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Parents! You can help youth athletes level the playing field

Last week, my older daughter, Sophie, was looking over my shoulder as I scrolled through Instagram. We saw a video from a college we know, saluting all its sports for NCAA Division III Week, on the account of its athletic conference. 

Except one sport. Cheerleading. And Sophie didn’t think that was fair. 

Jen Deinlein

“Can I comment and ask them why they left out cheerleading?” she asked me. So I let her respectfully do so from her own Instagram account.  

As of this writing, a little more than a week later, she hasn’t gotten a response. 

Mind you, this is not the Big 10 or the ACC. It’s a small college conference and doesn’t get a lot of feedback, so it’s not like her comment was easily lost in the shuffle. And it’s also very obvious that the account commenting was that of a 7-year-old who plays sports (even though I started the account to preserve her artwork for posterity, but that’s another story). 

I beat the drum for cheerleading A LOT and I know that annoys a lot of people. But this really started to bother me for Sophie’s sake. What message was this athletic conference sending a 7-year-old youth athlete? Her opinion wasn’t important? Not every sport is equally important? 

Sophie currently plays soccer and flag football, and her 5-year-old sister is giving cheerleading a try for the first time. And with me being a cheerleading coach, naturally she’s going to have respect for the sport. She also has a goal of being the first woman to play in the NFL, so this likely won’t be her first bout with disrespect. 

Last fall was the first time she played soccer, and she was surprisingly fearless about it. She won over the hearts of a lot of team parents because of her determined play. She even loves playing goalie! (I’m not as big a fan of that, but I’m proud of her bravery.) 

One of her fall soccer teammates is now on her flag football team, and his dad was thrilled to see Sophie on his son’s team. Although this league advertised flag football as coed, she’s the only girl on her team and the only one we’ve seen playing so far. But she’s getting along great with her teammates, and I believe that’s a reflection of parents and coaches being supportive of a girl on the team. 

As parents, we can tell our kids to respect other kids and other sports, and I think that’s important, but we obviously lead best by example. The past year in a global pandemic has wreaked havoc with athletics budgets, schedules, practice space and even competition opportunities. There are a lot of sports that feel they have to battle harder for respect and the opportunities that come with greater respect.  

It’s too easy, though, to do battle with the wrong opponent. I can’t tell you how many times my various cheerleading squads were made fun of by other female athletes. Is that just passing down their own perceived lack of respect? Probably. I can also tell you that my current squad has a fantastic relationship with our women’s basketball team, to the point that when we were trying to recruit team members my first season, some of their athletes were the biggest cheerleaders for our efforts! 

So even as we are struggling to keep our respective sports going, I think as coaches and parents, we need to make a concerted effort to show our kids that every sport and every athlete are equally important. I believe there are changes in attitudes that may not come about without a generational shift, but our youth athletes of today are the sports parents and athletics administrators of tomorrow. Let’s equip them to save the “battles” for the opposing team and not each other. 

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Jen Deinlein
Jen Deinlein is a self-professed “Jen of all trades and master of none.” She’s a SAHM to 8- and 5-year-old daughters, a freelance writer (you can also see her work in CPBJ) and head cheerleading coach at Penn State Mont Alto. She and her family live in Guilford Township, Franklin County, with a golf course in the backyard where they frequently rescue lost golf balls. You can reach Jen on Instagram: @groovypq; Twitter: @jlbd77 or by email: [email protected].

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