The term “sport” has been questioned lately as the definition is increasingly expanded to include many competitive physical activities that were never thought of as sports before. Where a sport begins and a game or hobby ends is often scrutinized by fans, with non-traditional sports often being excluded. However, the tide is changing.
In Dec. 2016, cheerleading was granted provisional status as an Olympic event, along with Muay Thai. Both sports will have until 2019 to show the International Olympic Committee they have what it takes to make it to the worldwide event.
For a relatively young sport that continues to evolve, cheerleading offers an exciting opportunity for the Olympics to gain a whole new demographic of fans tuning in to the festivities. For cheerleading itself, it gives the dedicated athletes involved in the sport a new way to show the world how cheerleading is a sport — and a tough one at that.
Christa Kocha, head coach of the McMaster cheerleading team, has been involved in the sport since 1998 and has seen it rapidly evolve since her time cheering for the Marauders.
“A lot has changed since I was a cheerleader at Mac,” Kocha said. “The rules and how competitions are run have become very complicated, and they reflect the complications of the sports.”
As explained by Kocha, cheerleading has come a long way from the old days of a group of students standing on the sidelines and leading cheers. Yet, as the sport has evolved, the name has remained the same. The name of the sport can be misleading as most cheerleaders do much more than just lead cheers.
There are basically two major styles of cheerleading: collegiate cheerleading and all-star cheerleading. All-star cheerleading, which according to Kocha is the future of the sport, is primarily focused on competitions that feature a lot of aerobic stunts including jumps, tumbling, dancing and flips. This is all choreographed into a two and a half minute routine and is marked not only on their difficulty and ability to perform it, but also the stylistic choices of the routine.
Collegiate cheerleading also incorporates all of these stunts, but the cheerleaders on a university team also have to make sure they maintain and promote school spirit.
“There is a huge difference between collegiate cheerleading and all-star cheerleading,” Kocha explained. “Collegiate cheerleading involves our team being out there on the field and leading cheers, getting school spirit going which isn’t always easy for a lot of all-star cheerleaders. They have to learn how to lead cheers in a crowd, which doesn’t seem like it is a big deal, but is hard because you have to be on for four hours, smiling and trying to get the crowd engaged, while also performing highly athletic stunts and tricks.”
Nicole Parker, a second-year McMaster cheerleader, is one of many who now come into collegiate cheerleading from an all-star cheerleading gym. Parker also got involved in cheerleading in high school but decided to pursue it beyond that.
“I always thought that it was something I was supposed to do when I went to high school,” said Parker, who has been cheerleading for six years. “When I would watch all of the movies I was like, ‘oh cheerleaders are the coolest’. When I did high school cheer, someone on the team did all-star cheerleading and said that I was really good and should consider doing it.”
One of the most difficult challenges for collegiate cheerleaders is being able to balance the two styles, since the Marauders compete at all-star competitions during the year against other collegiate teams, like Western and Laurier, in addition to cheering along the sidelines. The team also attends extra events like the McMaster Children’s Hospital employee appreciation day or events surrounding the 53rd Vanier Cup. Not to mention the regular academic pressures on any other student-athlete.
“The toughest part is trying to balance everything and not bringing my stress from school or personal life to cheer practice,” said Parker. “I have two hours to practice and get everything done and not let my emotions get in the way with it.”
Keeping the crowd energized during a game is extremely important for any team, as any athlete can tell you. If a home crowd is quiet and disinterested, the whole idea of a home team advantage disappears. Athletes feed off of the cheers and applause of the crowd and sometimes the fans need a little help from the sidelines.
In addition to the demands on the team off the field, the physical skill that is required to cheer is evident to anyone who has ever seen a cheer routine.
“It requires you be physically fit and it’s hard,” said Parker. “You are lifting up people, and it is high intensity for two and a half minutes. You are running all over the place, flipping and stuff like that. It’s hard. Because there is a performance factor and looking nice is a factor, they think it should not be a sport because you are marked on if you’re smiling or not.”
Cheerleading is currently classified as a club rather than a varsity team. In addition to public perceptions of cheerleading being considered a sport, there is currently no fully established governing body to help advocate its position. While one is in the works and starting to gain traction in the community, it has yet to fully take hold. This is due to the newness of the sport, especially in Canada. It is well on its way to joining the ranks of the traditional sports.
“I always think it should be considered a varsity sport,” Kocha said. “I understand it is hard because we don’t have the proper governing bodies. There is a tight hold over varsity teams as I suppose there should be. You want to make sure the kids are safe and regulations are being followed and the brand is being represented properly.”
Yet, not being considered a varsity sport also has its benefits and freedoms.
“There are also a lot of benefits to it…. It’s hard,” Kocha added. “There are a lot of things I probably don’t understand with how things are run. And I know that a lot of other university teams that are club teams find a lot more freedom in what they want to do. That’s not necessarily what I want for our team, but I think it is a really complicated situation. I think that is partly our job and our challenge as coaches and members in the community who are we going to do this and make this an actual sport.”
Regardless of their classification, the team still competes regularly against other collegiate teams in level six categories. Level six cheerleading is the highest category of all-star cheerleading, featuring the most complex routines and challenging stunts. Mac’s program offers their athletes the opportunity to compete among the best in Canadian collegiate cheerleading while also allowing them time to focus on their life as a student.
“It is a high-level team,” said Parker. “Level six is pretty difficult, but the good thing about Mac is that they balance your schooling. You are a student first so the competitions don’t interfere with midterms or exams. They give us breaks when exams are coming up and stuff like that.”
To finish off the month, The Marauders will be competing in the Power Cheerleading Athletics Collegiate National Championship. Mac is coming off a fifth place finish last year in the small co-ed division, but this year will be competing in the larger all-girl category that features 10 teams.
“We feel very prepared this year,” Kocha said. “It is always a challenge trying to create a really difficult routine in less than three months. Level six is hard because you are doing a lot of free flipping. So you want to make sure that it is safe for them, but it is challenging at the same time and they can do it. I think we put together a pretty good routine that way this year.”
“We feel pretty confident and I’m proud of the team this year,” Kocha added. “They’ve worked really hard through everything and I think it just shows in their routine. I hope we have a lot of fans there this year that would be great. We try to put on a really good show.”
Whatever position the team places in, Kocha is proud of how well the team has integrated with the school community in recent years and represented school spirit in any setting.
“I’m really happy how we have come together with the school community and I hope it continues that way,” Kocha said. “I really like having them at the games. I think it is really fun for them. I hope the school responds to it and joins in on the fun too.”
At the end of the day, classifications become meaningless. It is not about what word you can point to in a dictionary that defines a sport. A sport is made up of the hard work, sweat and tears that are put into every hour spent preparing for each competition or game. It is defined by the teamwork displayed on the field, court or mat in front of a rowdy cheering crowd. And ultimately, it is one of the few things that works to bring humanity together for one common goal. So whether you are watching or competing, just enjoy it.