The Incredible Lessons This Middle-Aged Man Learned from a Team of Tween Girls

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Sadly, my season came to a close this past weekend. No, I’m not one of those middle-aged men who lives vicariously through his favorite football team. My “season” is the competitive cheerleading season. My team is a Pop Warner squad of tween girls, all between the ages of 10 and 13. And I am proudly one of their coaches.

When I became a “boy cheer coach” a few years back, I had no idea what I was in store for. I agreed simply because my daughter asked me to. In fact, my then 9-year old daughter negotiated my addition to the coaching squad with her head coach. Once the deal was done, there was no turning back.

I began as a coach believing that I would just stand in the back, maybe carrying some mats when needed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I learned vocabulary and motions. I figured out how to stunt and step in when needed. But I never fully appreciated how much I could learn from these girls until this squad, this season. I never thought there was much this middle-aged guy could learn from a group of tween cheerleaders. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

They taught me hard work, as they persevered through a tough August training camp in the hot New Jersey sun. They pushed harder on strength training than many of the football players on the neighboring fields. They diagnosed their athletic deficiencies and created plans to overcome them. And they asked for extra practices so they could keep working, push harder, and do better.

They taught me commitment, as we broke from training camp, with four fewer girls than we started. In the course of a month, we lost almost a quarter of the squad for a host of reasons, from medical issues to religion class scheduling conflicts. That meant beginning the competitive cheer season needing to completely rethink our approach and asking girls to do things they weren’t planning for.

They taught me how to handle the highs of athletic success, as we were named Central Jersey champions. Each of our 16 girls were filled with the realization that anything was possible. While it is normal to want to win, few expected it. But at Central Jersey, they delivered in a way the coaches all knew was possible, but none of the girls had yet felt.

And the companion lows, as our squad fell short at Regionals, when illness ripped through our squad and we were unable to recapture our Central Jersey magic. The girls competed honorably and strongly, but that November day just wasn’t theirs.

They taught me the definition of teamwork, as our squad decided to accept an invitation to compete at the YCADA Globals cheer competition, deciding to take on two more months of unplanned for practice so they could end the season their way, on their terms.

And they taught me the true meaning of perseverance. Two days before we were to depart for Globals, we lost one of the leaders of our squad to an awful sports injury. After drying off our collective tears and agreeing we needed to carry on, we had to rework our routine, asking girls to again take on responsibilities they weren’t ready for and putting a squad on the mat that had only been able to practice its new routine for a collective two hours before stepping out on the Globals stage.

The WWP Pee Wee Wildcats won a second place at Globals, a feat WWP had never achieved. In my eyes, those 13 girls, as well as their injured sister, showed the heart, the perseverance, and the showmanship of true winners. Regardless of their final score, they were all champions.

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When most hear that I’m a cheer coach, they usually give me very strange looks and ask even odder questions. I know that most of the football dads in our community just don’t get it. I know that many others weren’t initially sure what to make of it. But I look back on the past six months, on our more than 100 hours of practices and our four competitions this season, and I am enormously grateful for each and every moment of it.

I’m grateful to see such incredible student athletes grow into such incredible leaders and young women. I’m grateful to be part of a team that is able to work through all the drama from both competitive sports AND being tween girls to become a highly successful unit. I’m grateful to work alongside two absolutely incredible cheer coaches who give their time, their hearts, and their souls to help these young women achieve their goals.

And I am grateful to be a West Windsor-Plainsboro (NJ) cheerleader. As our squad prepared to take the mat for the final time this season, I urged them to enjoy each other, support each other, help each other, talk to each other, be there for each other, and love each other. With misty eyes, I wanted each of my girls to walk off the mat after their two-and-a-half minute routine knowing they had done their best and ended their season on a note of great pride and success.

They did. And I did. When I began my “career” as a cheer coach, I never expected that I would become as invested in and connected to cheerleading and my squad as I have. I may have the body of a football lineman, but I have the heart and mindset of a cheerleader. With each practice, I hope I encouraged and inspired the members of my squad and gave them the support they needed, as they needed it.

I’m proud to be a WWP Wildcat cheerleader. I’m proud to spend my time working with incredible women and amazing young women. And I wear the label “boy” cheer coach with immense pride.

Father; education advocacy pro; ED of Best in the World Teachers; author of Eduflack blog; founder of Driving Force Institute; education agitator

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