Change in the Air

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

Today's cheerleaders jump higher, run faster, and want to be called athletes. In response, many athletic directors are rethinking how they manage this activity.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

When Dave Haglund started planning the University of Maryland's 2003-04 media guides, he knew he was breaking new ground. "I'm pretty sure we can say that we have the first and only competitive cheer team media guide out there," says Haglund, Associate Athletic Director for Varsity Sports.

The guide is one of several perks the competitive cheer squad will enjoy following an unprecedented move by the school to grant it varsity sport status. Others include access to academic support, a competition schedule that grew from two to nine meets per year, and by 2005-06, 12 full athletic scholarships.

Maryland's new varsity sport made national headlines and stirred debate last summer, but there is evidence to suggest that it's actually part of a much larger trend. Changes in the nature of cheerleading, and in related activities such as dance, have administrators at both the high school and college levels rethinking their spirit programs.


In deciding to grant varsity sport status to competitive cheerleading, Haglund says the most convincing factor was the way in which cheerleading has evolved. "When we looked at what our squad does, they put in a tremendous amount of physical effort, just like our other sports do," Haglund says. "As an administrator watching them practice and compete, I came away convinced that cheerleading requires a great deal of athletic ability, just like any other sport."

At the University of Oklahoma, where the all-female squad placed third in the 2003 National Cheerleading Association Division I National Championships, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione is also seeing more and more parallels between cheer and the university's other sports. "Cheerleading has changed to the point where it does in fact require a high level of athletic skill, conditioning, and strength," he says. "Our cheerleaders spend as much time in the weight room as many of our other student-athletes do, and they have an on-site athletic trainer for all their practices."

Cheer and dance have become more athletic at the high school level as well. "You have to be a great athlete to do these activities," says Jim Lord, Executive Director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors. "In fact, at least half of the high school kids on cheerleading teams participate in another sport. I was at a competition recently and a high school coach pointed out a cheerleader and said, 'She's the state record holder in the 400 meters.' A lot of these girls are the top athletes at their schools."

Hand in hand with the increase in athleticism has come an increase in competitive focus. "When you said 'cheerleader' in the '70s, you were talking about people who stood on the sidelines and yelled for the team," Haglund says. "Even 10 years ago, there were only eight competitions around the country. Now, there are more than 100."

The new focus has even led to a new name: competitive cheer. "Some of the fundamentals of cheerleading are still there, but the new title clarifies the fact that we're a competitive sport in our own right," says Lura Fleece, Head Competitive Cheer Coach at the University of Maryland.

Since cheer and dance competitions haven't historically been offered by high school and college governing bodies, a host of companies have sprung up to offer regional and national meets. Among the largest organizations offering national competitions are the National Spirit Group, comprising the National Cheerleaders Association and the National Dance Alliance, and the Varsity Spirit Group, made up of the Universal Cheerleaders Association and the Universal Dance Association. UCA and UDA competitions are endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations. However, many smaller companies also offer competitions across the country, taking advantage of what has become a lucrative business opportunity. "If I named all the companies today, tomorrow there would be four new ones," Lord says.

Most schools that compete attend between one and four meets each year, starting with local or regional competitions and moving on to one of several national competitions if they succeed in qualifying. In addition to the meets offered by non-school organizations, a growing number of state high school associations are offering state tournaments, and Fleece foresees a time when colleges compete in conference meets. "It's not going to happen overnight, but I think we'll eventually see a competition within the ACC, and maybe even an NCAA national competition, just like in any other sport," she says.

As squads have begun to put more emphasis on competition, many schools are also providing them with more resources. While Oklahoma has no immediate plans to make cheer or dance varsity sports, it has steadily increased the support services the squads receive, bringing them more in line with those received by traditional sports.

"We provide far more than we would for a club sport," Castiglione says. "We pay for their travel expenses and their equipment, and we provide conditioning and sports medicine. It used to be that the coach was part-time and paid very little--they did it more as a hobby. Now, we hire a coach and pay them along the same lines as any of our other coaches."

Budgets are also growing at high schools. "We've reached the point where we fund our spirit squads at the same level we do any of our other sports, and we provide them will all the same benefits," says Reggie Glon, Athletic Director at Marian (Ind.) High School. "The coach receives the same pay as the tennis or track coach, and we fund their entry fees, travel, uniforms, and equipment."


As spirit squads have begun acting more like sports teams, many schools are asking whether they can be counted as sports under Title IX. In Maryland's case, it appears that the answer is yes. The university worked closely with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which has signaled that competitive cheerleading can be counted toward Title IX compliance, as long as certain criteria are met.

"The OCR doesn't come out and say, 'It counts under Title IX,'" Haglund says, "but given what we've done, they have said, 'It's likely that you meet the criteria.'"

The two criteria that required the most tweaking were making the sport limited to a set season and making its primary purpose competition. Maryland met the first by defining a season for competitive cheer, which historically practices and competes virtually year-round. "We set a season that mirrors our gymnastics season," Haglund says. "Practices start mid-October, and the competitive season goes from December to April."

The next goal was ensuring that the primary purpose of the sport was competition. Maryland did this, Haglund says, by creating two squads: a spirit squad that cheers at games, and a competitive squad that does nothing but compete.

Fleece likes how the squad spilt has turned out. "Expecting cheerleaders to both cheer on the sidelines and compete has become unrealistic," she says. "It would simply be overwhelming time-wise for them to do both. Now we have one focus--to get ready to compete. And they're improving at an unbelievable rate because we can concentrate on that."

Haglund believes other college administrators will follow the University of Maryland's lead, and has gotten calls from some seeking information. Other administrators, however, are not convinced.

"I'm not sure that having a competition-only squad would go over well at Oklahoma," Castiglione says. "If we aren't able to count what we do with the program we have now, it wouldn't really make any sense for us to add a different squad and another coach simply to count for Title IX compliance.

"Right now, we don't see the main purpose of our spirit squads as competing," he continues. "We understand that the opportunity to compete creates a source of pride and drives our squads to become better, but their main purpose is supporting and promoting our other teams."

At the high school level, many schools in Michigan count spirit activities under Title IX and have found creative ways to address the splitting of squads. "Each Michigan school makes a decision about how they want to handle the 'primarily competitive' requirement," says Suzanne Martin, Assistant Director at the Michigan High School Activities Association. "Some have two separate teams, and others have a very large team and choose on a weekly basis who cheers at games and who competes on Saturday."

Only one state association, the Minnesota High School League, sanctions competitive dance as a sport. Some Minnesota schools count their teams under Title IX, while others don't, according to MHSL Executive Director Kevin Merkle. "Schools that want to make sure they meet the Title IX test have gone so far as to say, 'Our competitive squad will absolutely not perform at all, they'll just compete,'" Merkle says.


Regardless of the Title IX discussion, some coaches and administrators question the wisdom of making cheer a sport. They say it's like trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

"We know we're a sport mentally and physically, but we actually fight the sport designation, because it doesn't work for us," says Marge Elvers, Head Cheerleading Coach at Broughton (N.C.) High School. "We can't be governed by the same rules as football and basketball--our activity is so different that trying to fit us into those rules changes the nature of what we do."

Elvers also wants her squad to continue to cheer at games. "As a coach, I love supporting our teams, and I love it when our cheerleaders step on the floor in our school colors and scream, 'Go Broughton!' The element of tradition and school spirit is an essential part of it," she says.

Adhering to a typical sport season is equally problematic, says Lord, as the usual two weeks of preseason practice are not long enough from a safety standpoint. "It doesn't allow enough time to teach athletes what they need to know," he says. "If you're practicing cheerleading and somebody makes a mistake, you're talking about somebody falling from the air and getting hurt."

In North Carolina, Elvers is facing a limited season for the first time, and she agrees that it's problematic. "We used to have tryouts and start practice for cheering football in the spring of the previous year," she says. "All of a sudden, we can't have tryouts until August 1, because that's when the other sports have them, and we have a game on August 24. This just isn't going to work. We need time to master these skills if we're going to know what we're doing and be safe."

In addition, coaches in states where cheer is considered a sport often have to adjust to limits on spending and travel, and can no longer attend national competitions. "Our district restricts the number of competitions we can travel to to five," she says. "The district next to us has no restrictions--they've already competed eight times this season."

In many cases, creating a competition-only squad in addition to the sideline squad also means hiring another coach to navigate out-of-season contact rules. "There is already a shortage of good coaches, and that doubles the need for coaches," Lord says. "It's one more way that calling cheer a sport means shoving it into a box where it doesn't fit."


Lord, for one, believes trying to achieve sport designation is a mistake, and would prefer to see a hybrid category of "athletic activity" created. As an athletic activity, Lord says, coaches and administrators would accept the spirit squad's supporting role, and concede that it probably won't be counted under Title IX. "In exchange for that, they wouldn't get the restrictions or baggage that comes with being a sport," he says.

For others, however, the solution lies in embracing regulation--working hard to run competitive cheer and dance more as athletics-based programs until they evolve to fit comfortably into the system. In Michigan, Martin says that is already happening.

"If coaches and administrators think back, they'll realize that this is very similar to the situation we faced when soccer became a school-based sport," she says. "Soccer existed on youth soccer fields in every community before it became an interscholastic sport, and operated by its own rules. And when you think about competitive cheer, it's existed everywhere nationally except as an interscholastic sport.

"In Michigan, we got in on it very early, and coaches have changed along with the program," she continues. "Ten years into it, we're able to hire coaches who grew up in our state-sponsored system, who wouldn't think of being anywhere other than the state tournament and who feel like it's only natural to have a set season.

"Now that cheer and dance have had another 10 years to become entrenched in the UCA or UDA system, states and schools that are just starting to regulate them are going to face bigger hurdles than Michigan did," Martin continues. "It's going to take some time to pull it under the school umbrella and for coaches to understand why it's important to have rules and regulations, why it makes sense to have uniformity."

Merkle believes the benefits of being regulated by the state association outweigh the negatives. In Minnesota, it's created consistency from school to school, encouraged administrators to support competitive dance, and fostered stand-alone, multi-school dance team competitions. Teams now can't compete outside the school-based system during the season, but that seems to be okay with coaches and parents.

"Schools that are involved in our program strictly dance in our program against our other schools, and they're very happy to do that, because it's a very big deal," Merkle says. "For our state meet, we have a two-day event with between 8,000 and 9,000 people each day, and it's a big deal for those who are involved. When we took over, there were around 90 schools involved, but we've grown to over 140."

State association involvement appears to be growing. North Carolina launched its first tournament in 2003 and Washington plans to host one within the next two years. "Many of our building administrators came to us and said, 'We would be much more comfortable if this program was driven by the state association, like our other programs,'" says Mike Colbrese, Executive Director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.

"Having competitive cheer as a state-sanctioned sport allows us to tell our athletic directors, 'Every regulation in your athletic handbook pertains to these cheerleaders, the same as it does for any other student-athlete," Martin says. "For many athletic administrators cheer is a program out there swimming around in a deep black hole that they don't know how to handle. They don't know what to say yes to and no to because it really isn't governed by anybody. But as soon as you put it on the map and categorize it, administrators will know how to deal with it. Clear-cut rules make sense to an administrator."

Regulating competitive cheer and dance is also good for student-athletes, Martin argues. "Having limits on seasons is healthy for athletes--they don't get burned out and they can do other things," she says. "Stopping the competition at the state level avoids the commercialism that takes advantage of youngsters and their parents' pocketbooks. It keeps the budget for these activities reasonable and keeps them in perspective. Bringing the activities under the school banner also allows student-athletes to experience the positives of an educational sports philosophy: That sports are for kids."


Whether or not an athletic department designates its competitive spirit program as a sport, managing the squad is a growing part of most athletic directors' job descriptions, and many find themselves facing challenges that didn't exist a decade ago. Athletic directors are often at odds with the desires of a coach and parents who are accustomed to the atmosphere of a club team. The key to managing this sport, they say, is communicating with the coach, educating yourself on the sport, and treating the cheer athletes as you treat other student-athletes.

"First, bring your coach in and tell him or her, 'Here's where I see you fitting into the program. Here's what I need from you. Now tell me what you need from me,'" advises Lord.

"You have to work hard at understanding your coach's point of view," says Merkle. "As an administrator, it's your job to see the big picture. Coaches may see it as their job to see a narrower picture--they're focused on their own sport. It's up to you to communicate the bigger picture in a way that brings them onto your side. Always make sure that when you're making decisions, you keep an open process and don't exclude people from the discussion."

"I have a great partnership with our athletic director, and that started with his approach when he hired me," Elvers says. "He said, 'Marge, no surprises. You come to me and let me know what's going on, and we'll work it out.' I've taken him up on that, and he's very open-minded and always ready and prepared to listen. If there is something that he doesn't agree with, we sit down and talk about it."

Another way an athletic director can promote good communication with the cheer and dance squad coaches is by educating him- or herself about the sport. "Athletic directors often don't have a good understanding of our sports, and that can make it hard," says Susan Putra, Head Competitive Dance Coach at Watertown (Wis.) High School. "One of the best things they can do is attend some practices and competitions and start to learn about the activity."

Many also suggest treating spirit squads as much as possible like the departments' other teams. "Establish standards just like you do for any other teams, and communicate them to coaches, student-athletes, and parents," Fleece says.

Glon agrees. "The key for us is treating cheer just like a sport, and the first step is treating the cheer coach just like any other coach," he says. "We pay them on par with our other coaches, and we give them just as much say. If we have a coaches' meeting, they are there."

Freeing up facility space for the program can also win a coach's trust. When Fleece's collegiate program became varsity, she says gaining gym time was the thing she appreciated the most. "Not always having to work around other sports really makes more difference than anything else," she says.

"When you're trying to balance the demands of a lot of teams, it's tempting to tell a coach, 'You can dance anywhere,'" says Glon. "But in reality, there are lines and spacing that become very important, so we try as much as possible to get our dance squad on the main court."

Making sure other sport coaches show respect for the spirit squad coach and student-athletes is also important. "Our athletic director makes it clear that nobody is any better than anybody else and no program is more important than another," Putra says. "He sets the expectation that you show respect for everybody. That has really helped the other coaches recognize this as a viable athletic activity."

A final step is to promote the squads in a positive way. "Get up during a basketball game when the squad is performing and announce, 'In addition to being here tonight, our cheer squad is working on their bid for a championship,'" Lord says. "When they're going to compete, post their schedule on the marquee, just like you would any other team's.

"One of the best things an athletic director can do," he continues, "is to get a big group of all the athletes who the team has cheered for all season out there yelling for the cheer team at one of their competitions."

"To promote appreciation for our dance squad on campus, we have the faculty do a dance routine at the end of the year, and the dance squad teaches it to them," Glon says. "We also include some of the starters on the football team or boys' basketball team, so that they can see how difficult the routines are."

Even seemingly small things can make a difference. "Last year, when both our dance and cheer squads qualified for state, our school provided T-shirts for all the girls that showed they were going to states," Putra says. "It showed that our administrators were making an effort to make us feel equal."



"The parents of dance team members," says Minnesota High School League Executive Director Kevin Merkle, "can be very challenging. I get more calls and e-mails from them after our state tournament than parents of any other sport, and I run football, boys' basketball, and baseball."

Merkle is not alone. Many athletic administrators find that parents of spirit squad activities call on their most expert management skills. Merkle points to the activities' evolution as a potential reason. "They grew up as club sports, where kids get very involved at a very young age," he says. "By the time they reach high school, parents have put in a lot of time, effort, and money, and they are used to being in charge."

Getting parents on board with the way interscholastic sports run, and what an appropriate level of involvement is, takes time. "It requires education," Merkle says. "It's your job to show parents the bigger picture and to let them know how things are going to be run. One of my messages to parents has always been to keep it all in perspective. I ask them, 'When your kid is 35, are you going to remember whether they won that dance team meet last Saturday? Probably not, but your kid may always remember how you as a parent acted when they won, or when they lost.'

"You have new parents coming in all the time and you have to re-educate constantly," he continues. "You feel like you've been through this before--and you have. But you need to go through it again because these parents haven't heard it."

The structure of tryouts can provide a way to get the parent-coach relationship off to a good start. Having a panel choose the squad, while common, may not be the best way to set the tone for parents to respect the coach.

"The baseball coach doesn't bring people in to judge. The baseball coach picks his own team," says Jim Lord, Executive Director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors. "Tell your cheer or dance coach, 'From now on, you're going to pick your team, and I'm going to back up your decision.' In places where that's the norm, there are far fewer parent problems. Otherwise, you start off giving parents the impression that your coaches don't know what they're doing and it's okay to question them."

"You have to make tough, fair decisions," says Marge Elvers, Head Cheerleading Coach at Broughton (N.C.) High school. "If you do, over time, your program's reputation will speak for itself, and the parents will lose the 'club sport' mentality. It just takes patience and consistency and a continual effort to treat the parents and student-athletes just like you do any other sport program."