Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

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

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

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

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

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

-Vicky Choy

Moving On Up

Moving On Up

Angela Havard Patton with athlete-coaches

The old adage “Go with what you know” is a familiar one for Cheer Savannah owner Stephanie Britt. When hiring new employees, Britt tends to go straight to the source—athletes from within her gym who’ve been there, done that.

The decision has always been a no-brainer for Britt, who finds it extremely advantageous to use coaches who grew up in the culture of the gym. After all, they already know the drills and terminology, so very little training is necessary. In addition, the athletes are familiar with gym policies and can teach others how to best represent themselves and Cheer Savannah to the community. “You’re only a leader if people follow you,” says Britt, “and leadership is key to any gym program’s success.”

Britt isn’t alone—this strategic move speaks to the ushering in of a new generation of all-star athletes just starting their cheer careers and taking the reins. As the industry has matured, so have its core athletes who have cheered all-star since they were young children. This experience gives them a unique vantage point to offer current gym owners, many of whom live and breathe the business but never had the chance to take the all-star mat themselves.

Angela Havard Patton of Texas Cheer is also on board with this approach. She says she exclusively hires only current and former all-star athletes to help run her cheer program, which is designed to be a “low-cost, low time commitment” gym. “I believe in hiring and training our youth to be leaders,” says Patton, “because they are so open minded at a young age and have so much creativity.”

Angie Caldwell and Elaina Bertoli

Considering hiring some athletes on as coaches or staff members? Find out how to make it a seamless transition from those in the know:

Give it a test run. Consider holding a tryout of a different type—at Cheer Savannah, all coaches must go through a trial period in which both sides try each other out before permanently joining the staff. During that time, Britt looks for “that glow, that passion, that leadership—you just know when it’s there.”

Currently, Britt has two former athletes and even two moms-turned-coaches on her staff. After being around the team and helping their own daughters train, the mothers learned so much about cheering that Britt decided to use all that impromptu education and put them to work. “They have the gift,” says Britt, who firmly believes that a coach’s most important attribute is the ability to mentor and lead.

Continue to foster a sense of loyalty. One of the great things about hiring an athlete from within is that he or she likely already has a strong loyalty to you and your program. Just ask Steven Hogenson, who spent his senior year of high school cheering at Eagan, MN-based Northern Elite All-Stars and now both coaches and cheers on the gym’s open team. Hogenson says he can understand how important the gym is to the kids since he used to be one of them. “The gym is not just a job, but a home and family,” says Hogensen.

Communicate clear expectations. With a doctorate in special education, Patton uses her background as a behavior specialist to teach athletes not only cheer skills, but also how to become leaders. She firmly believes the key to keeping kids out of trouble is to give them a home base, a place to go and rules to follow. Because the younger kids look up to the older ones as real life role models, Patton expects her athlete/coaches to also assume leadership roles in the community. She has a strict policy against any negative social media activity and asks the athletes to hold each other accountable by reporting to her any suspect behavior.

Patton feels that ultimately, when coached by peers, kids try harder. “When you set the bar high, kids rise to that level,” says Patton. Her mantra for coaches: “You must be reliable, you must make a commitment, and you must show up. You don’t let down your family.”

Help them embrace their new role. One of the biggest challenges many athletes-turned-coaches face is asserting their newfound authority to others that were once teammates or friends. 18-year-old Elaina Bertoli can relate—she currently helps coach four teams at Five Star Cheer Academy in Joliet, Illinois, while still competing in All-Stars and preparing to attend college in the fall.  Gym owner Angie Caldwell first asked Bartoli to help coach the minis and younger teams when she was 15 years old and she’s been wearing two hats ever since then.

“The hardest thing about transitioning from being a peer to coaching is knowing when to step back from being a friend to being a teacher,” says Bartoli. She says that Caldwell has helped her feel more comfortable in the new role by always having her back and encouraging open communication when problems arise.

Bartoli is also continually learning new lessons. She recently suffered a slipped disk and concussion, which showed Bartoli the importance of proper safety precautions and taught her about what is most important as both a competitor and a coach: “I learned you have to fail sometimes in order to really be able to appreciate winning.”

-Vicky Choy

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


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!


Different Strokes: Athlete Learning Styles

Different Strokes: Athlete Learning Styles

Like snowflakes, no two cheerleaders are alike. Though athletes may be a sea of energetic smiles out on the floor, off the mat is a dynamic mix of personalities—from social butterflies to wallflowers and from Type-A perfectionists to laid-back types. That diversity often translates to learning styles as well, a difference that is less obvious but critical to maximizing team performance and efficiency at practices.

New Zealand teacher Neal Fleming’s popular VAK model states that are three principal styles of absorbing new information: visual (learning by seeing), auditory (learning by hearing), and kinesthetic (learning by doing). Typically, most people fit primarily into one category that works best for them to retain information, though each style contributes to the overall learning process.

According to learning specialist and author Kevin Roberts, coaches should create a multi-sensory learning experience that can meet the needs of every team member. In the gym, this may mean teaching a new stunt by first explaining the sequence verbally, then showing a video of the stunt sequence or having another group demonstrate, and finally, letting the athletes test their grips and positions on the ground before building. It’s also important to acknowledge various emotional needs (like showing patience with someone who asks many questions) and to be sensitive to non-verbal cues that show an athletes’ receptivity to learning.

“Endeavor to understand the learning styles of each member of the group and hit all the styles in the presentation of a skill,” Roberts advises. “You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

At Cheer Ltd.’s cheer camps and clinics, president Gwen Holtsclaw and her team put those principles into practice—in the literal sense. “The key isn’t as much in the teaching/presenting of the information as it is the repetition, illustration, and practical application,” says Holtsclaw. “Methods of reinforcing information can be diverse and create a much better result of every type of learning style.”

Guest blog from Americheer: In the Eyes of Your Athletes

Guest blog from Americheer: In the Eyes of Your Athletes

Have you ever looked at a team and thought how horribly behaved and out of control the athletes were? Chances are that they were acting the same way that their coach does. If you are a coach, then you are a role model—the two go hand in hand. Your athletes are constantly watching you, and you have an enormous influence over the development of your athletes.  So what role do you play in ensuring good behavior on your team?

Your attitude is contagious, especially in the “good sport” culture that most organizations are adopting. You must remember that their commitment to your team is the biggest commitment in their current life’s endeavors, so naturally you will become one of the most influential people in their lives. Lead by example and show them how to work as a team, to set and achieve goals, to develop time management skills and to promote a healthy lifestyle. This will shape values and behaviors for their adult life.

Although teaching the technical aspect of your sport ensures success in the eyes of your organization, it is the personal development that will encourage your athletes to be good people. Your athletes need to know that you see what they are doing, and need for you to believe in them. Holding them accountable for their performance will make them better at their sport, but giving them that emotional support before and after practice will help them gain the self confidence that they need to be successful for the rest of their lives.