A year ago this month, COVID-19 meant the closure of youth sports in New Jersey and the end of my competitive cheer coaching career. December 2020 marked my retirement as a cheer coach. I felt such mixed emotions: joy to have made such incredible memories as well as sadness around the way it all ended. Not everything in life turns out as we want, but I am still overwhelmed by the experiences this part of my life gave me. The joy, laughter, smiles, excitement, and all the crazy times make me want to shout to the world, as Lou Gehrig did, that I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth!
Last week, my latest book, Dad in a Cheer Bow, was published. It chronicles my four years as a cheer coach, how being a #girldad and father to 19 cheer daughters changed me for the better. It is rightly said that good memories are most often created without conscious effort. Those are the moments that result from selfless actions and behaviors that give of our time, aptitudes, or gifts without any expectation of reimbursement. I fondly remember when I first joined as a coach, knowing nothing about the sport of cheerleading, much less how to coach it. Despite being a huge fan of the movie ‘Bring It On,’ I did not know a high V from a broken T, a sponge from a cradle. Having no knowledge of the sport and not even sure if I was up for learning it, I took on the challenge simply because my daughter asked me to.
Sometimes, we have to take risks. We have to grasp an opportunity and give it a shot, and who knows, it might ultimately be one of the best decision of our lives. When I signed up for cheer, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I will always cherish the four years that I spent on training, drilling, practicing, laughing, crying, celebrating, and coping with my cheer family. To all the girls who ever interacted with me in this time, I hope you all know how dear you are to me. Each season, we spent hundreds of hours getting ready for competitions. Days of sweat and persistence that in due course would be judged by only two and a half minutes on the competition mat.
I don’t know how to put it into words, but to say the least, my work gave me a sense of purpose that I never really had before. It gave joy to my life that I never imagined having. I feel like I really have achieved something special in life that many people do not get a chance to experience. What I am today is significantly shaped by my experiences with my girls and my fellow coaches who allowed me to share a cheer mat with them.
Despite having zero experience, I was welcomed with open arms, hugs, and smiles from day one. No one made me feel like I was learning or lagging behind in anything. That made me all the more determined to learn all that I could. While I was getting skeptical looks from cheer moms and football-coaching dads, I was doing it for my daughter and her friends. And from the very beginning, I was able to do it because of the support and blessing of my fellow coaches. As Gusteau said in Ratatouille, “You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul.” My coaching sisters never limited me, they always encouraged me.
“If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” Margaret Thatcher once said. In all my years as a coach, I was amazed by just how much these women could get done. During the four years of my cheer coaching career, I came across some incredible women of all ages. I have been awed by the diligence, commitment, and enthusiasm shown by these outstanding young ladies and their mothers. Sometimes they seemed to be incapable of competing, but as soon as they performed, they always proved me wrong. It’s a bit of a cliché, but just like Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that a teabag does not demonstrate its strength until it gets in hot water, these women were the same.
Christine, Minda, Robin, and Reenauda will forever be my cheer sisters. These four remarkable women have been and will always be an inspiration to me. Throughout my cheer career, they guided and helped me to become a better version of myself, benefiting both the team and my family. On that muggy August day, no one really knew what they were getting themselves into when they let me join them; I hope my part in their lives has been as positive for them as it has been for me.
Each one of these incredible women sacrifices their time (of which they did not have much) to assist our girls. They were perfect role models for these young women, teaching them all about cheer but also about sportsmanship and life. It was not all about winning the trophy, but about the experiences and learning from the mistakes. These are life lessons, not just cheer lessons. If each one of our athletes aspires to be like these four women when they grow up, the world will be a much better place for it.
In some months during these four years, I spent more time with these women than with my own wife. Without a doubt, I texted more with them than I ever have with my own wife! With each practice and season, I felt more accepted into this cheer family. While I may have been the first “boy cheer coach” our town has ever had, and I’ll likely be the last, I never felt like I didn’t belong or I wasn’t wanted. No one except for me underestimated me or my capabilities!
Four years ago, I never imagined that just a few years later, I would have another kinship, another strong bond, another beautiful family with a lot of young ladies from different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. Sometimes, I was just simply surprised at how close I got to my cheer daughters. I felt like I had 19 daughters, not just one. It was overwhelming and fun at the same time, but certainly, it’s not something I would recommend for everyone. It is hard work. But it is well worth it.
The best part of all was that these girls shared every single aspect of their feelings with me without any guilt or remorse. No one made the other person feel embarrassed of something. If one fell down or felt off for the day, others lifted them up, emotionally and literally. At times, I felt like a positive influence on the lives of these girls; they valued that I had made a commitment to them. Whenever I felt any of the girls were feeling low or discouraged after a practice session, I made sure to hear them out. They could share anything with me because I was always there for them; I was their personal cheerleader who would rejoice, encourage, and clap for them in times of high and low. I smiled when they needed a friendly face and was always present when they needed someone to lean on.
We went through heartbreak and euphoria together in those four seasons. The determination to win unlocked doors of personal excellence with these girls. I feel extremely lucky to have seen them evolve as young women who learned the power of genuine and selfless contribution. I had a front-row seat to watching an unbelievable team grow from little girls to teens, assisting them as they came across the massive challenges and guiding them into stronger, resilient cheerleaders and superior, kinder human beings. I love all of “my girls” and cannot be any prouder of them.
These four seasons will forever be a huge part of my life. I am grateful to have had the chance to serve as a cheer coach. While I am sad that I will never wear my feather boa or tutu to competition again, I am immensely indebted to have had the opportunity. I will forever be a cheer dad, a cheer coach, and a WWP Wildcat cheerleader.
(The above is an excerpt from Patrick Riccards’ “Dad in a Cheer Bow,” published by Vox Publishing in 2021.)