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.”