The impending autumn means one thing and one thing only for many people – the kickoff of football season. Millions will sit on bleachers and couches to watch the football players play their sport, cheering on their athleticism and strength.
But what about the dedicated athletes on the sidelines? Few people recognize it, and it’s been a point of contention for years, but the cheerleaders supporting the team are working just as hard as the players on the field.
“Football has historically been viewed as a very ‘manly sport,'” remarked our guest editor Dempsey Marks, a fitness expert and yoga trainer who founded DepmseyFit.com, about what separates football and cheerleading in people’s minds. “The sport itself is associated with toughness, pain, and even violence. And primarily football is played by men. [The sport] glorifies aggressive behavior, which society associates with men and masculinity.”
“Cheerleading has evolved from simple movements and cheers to a highly athletic undertaking, which requires strength, coordination, agility, and skill,” she added.
She continued by playing devil’s advocate, suggesting that cheerleading has been a “supportive service” to other sports like football or basketball. It’s easy to see why cheering is overlooked as a sport.
The reality is that “cheerleading is an incredibly strenuous activity and carries a lot of the same risks as football (concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments, etc),” added Dempsey.
As much as the injuries are the same between football and cheer, so is the rigor of the workouts. Julia Angelen Joy is the mother of a high school cheerleader who was initially skeptical about considering cheerleaders athletes. However, after watching many practices and performances, she stopped questioning the athleticism involved.
“She runs, watches what she eats, and takes extra tumbling classes. Cheer is her sport and she takes it seriously,” Joy said.
“I would definitely say that, when taken seriously, cheerleading is as much of a workout as football,” said Matt Fellows, who cheered in high school, college, and on the professional level.
He said during his time in high school, the cheer team would have three to four hour practices that included running, tumbling, lifting, throwing, and dancing. In college, he was required to run twice a week and lift weights three times a week in addition to regular cheer practices.
Also, like football, cheer practice often starts weeks before the first game or competition. As a professional cheerleader, Fellows led camps which required cheer teams to be outside working out for the majority of the day.
“We began at 8 each morning and worked until 8 each evening with a one-hour lunch break,” he said. “During those 11 hours of hard work, the teams were required to memorize new material, learn new skills, dance, lift and throw, and tumble. Camp lasted three to four days of this non-stop workout.”
He adds that while the level of workout may be the same for cheer and football, there are some important differences.
“The greatest difference between football and cheerleading is that football requires sheer strength while cheerleading also requires balance and body control. Balancing a top heavy 120 pounds in one hand takes much more coordination than running full steam into the guy facing you.”
“As a cheerleader and in football, the idea is to be explosive. This requires very high energy. The difference is that the football players get to sit on the bench when they get tired. As a male cheerleader, I was standing and yelling and giving my all for the entire game.”
While there are certainly differences between cheerleading and football, both require a lot from their respective athletes.
“Both cheerleading and football require a great amount of athleticism,” Dempsey said. “Cheerleading is often dismissed as recreation and not considered a sport, but actually cheerleading and football have a lot of similarities.”
“In terms of training, cheerleaders and football players alike must include a large amount plyometrics (jump training) in their training regiments. They both also must perform strength training and cardio.”
Though cheerleaders often aren’t recognized for the athletes they are, there’s no question that cheerleading is just as much of a workout as football. The next time you’re watching a game, you may pay a little more attention to the athletes both on, and next to, the field.