The Education of a Cheer Dad

By Charles Epstein, Father of Cayla Epstein, Cheer Florida Cheerleader and Sea Warrior, Senior Level Four National Champs

This past weekend I was in Orlando attending an event that would have been a completely unthinkable destination just a few short years ago: the 2016 Summit, Varsity All Star’s Cheerleading and Dance Championship, which involved over 900 teams from the U.S. and abroad, including, Norway, Australia and Japan. My daughter’s team was among 26 that were selected nationally to participate in her division. They competed on Saturday and Sunday, and beat out all but another team from Texas, with whom they shared first place. As the cheerleaders, coaches and cheer moms celebrated, bringing to a resounding close a remarkable and memorable season, I began to think about how far my daughter had come these past several years. I also began to reflect on my own evolution as a cheer parent, a process that hasn’t always been smooth, easy, or abundantly rational. But I believe I’ve made progress and am only too happy to share what I’ve learned.

Fanatically Devoted Cheer Dad (note: this is not the author, repeat, not the author)

Those of us who’ve been through it know what’s involved. I’m writing this for the benefit of future or newbie cheer dads, who one day will find themselves behind the wheel of a large automobile, in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife and beautiful cheerleaders, who one day will ask themselves, well, how did I get here?

To the casual observer, a so-called cheer dad operates on the margins, quietly and intermittently — some less quietly or intermittently than others — supporting their cheer daughters and sons, and indulging their more, uh, vocal spouse, partner or significant other. Of course there’s far more to it than that.

Few of us are born cheer dads. It’s a process that moves in specific stages: fear…incomprehension…bargaining…acceptance…commitment…and, last, fanatical devotion, which, ironically, brings one full circle back to fear. Allow me to explain.

Fear: I can’t say that I clearly remember seeing my daughter thrown high in the air for the first time, but I do clearly remember the anxiety…and thinking, gee, I hope this doesn’t end with a trip to the West Boca ER. The next time I went to the gym, I asked one of the cheer coaches if I should be nervous — her assurances didn’t exactly have the desired effect, but the fear, over time diminishes…chiefly because it gets crowded out by other fears that come with parenting a digital age teenage daughter…which is cumulatively far more terrifying.

Incomprehension: Several years ago I was driving my daughter and a friend home from cheer, when I tried impressing them with my grasp of cheer terminology –scorpions, needles, fulls, back tucks, stunting, etc. — all of it gleaned from overheard conversations. I didn’t really know what I was talking about — and for the most part, still don’t — but I was able to sustain the fiction until I mentioned to my daughter’s friend that her dad, unbeknownst to her, had become obsessed with cheer, was spending an inordinate of time online visiting cheer sites, and that he was looking into getting a lyrca one-piece (extra large, naturally) with the Cheer Florida insignia to demonstrate the depth of his passion for the sport. The truth is, dads will never completely understand cheer, certainly not like we understand football or baseball, and we’ll never ever understand the esoteric nature of the way judges score a routine…but that’s ok. I like to think of it as poetry — or a highly creative argument from your significant other — you don’t have to understand every phrase, nuance (or long-forgotten historical grievance recalled from the mists of time, but I digress) to appreciate the art.

Bargaining: At this stage you’ve not fully bought in, but you‘re supportive. To a point. The cheerleader you’ve been entrusted with — aka, your daughter — comes with obligations, which is where the bargaining starts: how much less than 100% of the events can I attend and still maintain an acceptable level of cheer dad viability. Which is to say, can I miss one, maybe two and not give my daughter major abandonment issues. The good news is that, as the seasons progress, you’ll have earned the “political capital” to be more strategic in the events you attend.

Acceptance: You still don’t fully understand why your daughter is drawn to cheer, what drives this obsession, because cheer is so outside your frame of reference. But you start to gain an appreciation for the collateral benefits –particularly the commitment and teamwork it requires. There’s also the issue of the term itself, as to these ears, “cheer dad” evokes the unfortunate image of the sitcom dad — forever bumbling and ineffectual, the object of gentle ridicule and eye rolls. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any way of getting around this — you just learn to deal with it, and embrace your inner Homer Simpson.

Commitment: From the beginning you lamented to non-cheer friends, family and colleagues that you spend hours traveling to different cities for a routine that lasts 3 plus minutes. You tell your friends who squire their kids to baseball and hockey tournaments that you’re jealous, at least they get to see 9 innings or three periods of competition. We’re wired to expect an ROI, which is why cheer wrong-foots you from the start. Then, one day you find yourself at the apron of the stage, watching this amazingly precise, athletic, beautiful thing unfold…three minutes that are as involving, intense, and thrilling as a baseball game won in the last at bat. This is an indication that you are at the commitment stage. You’ll know for sure when you know the names of at least 10 rival cheer teams. And feel a visceral competitive contempt when any of them is brought up in casual conversation.

Fanatical Devotion: Most of us are content to stop at commitment. A small percentage, however, throw caution — and their dignity — to the wind and go all in. They’re easy to spot as the fanatically devoted tend to accessorize — not that there’s anything wrong with wearing a wig in Cheer Florida colors and making a complete spectacle of yourself. If you feel yourself trending in this direction, be forewarned: the more fanatical your devotion, the greater the stakes, the more heightened the fear. And there’s no turning back (what’s the point, no one is going to be able to unsee any of your previous antics, might as well stay in character).

The morning after we returned from Summit, I asked my daughter what it feels like to be on the big stage, with the music blaring, in front of all those people, under all that pressure. She admitted that it’s scary. Part of me wanted to tell her that it’s not easy on this end, watching helplessly with mounting anxiety as your daughter performs, knowing how everything, all the hard work, the practicing through pain, turns on the next three minutes. But that’s just the dad side of me…the cheer dad side, the side that just this past week entered the initial phases of the Commitment stage, knew better. For I’ve watched them up close, and have seen the anticipation and intensity etched in their faces. I’ve seen them rebound from a flawed routine and I’ve seen them perform with the breathtaking choreography of an Epcot fireworks display. What doesn’t vary from one event to the other is their ability to perform with zero margin for error, to put everything on the line time and time again…and their remarkable grace under pressure. As cheer dads we may be anxious, even nervous, but let’s face it: all we have to do is pump our fists, be there with either praise or consolation when the routine ends, and foot the bills.

You of course know the basis of the stages I’ve described. Here, the stages move in the other direction: toward life and love, hope and promise. Actually, if you’re a newbie cheer dad, that’s pretty much all you need to know — after all, what else is there?

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