Almost as one, the squad held their breath. Their eyes were fixed on a Jenga tower, perilously placed and swaying back and forth slowly. If their teammate could pull out a piece and successfully replace it, they’d only have to do whichever exercise was written on it. But if she were to knock the tower over, it would mean an automatic full-out of the whole routine for them all. She pulls the block out gingerly and….
It doesn’t matter whether the tower falls: the athletes are engaged, having fun and training hard. Above all, they’re excited to come to the next practice at Raleigh’s Cheer Extreme just to see what their coach, Sarah Swicegood Macrow, will come up with next. “You can do a game with anything and make it fun, and it ends up motivating them to do what they need to do in a routine,” says Macrow. “By the time they leave practice, they’re sweating and tired, but to them, they just tried to win at Go Fish or Jenga.”
Macrow isn’t alone in believing that there’s more to being a cheer coach than running drills and routines. At Southlake, TX-based Spirit Xtreme, coach Melissa Meriwether kicks off practices by grabbing her iPhone to cue up her athletes’ new favorite game: the “Wheel of What.” The free app features a spinning gameshow wheel that chooses how they’ll train that day. “We always walk that fine line between not wanting to burn them out, but keeping it fresh and fun,” explained Meriwether. “That was one of the reasons I started an all-star cheer gym. I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to be competitive but still keep it fun for the kids.'”
Instead of laps, her girls run races against each other or see who can reach the top of Spirit Xtreme’s climbing ropes the quickest. Athletes are encouraged to work with a buddy or partner—both for support and to develop the team dynamic. It’s all part of an increasingly popular model in all-star gyms: innovation through playful motivation.
The Three F’s: Fitness, Focus and Fun
Along with teaching new skills and refining routines, cheer professionals are also exploring new, interesting ways to approach training and fitness. At Spirit Xtreme, Meriwether recently realized that while all of her athletes wanted to improve their jumps, many dreaded the thought of doing toe touches every day. Thus began “The 50 Day Challenge,” an optional training regimen that she introduced as an incentive. The premise was simple: start at one toe touch and one pushup, and every day, add another. (Some cheer moms even joined in for fun!) At the end of the 50 days, athletes who completed the challenge were entered in a prize drawing—but, of course, the true rewards came through the added training.
“They were choosing to take part rather than being forced,” shares Meriwether. “I think we can all relate to that: when something is a game or competition, we jump right in—as opposed to when someone says, ‘You have to do this,’ and then it’s not as much fun.”
Trying new ways of learning can also mean simply switching up the way teams conduct practice and showcase new routines. At USA Wildcats East in Norwich, Conn., owner and head coach Ryan Spanich stages real-life “slow-motion replays” to show teams what they need to improve and how to do it. He also encourages individuals and/or small groups to perform for the team at large in spotlight sessions. “[All-star cheer] is such a team sport that a lot of individuals can get lost in it,” he explains. “This particular exercise brings it back to the individual and makes them more accountable for what they do.”
Square Peg, Meet Round Hole
More traditional coaches may balk at such unconventional techniques, but Meriwether and Macrow say that trying something different can work wonders. For those who are hesitant, Meriwether suggests choosing one area of focus and experimenting. “Find an area where you’re willing to make the sacrifice to try something new,” advises Meriwether. “Shaking things up for the kids will work different muscles and keep them excited.”
Of course, there is also the element of added work and imagination on the coach’s part, but it need not be stressful, says Macrow. She cautions other coaches not to overthink ideas, as some of her most popular games involve easy props like yarn or sidewalk chalk. (See “Just Press ‘Play’ sidebar for ideas.) “Each game puts a different spin on what we do, and it helps them keep up with their skills,” says Macrow, who often posts new ideas on ASGA’s Facebook page. “And even though it’s more work, it also makes practice more fun for everyone—including the coach.”
As for any concerns that a playful approach might cause athletes to goof off, it tends to bring about quite the opposite. “I think playing games makes it a more rewarding experience,” explains Macrow. “We work harder and we do a lot more, but they don’t realize it because practice feels like it goes more quickly. They’re not working for Nationals, they’re working to win the game—and that makes them better and builds that team bond everyone is looking for.”
Check out our blog for ideas on how to put these tips in practice!