There’s no doubt cheerleading has evolved over the years. From its meager beginnings, complete with uniforms of bulky school sweaters and long pleated skirts, to the highly skilled, athletic sport it is today. Like any sport, most competitors must start young if they plan to cheer at the high school and college level. The Pelham Youth Cheerleading program, offered through Pelham Parks and Recreation, is growing, and these spirited young ladies, ranging in age from first to sixth grade, are well on their way to cheerleading excellence.
The accolades for the Pelham Youth Cheerleaders came rolling in as the results were announced at the recent North Jefferson Area (NJA) Cheerleading Competition. In fact, the Pelham Youth Cheerleaders almost needed a rental truck to bring home all of the hardware they earned. The annual competition includes squads from all over the greater Birmingham area, with six divisions separated by the grade level of the participating cheerleaders.
The NJA was the first and only competition for the Pelham squad this year, and each team certainly made it count. The fourth-grade squad was the Senior I division winner, the first and second grade squad won the Junior II division, and the third-grade squad took the top spot in the Junior III division. Individual winners included Sadie Cotton, who won first place in the Junior III division, and Maggie Pittman who won third place. Cotton was also awarded the Destiny Spirit Award for the Junior III division. In the senior division, Madison Gilbert took second place, and Malayia Wilson won the Senior Division Destiny Spirit Award. Each squad was required to perform a routine made up of a cheer/dance combination. The teams are judged on voice, dance, timing, jumps, spirit, showmanship and other criteria. The individual competitions focus on the cheerleader’s talent and athleticism, and participants perform a one-minute routine created by the individual.
The season started in July with a cheer camp led by the Pelham High School Junior Varsity and Varsity squads. Youth cheerleaders learn a cheer, chant and dance that is performed at every game during the youth football season. The competition aspect of cheerleading is optional, and it is up to parents to decide if their daughter will cheer during the football season only, or if she will participate in competition. “The competition team requires a bigger commitment. We have separate practices for competition girls to add difficulty to the routine they will perform,” said Amber Tucker, coach of the fourth-grade squad. “Competition is always on our minds, and their performances throughout the season allow them to become comfortable performing on the field and in front of large crowds.”
When the youth cheer season began, the competition schedule was uncertain due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The teams found out the NJA competition would go on as scheduled, but by then, there wasn’t much time to prepare. “Usually squads practice for months before a competition. The fact that we were able to pull this routine together in a matter of weeks was an accomplishment in itself. I told them that doing better than their best was simply not possible. As long as they did their best, I would be proud of them. Winning was definitely a goal, but I simply wanted them to do their best,” said Marie Pittman, coach of the third-grade squad. “When we won, I think it proved to them that hard work does pay off – hard work not only from the girls, but their parents, who deserve so much credit.” Besides the awards and the satisfaction of winning, Jamie Compton, coach of the first and second grade team, had an incentive for her girls. “I told the girls if they won, they could pie me in the face!”
Volunteer coaches are essential to the success of the Youth Cheerleading Program, and several ladies have taken on the role with passion and enthusiasm. Most are former high school and college cheerleaders themselves, and have daughters on the team. “Cheerleading has been part of my life for as long as I can remember,” said Compton. Most teams have assistant coaches who are volunteers as well. Tucker said, “This is my second year coaching the youth league, and I could not have asked for a better assistant coach than Timeca Nevels.” Pittman was also quick to give kudos to her assistant coach, Heather Cotton.
Compton says her favorite part of coaching is the girls’ willingness to improve and learn. “While cheerleading is a team sport, you have to be confident in yourself to perform in front of a large crowd without mistakes. It’s a skill that can help them in other situations later in life.”
Pittman, a former UCA cheerleader, said her girls have grown tremendously through this cheer season. “At the beginning of the season, I would ask the girls to call a cheer and many would refuse as they were not comfortable. I didn’t push them but continued to encourage them. By the end of the season, they all wanted to call the cheers. To see their personalities and self-confidence evolve was truly priceless!”
Tucker had an uplifting story of one girl who was a bit unsure of herself at first. “This season, I had a girl say she wasn’t sure if she would fit in and she really did not want to participate the first day or two of camp. However, she ended up having a blast and making new friends. I always tell the girls at the start of each season to look around at their teammates because those are now their newest best friends!”
The fact that cheerleading is much more skill-oriented these days makes youth cheer experience almost a necessity if a girl wants to cheer in high school and college. According to Tucker, “Youth cheer is all about having fun, but when it comes to competitive teams, you must factor in tumbling and stunting as well. Although the girls on my team are eight and nine years old, most of them take tumbling classes outside of rec cheer.”
For parents who might consider enrolling their daughters in youth cheerleading, know there are benefits. “I feel sports participation gives young girls a sense of sisterhood that allows their confidence to grow. At this age, it also helps with structure and time management as well,” said Pittman.
Now, the season is over and the girls are looking forward to next year. “So many of my girls told me how much they were going to miss cheerleading. One girl came up to me and told me how much she loved me, and cheering was the happiest she’s ever been. Without a doubt, moments like that, and making an impact on the lives of these girls is the most rewarding part. To see their personalities blossom and their confidence grow is by far the best part,” Pittman said. “While practicing, I would often stop them if they made a mistake and tell them to ‘start over’. I would jokingly tell them that only meant ‘I love them’. So after we won the NJA, and knowing our cheer season had come to an end, I told them to always remember what ‘start over’ means.”