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Sport or Not? Cheerleaders face perception issues, IHSAA restrictions

Cheerleaders cheer for the student section at the Homecoming game. Carmel beat North Central at the Homecoming game. Ashlyn Neuhoff, JV cheerleader and sophomore said, “It just depends (on your perspective of cheerleading) because we do compete in (competitions). School cheer can be looked at both ways, but competitive cheer is definitely a sport.” (Maggie Meyer)

The last bell rings. It’s Friday. That can only mean one thing to school-spirited students: Friday night football. Students often think about the football players, the food, the lights, and even the rival team’s roster.

For Ava Cole, junior varsity cheerleader and sophomore, game days are packed with activities for her and her cheerleading squad, she said they are always busy chanting and supporting the Greyhounds. 

“An average game would start off with kickoff and then we stand on the standlines and do many cheers and chants to get the crowd involved,” she said. “During our quarters, we perform cheer, stunts and tumbling. We cheer for all four quarters, kickoff and at the end.”

Cole is one of the many high school students nationwide on a cheerleading squad. According to Statista, as of 2017 there are 3.82 million cheerleaders in the United States alone, aged 6 and up. While there is interest in this activity, there has been some debate on whether cheerleading should be considered a sport. A recent poll conducted through the Society for the Study of Social Problems found that 60% of people said they thought cheerleading was a sport, while 35% said they did not.

Despite that debate, Brooke Kibler, competition cheerleading head coach, said at this school the athletic department is extremely supportive of cheerleading. 

“(The staff) doesn’t see cheerleaders as girls who are annoying and (wear) short skirts and just shake their (pompoms), especially the coaches that see us (practice),” she said. “(The cheerleaders) are athletes. They are student athletes. They work really hard and Carmel recognizes cheerleading as a sport at this high school.”

Moreover, Ashlyn Neuhoff, JV cheerleader and sophomore, differentiates school cheer from competitive cheer. 

“It just depends (on your perspective of cheerleading) because we do compete in (competitions),” she said. School cheer can be looked at both ways, but competitive cheer is definitely a sport.”

Cole said she has a similar view as Neuhoff regarding the validity of calling cheerleading a sport. 

“It depends (on the type of cheerleading),” she said. “I don’t think game-day cheer is a sport, but I definitely think that if you’re a competitive cheerleader (it should be considered a sport) because you do compete against other teams. So it depends on the aspect you look at it (because) during game day or sideline cheerleading, you’re not really competing against another team, but you’re more performing. If you’re doing a (competition routine), you are going up against other cheerleaders who are also performing (competition routines), so it’s definitely more competitive.”

Kibler said even though at this school cheerleading is recognized and treated as a sport, there are additional requirements reinstated by the IHSAA that don’t permit cheerleading to be an official high school sport. 

“(Cheerleading) is not recognized as a sport in the state of Indiana which I’m OK with because (otherwise) there would be a whole bunch of rules and regulations imposed on us,” she said. “And a lot of our girls who do (AllStar cheerleading) would not be able to do school (cheerleading) if (it was considered a sport in Indiana). (The girls wouldn’t be able to do both), so I like that the girls can (be a part of both teams).”

IHSAA recognition or not, Neuhoff said it takes a lot of repetition and practice to nail a routine. 

  “We start by warming up kicks,” she said. “Then, we either do jumps and warm up or we do tumbling and warm up. We then go into stunts, warm that up and then we (practice) our routines for nationals after that.”

To add on, Cole said apart from practices during school months, countless hours of preparation go into play before the football season begins. 

“We started practices in May and we practiced three times a week to get ready for games. We also go to many camps over the summer to get us prepared (for the season),” Cole said. “I guess people think of cheerleaders a lot as just shaking our poms and smiling, but a lot more goes into it as we practice a lot to make sure we’re game day ready and our stunts are going to hit. It’s a lot about perfection.”

Kibler said throughout the summer, not only do the cheerleaders prepare for sideline cheer, but the varsity team also lays the groundwork for their competition season. 

“The varsity team, the team that (people) see on the sidelines, is the team that obviously cheers at all the football games,” Kibler said. “And then a select number of (cheerleaders) that are on the sidelines are chosen for the competition mat. So, based on the state of Indiana and the score sheets, we have to create stunt groups (that incorporate different skills), a routine with tumbling and all the other skills and elements based on the score sheets. So, some of the athletes have what it takes to be on the sideline, but they still need to work on some skills to be on the competition mat.”

According to Nuehoff, sometimes cheerleaders face stereotypes, but she said she doesn’t mind them as she would rather focus on supporting the Greyhounds. 

“I mean there’s always the ‘cheerleaders suck’ stereotype, but I like being a cheerleader. I think it’s fun, and I like supporting the Greyhounds,” she said. “I don’t really care (about stereotypes). I enjoy being a Carmel cheerleader.”

Cole said she shared Neuhoff’s view. Despite the stereotypes, they both said they enjoy the atmosphere of being on the field and supporting their school.

“When we perform at games, we try to get the crowd involved and just show (them)  that we’re more than just shaking our pompoms. We tumble, we stunt, and do cool things,” Cole said. “I feel like we know we’re more than the stereotypes, so we just give it our best and then (hopefully, others will see it too).”

Ultimately, Kibler said the cheerleaders’ job at the games is to cheer on the teams and try to get the crowd involved as well.

“At football games you see what a football player has worked really, really hard for because they’re out on the field,” she said. “It would be amazing if we had more student involvement and participation going to the (cheerleading) competitions. We do have (one competition) here that we are hosting on October 7th, so people can actually come and watch what we do, because it’s definitely a lot harder than what you see on the sidelines. So, I don’t think (cheerleaders are underappreciated), but maybe under-recognized.”

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