judging

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

Straight Talk with Maryland Twisters’ Tara Cain

As home to the premier F5, the Maryland Twisters are no strangers to high expectations. Pressure from industry leaders, judges and fans to “keep delivering and over-delivering” can be intense, but gym owner Tara Cain insists that championship titles (of which they have many) are not the end goal for a Twister—it’s having fun.

“At the end of the day, the kids sacrifice two to three days a week at practices, all year long, because they love what they do,” says Cain. So when competition time arrives, she advises her athletes to “stop worrying about the judges” and simply enjoy the moment they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Several such moments arrived this year at The Cheerleading Worlds, where the Twisters competed on five paid bids and saw their senior medium teams—the flagship F5 and Reign—nab Bronze medals.

It’s another stellar win in Twister history, one punctuated with the kind of success that grows a gym from 50 athletes in 1998 to more than 500 today. Yet Cain says their winning reputation isn’t what drives athletes to become a Twister. Instead, she credits a great staff, “families that believe in [the] system” and a commitment to having “hard conversations” about athlete progression and team placement “before they become an issue.”

Equally important to the big picture has been building brand recognition. In 2007, a parent opened Cain’s eyes to the tremendous value of brand investment. A logo and social media presence were developed and the phrase “repetition leads to retention” embraced, the cumulative effect launching Maryland Twisters into an international spotlight.

Of course, the Twisters are not without challenges. The biggest, Cain asserts, is one that the industry faces as a whole: talent retention. Minimal work hours (roughly six to nine per coach per week) plus limited pay scale (intended to keep athlete costs down) lead many top coaches to work multiple jobs or leave the industry entirely to pursue full-time careers or, as they grow older, start a family. “It’s hard to find that person who is dedicated, loyal and loves cheer, but is willing to put in the nine hours [weekly] for little pay,” says Cain.

This is the type of straight talk Cain is known for, a quality that’s led her to question cheer status quo time and again. Questions like the one she posed to GK Elite in 2008: Why are cheerleaders still wearing polyester? The material, Cain said, proved so constricting that “the fabric was actually like rubber bands around certain parts of [the athletes’] biceps.” The conversation intrigued GK Elite, and the collaboration resulted in an innovative uniform made of “super-stretch fabric” that granted athletes a fuller range of motion while redefining industry standards in the process.

Last year, Cain was at the forefront of another industry leap—helming the NACCC judging committee and leading the charge towards a unified scoring system. The system, scheduled to see its first full implementation at The Cheerleading Worlds 2015, is, according to Cain, “a great change for the industry.”

So what’s next for the Maryland Twisters? Cain’s keeping her options open but admits more growth is on the horizon. “I would love to launch other sports programs. Maybe I’ll just get a bigger building and be more of a sports complex, but cheerleading will always be my first love,” Cain muses.

-Carmen Rodriguez

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Two Sides: Too Many Nationals?

Should event producers be permitted to hire judges who are currently (or were once) affiliated with a gym competing at that event? CheerProfessional looks at both sides of the issue.

It’s a question of objectivity—can judges “turn it off” when they take the stand? Some gym owners and coaches say “no,” taking issue with event producers who allow judges that have some form of past or current affiliation with programs on the competition roster. Others say that because of the prevalence of cheer gyms, it’s almost impossible to find a whole panel of judges that don’t have some sort of knowledge or background with at least one of the gyms involved; they also argue that judges should be trusted to be professional and impartial. So who’s right? We spoke with Ron Swanson of Kansas Gymnastics & Cheer and Becky Woodson of Daytona Xtreme to explore the issue.

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

 Ron Swanson, Program Director, KGDC’s 360 Allstars

Swanson’s take:  I’ve seen some bias on the judges’ stand every year, but this season, I was able to find some pretty significant facts. At a regional competition, two of the judges were high school coaches in the area, and I’ve discovered that they have a strong affiliation with one of the local gyms. That gym won just about everything with their 12 teams—they’re a quality gym with a few really good teams, but they’ve never dominated a competition. At another competition, I found out two of the tabulators worked at a local gym that was competing there; also, one of the people working the competition was wearing a jacket from that gym, so it was obvious the gym had strong ties to that event. I’ve noticed this type of issue across the board with a few different brands.

Swanson on objectivity: Many judges may think they can be unbiased, but when you work in a gym, you become strongly passionate about that gym’s style and stunting techniques. Regardless of how professional anyone tries to be, they’ll always have a personal bias to that gym. I judged for about five years in Texas, and I understand the relationship on the judges’ stand. You spend the entire weekend with that group, and you’ll have casual conversations that could possibly sway opinion.

Swanson on where the line should be drawn: It’s not acceptable for anyone who is currently (or was once) affiliated with a competing gym to judge that event. I know a lot of judges who are very professional and pulled themselves out of events for that reason; they make it a point not to judge in the areas where those teams compete.

Swanson on possible solutions: I believe strongly that there needs to be a federation or association for judges—and that they all need to belong to it. There should be a system in place to rank judges, and their names should be attached to that. As judges become more qualified, they should be known not only to the event producers, but also to the gyms who are getting judged by them. Right now, judges are completely hidden from the process; no one knows who they are or what their level of experience is. If they make a bad call, their name and credentials should be on the line, just like an NFL ref.

Also, I see companies giving out too many trophies and banners—I don’t need a third place banner or sixth place trophy. That’s a few thousand they could be using to pay judges better or fly in impartial judges. I’d rather see that money invested in judging than unnecessary paraphernalia.

Becky Woodson, Program Director, Daytona Xtreme

Woodson’s take:  On most judging panels I’ve been on, there has been someone who has some sort of background or affiliation with one of the programs involved—whether through choreography, coaching or another capacity. I’ve actually been in that position myself multiple times at smaller competitions. For instance, I was the head coach of Bristol University for two years, and one year after I’d resigned from the position, I found myself judging their team (with athletes I’d coached) at the ICC University Nationals. I believe it is definitely possible to be objective when judging; the key is to look at things from an unbiased point of view and assume the mindset of someone who doesn’t know what that team is capable of doing.

Woodson on objectivity: I focus on how the routine plays to the scoresheet for that specific event producer. As a coach, I expect objectivity from the judges, so I conduct myself the same way when judging. I think most experienced people are able to do that. You have to stay strong and have strong morals to make it work.

Woodson on where the line should be drawn: Choreography or past affiliation may be one thing, but having someone judge who currently coaches in a competing gym is pushing the boundaries a little much. There are enough qualified judges out there where event producers shouldn’t have to pull from the same pool [of registrants]. Event producers should definitely make an effort not to hire judges who are involved with a program at that competition. If event producers want to grow their business, it makes a lot of sense to show that there is a sense of fairness and impartiality. Not everyone will always like the results, but if you provide the most professional experience for a client, they’ll keep returning to your event.

Woodson on possible solutions: Having a substitute judge for the division [where the team is competing] could be one idea—but if you’re going to hire a substitute judge anyway, you might as well just have that person judge the whole event [to ensure impartiality].

Looking at the big picture, judges need to be more qualified and a universal scoresheet should be implemented by USASF. At most of the competitions I’ve judged around the world as well as here in the U.S., the scoresheets have been completely different. This has caused some of the issues—coaches may blame their undesirable results on the fact that a judge used to work with a certain program, when that may not have been the case.