Tryout tips from the country’s top college cheer coaches.
By Laura Hettiger
American Cheerleader April 2008
Since the mid ’80s, before current high school cheerleaders were even born, college cheerleading has been dominated by the University of Kentucky Wildcats, winners of an unprecedented 18 UCA National Championships. Kentucky’s squad is always made up of physically fit, energetic and seasoned cheerleaders who are ready to make another run for the top spot of the collegiate cheerleading world.
Although cheerleading itself has been around for more than a century, competitive cheerleading has just recently started to dominate the sport. Teams that are nationally competitive do require a different type of athlete, and many current cheerleaders wonder if they have what it takes to make a top team.
Trying out for a team like Kentucky can be intimidating, and American Cheerleader talked to some of the most influential college coaches in the industry to find out what you can do to be the best cheer candidate for the best college cheer teams.
First Things First
Before you even hit a high-V in the tryout gymnasium, you first need to be accepted to your college of choice. Cheerleading should always come second to academics.
“It has become increasingly competitive to gain acceptance to major colleges or universities,” says Linda Gooch, the head cheer coach for the 2007 National Champion University of Central Florida. “Too often I see students who focus all of their attention in high school on their cheerleading skills and neglect their grades.”
The top teams not only want top athletes, but top students as well. After you’ve received your college acceptance letter, make sure you know exactly what type of squad you’re trying out for.
“It’s really important to come visit the school,” says Coach Gooch. “Participate in any of the [cheer or stunt] clinics that are offered so that you’ll get a chance to meet and talk with the coaches and current team members.”
Being unfamiliar with the team you’re trying out for will show coaches you’re not totally committed and haven’t done adequate research about their program. “The biggest mistake cheerleaders make is not knowing anything about the program they’re trying out for,” says University of Hawaii head coach Mike Baker. Make sure to constantly check the athletics homepage of your intended university for any updates about tryout locations, times, requirements or team activities. Top coaches want dedicated athletes.
Many teams require cheer candidates to send in an application and photo or video before the actual tryout takes place. Be honest and articulate on the application, as it’ll be the coaches’ first introduction to you. After accessing the application on the team’s website, it helps to mail it in as soon as possible to avoid any delivery problems.
On the day of tryouts, be sure to arrive at the location early to set yourself apart from your competition.
“Arriving late and/or unprepared for tryouts is the biggest mistake I see cheerleaders make,” says Coach Gooch. “Not having the required paperwork completed also looks bad. These all make a very poor first impression and are difficult to overcome in the mind of a coach because it seems like you just didn’t care enough to prepare.”
The way you present yourself physically will also play a role in your tryout experience. Coach Gooch expects everyone trying out for her team to “be neatly groomed at all times.” Wearing the school’s colors or logos will show your team spirit. Also, having a natural appearance with clean makeup and a hairstyle that is out of your eyes will show that you take yourself, and ultimately your cheerleading, seriously.
Even if you have all the cheer talent in the world, a coach’s first impression of you is very important—and lasting. So, if you have any doubts, try attending a practice or game to see how the current squad members present themselves and follow suit.
Skills, Skills, Skills
When you see the top cheer squads on ESPN doing stunt after stunt and high-flying Basket toss after high-flying Basket, chances are those cheerleaders had not mastered all those elite-level skills before they joined the program. Instead, the coaches were looking for candidates who had the potential to do the more advanced moves.
“We are very confident in being able to take someone good and making them great, and also at taking someone great and making them the best,” says Coach Baker, whose team was recently named UCA’s Best of the West. “We’re still able to take someone with a lot of potential but not all of the skills and make them very competitive, if they have all the other things we’re looking for.”
Most highly competitive teams are looking for athletes who have skills at the highest level. For squads at top schools like Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Hawaii and Central Florida, the majority of the cheerleaders are able to demonstrate all elite skills.
For tumbling, the most advanced team members are able to do standing back tucks, standing back handspring back tucks and advanced running tumbling passes including full twists. Stunting should be versatile with only coed partner stunts, pyramids and Basket Tosses.
“Student-athletes must have muscle stamina and endurance with a work ethic that allows them the never-quit attitude,” says Coach Connie Russell of Trinity Valley Community College. “This same attitude is one that means the team depends on them to perform to the best of their ability in every instance and they don’t want to let anyone down.”
Coach Russell, who has worked in the cheer industry for over 40 years, follows the cheer philosophy of “Get the Best and Expect No Less,” which has always helped her pick the cheerleaders most suitable for her nationally competitive squads. “It’s best to have the all-around person that can learn all that is required,” says Coach Russell.
Advice from the Pros
Being a member of one of the country’s top cheer programs does require unique athletes. As a collegiate cheerleader, your schedule will be full of community appearances, tough practices, strenuous workouts and football and basketball games every weekend.
Although being a part of a nationally ranked cheer squad can seem very glamorous, it requires a lot of hard work, sweat and determination to be the best.
“Nationals is great,” says Coach Baker. “Once a year for two minutes and thirty seconds you get to perform in front of a few thousand people and be seen on ESPN.” But there are other duties required from these uber-competitive teams. Every weekend, Baker’s University of Hawaii team cheers in front of an over 50,000 person crowd at football games.“You must have, or be able to develop, real confidence—more than just practiced gestures,” says Coach Baker. “When you’re face-to-face with that many people, you need more than just a standing full, or a one-arm rewind. Along with well-rounded skills, you need charisma, character and a genuinely uplifting personality.”
Coach Gooch agrees with the Hawaii philosophy, and she expects her athletes to be cheerleader first and foremost, instead of just a competition squad.
“Be sure that you feel completely comfortable performing cheers to lead the crowd,” says Coach Gooch, noting that your motions, voice, facial expressions, etc. must be mastered before coming to tryouts. “If you don’t have much experience cheering at ball games, you’ll want to spend some time practicing this and have your coaches help critique. This goes for girls and guys.”
Coach Russell, who’s won numerous coaching and judging awards, believes all cheerleaders must be “fit”—academically fit, personality fit and physically fit.
Her athletes are prominent ambassadors to the school, the type of teammates who relate easily to one another and who are willing to perform at the highest level at every practice, game and competition.
Good Luck, Chuck
Just like any cheer team you’ve tried out for in the past, auditioning for a top program is an experience you’ll not soon forget. Having fun, being positive and staying true to yourself will help you most in the end.
Talk to your parents and current cheer coach to make sure trying out for your favorite squad is ultimately the best decision for your future. “Be sure that you have a realistic view of your skills and how they’re suited for the program you’re selecting,” says Coach Gooch.
In the weeks prior to tryouts, focus on honing your skills in a way that will make you stand out amongst the competition. “Until tryouts, keep your grades up, live a healthy lifestyle and work on a well-rounded assortment of skills,” says Coach Baker.
Just remember, you should try out for a top team to be the best of the best—the best student, the best role model, the best athlete and the best teammate!