Cheer Extreme

The Big Reveal

The Big Reveal

At Kernersville, NC-based Cheer Extreme Allstars, team placements are no longer simply announced online, but have now become a festive affair with much more fanfare. This spring, owner Courtney Smith-Pope introduced the “Teal Reveal,” a gala event held at a local church. Smith-Pope spent the morning with her team moms stuffing personalized invites for each athlete, and when she yelled “Go!” later that night, the athletes eagerly ran to each decorated table to see which team held their fate. In retrospect, Smith-Pope said she loved seeing the athletes react to their placements—hearing happy screams, seeing them hug their moms, being able to comfort a select few who were disappointed—but the event was also helpful on a practical level.

“We get to say thank you to all the parents personally. They come in, and they’re all dressed up, and we show a video with the highlights of tryouts that gets everybody all excited for the season,” shares Smith-Pope.

Of course, not everyone is always excited by the news at the start of a new season—many gym owners must deal with parental pressure to place their child on a higher-level team. To keep team reveals from being stressful and/or tense, it’s important to set the tone for a positive experience by establishing clear expectations, outlining long-term goals and, of course, communicating with athletes and parents.

Five top tips for a successful team reveal:

1. Have standards—and stick to them. While parents may want to see their child succeed right away, the proper placement is one that will be both safe and challenging for the athlete. The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises on placement day is to be specific about what you’re looking for from athletes at each level and make sure everyone on staff shares your vision. Jessica Bugg Smith, owner of Nicholasville, KY-based Kentucky Reign, advises, “Establish policies and procedures for how you want to run your program, and be consistent across the board. If you say that you need a certain skill set for a certain team, you have to stick to your guns.”

2. Follow your own rules. Gym owners and coaches often face pressure to give certain athletes special treatment, but when you do a favor for one person, word gets around. Other parents will expect you to bend the rules for their children, too. Cheer Extreme Allstars is in its 20th year, and Smith-Pope has learned a few things along the way. “The kid you put on the team because you’re close to them…it never works out in the long run. It gives them a more inflated sense of value than they really actually have. They take advantage of the situation, and it’s worse when other parents find out that something like that happened and you moved a kid or did something after the fact. You have to be on the up and up.”

Letting favors affect team placement also does a disservice to the whole team. Bugg Smith offers this example: “You take a child who’s working on a back handspring, right at a Level 2. You put her on a Level 4 team, and what ends up happening is one of two things: either the kid with the Level 2 skills doesn’t continue to develop her own skills, because in practice, you don’t have time for her—or on the flipside, you focus so much on trying to get that kid up to par that your Level 4’s aren’t getting what they need to get to Level 5.”

3. Build relationships. Create an environment where parents know you want what’s best for their child, so they will trust you and respect your decisions. Bugg Smith communicates with parents as often as possible about their child’s progress, and she makes it crystal clear that coaches and parents are working toward the same goal. “All we all want is success for the athlete,” shares Bugg Smith. “Our coaches’ number one priority is to give their kid the best chance of success. That doesn’t necessarily mean winning every championship, but that the child is progressing and growing.”

4. Create a shared vision.  Proper placement benefits the individual athlete, their current team and every team they join in the future. Bugg Smith advises owners of smaller gyms to think long-term: “It’s very important that we’re focusing on the process of developing the athlete versus just where they are this year.”

If an athlete or parent is disappointed in a placement decision, they may threaten to leave and go to another gym, but according to Smith-Pope, that’s a mistake. “The biggest skill you can have in our sport is competition experience. Sometimes they think, ‘I’ll work on those skills and then come back to Cheer Extreme,’ but in reality, if you want to make the team, you want to be on the floor with us, years prior to that.”

5. Consider how you share the news. A successful team reveal relies on finding the right fit for your gym. At Kentucky Reign, team placement is a relatively casual experience. Bugg Smith explains, “We just need you to come in, see what you can do. Generally people know where they’re going. It’s not a big surprise.”

At Cheer Extreme Allstars’ Teal Reveal, the event acted not only as a fun way to kick off a new season, but also a valuable opportunity for parents to ask questions. In the past, Smith-Pope would field texts and phone calls from unhappy parents at all hours of the night, but she enacted a new policy at the Teal Reveal: “Any question they have has to be asked in person.” She found that parents were less confrontational this way because they wanted to avoid making a scene. Coordinating an event like the Teal Reveal is certainly more work than posting a list, but according to Smith-Pope, “We had the best year ever last year, and this really set the tone [for the new season] right from the start.”

-Lisa Beebe

More Than Business

More Than Business

At Mystic All Stars in Apple Valley, CA, signs on the wall proudly proclaim “Family,” and its teams chant “We are Family” at practices and competitions. The close-knit atmosphere at Mystic signifies what is true for so many all-star programs—that gyms can be much more than just places to practice tumbling, twisting and rehearsing for the next big event, but rather places where seeds of meaningful relationships are sown. Strong emotional connections often form between coaches and athletes, thanks to the intense training and shared cheer experiences that bind them together. But are such deep bonds good for business—or risky business?

On the positive end of the spectrum, coaching provides a great opportunity to influence kids positively and instill beneficial traits and habits in them. Mystic All Stars owner Robert Alvey says he and his staff go to great lengths to form special bonds with their athletes. “I have had the pleasure of influencing students of all ages and socio- economic backgrounds,” shares Alvey. “Some of my students come from broken homes and this is the only family they know.”

Coaches can also help students deal with unforeseeable tragedies in their lives. At Cheer Extreme’s Raleigh location, owner Kelly Alison Smith saw this firsthand when an athlete’s mother was recently diagnosed with leukemia. The mother was in desperate need of bone marrow donations, and finding a match was a tall task.

“[The athlete] was devastated and so were we,” says Smith. “Together we devised a plan to set up as many bone marrow drives as possible. We spread the word about how easy it is to donate bone marrow and received hundreds of cheek swap sets.” Within two months, Tonia’s mother got a call that a match had been found. Adds Smith, “The relationship formed between this family and me will be everlasting.”

Seeing the athletes bloom into responsible, productive adults is another heartening byproduct for coaches and gym owners. Very recently, ACE Cheer Company owner Happy Hooper attended the wedding of one of his all-star athletes. “I simply thought, ‘How amazing that I have had the honor to watch her grow into an amazing young person, cheer in college and watch her enter the workforce as a contributing member of a marketing firm,” he says. “Now I’ve seen her achieve yet another outstanding life rite—to marry the person she loves.”

Setting Boundaries

Though relationships shared with athletes are undoubtedly fulfilling, they can also be personally challenging—especially when cheer professionals get too attached. Alvey recalls one male athlete to whom he acted as a “surrogate father,” granting a full cheer scholarship and even allowing him and his mother to reside in his guest home temporarily. When the athlete unexpectedly transferred to another gym, Alvey was devastated. “I have only one flaw and that is I care too much,” says Alvey. “That can sometimes let you down.”

He adds that it’s helpful if you can keep things in perspective and accept that you will be disappointed once in a while: “No matter how hard you try there may be that one kid in a hundred that you just can’t help, and as painful as that might be, you just have to let them go.”

For Alvey, sometimes “letting go” also means recognizing that what’s best for the athlete isn’t always what’s best for the gym. When Brandon Shinnamon, an at-rish athlete whom Alvey had personally recruited and mentored, showed exceptional cheer potential, Alvey decided to refer him to Pacific Coast Magic. There Shinnamon could cheer on its Worlds team “Mysterious,” whereas the highest level offered at Mystic All-Stars was Level 3. “I didn’t want him to miss the opportunities that would be afforded to him [as a Level 5 athlete],” says Alvey.

However, even when you have a tight bond with a particular athlete, it’s crucial to avoid favoring any one person or placing individual needs over the team as a whole. “As a coach or gym owner, you must find that line to make sure you never develop favorites,” warns Hooper. Smith even goes as far as to sometimes overcompensate—she admits that she is usually harder on those she is closer to during practice. “So, from a public eye, it seems the opposite,” she explains.

The bottom line is to not overstep the line. “It’s okay to build relationships, but always make sure you set boundaries and establish them and don’t stray from them. This will help the students to understand when you may have to be stern or help to correct a negative action,” says Alvey.

If gyms have policies stressing that each athlete should get individual feedback and attention, it can help deter coaches from getting too involved with a favorite few. At Cheer Extreme Raleigh, the coaches are tasked with keeping detailed notes on each athlete and how he or she is progressing throughout the season. “We send out individual progress reports to each and every kid in my gym, so they feel the personal touch from the coaching staff,” says Smith.

Ultimately, cheer professionals need to accept the fact that they won’t be able to resolve all of the problems in their athletes’ lives—and that the parents should always be informed about serious issues. “If  a situation begins to approach the inappropriate line, you as a coach should seek the parents’ help. If your attempts to reach parents or family members fail, then encourage the athlete to reach out to a professional counselor,” advises Hooper.

Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Game Night: Innovation through Motivation

Artwork for this article provided by:
Photography by Karissa
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photographybykarissa1@gmail.com

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!