By Patricia C. Duffy

Growing up as a cheerleader had its perks and drawbacks. In the first part of the Growing up as a cheerleader:Lessons I learned series, retired competitive cheerleader Patricia Duffy shares the life lessons she learned during her cheerleading career.

Photo By Action Moments

Cheerleading was never easy for me. I spent 12 years competing at the all-star, middle school and high school level. I balanced a full plate as I simultaneously competed while also participating in football and basketball cheerleading. I was even captain of my high school team during my senior year. How was it never easy, you might ask? Whether it was injury, rough spots with teammates, or mental blocks with skills I knew I could throw, I struggled. I was (and still am) an overachiever, so to constantly be fighting an uphill battle with my sport aggravated me to no end. The most frustrating part of my love-hate relationship with the sport was the fact that much of my stress was self-inflicted.

Although the years of training and competing were never perfect, they were worth it. I loved almost everything about being a cheerleader and being a part of the “cheer universe”. (Note: The “almost” refers to my dislike of hours of hair and makeup. Just not my thing.) If I had the chance to relive my cheerleading career, start to finish, I would.

Every lesson I learned through my time as a cheerleader has translated to other aspects of life and now, as I prepare to graduate from college, my professional career. So what exactly did I learn? The short (and easy) answer is a lot. The long answer is still developing since I continuously pull scenarios and lessons learned from my cheerleading memories on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s subconscious, but when you’re an active participant in a sport for that long, it becomes a permanent part of you.

My parents have and still ask me to this day, “what did you really learn from cheerleading”? As if to verify their assumption that they wasted money on my long career. Let’s start with two basic but important lessons:

Through my cheerleading career, I learned:

How to lose…

and how not to react after I lost. I remember my experience at the awards ceremony of one competition in particular. I sat criss cross applesauce while the combined smell of sweat and hairspray filled the stage. It wasn’t long after the JAMfest announcer began the awards for our division when he “awarded” us with 11th place.

I cried.

I was embarrassed. After the awards ceremony, I bowed my head in shame and kept it there for what was likely the entire two-hour car ride home. I knew my team hadn’t performed well and couldn’t compete difficulty-wise with the other gyms, but up until the words came out of the announcer’s mouth, I had hoped for a miracle.

Obviously, everyone has things they want, and when things don’t work out as expected, they cry. Being emotional about loss isn’t bad, nor should it be discouraged. It’s how you come to terms with the loss and what you do in the aftermath that reflects upon your character as a person.

If I was back on that stage today, I’d walk up to the other teams, even the winning one, and congratulate them on a job well done. Then I’d reflect on the ride home and pick out the good and bad parts of the experience, making mental (and/or literal) notes about what I did well and what I could improve on.

Things will go wrong, mistakes will be made, and you will never be perfect in your sport, profession or life. Whether they’re intentional or unintentional, learn from them, correct the issue and don’t dwell or you’ll never reach your full potential.

That retiring doesn’t mean you have to stop doing what you love.

After I injured myself and made the executive decision to not continue with college cheer during my freshman year, I went through withdrawals. I was still in the weight room and strength training. I still had the big biceps and the flexibility necessary to compete. (Note: I’m still competition-ready flexible three years post-retirement. Patting myself on the back!) I sat in the stands of Sanford Stadium looking down at the UGA Cheerleaders performing skills, stunts and cheers as I thought to myself, “I could be there”.

Unfortunately, the reality of retirement is: when your body is ready, it will let you know loud and clear, and you should listen to it. Instead of cheering on the sidelines, I’ve enjoyed three football seasons in the stands, cheering on my university.

Meanwhile, I’m working on ways to incorporate cheerleading and gymnastics elements into my workout regimen. I still stretch regularly, tumble (mostly in my yard), jump, take dance classes (sharp Zumba, anyone?), and lift weights like I’m preparing to lift a 140-pound woman. After graduation, I plan on finding a gym with an adult tumbling class and putting my skills back on the mat. Even if it’s just for fun.

“Be humble, be teachable and always keep learning.”

Active or retired. Competition or sideline. Cheerleader or not. These are just some of the lessons this sport teaches. Just like any other sport, it has its pros and cons. At some point, whether it’s during your time in the sport or after, participants will reflect and understand these lessons shaped them as a person.

Growing up as a cheerleader: Life lessons I learned is an eight part series by retired competitive cheerleader Patricia Duffy. Stay tuned for more at insidecheerleading.com.

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