Maryland Twisters

Parent Cheer Teams

Parent Cheer Teams

The lights dim, as a local gym’s newest squad takes the floor to show off their newly acquired tumbling skills, jumps and stunts. An MC introduces the group as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” begins to rail from the auditorium speakers. A crowd of teenage athletes holds up signs and begins to cheer wildly for individual members of the squad. Someone proudly yells out, “That’s my mom!” and a team of parent cheerleaders begins to perform.

These days, the above scenario isn’t an uncommon one at all-star gyms across the country. In addition to recruiting for their youth rosters, many gym owners have found themselves forming cheer teams comprised of athletes’ parents. Aside from giving cheer parents a means of getting to know one another, the main reason behind creating these teams is to provide parents with an appreciation for what their children do during a typical competitive cheer season.

“Having a parent team is awesome because they actually get a little taste of what their kids go through,” says Alisha Dunlap, owner of Sherwood, AR-based gym Cheer Time Revolution. “It gives them a taste of how much heart and soul their kids put into the sport.”

While parent teams are certainly open to cheer amateurs looking to give their child’s sport a try, many are made up of adults who used to be all-stars and are longing to get back out on the floor. Scott Mizikar, who teamed up with his wife to coach several seasons of HotCheer’s parent team, explains that unlike adolescent cheer teams—which require extensive tryouts—parent teams are more of a laid-back experience. “We had an open sign-up and encouraged the parents to give it a try,” he shares. “While there are some teams that compete, we did it for the sake of doing it as an exhibition.” (This was also the case with Dunlap’s team, who channeled their competitive spirit into showing their stunts during gym-wide showcases.

Lisa Shaw, who owns Unique Sports Academy and directs the Maryland Twisters in Waldorf, was shocked when several of her cheer parents approached her and asked if they could form a parent team last year. “Most of them have full-time careers and children in the program, [so they are] busy,” shares Shaw. “Everybody had so much fun though that we’re going to do it again this year.”

The best part of hosting the team, says Shaw, is the enthusiasm that it adds to the program. “Their exhibition brought not just the Maryland Twisters to come and have a good time, but other gyms as well. Everyone was laughing and clapping and the parents took it very seriously. It takes a little edge off and adds some fun to the sport,” she says.

While some parent cheer teams refrain from competing, Shaw’s team, “Aftermath,” took their matching T-shirts and choreographed routines to last year’s Reach the Beach competition in Oceanside. “The team is asking to do more competitions this year, so we’re going to add another one in this season,” she adds.

In terms of finances, most gyms tend to charge a nominal fee for their parents to participate on the teams, while others absorb the costs themselves. HotCheer co-owner Kelly Makay collected $10/month as tuition from the adults on her gym’s parent team; in addition, she tallied the total cost of purchasing music for their routines ($500 per mix) as well as the exhibition fees (which averaged $150) and divided those costs between the team’s existing members. Though she saw a huge emotional benefit from the team, especially through the bonding between cheer parents that occurred at her gym, she explains that there wasn’t a financial gain to hosting the team.

“The coaches were paid hourly to coach it, staff members were often wrangled into babysitting team members’ children, and it tied up floor space that I could have rented out to high school teams,” she says.

For Shaw’s Maryland Twisters program, she charges her parent teams a small fee for uniforms ($30), competitions ($40) and music ($30), but unlike the HotCheer team, her coaches volunteer their time to coach the parents. “Our parent team doesn’t affect our bottom line,” she adds. “The goal of the parent team is to have fun and get the parents involved in sports.” Such was the case with Cheer Time Revolution’s Dunlap, who didn’t charge her last roster of parent team members. “It was more about giving the parents a means of bonding and to open their eyes to see how much time and effort these kids really put into the sport,” she explains.

While parent teams have proven to enhance a cheer program, gym owners note that they are often difficult to keep running. One of the biggest challenges can be scheduling, according to Mizikar. “These parents are busy with their lives, their families and their jobs, so being able to count on them for weekly practices isn’t easy,” he explains. “When they can’t show up for 3-4 weeks at a time, it makes it hard to put a routine together.”

Recruiting is also difficult, says Dunlap, who saw her team’s roster dwindle just weeks into the season. To combat the attendance issue, Shaw suggests that coaches schedule practices on Sundays or coordinate rehearsals when their children are also practicing at the gym. And, of course, there is the issue of what athletes think about their parents becoming cheerleaders. “Some of the kids loved it, and some are embarrassed to death,” states Mizikar, who suspects that certain HotCheer parents enrolled on his team just to embarrass their kids.

Shaw has found that her Maryland Twisters kids have embraced their parents cheering so much that they’ve jumped at the chance to coach them: “The kids often stay around for the parent practices and you see them going, ‘Get tighter. Lift your legs up higher. Point your toes on your jumps!’ It’s really rewarding for them to see their parents learning the skills that they themselves have already mastered.”

-Nicole Pajer

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

Owner’s Manual: Tara Cain of Maryland Twisters

Owner’s Manual: Tara Cain of Maryland Twisters

In our “Owner’s Manual” column, we ask gym owners to take us “under the hood” and give us their secrets to what keeps their gyms running so smoothly. Find out how Tara Cain puts her own “twist” on attracting athletes below:

Vital Stats

Name: Tara Cain, Owner

Gym:  Maryland Twisters All-Stars, Inc.

Location:         Glen Burnie, MD

Founded:         1998

Size:                500+ athletes; approximately 26 teams (cheer, dance & special needs)

The Dish

As a business owner, I’m not just looking at filling up my teams—I’m also generating business for camps and classes. Unlike many all-star gyms, we welcome athletes from everywhere to participate in our classes, private lessons and/or camps. You do not have to be a Twister to benefit from our training. Professional, high school, recreation & other all-star athletes are a part of our training curriculum. We really want everyone in the cheer arena to feel we are the primary training facility in Maryland; so far, that has worked to our benefit. Some of our classes include stunt class, flyer flexibility, tumbling classes by level, trampoline class and open gym.

In previous years, before we grew so big, we focused on attracting new athletes with many creative plans. We would go to various fairs and places our audience would be and perform or set up a booth to generate awareness about all-star cheerleading. (Some people still don’t even know what it is here in Maryland.) We also provided a referral fee as an incentive during certain times of the year. At one time, we also had a direct mail piece to everyone who has ever walked in the doors—once around tryout season to promote tryouts and another at the beginning of the year to create awareness of summer camps. It was sent to anyone who has ever taken a class or attended at camp at Maryland Twisters. Those are the people you’re actually targeting, as they’ve already been to your gym and met the staff.

We have partnered with our county recreation programs to “train the trainers” on stunt technique, safety, and other types of cheer training. Some of those programs have also rented our floor space for their teams as they prepare for county competitions. We have explained to our rec friends that we are not a threat. All-Star isn’t for everyone—but cheerleading and gymnastics is. We would like to continue to strengthen our sport throughout Maryland with no attempt to recruit. Inevitably, a few of their more serious athletes may transition to our all-star program, but that is few. [We want] those coaches to know we are not doing it for our team gain; we are really there to help & be a resource to them as well.

In addition to our teams and class business, we also have developed a dance program that houses two competitive hip-hop teams. That has also extended our business into dance classes (tap, ballet, hip hop, jazz, etc). We are still growing that division, but it has certainly attracted kids who are not at all interested in cheer or gymnastics. It’s another great avenue for those all-star athletes who are ready to “retire” and transition into something less demanding.

We pride ourselves on NOT recruiting all-star athletes at other gyms during events or competitions. If a parent or athlete approaches us, that is one thing.  But we don’t proactively seek them out.

Creating a certain atmosphere for walk-ins can also be a good recruiting tool. We have three viewing areas for parents and articles written about us up in the lobby, along with a display of our Worlds trophies. The employees in the front office are trained to create the right first impression. Having the right staff in place will also attract families to not only feel welcome, but stay within our Twisters family for the long-term.