Lift Each Other Up

Cheer Warm Ups

I was recently at a national cheerleading competition, a fascinating sports event that I could probably write an entire book about it. The competition is extremely fierce but also surprisingly supportive. All of the teams there are the best of the best, competing for a national title, yet backstage and during warm ups, the teams are sharing mats, cheering for each other, and even doing cheer warm up games together. When it is a team’s turn to go on stage they are showered with “good luck” from cheerleaders and teams they had never met or heard of before. Although they are all competing for the same trophy, there was a collective feel of we are all in this together and we are the only ones who really understand the difficulty of the sport. 

While the positivity backstage is heartwarming, I also noticed something that concerned me. I was standing with my team on the outdoor warm up mats. They were all dressed to match perfectly in our school colors with big glittery bows adorning their high ponytails. The team looked beautiful and was having a strong warm up session on the mats, but then another team walked out and our group immediately lost focus. I watched their body language change from confident and shoulders back, to crossed arms and slouched shoulders. 

The other team was dressed in their team colors as well and the same practice shorts our team had, but they were wearing barely-there tank tops that said their school’s name. Every girl on the team looked identical from the shoes, to hair color, and bow. 

The talk on our team went from supportive to gossipy and critical in a matter of seconds.

“Do you see their abs?”

“They all fake tan, you can tell”

“They are all perfectly blonde.”

“I bet their team is really good.”

I was listening to our team from afar, and I was surprised at how quickly our team went from confident to fearful, comparing, and tearing other athletes down who had not done a single skill yet on the mat. From what I could hear, our team assumed the other team was good because they fit into the unreasonable beauty standards teen girls have learned while growing up. If the other team had meant to be intimidating just by walking around in their practice uniforms, it was a great strategy by their coach. They definitely had my team focused on everything but their own performance. 

While we waited for our next turn on the warm up mats, I thought about how I could redirect my team’s thinking. I wanted them to realize it wasn’t helpful to judge and cut down another team because of their physical appearance. Cheerleading is literally about lifting other women up while stunting. I wanted them to learn to apply this on and off the mat. 

“Hey ladies, let’s focus on ourselves and our team. The team over there has worked just as hard as you to qualify for Nationals. Let’s commend them for their skills and not comment on their looks. I know you want to be judged on your jumps and stunts, so let’s give them the same courtesy.” 

My team didn’t love it when I said this, but they did turn around, changed the subject, and regrouped. 

This brings up a larger conversation that we should have with teen girls. When on TV, the news, sports, whatever it is, historically, a woman’s appearance is referenced more often than her contributions, strength, or intelligence. We need to point this out to teen girls so we can start changing the narrative together. 

Also, we are in a place in society where it is easier to say “look at her big legs” as a critique of women, instead of “look at her legs, they are so powerful, that is why she is good at her sport/job.” I would love to take this one step further and have people say “wow, she is so fast, that is awesome.” Adults must model for teens how to not reference physical appearance when commenting on someone’s performance, especially a woman’s. There is no need to comment on anyone’s body. All bodies are good and powerful bodies.

As a coach for high school girls, I am aware that what I do and say matters. For the rest of the trip, I was conscious about the things that I said when talking about other teams. This is incredibly difficult in a sport where aesthetics are included in the scoring, and I am not perfect at it. I tried my best to emphasize the hard work, skill sets, and fun when talking to our team. I did my best to say things like “Wow, that team worked really hard” or “their tumbling skills are really impressive.”

“You did such a great job, did you have fun?” I asked a freshman when she came off the mat for the first time in her competitive cheerleading career.

She looked at me and cocked her head a bit, thinking, and then smiled.

“It was so much fun, Coach! I can’t wait to do it again.”

Then she scurried away to excitedly bounce around with her teammates who were celebrating.  

My hope is that she remembers the fun of competing successfully with her team and this grows her confidence. The bows, make up, practice uniforms, and words and opinions of others are just extra. Personal growth, avoiding comparison, and supporting teammates is what matters. Let’s remind teens to lift each other as they rise whenever they can.

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