Did Cheerleading Make Me A Better Person?
I was a cheerleader in high school, a phase of my life that feels so distant, I seldom think about it. Its (ostensibly) far removed from my current identity as a fiercely independent professional, self-defense instructor, intersectional feminist writer with a sailor-like vocabulary and a solitary disposition. Some might even say spinster.
Facebook reminds me about it— my high school squad is better than ever and wins state championships seemingly once a month. I see the tiny teenagers with big curls and smiles (and increasingly more guys!) and generally feel a little astonished that once upon a time, that was me.
But then Netflix came out with the docuseries Cheer, and Chrissy Teigen tweeted about it and my curiosity got the best of me. What I imagined would be a few hours of judging the sport (and myself for participating in it) turned out to be a complex reassessment of what cheerleading taught me. How it changed me. Because it wasn’t a small part of my life. Cheer brought me back like a time machine and reminded me of just how impactful it was.
By the time I was in 8th grade, I was a NY state champion gymnast. And I loved it. My best friends were two girls on my team and I basically lived and breathed gymnastics from age 10–14. I was practicing at least 12 hours a week at a gym 30 minutes from home. I remember a heather gray t-shirt I wore all the time that said “Gymnastics is life, the rest is just details”.
But at some point, the expense, conflicting school obligations, general inconvenience and my emerging hormones all became too much. So I “retired” from competitive gymnastics and when I entered high school, I was ready to figure out what was next. With my inclination for acrobatics and dance, the only appealing fall sport option was cheerleading, so that’s what I did.
I made varsity in my tiny Hudson Valley NY high school as one of two girls who could tumble. The other girl, Sarah, had trained at some of the same gyms over the past few years and she took me under her wing. She was two years older but we shared the same birth date and were neighbors, so I ended up spending most of my time with her and her popular friends. I liked being near popular kids, especially popular boys, but fast tracking to the activities of juniors made me skip some important steps, looking back now. It was a cheat to real maturity. I was tolerated because I was her friend, but with few exceptions, didn’t make any genuine friends in 9th grade.
When my parents divorced toward the end of the year and my mom asked if I wanted to move to West Virginia with her, I agreed. In part because of the big transition in my life out of gymnastics, and in part because I didn’t really fit in with the kids I was hanging out with, I felt lonely and invisible. That was one of the things that struck me about the show on Netflix. Behind the gleaming smiles, so many cheerleaders have this backdrop of loneliness.
My New York high school cheering squad was more about spirit than skills. There was really nothing technical required to make the team, so we were a personality-filled yet varied squad in terms of our body shapes and sizes. I got to be a “flyer” in 9th grade, at the tops of the stunts and flying up in the basket tosses. Since I no longer flew through the air at gymnastics, I really loved this. The girls were vivacious, and it was a lot of fun, but there was no glory for us in competitions. We were definitely more of a group activity than a sport at this point.
My West Virginia high school was a different story.
West Virginia in general takes cheerleading very seriously, with feeder programs in every elementary and middle school, clinics for the varsity and JV cheerleaders, and cheer camp intensives in the summer. My new high school, Wheeling Park, was one of the best in the state. To make varsity, you had to have an arsenal of tumbling skills: standing back tuck, standing back-handspring tuck, round-off back-handspring tuck and round-off tuck. All done on a hardwood gym floor. I could do everything except a standing tuck and went from being the best tumbler on my NY team to barely qualifying.
I trained for months to get the skill. I remember giant, throbbing welts on my knees where I would fall on the gym floor trying it over and over and over. All while being “the new girl”, figuring out this unfamiliar sort-of-southern culture and trying to shape a new identity that would get me the social acceptance I so deeply wanted.
By my Junior year, I was fully immersed in the cheering world at Park. We trained for two serious competitions per year and spent most of our time together during the seasons. There were long practices after school, Friday night football games in the fall and what felt like a thousand basketball games in the winter. I have never been into “ball sports”, and cheerleading didn’t change that. I remember telling people that I did it for the competitions and athleticism rather than the “cheering for the boys” part (what can I say, I’ve always had feminist ideas).
I liked that cheering at Park required demanding physical skills. I was proud of that. It definitely pushed me to improve and stay physically conditioned. Our team was small in body size due to the rigorous tumbling requirement, and I became a base in our group stunts. Twisting up, twisting down. Scorpions. Needles. One-foot holds. We were catapulting our flyers all over the place, awkward teenage girls holding awkward teenage girls all while pretending we were ladylike, carefree and happy. The goal in cheerleading looks like perfection — perfect form, perfect timing, perfect balance, perfect smiles.
Perfection only comes, if ever, after a relentless period of pain and mistakes. And there were so many mistakes. So many falls. So many injuries. Especially leading up to competitions, when we start the “full outs”, there were black eyes, sprained ankles, torn ACLs, sprained wrists. I remember hearing the athletic trainers say there were more injuries per person in cheerleading than any other sport they worked with. I believed it. In practice, we looked like a ratchet bunch — messy overdyed hair, bruises, athletic tape everywhere, splotchy skin, bloodshot eyes. Game days and competition meant zipping ourselves into stiff uniforms, applying full-coverage foundation, layers of mascara, and cans of hairspray. I hated brushing my hair after.
I liked the attitude of cheerleading, that feisty “I’m the shit” energy we acted out during our well-practiced cheers and routines. But it often didn’t feel authentic in the moment. Spending so much time together, we had all kinds of interpersonal conflicts. There were also family and boyfriend and school crises to navigate. We weren’t the reason most people came to games and spectators often regarded us with a thinly veiled annoyance, if they noticed us at all. The male players we shook our poms for were the “real” stars and didn’t have to pay us any attention or come to our competitions. The perception of other students was generally that we were ditzy and shallow. Never mind we could literally flip in circles around them and were some of the funniest (and smartest) people I knew. We had to act like we were unfazed while being treated pretty poorly by most people around us or having some very real shit going on within.
Nowadays, I appreciate that training to present my best without outside credit or recognition. It’s not easy to generate energy from within, but it’s an advantage in life, and that’s definitely something I learned as a cheerleader. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I can have high expectations for myself but also for others. I had to unlearn the tendency to pretend everything is okay and become willing to hold people accountable. I had to learn to set boundaries firmly, without an ever-present smile. It’s not my job to put everyone at ease, and that can be a hard act to drop after cheering.
The people cheerleading attracts are often very talented, very ambitious and very insecure or prone to anxiety. Those who can harness that talent and manage their psyches go on to be extraordinarily successful. My best friend from the team, who I’m still close with 20 years later, is a director for a growing national company. She’s made it through I don’t even remember how many acquisitions with promotions while colleagues were laid off. She is tough as nails and works her ass off yet makes everything look effortless. Another cheering friend is an attorney for Tesla who advises Elon Musk on the SpaceX program. There are more than a few doctors, and the ones who became “stay-at-home” moms are those supermom types whose kids are involved in every activity.
Much like the hospitality professionals I now work with, cheerleaders are often presenting ease and grace while doing a lot, a LOT, of work on the back end. It’s skillfully out of sight from the casual observer, but trust me, it’s there.
When I look back on it, I still struggle with the gender performance and the manufactured smiles and the degrading outsider perspective, but I honestly can’t imagine choosing something else. It’s the most widespread option for kids who like to dance or flip, who have personality to spare, or want to cultivate that inside of steel and the outside of sparkle. Few other sports require having to control your facial expression while performing to the max of your capabilities. Few other sports have the absurdly high level of expectation for such minimal cachet. But cheerleading does.
At its finest, cheering is a boot-camp for bringing your A-game no matter what the occasion, practicing the discipline to be able to do your best, and learning to collaborate with some very strong personalities. I don’t always agree with my teammates from back then, but I genuinely respect them as people.
I haven’t always embodied the greatest skills cheer taught me. I had to have my phases of being messy and selfish and critical, but I’m grateful I had the lessons to incorporate more holistically when I was ready.
To me, that means being highly disciplined and emotionally honest. To have a positive outlook and welcome the whole range of emotions. To embrace the work involved in high performance, that grit, and make room for imperfection and rest. To invest in building relationships with other high performers and to expand the definition of what that looks like.
They did an amazing job conveying the expectations, teamwork and adrenaline of competitive cheering on the Netflix show. And I’m glad it prompted me to reexamine the sport’s role in my life.
The more I reflect on it, cheering gave me a powerful foundation for the practices that yield success in my own life. It gave me some incredible lifelong friends. And it gave me an opportunity to be an integral part of a dynamic, award-winning squad.
I didn’t think that deeply about it at the time, but I can now. I’m genuinely grateful I was a cheerleader.
That’s worth smiling about.