Candid Coach

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

Candid Coach Q&A: Amy Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Amanda Kennedy

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

Candid Coach: Jackie Lindom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes the hard work worth it?

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


Candid Coach: Alisha Dunlap

Candid Coach: Alisha Dunlap

Fresh off Season Two of TLC’s “Cheer Perfection,” Alisha Dunlap’s gym and life have taken the spotlight once again. Find out what challenges and opportunities the exposure has brought this spirited coach and owner of Cheer Time Revolution, and learn what advice she has for other coaches hoping to follow in her footsteps.

“Cheer Perfection” just finished its second season. How has exposure from the show positively and/or negatively impacted Cheer Time Revolution?

Dunlap: At first the “cheer world” was not behind the show, so [my husband] RD and I took a lot of flack over it, but I knew, with time, it would show us as we truly are. For the gym, it has been so positive. It has put our name out there and also shown everyday kids that anyone can learn to cheer.

Since the show premiered, has it changed the way you interact with parents in your gym? Have their expectations shifted at all?

Dunlap: The show hasn’t changed the way I do things at the gym, but it has made me deal with the parents a little differently. I really have too much of an open line of communication with them; this “open door policy” may have given them a bit too much accessibility to me, but I still wouldn’t change this [approach]—as it has made Cheer Time Revolution the family that it is. As for expectations, I am not sure those have changed; our gym parents have always liked to win and want their kids to be the best they can be.

What tips do you have for gym owners who would like to gain more exposure for their gym? 

Dunlap: Just put yourself out there by becoming more involved in your community, city and state functions. I never realized how getting your name out there could draw so many new clients. Our athletes do halftime performances at various collegiate basketball games, and we’ve been very involved in events such as Race for a Cure; we also work hand-in-hand with the City of Little Rock Tourism Bureau as city ambassadors. We believe it’s important to give back to the city and communities that have supported us.

What advice would you give to those who take part in a reality show?

Dunlap: Enjoy it. Have fun with it, but stand your ground and be you. Don’t let anyone tell you who they want you to be. My family and I have been so lucky to have a crew that has let us be “us.”  You can’t let the spotlight get to you. Always remember that when the cameras and fame go away, life goes just right back to how it was before.

What has been the biggest challenge that “Cheer Perfection” has presented in your off-camera life—at the gym or otherwise?

Dunlap: The biggest challenge is trying to please all the fans at competitions. I am there for a reason, and that reason is to get my teams on the floor so they are able to do their best. I have to give my team my attention. It can be really hard to try to do it all! It gets to the kids, too.  When hundreds of kids want their photos and autographs, I have to keep their focus on why they are there as well. But we love everyone that supports us and wish we had the time to see and visit with all of them!

Besides increased exposure and clientele, what opportunities has “Cheer Perfection” presented that you may not have anticipated?

Dunlap: We have had lots of great things come our way.  We are doing lots of traveling to other gyms in other states for consulting, clinics and meet-and-greets. The supporters of Cheer Time Revolution are amazing, so we always embrace opportunities to meet them. We are also looking forward to our European tour and summer camps in 2014. Seeing other gyms and how they do things is a ton of fun; we love learning as much as we love teaching.

Are there any themes that “Cheer Perfection” has not yet addressed that you’d like to see highlighted in a future show?

Dunlap: I would really like “Cheer Perfection” to show more teams and how children of all ages and skill levels do it.

What are your short and long-term goals for the gym? How does “Cheer Perfection” fit into those plans?

Dunlap: The short-term goal is to have a great season at CTR and have our teams do their very best and learn a lot this year.  The long-term goal is that I want CTR to be the place to be; I want to teach athletes to be their best. “Cheer Perfection” will always have a place at CTR—the experience has been so much fun for these kids and families.

-Sara Schapmann

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.

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.

Candid Coach: Trisha Hart of All-Star Legacy

Candid Coach: Trisha Hart of All-Star Legacy

Meet Trisha Hart, now in her 10th year as co-owner of All-Star Legacy (a decorated cheer gym with three locations in Virginia and West Virginia), coach for the program’s Mini Level One and Youth Level Two teams, and cheer consultant/choreographer. We snagged this busy cheer professional for a candid Q&A—read what she had to say below:

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

Trisha: I would have liked to find more balance from the beginning. In this industry, you work from the minute you wake up until the minute you go to bed, and at first, I sacrificed a lot of my personal friendships and family relationships to bring the gym great success. I also invested a lot of emotion into the clients and kids, which I wouldn’t take back, but in retrospect, I wish someone had told me not to take it so personally when kids would leave and go to a different gym.

CP: You spend a lot of time training coaches from other programs. What’s one thing you think coaches could do differently as a whole?

Trisha: After seeing Worlds on ESPN or certain YouTube videos, coaches often have expectations that their kids will be able to do those things, but teaching them how to get there is something we’re lacking. A good test-taker might be able to get credentialed very high, but at the end of the day, hands-on training and being able to communicate with different athletes is bigger than anything else. Going to a gym or practicing 3-10 hours a week and having them repeat bad habits won’t get progress. Coaches need to be more hands-on, and I blame that on lack of training that we’re offering as an industry.

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

Trisha: Relying on parent volunteers to be the communication of the business. We’ve worked with a lot of parents to get messages to the masses—each team has one or two parent representatives. I’ve learned that giving them the reins can sometimes bite you in the butt, as your words can be misconstrued. It’s great to have parent volunteers, but not necessarily as a main line of information.

CP: Talk about trends you’re seeing in choreography.

Trisha: Right now, it’s too skill-based. Look at any event producer’s scorecard—in order to get a quantity score, you end up jam-packing two minutes and thirty seconds with so many skills that you lose all the flashy fun. Showmanship and entertainment value are what competitive cheerleading was originally built for, but we’re starting to get away from them. We have to do so much in a routine that we’re counting the number of elements and skills versus appreciating the creativity of what we do. In maximizing the scoresheet, we lose the creative overall effect and appeal. I’d love to see it all be one big package again, but the only way that will happen is by not expecting so much.

CP: How would you sum up your coaching approach?

Trisha: Passionate and energetic about our industry and coaching, with high expectations for all athletes’ growth and development—no matter what age or ability level.