Anyone who knows Kelly Smith Helton of the popular Cheer Extreme franchise knows that she is blessed with a creative mind. As owner of the gym’s Raleigh location, Helton believes in positive reinforcement and has an innate talent for coming up with fun ideas to get her athletes involved and reaching their full potential. (In fact, Helton is so good at inspiring loyalty that more than 200 of her athletes and gym parents attended her wedding ceremony.) Learn more about Helton’s offbeat approach and why it works:
Helton: We do all kinds of crazy stuff—every month, we’ll do a craft kind of thing. We made Styrofoam turkeys for Thanksgiving. [Athletes who] hit a routine with three deductions got a feather for the turkey, and the kid who did the best in that routine then got to actually attach it to the turkey. For the last 30 minutes of their practice, we ushered everybody out of the lobby, put a tablecloth down and had a legitimate turkey dinner at the gym. We all shared what we were thankful for.
For Leap Day, we did a leapfrog thing, and we did bouquets for February. The way it worked was that if you had a routine with one deduction, we put the kid’s name or the stunt name on a rose that went into the vase of fake flowers. We teach accountability in our gym, and nobody wants to be the deduction. Routines with timing issues or bobbles that weren’t actual deductions were worth two points, and the team that hit fullouts perfectly got red roses in a vase. Every rose was worth a different amount of points, and the team with the most points got to skip out on the last 30 minutes of practice and go with me to Starbucks. We actually ended up with some of the best routines we’d ever done in February.
Are they all team activities?
Helton: Most are on a team basis, but we have some individual ways to get attention. We have incentive charts all across the gym, and every kid’s name is on their team’s chart. If you hit a fullout individually, you put a sticker under your name. Once you get to 25 hits, you get a sticker that says “Gold Star Club” to wear around the gym. Eighteen-year-olds will wear it around the gym because they’re proud they did 25 fullouts in practice.
Helton: I think when kids look back, they’re going to remember things like this. That’s what I remember from cheerleading and what made it fun and still kid-oriented. These days, competitive cheer is so stressful and causes a lot of anxiety for kids, so if we can pair it with something that’s fun and kind of elementary school-esque, they tend to revert back to their childish ways and have a little more fun with it. It makes it less stressful. They’re not doing it to burn calories or do exercise; they’re doing it to [win a prize]. I think positive motivation gets you further in the sport than cursing and yelling. And it entertains the coaching staff too, because when you watch 40,000 hours a week, we can use that change of pace.
How do the kids respond?
Helton: They get really committed. A lot of times, they roll their eyes like, “Oh, man, again?” But then they get into it. The crazy thing is it works for all ages. Even our international team [members], some of whom are out of college, get really excited, too.