When Brandon Hale looks out at the practice mat at North Carolina-based Cheer Extreme Allstars, he wants to see athletes focused on tumbling, twisting and training—not distracted by drama. So when a trio of troublemakers threatened to take the focus away from what matters, Hale knew he couldn’t let it slide. “These girls just sat at the back of the mat, creating drama,” remembers Hale, who acts as head coach and head of choreography for the high-profile gym. One girl in particular “had a lot of insecurities and hung out with the wrong people on the team, who were more negative.”
Sound familiar? Whether it’s jealousy that erupts among team members, animosity causing a divide or lazy attitudes tainting the work ethic, bad attitudes can create a harmful ripple effect—and affect the team’s performance throughout the season. The good news is that it’s never too late to set the tone as a gym owner and/or coach and take action that will nip the negativity in the bud. Check out these strategies, which can turn such challenges into team-building opportunities:
Encourage positivity. Early in the season, Hale chooses a standout athlete to send home with a journal. He or she is free to add pictures, write messages and use feathers, glitter or stickers—whatever creative expression comes to mind. At the beginning of the next practice, the journal is shared with the rest of the team, and by the end of practice, the athlete who had the journal gets to choose which teammate takes the journal home next.
“They have to notice the greatness in each other,” Hale says.
Not only is the journal a light-hearted way to frame practice, but it also helps encourage team bonding as the kids open up with each other. “Even if they’re not being spoken about or spoken to,” Hale points out, “they hear what each other has to say.”
Consider the source. Puma Cheer owner Jennifer Uselton believes that issues arise as “a matter of respect—not getting respect, not giving respect.” She started her Texas-based gym after years of coaching high school cheer, and she believes strongly in treating even young children with the same respect owed to an adult. The takeaway? A child who feels respected is more likely to reflect that back in his or her attitude.
Another source of friction is the frustration that comes with learning a new skill. “It’s a learning curve more than an attitude,” Hale points out. “Kids can get upset when things aren’t working out for the first time.” Uselton agrees, and to combat that, she’ll often pair two athletes together whose skill sets complement each other in some way. For instance, a girl whose jumps are low but is a natural dancer might be partnered with a more flexible gymnast who hasn’t learned the dance moves yet. “I want them to learn to embrace both strengths and weaknesses,” Uselton says.
Often, an athlete’s attitude stems from forces outside the gym. Mandi Spina, program director of Fredericksburg, VA-based Cheer Fusion, emphasizes that this is especially true of more senior athletes: “They have much more active social lives than younger athletes, as well as heightened school activities.” For his part, Hale was surprised when the journal exercise worked just as well with older athletes as with the younger ones. “[They] actually seem to need it the most,” he says.
Hold kids accountable. At the end of the day, though coaches and parents can certainly influence a child, the biggest growth is always going to come from within. Spina prefers to circumvent direct parent involvement unless absolutely necessary, focusing instead on “team bonding activities, having captains (if applicable) speak to the athletes,” and emphasizing that “attitude is just as important as skill set on any team.”
Hale believes strongly in deputizing athletes to solve problems within the team. He’s created sub-groups based on the Fantastic Four, where natural leaders are “Mr. Fantastic,” while athletes who are silent but deadly fall into “The Invisible Woman” category. Finding a fun way to split a larger team into smaller groups can be incredibly helpful, particularly for attitude checks. “The ratio becomes 8-to-1 instead of 36-to-1,” Hale says.
Uselton has also found a unique way to ensure her team stays accountable—not only to each other, but also to themselves: “They put together a commitment contract with three things that they are going to do to personally to better themselves so that they could better their team.” Uselton uses commitment contracts with athletes as young as five years old, and has them sign their names and share their goals with the whole group.
Not only are athletes more motivated to work toward self-chosen goals, but those goals are helpful for coaches to monitor what their team is worried about or focused on. “I thought most of my kids were going to write things about tumbling or jumping or stunting,” Uselton says, “but many of them wrote about attitude adjustments.” Uselton promotes team togetherness online as well as in the gym by encouraging her girls to post their progress on their commitment contracts on Instagram and Twitter using a team hashtag. Kindness online is important to model, too, Uselton points out, especially in this era of social media.
It takes time, but the efforts are rarely wasted. “Dealing with athletes who have negative attitudes is a long process,” Spina says, but watching those athletes who’ve risen above help other athletes through the same type of behavior “makes the process worth every minute.”
Hale agrees. That girl he spoke about, the one who sat on the back of the mats creating drama? “She’s now about to graduate through the program,” Hale says, and he cites positivity and compassion as two of the biggest forces that turned her around. “We just had to show her that we do care about her,” he says, “and everything changed immediately.”
–Alicia Thompson Guy