You’ve Watched Cheer: Here’s What It’s Really Like to Be a Cheerleader

Lydia Spencer-Elliott

From Women's Health

Not since the 90s has a drama about cheerleaders captured the public consciousness quite like this. If you haven’t yet watched Cheer, the six-part Netflix docu-series follows the Navarro college cheerleaders from Corsicana, Texas, on their journey to the sport’s championships in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The documentary provides an intriguing insight into the small-town life in Texas. But this isn’t why their story has inspired and fascinated in equal measure.

The digital water cooler (Twitter) exploded with praise for the athletes who eschew exhaustion and terror through sheer resilience and dedication to hours and hours of relentless training.

But Cheer has also raised questions about mental health in competitive sport, the responsibility coaches have to the teenagers under their care and the ethics of a pressure-cooker world, where injuries are common and you’re only ever one mis-step away from defeat. So what’s life really like as a competitive cheerleader?

Is Cheerleading a Sport?

No doubt helped along by a string of pom-pom heavy dramas (Ready? OK!) cheerleading is now one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. An estimated 89,000 people now compete across the country at regional and national levels, with universities proving themselves to be fertile ground for growth.

The British Cheerleading Association (BCA) has doubled the length of its collegiate competition in order to accommodate everyone wishing to compete. And events are hosted all over the country by FutureCheer, The UK Cheerleading Association (UKCA), The International Cheerleading Coalition (ICC) and JAMfest, which originated in the US.

Thanks to the increasing globalisation of cheer, many teams are making their way stateside to compete, too, as Erin McDermott, from the British Cheerleading Association, explains. ‘Historically there have been one or two UK teams in the US championships, but now there’s at least 30 teams competing. That shows the level of athleticism that’s being reached.’

How Do Cheerleaders Train?

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire

Competitive cheerleading, unlike the side-line variety you’ll see at NFL half time shows, demands extreme athleticism of its athletes. It incorporates gymnastics, dance choreography, stunts, kicks and jumps in a high-power routine.

Training for competitive cheerleading burns hundreds of calories, builds core and upper body strength, encourages stronger bones, works a smorgasbord of muscles and improves stamina, strength and flexibility. Athletes in the UK generally practise twice a week alongside additional tumbling (gymnastic) classes and gym sessions.

In the gym, cheerleaders at the top of the pyramid (flyers) focus predominantly on core strength and flexibility, whereas bases and backstops (those doing the lifting) focus on strength, stamina and upper body strength.

Leg strength and flexibility is taken seriously by every member of the team, in order to get jump sequences as high and clean as possible. McDermott points out that some UK programmes have followed the US by incorporating running into training schedules to improve overall fitness, too.

Is Cheerleading Sexist?

Despite the popularity of UK competitive cheerleading, the sport still has a stigma attached to it. Back in 2014, when the sport began to take off in the UK, it was revealed that nearly 40% of UK schools offered cheerleading as a PE lesson. Cue media uproar.

Among the objections is the accusation that the sport is sexualising young women, via provocative moves performed in skimpy outfits.

This criticism is misplaced, says McDermott. ‘Generally, for school competitions, [cheerleaders] compete in shorts and t-shirts because of the expense of the uniforms. But where they do compete in [cheerleading outfits] it’s no different than a gymnast wearing a leotard. It enhances what you’re doing.’

McDermott also points that much of the criticism levelled at cheerleading is based on the assumption that it exacerbates existing gender roles within sport; the idea that girls are there in a decorative capacity, cheering on the boys.

‘The most common question we get asked is: “What team do you cheerlead for?”,’ she adds. ‘That’s where the divisiveness comes from: people think it’s not a sport, that you’re just on the side lines. But the reality is, we cheer in our own right.’

In fact, this kind of criticism says more about the way we perceive women’s sport more generally, argues sport and gender academic Dr Amy Pressland. ‘Women’s sports were often marginalised, infantilised or demeaned as decorative,’ she explains.

Along with her colleagues at the University of East Anglia, Dr Pressland explored the educational potential of mixed-sex sports, like cheerleading. The study, published in the journal Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics found that mixed-sex team membership can actually have a progressive influence on ideas around gender, as well the performances of the men and women who take part.

‘Cheerleading is perceived as a feminine sport,’ adds Dr Pressland. ‘But our research found that mixed sex cheerleading was actually a place where men and women could enjoy sport together.’

Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images

Is Cheerleading Dangerous?

Beyond accusations of sexism, another explanation for the lingering stigma can be found in the injury risk.

If you’ve watched Cheer, we suspect you’ve done so through your hands; there are moments of sheer panic, as athletes look like they’re about to fall or get punched in the face. In one training session, four athletes get concussed.

Falls are taken seriously by Monica Aldama, and the squad do punishment press-ups if a flyer hits the matt. There’s also a physio on-hand to check the team over after injuries, which are mostly concussions.

So how dangerous is this sport? Well, in the US, 65% of sports injuries defined as ‘catastrophic’ are due to cheerleading, making it the country’s most dangerous sport for women. And while cheerleading isn’t as popular in the UK as it is in the US, research suggests it’s no less dangerous.

In 2018, researchers from Leeds Beckett University explored the prevalence of injuries among 182 competitive cheerleaders during the 2016/2017 UK season. They reported an injury-rate of 73%, with injuries to the ankle, face and lower back the more frequently sustained.

Interestingly, the vast majority of injuries were sustained during training, leading the researchers to suggest that cheerleaders might be more aggressive during training than in competitions ‘in order to perfect routines’.

To keep competitors safe, training and performances are carried out on sprung matts. During stunts - the lifting section of the routine, when injuries are most commonly sustained - some school teams advise athletes to wear mouth guards and soft protective helmets.

But, adds McDermott, the rhythmic certainty of the routine makes the dangers more predictable, and therefore more preventable, than they are in other contact sports.

In rugby, you won’t know when someone is going to tackle you. But in cheerleading, everything is done to a count. You go over and over it until the whole group is aware of when you’re dipping and catching. We know when our flyers are in the air, so it’s a lot safer.’

Before competitions, coaches can also send videos of their team’s stunt sequences to the event providers to make sure they are safe and legal for the level that they’re competing at.

Photo credit: Wesley Hitt

Are There Any Other Risks?

Cheer has also raised questions about the emotional wellbeing of competitors, with many of the Navarro cheerleaders revealing poor mental health, family tragedies and childhood abuse.

Research confirms that mental health and physical health are intrinsically linked in high intensity sports, with many participants seeking solace in the all-consuming nature of sport.

For this reason, coaches are coming under increasing scrutiny for the pressure they place on vulnerable teenagers in their care. Monica Aldama, the Navarro squad coach, balances ferocious ambition and relentless perfectionism with genuine concern for her athlete’s welfare.

Her UK counterpart Tori Rubin coached the London-based Unity Allstars team to the same competitive level as Navarro. Alongside intensive training, two of her athletes are also full-time doctors.

‘The relationships we build are special because it’s so much pressure, and at such a high level,’ Rubin tells WH. ‘Making sure that they’re happy and strong mentally is so important. If you’re not making sure that that’s the case, then you’re not doing your job.’

The Unity Allstar teams are supported pastorally though a combination of journalling, positive affirmation sessions, regular visits from sports psychologists and support from abuse safe-guarding specialists from Sport Cheer UK, the governing body for cheerleading in England.

But, adds Rubin, it’s the job of the coach to cultivate an open dialogue with their squad, and look out for changes in behaviour. ‘[Coaches] are so involved in the lives of their squads. We’ve known them for years and years, so they speak to us about everything. You just know how to get them to open up to you.’

For all the risks, it’s the camaraderie that keeps cheerleaders showing up for the sport they love, says Molly, cheerleader for the University of Gloucestershire Dynamites. ‘Everything you do is for the team,’ she explains.

‘You’re airborne, soaring, falling, and you have to have complete faith that whoever is underneath you will catch you. That’s why cheerleaders are so close. That bond is unbreakable. It’s pure sportsmanship energy, and I don’t know any other sport like it.’

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