This week, we are really excited to announce that the University Cheer Do’s and Don’ts blog was guest written by none other than Clare Winder, the driving force behind Queen Mary Angels (QMA)- the Queen Mary University cheer team, and UK University cheer in general.
For those of you attending Uni this year, thinking about starting a Uni team, or taking over as a Uni team captain, this is definitely worth a read...
My Name’s Clare Winder and I’ve run the university cheerleading team for Queen Mary University and Barts, and the London Medical and Dental school - better known as Queen Mary Angels or QMA, for around 9 years.
Here’s what I’ve learned from coaching in this specialist area of Cheer.
DO NOT RUN IT LIKE AN ALL-STAR PROGRAMME!
There are some aspects of this that just won’t work when you have a room full of adult student newbies. With this in mind you need to shift the focus of your season. For many All-Star programmes the focus can often be results orientated. Uni Cheer however, is more about fostering a love and enjoyment for the sport and creating a strong team bond: remember, at Uni many athletes would have moved away from home and are looking for somewhere to belong while studying. Most of the athletes that try out will not have heard of ‘Worlds’ and won’t care what TopGun are doing this season… they just came along to try out something different and have fun. I’ve found that if you can get this mix right then success can be just around the corner.
DON’T INSIST ON HAVING TRY OUTS!
If you want to discourage university students to join your team, this is an assured way to limit your intake and lose out on some great people- remember, some people just want to have fun. Take everyone who wants to cheer onto the team; it is, after all, a hobby. By all means, separate them into level ability and commitment but be open and inclusive always. Some of the best athletes QMA has ever produced (some of whom would go on to be World Champions) say that they would never ever have come if we had try outs. Also remember that the bigger your club is the better chance you have of getting some desperately needed funding from your Students’ Union. At QMA we welcome everyone and usually have around 150 active members each year taking part in weekly activities. Because of this, the SU supports us with training time and fundraising. I can’t emphasise this point enough, let those who want to take part do so!
HAVE A PLAN.
After a few weeks of taster sessions and building your teams for the season, you’ll want people to commit to competing. For this you need a plan. Have all your training dates and competitions dates ready to send out as well as a full breakdown of the costs. When asking people to commit, give them all the information they need to make the decision. Include your attendance and lateness policy and when any payments are due. Try not to make it scary, but be realistic. Always, ALWAYS, include a part about how students can gain financial help. The costs involved with being a student nowadays are horrific and it is the number 1 reason people won’t want to compete as Cheer can be very expensive. It is important you don’t lose people based purely on money. Most universities/students unions have help available to support students doing sport that need financial help. Make sure you know how it works and are able to point your athletes in the right direction.
DON’T OBSESS ABOUT STICKING TO LEVELS.
99% of the athletes you come into contact with will never have done cheerleading before; that doesn’t mean you have to stick to level 1 though. Adults have different physical capabilities than younger athletes, so you can afford to be a bit more creative and do what suits them. At QMA, we often get big guys who have done rugby, swimming, and hockey. Trying to get them to learn walkovers is going to be a huge waste of time. With time, they will develop power and awareness that lends itself to more explosive skills- like punch fronts for example (obviously through lots of progression-based strategies first). Similarly, there are lots of stunts you can teach that are safer when working with adults than younger athletes. For example, I would much rather teach a gut level yo-yo than an extension. A yo-yo is challenging enough to interest and push them but because of its low level, is safer than attempting stunts at prep level or above. And don’t overdo skills! Once you’ve taught them something move on- repetitive drills can get boring quickly.
KEEP YOUR SESSIONS INTERESTING.
In Allstar, there’s a big focus on reps, progressions and pushing for perfection. When training for a competition, I agree, but in the first few months of Uni Cheer I relax my expectations. You’re most likely to get a different batch of people most sessions and their motives for being there will be to simply have fun, try something new, and meet new people. So your sessions need to be based around that.
Have a great committee who make a point of meeting everyone and learning their names- making people feel welcome and valued is so important.
Plan your session to include things like relay races or team building so people mix.
Always have alternate versions of what you’re doing so if someone can’t do something, they don’t feel singled out or embarrassed. There will be a lot of people who cannot forward roll and are scared to go upside down!
Essentially in that early period, fun, inclusivity, and a good workout should be your key focus.
YOUR BEST ATHLETES ARE MADE.
For the most part, our best athletes have been people who learned to cheer at QMA and had no previous experience… to begin with, they were very limited in their ability. Lack of strength, coordination, and skills will inevitably be the cause of this. Try not to be too hard on them during these stages. If they love the team and the sport, they will train hard, will improve, and will give more to the team. Remember, it’s not just about doing a few competitions. There is so much more to Uni Cheer.
With that in mind...
DON’T JUST TRAIN.
Make socials a key part of being on the team.
If people can afford it, and are up for it, arrange trips and holidays.
Do fun fundraising challenges.
Get involved with other sports teams at the Uni and other Uni cheer teams in general.
Have a showcase to show friends and family your routines.
Make sure your club has loads of opportunities for your athletes.
At the end of the day, university is about having a great experience!
This is really important- choreograph to what you HAVE, not what you WANT. If your flyers’ aren’t that flexible, don’t put in a full stretch section for 6x8 counts. If they have decent heel stretches, put that in. If they don’t, think of something else.
The scoresheet leaves lots of room to be creative. Look at your team and your athletes and choreograph your routine to show off their strengths- even if you don’t ‘hit’ the scoresheet. With Uni cheer it’s not possible to max out the scoresheet unless you reduce the levels and have everyone doing exactly the same thing. This isn’t All-star, nor Worlds. You won’t die if you don’t have a full team back-handspring or kick to scorpions- so have fun with it!
Similarly, don’t choreograph ‘sass’ if it doesn’t suit your athletes. Performing for newer adults can be a terrifying experience, so don’t try to force them to be Kennedy Thames (or whoever) with a million arm motions that will be poorly executed. They will be able to show their enjoyment on the floor if you’ve choreographed a routine that they can do and feel confident doing.
DO WHAT’S BEST FOR THE TEAM. ALWAYS.
Don’t make the team go to ICC nationals because it’s ‘really fun’ if there are important exams starting the week after.
Don’t ever pull a last minute practice off the schedule because you want to.
Don’t make them do back to back full outs if they don’t have the stamina for it.
Don’t make them have uniforms with loads of mesh and bling when they don’t have the money for it.
Don’t make the girls have crop tops unless they want to.
Make sure your athletes can wear a decent sports bra under their uniform.
The list is endless really but for the most part, its common sense. Do what’s best for them even if it’s not what you as the coach want to do. “To lead is to be selfless.” Be a leader, not a dictator.
DON’T LIMIT YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Opinions towards Uni Cheer can often be poor… I have no idea why, it’s brilliant! At a guess, it’s probably because they haven’t experienced it. Uni teams can be absolutely amazing and the talent, unreal. The bond these teams can forge is so strong, with memories that can last forever. My best moments in Cheer have been in the gym, coaching QMA.
You can win trophies against All-star teams, you can take Grand Champion titles, you can compete across the world at Europeans and Worlds, you can produce World Champion athletes. Don’t limit your expectations because we did it at QMA. But if you were to ask anyone who’s been on QMA, they won’t say those experiences were the best. They’d talk about being a family and all the amazing times we had together, of pushing their personal boundaries and achieving what they didn’t think possible, and that they felt like they belonged, were valued, and discovered a sport they loved.
If nothing else, knowing that you helped facilitate this should be the most important part of coaching a Uni team.
Thank you for reading, and good luck next year!