He’s dedicated. He’s athletic. He’s experienced. Cheerleaders respect him and parents like him. That male coach on your staff is a major contributor to your gym’s success. But could he also be a major risk?
If your knee-jerk reaction is “no,” consider the case of 24-year-old Andrew Gonzales, a coach at Harlingen, TX-based Elite Cheer. Earlier this year, Gonzales was accused of having performed sexual acts and sending obscene text messages to a 16-year-old male cheerleader at his former employer, rival gym South Texas Xtreme, and later issued a $20,000 bond. Though the charges were affiliated with another gym, Elite Cheer owner Brandy Maley was placed in the position of defending her employee publicly and dealing with possible negative ramifications for her gym’s image.
In a sport where young women make up the majority of athletes, it’s critical to keep male coaches—and your gym—safe from threats ranging from gender biases to sexual harassment. Take the proper precautions to ensure this type of situation doesn’t occur in your gym.
Develop procedures and enforce rules. At Cheer Force’s five locations around Southern California, owners Becky and Shawn Herrera have implemented strict policies about coaches’ interaction with kids. For instance, coaches aren’t allowed to give out their cell phone numbers and must keep a separate professional Facebook page if they want to communicate with athletes that way. Coaches are also forbidden from any transportation of athletes and socializing is only permitted at team events or outings. “We try to avoid situations where things can happen and that tends to alleviate them from happening,” says Shawn Herrera, who also holds staff meetings at least once a month to review rules and policies.
Introducing a “zero tolerance” approach has also been effective for the Herreras, who have an almost exclusively male coaching staff. Last year, they were forced to fire a male coach who’d developed a flirtation with a younger athlete (the two are now dating). “You can date an athlete or coach here, but you can’t do both,” says Herrera. “Anything that’s not appropriate—[we say,] ‘You’re gone.’ It’s an immediate termination.”
To communicate expectations, the Women’s Sports Foundation advises administrators to formulate a written policy that details appropriate and inappropriate behavior, to develop and distribute rules, and to clearly define sexual harassment and other violations. Should something go awry, it’s important to have proper reporting processes in place for coaches and athletes alike—such as whom to talk to, how informal and formal complaint procedures work, and what should be confidential. All personnel should also receive periodic training on gym policies and how to respond properly if an athlete confides in them about inappropriate behavior.
Screen and train employees. Carefully check all staff members’ backgrounds and qualifications, including looking into and addressing any previous incidents. At Cheer Force, the Herreras consult all of a prospective employee’s former employers to check references before making any hiring decisions. If a potential coach comes on board with no previous experience, the employee must wait at least a year before they are permitted to work with teams in that capacity. “We take a while before we let [coaches] into the inner circle,” says Herrera.
Herrera also relies on his intuition when making new hires, as well as the way others he trusts respond to the potential hire. “When new coaches come in, I look at how my two sons react to them. If my boys latch on to them and like them, it usually turns out to be a good coach for us,” says Herrera.
Demand professionalism. Regardless of gender, a coach’s behavior is constantly being watched and judged. Your zero tolerance policy should extend to any displays of ignorance, immaturity, and other inappropriate behavior for all staff. “It’s all about professionalism,” says Jeremy Towle, choreographer and former head instructor for the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA). “If something happens, like a hand slips when spotting a stunt, you avoid the awkward giggles and just keep moving forward.”
At Cheer Force, coaches are indeed being watched—literally. Cameras record everything happening within the gym’s confines, mostly to serve as protection against possible accusations of negligence. “Everything is recorded,” says Herrera. “We tell our coaches to always stay in view of a camera and they’ll have video proof that nothing happened. You don’t have that at a pool party or a movie theater, so you have to take extra precautions [in social settings]—but within these walls, it’s a safe place.”
Keep parental lines of communication open. Athletes and parents who are new to competitive cheerleading may be surprised—or even concerned—to learn that a man will be in charge of their team. Alleviate concerns by emphasizing the prevalence of male coaches in the sport, as well as touting the experience and achievements of male staff members. Also, be upfront from the outset: introduce male coaches and their roles at tryouts, be open about the gym’s safety and sexual harassment policies, and immediately address any concerns that are raised.
“As soon as you have any information, it’s important to act upon it and inform the parent,” says Herrera. “We try to be an open book—nothing is hidden.”