By Laura McNicholas
Every year, one of my biggest challenges is those stereotypical “cheer moms.” Every year, the thing I dread most is the unnecessary drama and gossip that comes my way from athletes. For the first few years of my coaching career, I would avoid situations, make every attempt to “keep the peace” and even cave-in when I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Last year I took over a high school cheerleading program. This particular program had a lot of what I call “garbage.” I knew that if I didn’t change the ways I dealt with rumors, immaturity, hazing, and drama that I would crumble as a coach and my career would be over.
I explained to this group of students and parents that I had a zero tolerance for drama, gossip, rumors, bullying, etc. I explained that if it occurred I would not ignore it, I would confront them about it. I informed them “garbage” causes stress, which is an unneeded weight, not only on the athlete but on the coaches and parents as well. It’s negative and it hinders athletic performance and focus and ultimately corrupts the team. The hardest challenge was sticking to what I said and following through.
Every time I saw someone roll their eyes at practice or heard a complaint – I wrote their names down. At the end of practice my assistant coach and I would pull them aside. I was professional but stern, I explained their “garbage” was getting in the way of my program and its goals and they could change their attitude or they could leave the team. To my surprise a few did choose to leave on the spot.
It was a tedious task, every practice, confronting cheerleader after cheerleader, but we stuck to it. We had to; it was the only way we were going to rebuild this program. One of the biggest shocks of all was after the first few weeks of practice, and confronting almost 15 girls each week, we saw something. We saw the girls who we confronted started speaking up at practice. We saw them encouraging their teammates when they saw eyes rolled or heard a complaint. We heard things like “Hey, rolling your eyes isn’t going to help, we can do this, stick with us” or “we know this is hard, but a bad attitude is just going to make it worse.”
As the session continued, the “garbage” dramatically lessened. But we kept to our promise and followed through all season long. One down, two to go.
“Cheer Moms”… my favorite term. Don’t get me wrong, in my first season I had a lot of supportive parents, but I had a lot of parents who did not like the way I did things. The last thing a coach wants is tension with any parent, but unfortunately that “garbage” is there.
One of the things that I did at my parents meeting was excuse the cheerleaders from the room. I sat down with the parents and I said three very important words, I – AM – HUMAN. I told them I make mistakes, I told them I’m not perfect, I told them sometimes I do everything correctly and sometimes I mess up. I told them – “so do you.” I told them we didn’t need to agree with each other, but I respect parents and I ask that they respect me. I communicated as best as I could that their daughters would be treated fairly, that there were no favorites in my eyes. I told them the same thing I told their daughters, I will confront you if I need to.
I confronted a handful of parents this past season – some who lied so their child didn’t have to go to practice, some who told others that I was a bad coach and criticized my decisions. It was hard to do, but it needed to be done. I also politely refused to talk to parents who brought up issues their child should be bringing up. I explained that in order for relationships to be positive and grow I needed my athletes to communicate with me directly. Some days I wanted to cry, some days I wanted to bask in the glory of successful communication, some days I questioned my ways. But I can say with confidence that half way through my season, I had no more parent issues… none.
To my surprise, I had one more hurdle to overcome… my coaching staff. There is a fine line between venting and gossiping. I will be the first to admit, I cross that line sometimes. My coaching staff was completely new this year – with a damaged program I needed to start fresh. I found our vent sessions turning into mini soap operas loaded with gossip, and sometimes I was at the head of it all. It’s hard to coach a girls sport and avoid drama. It’s hard coaching girls to begin with. Venting is healthy, but it’s hard to stay objective. Once we put in each other’s heads a negative perception about an athlete or a parent, it was even harder to stay objective and treat everyone fairly. If I didn’t want “garbage” in my program, then I shouldn’t put it there myself. In my coaching binder I have a few helpful statements printed and taped inside the front cover: Encourage, Teach, Lead by Example, Wear One Hat, Admit Your Mistakes, Be Consistent, and Be a Positive Communicator.
It was by far a rough season and without a doubt I expect issues to arise each and every year. But the one thing that helped me the most is remembering that confrontation is not always a bad thing, and it doesn’t need to be a negative thing either. Confrontation can be a very good way of communication and assist in the ability to keep control of an athletic team.
About the Author: Laura McNicholas is the head coach at Emmaus (Pennsylvania) High School. She is going into her eighth year of coaching. She has worked with youth organizations, all-star teams, and college programs. She has 18 years of cheerleading experience, six years of judging experience, and has choreographed college cheerleading and dance team routines for the past three years.