When someone asks of regrets, my first answer is usually something like “getting that first perm in back ’83,” because it kick-started a long habit of questionable hair choices. But delving deeper I’ll admit the regrets that still trigger a pensive sigh.
I regret not playing sports in high school. Aside from 1 year of rec department softball in third grade, I didn’t play team sports at all, but it’s the high school years that spark the feelings of regret. Growing up, gymnastics was always my thing. I wasn’t great at it, but I enjoyed it immensely. So when I got to junior high, cheerleading was my dream team. While I liked the dance and tumbling elements of it, and the cool uniforms, I also equated cheerleading with popularity. Like so many girls before and after me, I assumed making cheerleading would automatically elevate my social standing and make life grand. For a shy girl like me, that prospect was huge.
Just prior to tryouts, the volleyball coach approached me in the halls and tried to recruit me. Nope, I told him, I’m going to be a cheerleader. Lesson #1 not learned: When you are recruited for anything, at least hear out the idea. It means somebody sees something in you that you might not yet see in yourself.
I made the cheerleading squad, but it didn’t take long for reality to come hard at me. Being on the squad means nothing if you’re not already in the ruling clique. Being on the squad did nothing for me socially. If anything, it just confirmed that the popular girls were making fun of me. I had a few friends on that squad, it wasn’t like I was complete leper, but we weren’t besties, either. And it was only a few choice girls who were the main offenders, the ringleaders of mean. But it only took a few to be a majority against ME.
One of my closest friends now is another girl who was on the 9th grade squad with me. She was made to feel like such an outcast that she quit after one semester. Nobody quits cheerleading! But she couldn’t--or wouldn’t--take the humiliation, and I don’t fault her one bit for escaping that ridicule. At the time I was torn in my feelings. I wanted to stand in solidarity with her, but no way would I give up my coveted spot on the squad. So I chose to stay and be an outsider on a squad of 24. I can still picture her walking away from the final football game in tears after she told me she was quitting. Nobody else on the squad ever tried to convince her to stay.
But I trudged on. I made the high school JV squad the following year. Although I enjoyed the activity, I wasn’t gaining anything from being on the squad. We were all about boosting the morale of our school's football and basketball teams, and exciting the crowds, but among ourselves we were a mess.
Despite my best efforts I never made the varsity squad, which was humiliating. Tryouts were held publicly, with the winners being lauded and applauded, and the losers left crying in huddles on the sidelines. That didn’t happen with the volleyball, soccer, or softball teams. I didn’t realize this at the time, but my experience on the cheerleading squad did more damage than good. Don’t get me wrong, I truly loved the activity. I was committed to the group, I never skipped out on practice or games, and I put my best efforts into all we did. But who benefited from that?
It was a good 10 years or more before the girl who quit and I sat down and talked about the situation and bonded over our shared experience. She has turned out to be a far better friend than I ever could have known, and certainly a longer-lasting friend than any of my squadmates. I wish I’d been stronger back then, more assertive in sticking up for her against the others, more vocal in trying to convince her to stay. That’s one thing I never learned in cheerleading…how to stick up for your own teammate. All the things team sports are supposed to teach really aren’t in the cheerleading handbook. Our purpose was to boost up all the other teams, to smile, and to do everything in unison. This was preparing us for life how?
I know that any group is going to have some members who get along better than others, especially when you’re talking about teenaged girls. But team sports address those problems, and they reinforce the necessity of working together toward a common goal and of making everyone accountable for every victory as well as every defeat. Team sports foster talent, emphasize effort, encourage excellence, and discourage personal grandstanding. And you know, we weren’t a cheerleading team, we were a cheerleading squad. I guess if you don’t all yourself a team, you don’t have to worry about teamwork.
I look back through the yearbook pictures, and in the sports pages I see photos of jubilant players congratulating each other after a win, helping a team member up when they’ve fallen, arms around each other holding a trophy, bonded in victory. In the photos of the cheerleaders we’re smiling and coordinated, but we don’t look cohesive, despite our perfectly structured poses. They could have taken our pictures solo and then Photoshopped each of us into the shot as a collage and it would have looked the same. We look as if we’re each there only for ourselves.
I now envy my friends who played sports. Even back then I could see they had a sense of focus that I was lacking. They did better in school. They had strong ties to a group that they securely belonged to. They seemed to have more self-confidence.
I like to believe that I’ve since learned many of the lessons I missed not being in sports, but wish I’d learned them sooner, and with the benefit of teammates. I was born the same year Congress passed Title IX, the act that declared, among other things, equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys in federally-funded schools. I’m sorry I never took advantage of this opportunity.
But I am thankful to still have my fellow cheerleading outcast friend 23 years later. Obviously the other cheerleaders had no idea they were dismissing such a valuable person. I know we both survived and thrived in the end, but I guarantee you if I ever have a daughter, I’m going to encourage team sports till I’m blue in the face.