Cheerleading: competitive sport or not

When most people think of cheerleading, a certain image comes to mind. They think of skinny blonde girls, pom-poms and dancing on the sidelines at a football game. A cheerleader’s purpose is to amp up the crowd and motivate their team to win; they are the backbone of the teams they cheer on, holding them up when they are slipping, but they are not meant to be the center of attention. And while that may have been where cheer started, it’s sure come a hell of a long way since then.

For me, the term cheerleading draws a strikingly different image: one of teamwork, gravity-defying movements and adrenaline pumping through your veins as you push your body to the absolute limit. I spent six years of my life as a competitive cheerleader and I can certainly tell you it’s nothing like what you see in the movies.

While cheerleading may have started on the sidelines (and this form of cheerleading is still alive and well), it has grown into its own competitive sport. Competitive cheerleading typically falls into two categories: Varsity cheer, which is competitive cheerleading at a post-secondary level, and all-star or ‘club’ cheer where athletes of varying ages and levels form teams and compete across the country and, if they’re lucky, internationally.

Over the years, cheerleading has developed into one of most complex sports out there and it only continues to evolve and push its competitors to new heights each year. Cheerleading combines some of the most difficult elements of gymnastics, dance and acrobatics to create a 2 minute and 30 second routine that displays each competitors peak athletic abilities and their collective ability to work cohesively as a team.

“I think that the most unique feature of cheerleading is the teamwork that’s required in order to be successful with it,” said Tony Bentley, all-star cheerleading coach and judge. “Any team sport will teach you teamwork to a certain extent, but my personal feeling is that the nature of what we do – we’re literally lifting other people up in the air, we’re throwing them around, we’re doing very complex choreographed sequences of pyramids and stunts – that sort of thing takes a whole other level of trust, a whole other level of commitment to each other.”

The lack of accurate portrayal of cheerleading in the media is exactly why Netflix’s Cheer is such a monumental series.

Cheer is a Netflix original series centred around the experiences of the athletes and coaches of the Navarro Junior College cheer team, which is widely considered to be the best of the best in United States college-level cheerleading. We see the trials and tribulations the team and its individual members face in pursuit of the first-place trophy at the NCA College Nationals in Daytona Beach, as well as the challenges they overcame in order to get to where they are now.

Until Cheer, there were hardly any shows or movies in the mainstream media which showed cheerleaders as actual athletes. Sure, there are films like Bring It On (and don’t get me wrong, I am a DIEHARD fan) which scratch the surface on a physical level, showing some stunts and tumbling here and there, but focusing primarily on other story arcs. But Cheer looks at cheerleading and its top-tier athletes in a way like never before.

Cheerleading has been named the most dangerous sport for female athletes and it is easy to see why. According to Jennifer Martins, the athletic therapist for Laurier’s varsity cheerleading team, the most common injury she sees among the team are concussions and when gearing up for a competition, there can be some form for injury happening almost every practice. Cheer viewers see the intense and uncensored physical trauma these athletes put their bodies through in order to be the best.

They train until their bodies are battered and bruised and well past the point of exhaustion, and most of the time, they continue past these points because that’s the name of the game. You give up and you may lose your opportunity to compete or you may feel like you’re letting your team down.

And the physical aspect is only half of it. The mental fatigue can be just as, if not more, intense. You push yourself over and over, trying to hit that stunt, nail that tumbling pass and sometimes, despite how hard you may be trying, you just can’t. Whether it’s a lack of confidence or a mental block, your brain can be your worst enemy on the mat. There were many times in my career that I left the gym crying and never wanting to go back. Fear of letting your team down, fear of not being able to do a skill correctly or fear of getting hurt are all perfectly reasonable, but they will be your worst enemy as a cheerleader. By letting doubt creep in, you are sabotaging your potential and stifling your own abilities. And that’s what’s so scary.

What Cheer presents to its audience is the good, the bad and the ugly. We see times where stunts go wrong and people injury themselves so severely that they can no longer compete, people who have committed themselves to the sport for years and are now able to continue. But we also see how this group of imperfect people have come together to become a community that supports and encourages one another through thick and thin.

But while Cheer does a lot right, it unfortunately does not “hit zero.” While the show does a good job of showing that cheerleaders are a diverse group of individuals, it does reinforce some stereotypes about the sport.

“I think it reinforced some stereotypes that we have been trying to escape as a sport for a long time,” Bentley said. “There’s a stereotype about cheerleading that it’s full of ditsy girls and gay guys…and that’s not all that’s in our sport.”

The stereotype that all men who participate in cheerleading are homosexual is one that has followed the sport since its inception, often resulting in homophobic bullying towards men who chose to participate in cheerleading, no matter their sexuality.

This can serve as a roadblock for many men to join cheerleading, whether it is someone who has not openly come out yet, someone who simply fears the (often harsh) judgement of others or someone who believes they cannot participate in the sport because of their sexuality.

Another stereotype surrounding cheerleading is that, if you’re a female, you must be skinny in order to be a successful cheerleader.

“I think they kind of zeroed in on the fact that the girls were really light and that they were monitoring their weight,” Bentley said. “I thought that was kind of unfortunate.”

Bentley is referring to scenes in the series in which the athletes, primarily the flyers or “top girls,” are seen weighing themselves, with one girl clocking in below 100 lbs. The girls are shown to be nervous for the weigh-in, implying they are concerned about their current weight and whether it will be low enough.

“One could argue that it was implied that you have to be small and underweight to be a cheerleader if you’re a female, which is not the case, like in the least,” said Bentley. “What they didn’t portray is that there is a large section of cheerleading that is very accommodating of women of all body types.” Cheer’s portrayal of the sport is gritty and honest to a fault, but it is important to remember that this particular show is not representative of cheerleading as a whole. The show portrays cheerleading at the highest and most intense level; and many of the events and practices taking place in the Navarro gym are not consistent with the practices of other varsity or all-star cheerleaders.

In Cheer we see many athletes, particularly flyers, who push themselves past injuries and ignore the advice of medical professionals in order to compete. While this may happen occasionally in any sport, it is the exception, not the rule.

Coaches and athletic therapists alike take injuries very seriously and in most cases, athletes are not permitted back on the mat until they have the green light from a trained professional. Never in my experience as a cheerleader would an athlete who had been told continuing to practice could lead to fractured ribs and a punctured lung be allowed on the mat.

“Any head injuries, we remove them from all physical activity and deal with the symptoms accordingly. No physical activity until we kind of manage everything and then we start a gradual return to play,” Martins said.

Practising or competing with an injury of any kind is never a good idea and can have detrimental effects in the short and long-term. Displaying athletes training through injuries and framing it as perseverance or devotion to the team is a slippery slope, and it could give other young and impressionable athletes the wrong idea about what is required of you as a member of a team.

The essence of the show is that cheerleading can and will push people to extremes – both good and bad. At times, it can make you hate it so much you want to give it up on the spot. But at other times, when you hit a perfect routine or you nail a new stunt, it can be pure bliss. And like many other sports, that is the nature of cheerleading – finding the balance between the two extremes, using your frustration to propel you forward rather than hold you back and developing confidence that allows you to soar.

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