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What actually is cheerleading?

Most people’s image of cheerleading is based on American high school movies. But, the truth is that things have evolved a long way from this. Competitive cheerleading is a highly athletic discipline which incorporates power tumbling, synchronised jumping skills and group stunting, with elements of dance and choreography too.

In my opinion, cheer is the ultimate team sport. You’re not just relying on others to communicate, pass a ball at the right moment or be in the right space on a field; you’re depending on team mates to physically work with you in perfect synchronisation to lift another human high in the air. Yes there’s risks - but they are no greater than those seen in other sports, and that’s what makes it so thrilling to perform and exciting to watch. Cheerleading has taken great strides to implement strict safety rules and there is nothing better as a team than to receive a ‘hit zero’ accolade: meaning you performed a perfect routine with no mistakes or falls (which are heavily deducted to discourage unstable or unsafe skills being performed).

But doesn’t cheerleading use Pom Poms?

Not really. In cheer, Poms are typically only used for sideline style chants by recreational cheer teams at sports games. They don’t make any appearance in all-star competition routines which focus on athletic stunting and tumbling. The exception is in the National Team divisions at the ICU World Championships. Teams here are required to perform a short cheer portion which engages the crowd and represents national pride. Poms are sometimes used for a few moments in this section of the routine to emphasise the chant. They tend to be oversized with bold metallic colours. Megaphones and printed signs are often used to the same effect. Most counties use the same chant every year and joining in with them is one of my favourite things at Worlds! CHI-CHI-CHI. LE-LE-LE. LETS GO CHILE!

So what actually is cheerleading? Don’t you just cheer for other sports?

Competitive cheer is a discipline in its own right where teams train and compete against each other, being scored on execution, difficulty and creativity of their routines. National competitions in the US, Australia and the UK can host over 10,000 competitors + 15,000 spectators at huge arenas with multiple halls of competition running flat-out over 3 days.

Teams train to compete within organised difficulty levels for safety and fairer competition. Coaches choose a level based on the team’s skills. Beginners start at level 1 where tumble skills include walkovers and round-offs, with stunts only allowed up to shoulder level. The World Championships include teams performing skills at levels 6 and 7. This includes building structures up to 3 people tall, tumbling with double twists and powerful basket tosses executing multiple shapes in the air. Just like at dance comps, the music is fast and the uniforms are often blinged-out, but trainers are worn throughout routines which are performed on a 12x12 matted surface.

A cheer routine has 6 main components:

· Standing and running tumbling, which are scored separately by the judges.

· Group or partner stunting: All girl cheer divisions typically use 3 bases and one top girl or ‘flyer’ to execute a series of lifts or ‘stunts’. Stunts can be performed on one leg, holding a position such as an arabesque, or with 2 feet in the bases’ hands. Stunt sequences involve dynamic transitions where the flyer may flip, twist or change bases to get to the next stunt. Co-Ed routines with males also include stunts such as a ‘cupie’ with just one base and a flyer.

· Synchronised jump sequences are a compulsory element.

· Pyramids are stunt sequences where the flyers are connected side by side in the air. This is usually done by linking arms and doesn’t have to be multiple flyers stacked on top of another (until level 7).

· Basket tosses are where the bases throw the flyer up into the air, fully releasing them to execute twists, kicks or flips. These aren’t allowed in level 1 cheer.

· Routines typically finish with a short dance section, around 4 counts of 8 in duration. There will also be transitional choreography and cheer motions used throughout the routine to make everything appear seamless and maintain the flow.

Due to the fact cheer involves these diverse components, it goes without saying that high levels of physical fitness are required. Not only aerobic fitness to jump, tumble and dance, but also well-conditioned full body strength to create explosive power when hitting stunts. Core control is fundamental to stunting work and to tumbling. Doing well in cheer usually involves being good friends with the plank position!

Whilst training cheerleading is truly a full body workout, it also involves incredible teamwork. Everyone in a stunt group must be in sync and working together for stunts to hit cleanly. Strong communication skills are required and self-awareness is key to adjusting your own movements to match each other. As a member of a stunt group you get a great sense of belonging, and the interdependence with your team is a great self-esteem booster.

I asked some of my Instagram followers what they had gained from allstar cheer or dance and was flooded with positive responses. Some of the answers included:

· The best family I could ever ask for.

· Opportunities to grow in ways I didn’t know were possible.

· To always give 100% commitment.

· I went from a scared 10 year old who was bullied to a confident teenager, and this attitude has stuck.

· Confidence, learning to trust the process.

· Resilience, persistence, humility.

· The best friends for life.

· Confidence and discipline.

Every response was about personal growth, learning to embrace challenge and loving the relationships they had formed. Most of my personal best friends I’ve been lucky to meet through cheerleading or dance. Working so closely in a stunt team really builds a special bond of trust and teaches young people the importance of seeing things through.

So who can be a cheerleader?

Gone are the days when cheerleaders were the popular, skinny blondes strutting down the school corridors. The truth actually couldn’t be further from this. Cheerleading is easily the most diverse and inclusive sport you’ll encounter. It provides a safe space for anyone to be themselves. Not everyone on a team has to be the star tumbler or the strongest base: there’s a role for absolutely everyone. For example, tall people make amazing back bases; long arms? Great! Come on in! Crop tops aren’t compulsory so there’s no need for anyone to feel self-conscious about their body shape. Muscular physique or powerful legs? Brilliant for basing! Don’t want to wear glittery stage make up? Fine. You do want to wear glitter and false eyelashes? Also fine!

I guarantee that no matter your skills or ability level, there will be an ideal role in a cheerleading team for you. Cheerleading remains the fastest growing sport for adolescent girls - an age group that can typically struggle to find their place to ‘fit in’ and may avoid exercise. Cheer provides an avenue to look glam and train like a beast at the same time. There’s also huge uptake from males in the sport, thanks in part to some great role models in recent years resetting old stereotypes.

Unlike some sports you don’t need to start training as a child prodigy, and you don’t need any specialist equipment - just a stunt group and safety mats! There’s even non-tumbling divisions now to help athletes stay in the sport longer, and my personal favourite to watch is both the paracheer and the special needs divisions too. I love the variation in style seen in the national teams from around the world and the innovation every year seen on the competition floor, right from grass roots level up to Worlds. British teams can qualify to attend the international Summit championship which showcases the best level 1-4 international teams.

And whilst the stereotype of cheerleading is of being Americanised, many other countries around the World are ‘holding their own’ and playing significant roles in driving cheer forwards as a sport. England are current Co-ed World Champions, and we also have many top 10 ranked club teams at the all-star IASF world championships too.

With cheerleading now provisionally accepted as an Olympic sport, it provides an amazing pathway for young people into high level international competition opportunities. The beginners joining cheer classes today could be the Olympians of future years. We want young people to have high aspirations for themselves and (more so than in some other sports), cheer provides those accessible pathways to elite level opportunities.

Team England Coed 2019 ICU World Champions

Rising Stars (Cheshire) placed 3rd in the All-Girl International division at 2019 Worlds

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