohio’s Tumbles & Cheers is on a roll: after being named the USASF’s “Best Small Gym in America” in 2010, the gym recently moved to a brand-new 14,000 sq. ft. facility—replete with inground rod floor, tumble trak, trampoline and 1,300 sq. ft. worth of pits. What’s been their secret to success? According to Heather Zidek, the gym’s founder and coach of the Ohio Extreme All-Stars, it’s all about keeping your gym drama-free and setting high expectations.

What is one thing you wish you’d known when starting out?

Zidek: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is easy to say, but harder to act on. In the beginning, I tried to please everyone. I’d lose sleep at night, I was stressed and I’d take quality time away from my family. Now, I no longer strive to be everything to everyone, but to be the place for those that have the same philosophies as we do. We are a business. We have a responsibility to our clients, and we don’t treat people differently based on who they are, what skill they have or who they know. Secondly, we treat children as athletes—they’re capable of hard work and sweat. Lastly, we don’t put up with the drama. I’ve come to realize that some people just thrive on drama, so now I focus my efforts on those that have the same philosophies and I don’t get upset with those that don’t.

How would you sum up your coaching approach?

Zidek: The athletes would say I’m pretty tough on them. I hold them accountable, push them to their individual ability levels and give them praise when they earn it. I’m not one of those coaches who constantly praises them for everything they do, so when they do get it from me, they know that they really earned it. Some of them haven’t had to work hard for anything in their lives, and this is the one place where they realize that their parents can’t hand them a winning team or a certain skill. That’s why we really push them—I realized that they crave that feeling of responsibility, so I give them lots of praise for their achievements.

Name something you wouldn’t do again as a coach.

Zidek: One of the toughest thing as a gym owner is trying to find good coaches. When we started out, before I knew many people, I would find a coach who looked good on paper and hire based upon that, figuring that they’d mesh into our philosophies and that it’d all work out. What I’ve learned to do now is wait until the right person comes along. We’re a family here, and the staff is the core. You can teach someone how to spot or teach a skill, but it’s very difficult to teach someone how to be a good role model, to be a team player and to treat others with respect.

What are the unique challenges and rewards of coaching in a small gym environment?

Zidek: The most unique thing is our family environment. We praise their accomplishments in school and other extracurricular activities. The families have responded as well, and I think almost everyone after their first year knows everyone else in the program. The kids are quick to call, text or Facebook to tell us what happened that day in school, and if they’re struggling, we try to help. I think the kids see that we can relate to them, that we’ve all been there and that we’re someone [to whom] they can turn. If we were a larger gym, I don’t think we’d be able to have that unique relationship with them.

Buying an Existing Gym: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Buying an Existing Gym: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Buying an existing gym can be a smart proposition in many ways—ranging from built-in clientele to existing facility and equipment. However, it’s important for both seller and owner to do due diligence beforehand to make sure it doesn’t devolve into a sour deal or ongoing game of “He said, she said.”

Take for example the real-life case of George Strauss*, whose dream of buying his own gym quickly turned into a nightmare for both him and cheer professional Sherry Jones*. Less than a year ago, the two made arrangements for Strauss to buy Jones’ Midwest-based gym—today, each person has a distinctly different account of why that now-defunct deal imploded. Read both sides of the story:


A former college and all-star cheerleader, Strauss first sought to buy the gym in order to enter a new market. At the time, he was living an area of the West Coast where the all-star market was already congested and the cost of doing business incredibly high—making the idea of buying a Midwestern gym extremely attractive. After visiting Jones’ gym, he was sold. Strauss claims he made a down payment of $25,000 to secure the sale, but signed no contract—a decision he says he deeply regrets.

“It was very young-minded of me to do that without any paperwork and without any signatures,” says Strauss. “There was a lot of pressure on their end, saying they were going to sell the gym to other people if I didn’t give the money down. I paid them in good faith, based on many promises that if it didn’t work out they would return the money.”

After his family’s move to Indianapolis, reality set in, and Strauss says he felt blindsided. According to Strauss, the 14,000 sq.-ft. facility that he had been told was bringing in $20,000/month was actually only making around $6,000; he also says all of the clients he thought were members of the gym actually were not. “We had no business when we moved there,” says Strauss.

Strauss says the situation put his family in financial duress, and after the deal fizzled, he was upset that they never received their money back or a return on his investment. He thought of hiring an attorney, but says he couldn’t afford one. It was a painful lesson that Strauss hopes to never repeat.


Jones tells a very different tale about what happened between her and Strauss. She says that Strauss did not pay $25,000, but instead agreed to put down a sum of $7,500 as an non-refundable payment in order to show that he was serious about buying the gym. (At the time, Jones had several interested buyers.)

“He knew that if he didn’t have the paperwork done by a certain date, the deal would be off and he would lose his earnest money,” says Jones.

After Strauss moved to the area, but before the deal was finalized, he began coming to the gym every day while it was still under Jones’ direction—and she didn’t like what she saw. “He was horrible to the employees,” remembers Jones. “He kept saying things like, ‘When I take over…’” She also learned that Strauss had been kicked off his college cheerleading team for assaulting a female teammate. Adds Jones, “It was red flag after red flag.”

Jones says that after about five weeks, one of her coaches informed her that Strauss had abruptly disappeared. “When I contacted him, [I found out] he had abandoned his apartment,” says Jones. “He was here for maybe a month, then in the middle of the night, boom—gone. He went into default on his end of buying the gym out.”

Looking back, Jones says she feels it was a “blessing that he walked away. I felt like I was putting my parents and kids who’d been with me for over a decade in jeopardy.”

The story of Jones and Strauss’ business deal gone wrong brings to mind an old saying: “There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth.” Though it’s doubtful anyone will ever know what really happened in their situation, it does point to several useful lessons for others considering buying or selling a gym—namely making sure both sides sign contracts to protect their interests. Jones says she also regrets not doing a more thorough background check before entering into the agreement, while Strauss says he should have done better research on the gym before relocating his family.

Gina Nicholas, who owns Legion of Allstars in Griffin, Georgia warns against making any deal that doesn’t feel right. One of the most important things to do, she says, is your homework. “Find out the reason they want to sell or buy,” Nicholas says. “If you’re not comfortable in a deal, just walk away from it.”

Nicholas, who has a background as a dental hygienist and a homemaker, stumbled into gym ownership when her then 9-year-old daughter was looking for a place to develop her cheerleading skills. Since buying her gym nearly six years ago, Nicholas has focused on the nuts and bolts—considering herself a “strictly business owner” while hiring the expert staff she needs to train the students her gym serves. The gym now boasts seven all-star teams with more than 100 athletes, says Nicholas.

Though Nicholas’ purchase went smoothly, she feels strongly about warning prospective gym owners before making such a major purchase. “You never leverage anything you’re not willing to lose, like your house,” Nicholas advises. One of her top tips is to tour the gym several times before purchasing and hire a professional who sells equipment to look over the gym’s assets; that way, you can find out what they are worth based on depreciation. This approach can protect people from being taken advantage of and paying too much for used equipment, she says.

Nicholas also suggests considering alternatives to buying. “If at all possible, rent a facility,” she says.

After months of struggle, Strauss says he was finally able to recover financially. He has since relocated his family to the South in hopes of a brand-new start with his own camp and choreography business. While he wishes he had done things differently, he hopes others learn from his mistakes. “Don’t get your heart set on something and pay for more than what it’s worth,” says Strauss. “Look at things smartly. If you feel like something is wrong initially, it probably is.”

-Writer: Karen Jordan; Photo: via AK Athletics

*Names and details changed for privacy

Healthy Eating: Planting the Seed

Healthy Eating: Planting the Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Plant-Based Diets

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

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

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

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

-Dinsa Sachan

Class Act: Get an “A+” in Throwing Specialty Classes and Clinics

Class Act: Get an “A+” in Throwing Specialty Classes and Clinics

At Cheer Factor in Foxboro, Mass., specialty clinics are for athletes at the “top” of their game—literally. Inspired by a similar program at USA Gymnastics, Cheer Factor’s new “T.O.P. (Talent Opportunity Program)” has been a huge hit with athletes from its three locations, as well as area schools. Geared at Level 5 athletes (or those approaching Level 5 status), the T.O.P. clinic has become a coveted invite-only event.

“Not only did it serve as a motivational tool and a great way to get all of our kids from different locations together, but it was also a way to start building our Level 5 program for next year,” shares Heather Kalnicki, head tumbling instructor. 32 of the 40 invited athletes attended, and the exclusive nature of the clinic inherently created demand for future offerings. “A lot of Level 3 and 4 athletes who are borderline know they’ll get invited when they’re ready,” adds Kalnicki.

Whether it’s an elite invite-only clinic, cheerlebrity master class or other type of specialty clinic, classes and clinics can be a win-win for both athletes and cheer professionals. For athletes, it’s a chance to break out of routine and focus on a specific area of improvement, while for gyms, it can be a viable source of revenue and means of attracting new athletes.

How It Works

Simply put, master classes and specialty clinics meet a specific need for athletes—such as honing in on a special area of interest or learning from a top professional from outside the gym. Depending on the nature of the class, classes can be ongoing or one-time only. For instance, at Columbia, SC-based Carolina Crossfire Cheer, ongoing classes range from back handspring clinics to stunting classes to “Fit and Flex” (focused on stretching and flexibility). “If you pick a skill that your athletes need work on and create a clinic or class, parents and cheerleaders are more likely to have a reason to participate,” says owner Angela Koenig.

In some instances, one-off clinics can spring from unexpected opportunities. That’s exactly how Lisa Murphy of Union Grove, WI-based Envy All-Stars ended up booking cheerlebrity Kiara Nowlin for a tumbling clinic. Murphy had inquired about hiring Nowlin as a choreographer and learned that Nowlin doesn’t do choreography, but instead travels to various gyms providing master classes. “My partners loved the idea and thought it would be great for us, being a new gym,” shares Murphy.

Planning + Profit

According to Koenig, one-time classes and clinics can be especially profitable when properly planned. While ongoing classes are typically limited to a low student-to-instructor ratio, clinics can often accommodate more athletes; families may also be more willing to make a one-time investment than pay for a recurring class. “If you set a minimum number of students to be registered in order to host the clinic and if you charge the right amount, you can make more than [in] a standard class,” says Koenig, who says a typical three-hour clinic at her gym could cost $30 per participant.

In other cases, the end goal may not be profit-related, allowing for more flexibility with pricing. For the T.O.P. Clinic, Cheer Factor charged just $10/participant as the clinic was geared to be a feeder for the gym’s Level 5 program. “We didn’t want to make money—our goal was more motivating our athletes and getting all the Level Fives in our area together in one gym,” says Kalnicki.

Cheerlebrity and choreographer master classes can be a more substantial investment, as gyms are paying not only for the cache of the cheerlebrity but also for all of the costs involved with getting him or here there. “Keep in mind that you have to pay the agreed-upon fee, airline tickets, hotel and food,” advises Murphy of Envy All-Stars. However, even if it turns out to be a break-even or losing proposition, master classes can often provide long-term benefits that outweigh the short-term expense. For Envy All-Stars, Nowlin’s visit provided needed name recognition and a promotional boost for their relatively new gym.

Timing should also be taken into consideration. Koenig recommends hosting master classes and specialty clinics on days that the gym is closed in order to turn extra profit; she also typically holds them during times that athletes don’t have school. “Summer and Christmas break camps/clinics are great because most parents and children are looking for something to do,” says Koenig.

Making the Most of It
Getting creative with the clinic/class name or using a theme can generate extra interest. For example, Carolina Crossfire Cheer’s “Fit and Flex” often has a waitlist, and Cheer Factor’s “T.O.P.” denoted the elite nature of the clinic. When working with a cheerlebrity, his or her name can act as a marketing tool in itself—the bigger the cheerlebrity, the bigger the draw.

Offering incentives is another way to set your clinic apart from others. “Incentives can range from giving $5 off registration to those who bring a friend to offering a T-shirt to the first 12 that enroll,” suggests Koenig. She adds that it’s important to find out what other gyms in your area offer and at what price before making any final decisions.

Classes and clinics can also serve as a springboard for more of the same. Cheer Factor plans to hold “T.O.P” on a bimonthly basis, and Kalnicki says that “everyone wants to be invited. A month before T.O.P, we started to see a lot of the older girls stepping up and younger girls trying to get to that point.”

At Envy All-Stars, Murphy capitalized on the popularity of the Kiara Nowlin tumbling clinic by planning a follow-up fundraising event for “Kiara’s Cause” with Nowlin and fellow cheerlebrities Bianca Treger and Jenee Cruise. “My senior girls will be hosting them and a portion of the money raised will go to JDRF for research on juvenile diabetes,” says Murphy.

Why They Matter
The most obvious benefits of a specialty clinic are for the students. By bringing in a cheerlebrity her athletes admired, Murphy says her students were hugely motivated and ready to attempt difficult moves they weren’t trying before Nowlin came around. At Cheer Factor, the “T.O.P.” clinic coaxed athletes out of their social comfort zone by mixing them on teams with advanced athletes from other gym locations and high schools. Specialty clinics geared at areas like stunts or jumps can also give athletes more aptitude in an area that may have previously been an individual weakness.

From a gym owner’s perspective, specialty clinics and master classes can set your program apart and generate buzz in the community. Depending on the type of event, you may be able to obtain media coverage and raise further awareness about your gym and its activities. At the very least, it’s a unique opportunity to attract new athletes and convert them into committed customers. Says Koenig, “Hosting specialty clinics or classes can also bring in non-gym members and allow them to see what your program is about.”

-Diana Bocco

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

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

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

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

Pope and her sister Kelly Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BREAKING NEWS: Seven Industry Companies Unite to Urge and Facilitate USASF Independence

BREAKING NEWS: Seven Industry Companies Unite to Urge and Facilitate USASF Independence

CheerProfessional has learned that seven industry companies (Cheer Zone, GK Elite, GTM Sportswear, Motionwear, Nfinity, Rebel Athletic and Team Cheer) have united in an effort to facilitate the USASF’s independence from Varsity Brands. Their plan includes assuming the USASF’s loan from Varsity, revising the Board of Directors and moving the USASF office and employees to a neutral location. Read their full proposal and react in the comments section:


Proposal to the United States All Star Federation

GrowCheer.ORG is a group of unrelated industry companies with a singular purpose to grow the sport of cheerleading.

As such, we believe that the first (and most important) step in fostering future growth in our sport is a FREE and INDEPENDENT United States All Star Federation (“USASF”).

How are we going to accomplish this?

Central to our plan is to replace the current loan(s) that the USASF has with Varsity Spirit Corporation and/or affiliated companies (“Varsity”).

It is understood that the reason Varsity controls a majority of the seats on the USASF board and why Varsity owns the trademark of the USASF is to secure repayment of these loans.   We firmly believe that in order to have a unified industry, no single organization should be unduly influenced by and/or controlled by another.

We propose to assume the loan with essentially the same financial terms that Varsity has given to the USASF.  We are prepared to do this immediately after the 2013 USASF Worlds competition.

Other key provisions relating to our plan are as follows:

1)   Require an immediate external audit of the USASF financials by an independent accounting firm that we mutually agree on.  We will bear the cost of this audit.

  1. This firm would determine the amount that remains outstanding to Varsity.
  2. The firm would examine the relationship between the USASF and the IASF and confirm that all monies paid to the USASF by American gyms would be used for the support of American programming, not international programming.
  3. The firm would examine the relationship between the USASF and the host site to make sure only the USASF received benefit from the relationship.

2)   All USASF property held in lien as security for outstanding loans with Varsity, including but not exclusively intellectual property (i.e., trademarks), would be released to the USASF.

3)   Immediate rewriting of the Articles of Incorporation, By Laws, and Operating Agreement to abolish all permanent Board of Directors seats and create a provision for an organized election to be conducted as soon as practical.  The new Board of Directors would be composed of equal representation among all segments of our industry – gym owners/coaches, event producers and industry vendors.

4)   Future production of USASF World competitions would be granted to a qualified event producer after an open bidding process administered by the Board of Directors.

5)   The office and employees of the USASF would be moved to a neutral location in Memphis.  If necessary, we would subsidize payment for the office space until it could be supported by the cash flow of the USASF.

6)   After the first year, or as soon as practical, the Board of Directors would interview and select a professional management company to assume the day-to-day operations of the USASF.

7)   The USASF would be reorganized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is recognized by the IRS as such.

We believe very much in this industry and recognize Varsity for its past foresight and support, but we have come to a point where we can no longer afford to see our governing body indebted to and controlled by a profit motivated company with a clear conflict of interest.  In a time when so many are calling for the industry to break apart into separate factions, we feel that the best solution is to step in and provide a practical way for there to be just one, FREE and INDEPENDENT governing body.  And we believe that we have proposed a workable solution to this matter.

Your acceptance of the above terms is expected by March 1, 2013 to GrowCheer@gmail.com so that we can make provisions for a seamless transition.



Cheer Zone ™

GK Elite Sportswear, L.P.

GTM Sportswear, Inc.

Motionwear, LLC

Nfinity Athletic LLC

Rebel Athletic ™

Team Cheer™


United States All-Star Federation, USASF, ISAF, USASF Worlds, Varsity are all Registered trademarks of the Varsity Spirit Corporation, Memphis, TN.


Web Exclusive: The Parent Trap

Web Exclusive: The Parent Trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sally Herigstad

What a Powerful Web We Weave

What a Powerful Web We Weave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set the Stage for Success

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

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

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

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

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

Include the Right Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Diana Bocco

State of the Union, Part 2

State of the Union, Part 2

CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer leaders for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future. Following part one, read part two of our interview:

Safety is obviously a hot-button topic in the industry. What do you think will be the impact of the American Academy of Pediatrics report and all of the media attention on safety?

Dan Kessler of The Jam Brands

Kessler: Safety and kids’ health is more important than it’s ever been. Five years ago, we never talked about concussions in football—the awareness is much higher. And, as the sport of cheerleading grows, the more kids doing it, the more possibility for injury. Unfortunately, the Pediatrics report include all types of “cheer”—from rec and school to all-star cheer—so until we can define a clear separation between these types of cheer, there will always be that comparison. Going forward, our gym owners have to be [focused on] safety first, using proper progression and keeping kids to the proper level. Event producers rely on the coaches and owners to only put skills on the floor that the athletes can safely execute. The more we make our coaches smarter and more aware of safety issues, the better our industry will be.

Puckett: For the sport’s longevity, I think we have to keep a balance of good safety and good coaching. Some of the current [rule] changes were very necessary to keep the sport safe. In all honesty, if we push the limit too far and increase catastrophic injuries, it will destroy the sport. I’d like to see credentialing taken a step further and made mandatory to more levels.

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

Newby: [There are] a lot of gyms doing it the right way—take those examples and have certified tumbling instructors. Education and training progressions and proper technique are paramount to the long-term success of our industry. That’s one of the areas of focus in the near future that we need to ramp up and continue to make the sport safer. The more we talk about ways to increase safety measures, the better off the sport will be in all aspects and disciplines.

There’s a lot of talk about cheerleading becoming a sport and even entering the Olympics. What are your predictions on that front?

Kessler: All-star gym owners need to be educated on the pros or advantages to being an Olympic sport and how it will help their business or create more cheerleaders. Will it change what they do in their four walls? A lot of these questions are not being asked of our all-star market, but are being told to our all-star market. The all-star market should demand more input into the growth of cheerleading, both nationally and internationally. Until we have these answers, there is no way to predict if this would be a good or bad thing for our industry.

Karlette Fettig, Indiana Elite All-Stars

Fettig: I think it’s a long way off. More countries are getting involved, but I don’t know that they’re at the level of competitiveness that the United States is. To me, there is a lot of work to be done before it’s an interesting enough sport to be attractive to the Olympics. They need to know that the U.S. won’t go out there and dominate every time.

Newby: I think it is an exciting thought, but probably years away from being seriously considered. International development of the sport is crucial and will make a difference of how quickly, if ever, this sport will be considered for Olympic competition. Time will tell.

How can our industry thrive in the future?

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

Puckett: Coaches are concerned that our routines are so jam-packed that [the sport is] becoming totally skill-based—taking the fun and flash out of routines. I think we might take a turn back toward adding the flair, either by adding time to the routine or cutting back the skills. That will be a tough transition, but it’s possible. Also, I think the types of events will keep evolving with new, fresh ideas like Jam LIVE! and Varsity’s Gameday Championship. It’s important to keep it exciting for kids and parents and keep people wanting more.

Fettig: Gyms are going to need to figure out how to make their programs attractive to more children so they can stay alive. I believe in 10 years, the industry will look different on the gym side. Larger gyms have grown over the last several years because of other small gyms closing. It’s become difficult for gyms to start up and be competitive against very large gyms of 500-600 kids. There will be a big dichotomy between a 700-kid program and 150-kid program. In 10 years, you’ll see a big spread between large and small gyms and not a lot of in-between if people don’t start trying to figure out how to get more kids in their door each and every year. That means focusing on younger, less skilled kids and getting them interested in the sport. I get that Level 4 and 5 is exciting to coach and watch, but you have to get more kids in at Level 1 and Prep in order to keep the sport going.

Kessler: All Star Prep. These divisions are about embracing the simplicity and the fun that got our sport growing to begin with. It’s not the you-have-to-get-your-back-tuck-NOW mentality—it’s more about making it fun, making it exciting and making the kids love what they do.  It offers the same athletic appeal but with less commitment and the same performance aspect.  That’s kind of what all-stars was at the beginning in the purest sense.

Our industry and the future of all-star cheerleading and dance can thrive if it is a positively regulated sport that is safe, exciting, accessible and competitive for the kids that participate. The kids have to have FUN! The environment must be safe, and the whole purpose of creating an all-star team of any type is to be competitive. In addition, the sport has to be both affordable and wholesome so as to assist parents in raising strong, healthy kids. We have to offer the same (or better) benefits than any other sport out there so that kids and their parents make all-star cheer and dance their sport choice.

State of the Union, Part 1

State of the Union, Part 1

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

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

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

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

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

What have been some of the setbacks from your perspective?

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

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

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

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

Karlette Fettig, Indiana Elite All-Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Any thoughts on judging and scoring?

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

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

Dan Kessler, The Jam Brands

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part Two of State of the Union!

Suit of Armor: Warding Off Lawsuits

Suit of Armor: Warding Off Lawsuits

Though it’s one of the most successful and well-known gyms in the nation, Freehold, NJ-based World Cup All-Stars hasn’t been immune to facing a lawsuit. To date, the program has faced two.

“You never know who is going to come back and sue you,” says co-owner Joelle Antico. “You have to run your gym like a business; this isn’t an extracurricular activity. If owners don’t have insurance, anyone can come after us personally.”

World Cup is just one of many programs facing a growing reality: cheer professionals are at risk for a wide range of lawsuits—ranging from copyright to injuries to harassment. Modern gym owners must be well-equipped to face whatever might be hurled their way, and taking the necessary measures for lawsuit prevention is key.

Cover your bases. 

It may seem obvious, but the most effective way of warding off lawsuits is to make sure all aspects of your business are up-to-date, competent and compliant. “As long as you keep your insurance current, keep your floor safe and assure that your staff is qualified and certified, that’s a big first step,” says World Cup co-owner Elaine Pascale, who has 19 years of experience.

Drawing up clear policies can also ensure that there is no gray area up for legal interpretation. National Cheer Safety Foundation CEO Kim Archie says a gym owner’s top priority should be establishing clear, written policies that cover all the bases. “Having the right procedures that cover things across the board—from bullying to abuse to sexual harassment to injuries—is crucial,” advises Kim Archie, CEO and founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation.

Both Pascal and Archie agree—gym owners must document everything. Looking back, Pascal says she wishes that she’d been stricter about paperwork from the start. “We had kids coming in from the outside in lower-level classes, where we didn’t know the parents as well. We weren’t as vigilant with forms and documents and making sure everything was checked off,” says Pascal. “[It’s important to] take care of everything.”

Insure your future.

“As a fast-growing segment of the industry, cheer gym facilities have their own unique needs apart from squads and competitions,” explains Lorena Hatfield of K&K Insurance, one of the leaders in the sports insurance field. “Facility owners may need various types of insurance such as property, contents, workers’ compensation, auto and crime coverage.”

According to Hatfield, coverage that includes coaches, teachers, the gym owner and the gym itself is best. She suggests choosing an insurance policy that offers commercial general liability, which typically protects against liability claims for bodily injury and property damage. A number of companies cater directly to cheer gyms, such as K and K, Markel Insurance Company and Sadler Sports (which Archie calls one of the “best in the business”).

Though most companies do offer policies at various limits and price points, Hatfield says it can be risky to skimp. “Purchasing coverage on price alone can be dangerous, as there are often differences in what is offered between providers,” she shares. “It’s important to know what is excluded, as well as what is covered, before purchasing insurance.”

It’s also key to work with your provider on tailoring your policy to your program’s specific needs. “Personal and advertising injury, professional liability and medical payments for participants may also be part of an insurance program tailored for cheer squads,” adds Hatfield.

Also important is clarifying any exclusions that may be in the fine print. “In policies, there can be public exclusions, which can include negligence clauses that strip the gym of coverage. You have to get the most specific, specialized coverage,” says Tom Gowan, a Philadelphia-based law partner who focuses on personal injury cases.

Face reality.

If an incident does occur, address it immediately. “Follow up, check in, document it,” Pascale instructs. “Find out how the child is doing that night. It shows sensitivity. We don’t like seeing any one getting hurt. We really do care.”

-Nicholas McCarvel

Spotlight: Green Bay Elite

Spotlight: Green Bay Elite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Janet Jay

De-Stress R/x

De-Stress R/x

Take two deep breaths and call us in the morning? Not quite that simple—but we’ve unearthed a few smart ideas on how to stamp out stress.

Between the constant pressures of coaching, competing and running a business, it’s no secret that being a cheer professional can be a highly stressful endeavor. “Everybody who has ever owned a gym understands that it’s pretty much 24/7,” says Troy Hedgren, co-owner of Laguna Hills, CA-based Pacific Coast Magic. “Especially with a gym our size, with four locations and more than 500 athletes, the days for us are very long.”

Whether you thrive in go-go-go mode or are feeling the burn of burnout, whether your gym is miniscule or massive, it’s imperative to cope properly and decompress—even if you have to “schedule” time to do it. To find out how to turn a breaking point into a turning point, we turned to several busy cheer professionals and expert Zohar Adner for their hard-earned advice on achieving balance.

Schedule breaks.
As a coach and gym owner, your days start early and often don’t end until midnight—and many feel that there is still not enough time in the day. Undoubtedly, creating work-life balance can be tough with such an all-consuming lifestyle, but living without it is ultimately unsustainable.

“Coaches and gym owners need to schedule breaks and time to breathe,” says Zohar Adner, author of The Gift of Stress. “You can’t just run from one activity to the next to the next. You would never treat an athlete like that; you wouldn’t even do that to your car. If it’s not something you would ask of anyone else, it’s time to take a step back and look at what you’re asking of yourself.”

Hedgren finds his rare Zen by taking time to connect with nature and the outdoors in the midst of his jam-packed day. He often spends mornings returning emails and making calls, then heads to the beach for an hour or two before heading to the gym. “You have to have that one little release,” he confides.

If slowing down doesn’t seem like an option, consider the benefits. Research has shown that 90 minutes “is the optimal length of time for a person to concentrate on something—more than that, and you start to get decreased effectiveness,” Adner cautions. “Taking a break lets your brain settle down and gives your body a chance to rest.”

Also, “breaks” don’t have to mean a major time commitment—Adner recommends starting with five minutes a day and working your way up to an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening and (ideally) an hour mid-day. “We used to take a lunch hour,” says Adner. “People were happier and healthier.”

Build a support system.
Creating a supportive community is key to reducing stress, even if you feel like no one understands your unique stressors. “By isolating yourself, you’re only putting more pressure on yourself,” says Adner. Afraid to ask for help? Think of how great it feels when you’re able to help out a friend. “[Give] other people the opportunity to be that person for you,” adds Adner.

The approach works for Hedgren and co-owner Kellie Elliott, who say they lean on each other, their spouses and network of coaches and athletes quite often. “Everybody takes a part in not only working for me, but helping me out as a parent,” says Elliott. “I don’t think I could do what I do if I didn’t have that support system—it’s definitely teamwork. You just have to make sure to get good people that you trust in those positions to make you successful.”

Be prepared.
According to Adner, 90 percent of stress is recurring. “You can pretty much predict the things that are going to come up,” he says. At USA Wildcats in Naugatuck, CT, they deal with all of the typical stressors—athletes getting injured, people running late to competition and other incidents that can cause “coaches [to run] around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to come up with a backup plan,” says coach Amanda Daniels.

Preparing in advance—much like you would for a competition—ensures that you won’t get taken by surprise. “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel each time,” Adner advises. “Learn from your past experiences.” Having a disaster checklist can keep everyone calm during a crisis, and having set practices in place will ward off confusion and chaos.

“The less thinking you have to do in those moments, the better off you will be,” says Adner. “Go to the plan, as opposed to having to figure it out on the spot.”

-Stephanie Carbone

Squad Bullying: How to Deal

Squad Bullying: How to Deal

Last October, many in the cheer world were left reeling when former Vancouver All-Stars cheerleader Amanda Todd committed suicide as a result of bullying. (“Rest in peace and fly high,” many wrote on their Twitter feeds.) For years, Todd had been the target of widespread bullying—both online and offline—after a stranger tricked her into taking a shirtless photo, then ruthlessly spread that picture around the Internet. A YouTube video the 15-year-old made a month before her death told the story of her anguish via handwritten notes; one of the notes read, “I have nobody. I need someone.”

Just weeks before, 15-year-old cheerleader Peter Blake McCullers ended his life at his home in Tamarac, Florida. Much like Todd, bullying was cited as the cause, and a swell of social media support spawned the phrase, “Love more. Judge less.”

According to data from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 20 percent of American students in grades 9-12 have experienced some form of bullying. No doubt about it: bullying has become a major menace in our country’s schools and universities—and cheer teams are far from immune from this behavior. Just ask Katie Sack, head coach at Team Illinois Cheerleading. During the 2010-2011 season, a parent informed Sack that an athlete in her program was constantly berating another athlete during practice. “We had no idea this was going on because the athlete was choosing times when the coaching staff wasn’t around to make those comments,” says Sack, who has coached for nine years.

For cheer professionals, the first step to preventing bullying is to understand why some kids bully and why others fall prey to it. Award-winning researcher Tammy Lowery Zacchilli says a number of reasons could be at play, from natural or learned aggression to attention-seeking to self-protection. “Bullying involves an imbalance of power,” says Zacchilli, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Leo University.

Bullies may also target people who differ from them in some way. “Kids with low self-esteem often end up on the receiving end of bullying. Victims may be physically weak or have a disability or could be socially awkward,” adds Zacchilli.

Though some dismiss bullying as “kids will be kids”-style behavior, its risks are serious. The experiences of teens like Todd and McCullers point to a very real issue: a Yale University study found that bullying victims were two to 9 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children.

Tackling Bullying: Tactics That Work

We asked top coaches and cheer professionals to offer suggestions on how to prevent bullying on teams and how to tackle it when it happens:

Stay vigilant: Cheer professionals have to keep their antennae up all the time to sense any trouble. “Some children and teens do a great job of hiding the pain that they experience when being bullied,” explains Zacchilli. When a normally outgoing child becomes socially withdrawn, it is a warning signal. Gerald Ladner of Cheer Athletics says that body language can also provide valuable clues to what’s going on in an athlete’s mind. “A simple gesture of not making eye contact could be a sign that they want to talk to someone,” he says.

Forge alliances between athletes: No doubt the benefits of team bonding are well-documented, but it may be especially instrumental in preventing animosity between teammates. “If the team spends time together, they will come together,” says Ladner, who recommends taking the team out often for dinners after practice. “Bonding doesn’t have to be elaborate—it can be as simple as picking a name out of a hat and having them write a note to each other.”

Take a stand: Implementing a no-tolerance policy towards bullying could be the way forward. Zacchilli suggests sharing the policy with athletes and parents at the beginning of the season, outlining specific disciplinary actions and making team members aware of the consequences. The key is enforcement, says Cheer Extreme Raleigh founder Kelly Alison Smith, who ensures her program strictly adheres to its zero-tolerance policy. “We have kicked children off teams in the past at the first sign of it,” she says.

Be strategic: Understanding each athlete’s unique personality and the way he or she handles stress goes a long way in preventing bullying incidents. “Don’t stick the most competitive kid in your gym with the newest girl if she’s already a nervous kid,” advises Smith of Cheer Extreme Raleigh. “When you have overly anxious kids, consider who will be in their stunt group for the entire year before finalizing groups.”

Hear everyone out: Maryland Twisters coach Matt Green says that what some perceive as bullying is sometimes just tough love or misunderstood behavior, so it’s crucial to hear both sides of the story. “We will listen to the child who is feeling bullied and try to determine the severity of the situation by discussing all the facets of the problem,” says Green. “Sometimes the kids can confuse tough love with malicious intent.”

Create awareness: When Phoenix All-Stars co-owner Amy Bailey learned that one of her 9-year-old male athletes was being bullied, Bailey decided to take action. She discovered AACCA’s “Bullying is Nothing to Cheer About” campaign and planned an anti-bullying event of her own at the cheerleader’s school for parents, community members and students.

“We did a presentation in front of those very kids that were bullying Raven,” shares Bailey. “Some of our all-star cheerleaders also did a small performance, showcasing the very thing that Raven was teased about.” The event received local news and television coverage, and according to Bailey, the bullying stopped afterward.

One thing most cheer professionals can agree on is that open communication is the key to tackling bullying. Athletes will be more willing to talk about it if they trust their coaches. Says Bailey, “We need to promote team work and positivity, and make sure our cheerleaders don’t turn into the ones doing the bullying.”

-Dinsa Sachan

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Pacing back and forth on top of purple tumbling mats in front of a rapt audience of All Star Gym Association members, Tate Chalk encourages the coaches and gym owners in attendance to make their voices heard. Wearing a black button-down shirt and stylized jeans, he talks about how to rise above fear of failure and innovate. Suddenly, he goads the crowd to yell, “Money is good!” Understandably, they need a little encouragement. “You all have to find ways to make it work… Learn things, like ‘break-even point,’ and know what they mean,” he says. “Know that this is a business. This is a business!”

Nfinity Athletic Corporation CEO Tate Chalk brings to mind a scrappy Tony Robbins type rather than a stereotypical suit-wearing CEO. After all, this is a man who, when Nfinity was unceremoniously dumped from Cheersport, posted a digital picture of a “breakup tape”—accompanied by a list of songs such as REM’s “Everybody Hurts” written in girlish bubble letters — on Nfinity’s Facebook page and encouraged fans to submit their own favorite sad-sack tunes. Conventional? No. Memorable? Definitely.

He’s also a guy who decided to follow one of his dreams and move out to Los Angeles to try his luck as an actor in Hollywood back in 1999. Among other gigs, he scored a part as a referee in the 2004 Vince Vaughn–Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and consulted on cheerleading for the movie. (He says the “brutal” movie industry gave him “a much thicker skin.”)

Speaking up and standing out have become synonymous with 25-year industry veteran Chalk and the Nfinity brand—and that’s the point. The one secret to success, Chalk says, is being original.

“If I had to give three [pieces of advice], I would say be original, be fearless, and be relentless,” he says. “To me, ‘be original’ means know what you are and what you bring, and don’t try to be someone else—and you’ll be successful.”

Chalk has followed his “know what you bring” advice to the letter, taking his stints as a cheerleader at the University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky and parlaying them into a lucrative career coaching the USC squad, teaching summer camps and owning cheer gyms. Then, in 2003, he developed his own cheerleading shoe just for women: Nfinity, a meticulously designed, spring-floor athletic shoe. The industry hadn’t seen anything like it. And Chalk was in a unique position to sell his vision.

“We’re the only footwear brand whose CEO has actually been on the mat,” he says. “I mean, I was a cheerleader. I coached cheerleading. I have held thousands of stunts and taught thousands of back handsprings and back tucks. And so we hope that the brand comes from a place of authenticity and knowing what it’s like to be there when the lights come on and the music starts.”

Now, almost a decade later, Nfinity Athletic Corporation is not only a consistent leader among the cheerleading shoe market, but has also expanded into basketball and volleyball shoes as well as other sports apparel. In 2009, Nfinity won “Business Innovation of the Year” at the American Business Awards, and the company has regularly ranked in the “Inc. 5000” list.

Though the risks eventually paid off, the early days weren’t without their setbacks. When Chalk was first hawking Nfinity cheerleading shoes, he had only one model pair of shoes and 150 promo T-shirts to try and make his case for the product.

“I was naive, but I think that’s part of being successful—that you’re just naive enough to think you can do it,” he says. “We had lots of defect problems and delivery problems. There was a time there for the first several years that not one shipment had everything go right. You come to accept that it’s never going to be perfect, that something’s going to be off, as far as business goes.”

But Chalk stayed the course, dead-set on making it work. Though his cheer background certainly played a role in his dedication, he attributes his choice of all-star cheerleading as an industry to study and dominate to a deeper reason: the spirit and drive of the people involved.

“I’m really passionate about all-star cheerleading because it gives kids who wouldn’t normally have a chance a [way] to cheer themselves out of whatever situation they’re in,” Chalk says. “Whether they come from the poorest of poor neighborhoods or bad family situations, these kids have had a chance to cheer themselves into a better life. Also, our [industry’s] history is full of small-business owners and entrepreneurs who have taken a chance and taken an idea and created something out of thin air, and that’s noteworthy.”

Putting a megaphone to another marginalized group, Chalk recently founded the Embrace initiative, designed to educate children and parents in the sport about love and acceptance of people of all sexual orientations. The initiative follows a new USASF rule introduced earlier this year decreeing, “Males: minimize exaggerated or theatrical movements,” which has been perceived by some as being anti-gay. (It has since been amended to apply to both genders.)

“The idea being that whether you’re straight or gay or whatever that you can embrace each other in this sport,” Chalk says. “Because of what we do, we’re all sort of outsiders. Cheerleading has a stigma, and we all have to stick together and support each other. And the second part of Embrace is ‘Embrace who you are.’ If you can’t feel safe and secure as a gay or lesbian in cheerleading, then there’s no hope for you in the rest of the world. Our sport should be the one spot that you can go and be yourself and feel at home.”

-Jamie Beckman 

The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon, Part Two

Photo credit: Zoha Photography

To limit the distraction of having a cheerlebrity teammate, Twist & Shout’s Orson Sykes sets strict rules during competitions for cheerlebrities regarding what’s expected of them, even when it once meant having a sit-down discussion with Whitney Love about strolling around too much at Worlds. (The cheerlebrity quickly isolated herself and went on to give the best performance of her life, Sykes says.)

“You have to make sure that the boundaries are set in place,” Sykes adds. “Whitney and Britni [Love] weren’t allowed to sign autographs or take pictures in the warm-up room. We insulated them to keep people away. At the end of the day, we’re at this competition to perform well. This is not a personal appearance for you.”

Former Cheer Extreme All-Star and current University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill student Maddie Gardner appeared a CNN special about Cheer Extreme that focused largely on her, has her own line of Fancy Face cosmetics and will star in an upcoming Cheer Channel show, Cheer Mashup. Aware of the impact her cheerlebrity might have on her teammates, Gardner recently dedicated an entire post on her blog, “Let’s Hear It for the Bases,” to her team.

“My coach always told us that the flyer is like the quarterback,” she says. “They do receive much of the glory, but also much criticism. I feel as though the bases and backspot play a very influential role in the group; without them there would be no flyer. Again, with a football comparison, where would the QB be without the offensive line?”

Sykes also uses a football analogy to describe his work with Whitney Love. “Cheerleading is like any other sport in the sense that if this were football, we ran a lot of plays for her,” explains Sykes. “On the other side of that, Whitney knew she wanted to win at the end of the day and she got into the team concept. She understood that even if she was tired, coming up to an event, the team had to feed off of her. She couldn’t come in lazy. She set an example by coming in early and working hard.”

As far jealousy among teams, Sykes suggests that such issues are usually a product of the cheerlebrity’s personality. If she’s gracious and a hard worker, she tends to lift the rest of the team up, naturally nipping jealousy in the bud.

“If the cheerlebrity is humble, they would always make it a point in interviews to talk about the team and how supportive the team has been,” he says. “Whitney [Love] never put herself over the team. The team knew that Whitney was extremely talented.”

Sykes admits he’s been lucky to have humble, diligent cheerlebrities on his squads. But what about the other members, who also work hard and conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner? Pascale, a founding member of the National All Star Cheerleading Coaches Congress, says she has been lobbying for years to create more scholarships for deserving cheerleaders who aren’t as visible.

“There are so many heroes in this world of cheerleading,” Pascale says. “These young athletes work so hard; they give so much up. We have kids with cancer, kids fighting a disability, kids fighting emotional issues from homes and they come out as heroes. To me, these are the kind of kids I’d like to see applauded and [given] scholarships. I just don’t think there’s enough given to these kids that are so deserving. Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus—this is what they see, and this cheerlebrity is just hooking on to that model. With all the heroes in our industry, why can’t we gift them in an opposite way of what these kids are programmed to see on TV?”

———>Part 3: Under Pressure