Youth Cheerleading Regroups, with an Eye on Boosting a Flagging Varsity Program


Under new leadership, youth cheerleading in New Canaan is finding its way out of a rather dark period of infighting, free-for-all amateur coaching and, among older middle-school aged girls, a lack of excitement and incentive to continue in the sport, officials in the program say.

Cheerleaders had much to celebrate at New Canaan's Dunning Field for the Homecoming Game. Credit: Terry Dinan

Cheerleaders had much to celebrate at New Canaan’s Dunning Field for the Homecoming Game. Credit: Terry Dinan

Led since last summer by a certified coach who is injecting the program with more fun events, a first-ever awards ceremony, recruiting strategy, closer alignment with youth football and focus on fundamentals, one of the largest groups of cheerleaders that New Canaan has seen in some time is coming up through the pipeline.

“If we don’t clean up the youth side, you are never going to have a high school program, so we are cleaning up and made huge strides,” said Sondra Banford, youth cheer coordinator in New Canaan. “Our major goal is to create a cheer family.”

As Banford alluded, the boost in cheerleading at the middle school level couldn’t come at a better time for a high school program whose numbers are decidedly down.

Seventh- and eighth-grader cheerleaders as "Thriller" zombies last fall, a fun new event created by youth cheerleading coordinator Sondra Banford. Contributed

Seventh- and eighth-grader cheerleaders as “Thriller” zombies last fall, a fun new event created by youth cheerleading coordinator Sondra Banford. Contributed

Athletic Director Jay Egan said the goal typically is to have 18 to 20 girls on the cheerleading squad, and that currently it’s down to 10 or 11.

Those involved in the NCHS varsity program say that seven of those girls are seniors, meaning that not including next year’s freshman, the size of the squad will be about four girls.

“I think from time to time, interest levels can go up and down in some sports and activities, and for whatever reason, the interest level is a little lower right now in high school cheerleading than we would like it to be,” Egan said.

Youth cheerleaders. Contributed

Youth cheerleaders. Contributed

Relief isn’t likely to come next year, as there are just three eighth-graders who are involved in cheering currently, Banford said. Several girls in that year had dropped out of cheerleading as seventh-graders last year, when a problem mother was dismissed by the board.

“Unfortunately, we had several families a couple of years back that had some infighting, and that causes so many problems, and then there was a mother in attack mode on the youth side this year,” Banford said.

But a brighter day is on the horizon.

Banford said she’s hoping to have 20 girls cheering in the eighth grade next year.

Youth cheerleaders in New Canaan at their first-ever awards ceremony, held last weekend. Contributed

Youth cheerleaders in New Canaan at their first-ever awards ceremony, held last weekend. Contributed

Asked to speculate on why girls at the middle school level in recent years haven’t continued with cheerleading, Egan said part of it lies in how many extracurricular choice face freshmen, and that in some cases, choices must be made.

For example, he said, an eighth-grader who may have done both cheerleading and field hockey in middle school may discover at NCHS that she must choose one or the other.

Egan also hypothesized that New Canaan has a large number of kids who do gymnastics, and that “in any given population, with competitive cheerleading and gymnastics, it’s going to be maybe the same kid—you are probably drawing from similar populations—so there could be an ebb and flow there with girls deciding to stay in competitive gymnastics or move from competitive gymnastics into cheerleading, so that is one of the things that we have noticed as far as our numbers shifting.”

Cheerleading itself has changed dramatically in the last several years, Egan said: Whereas it used to be more about a support role for teams on the field, it’s developed into a competitive sport where the fall season is used as a fun warm-up and chance to practice routines for formal competitions in winter.

It isn’t clear how focused New Canaan High School’s current cheerleading coach is on the competitive aspect. She could not be reached for comment.

For Banford, New Canaan is a town full of girls who are involved in dancing, and cheerleading should steer clear of the formal competitive aspect and stick to a fun, exciting sport.

A cheerleader herself since age 5 who stayed with the sport through college and even was asked to join the New England Patriots’ squad, Banford has a daughter who has been involved in competitive cheer and “New Canaan is not there, is not really close.”

“Competitive cheer is very gymnastics-based and there are a lot of girl dancers in this town, and that is direction we should go,” Banford said. “For competitive cheer, there are several organizations in the area to join and compete with, but we are not ready for that. There are also a lot of misconceptions with cheerleading and a lot of parents are afraid to have their daughter fall and hurt themselves, so there’s a need for education and making sure the girls have knowledge about preventing injury.”

Banford—who credits her predecessor as youth coordinator, Laura Edmonds, with “saving youth cheerleading in New Canaan” (“We all owe her a debt of gratitude because without it, the whole program folds”)—said the girls in the program have been coached by moms who stepped up to help but were largely unqualified and inexperienced in cheerleading.

“You’d get numbers in third and fourth grade when it’s cute, and then they’d fizzle out,” Banford said. “By the time they’re in seventh and eighth grade, your numbers are dramatically down.”

But they’re coming back, in part because Banford is seeing high rates of retention by introducing fun as well as technical skills. For example, around Halloween, girls from grades three through eight learned to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” got done up in the zombie makeup and voluntarily came to a youth football game on a Friday night to perform their new moves.

Banford also introduced an awards ceremony that saw some 100 people attend, including parents who are excited about the program.

And she’s working to integrate cheerleading with New Canaan Youth Football in more substantial ways, getting the girls and their families into events like tailgates, from which they traditionally have been left out.

“They [Youth Football leaders] really understand that we are part of the family and we’re making huge strides that are meaningful to these kids,” Banford said. “Girls want to be involved with the football team and to be a part of it.”

Edmonds said that the cheerleaders love going to sporting events and that feeling a connection to varsity cheerleaders traditionally had been an important part of the program. In the past, each varsity cheerleader had been assigned to an elementary or middle school grade, and they would help lead the girls involved—a tradition that seemed to fade away recently, perhaps with new leadership at the varsity level.

Edmonds said that Banford is “the exact right person to take over the program.”

“She has so much energy and I hope that all of her experience and energy builds momentum that goes right up into the high school.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *