Are competitive sports healthy or more stress than they're worth?
In what feels like a past lifetime, I joined the world of competitive cheerleading, also known as All-Star cheer. Unlike a school squad that only does one or two competitions a year, competitive cheer teams average seven or more competitions in the same amount of time. Competitions are a blast — you get to meet other people passionate about your sport (including cheer-lebrities like Gabi Butler), experience the thrill of performing and even take home a medal. But as with any activity, there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy competition.
I was admittedly terrible at cheerleading. While other girls much younger than me on my squad would move up a level each year, I stayed at level one. I was inflexible, uncoordinated and lacked the body strength to do more difficult stunts. But I loved the sport for the chance to be a part of a team of strong young women, stay physically fit and travel. For me, the stress of competition wasn’t there. Whether we won or lost, we had fun. Healthy competition was used as a motivator, but the emphasis was on being the best we could be and working hard to earn a win over teams that possessed the same amount of talent and drive.
Not everyone shared my attitude. When our team placed second, third or not at all, some girls would cry. Their parents would threaten to switch teams next year if our coaches didn’t help us win the next competition, even if their children wanted to stay on their team. This approach to competition is unhealthy because it puts the focus on winning over any of the other positive aspects of the sport. If you want to win so badly, it can keep you from enjoying yourself when your team doesn’t take first place.
At the same time, if your parents or coaches are the ones putting winning above everything else, you should check in with yourself about why you’re participating. Are you having fun, or are you just trying to make them happy at the expense of your own wellbeing? Have an honest conversation with your fam and coaches when you’re feeling stressed. They might not realize how their expectations are affecting you, and you can work together to create an environment where you’re proud of your hard work, whether or not you snag the trophy.
Unhealthy competition, left unchecked, can lead to toxic mentalities that are hard to break. Blaming yourself when you mess up your routine. Feeling insecure after you lose a competition. Hiding injuries because you’re afraid of sitting out of a practice. Becoming hateful and mean towards other teams, and even girls on your own squad. These problematic practices go against the spirit of cheerleading. The sport is about learning how to work on a team, improving your physical health, and gaining a second family that has your back on and off the mat.
All of this goes back to checking in with yourself about how you’re feeling. Recognize unhealthy attitudes that you or those around you hold, and speak up when your love of the sport is being compromised. That way, you can focus on what’s most important: enjoying every moment.
Photos courtesy of author.