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Let’s face it. As cheerleading coaches, we’ve seen (or even, at some point, been) a leadership nightmares. That’s why choosing your cheer captains is one of the most important decisions you’ll make this year.

I often find it is the most difficult decision as well. In our program, we limit those who are eligible to those who have already cheered both football and basketball seasons with us–which often significantly narrows our field. Here’s the rundown of my personal cheer captain selection process.

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Applying to Be Cheer Captain

There needs to be a baseline. Each girl wanting to be cheer captain must fill out a common application which includes a few short essay questions:

  1. Describe your leadership style.
  2. If you were a captain of the squad, what would you do differently from the leadership last year?
  3. What would you do the same?

These questions give us some insight into how they lead and what their priorities are.

We also require that they incorporate a stunt into a cheer or chant and teach it to the entire squad. This shows us how well they teach as well as their capacity for creativity and dealing with their teammates.

Coach’s Interview

This year, instead of going purely off of the applications and teaching moments, the other coach and I decided to implement an interview process. We loved it. It gave us a chance to address concerns and give positive feedback so that each girl felt heard and valued, and we got to see how they interact with us (which is an important part of their job).

We took a couple of hours one afternoon and spent about 15 minutes with each girl who applied to be a cheer captain. We asked questions and had them ask questions and offer insight. It was actually a great experience, and we will be making that a part of the process from now on.

Teaching Their Cheer

Once the application are all turned in, each candidate gets to teach their cheer or chant and describe the stunt incorporation. This part I love because you see their creativity, their ability to take control of the room (or not), and how the squad responds to them.

The other coach and I watch intently, take notes about what we liked and didn’t like, and use them for discussion later. Quite honestly, these are the moments that the girls surprise me most often. And you can tell a lot about the captain candidates by how they teach and how the team reacts to their style.

Praying Through the Options

It’s easy for me to have a bias. I’m human. It just happens. So to help combat the temptation to make a hasty decision by taking several days to pray about it before really taking the time to consider all that I have read and seen.

This happens throughout the entire process. I want to make sure that I can have clarity about the process and my decision. It also provides peace after the decision is made to pray through and still feel assured that what you’re doing is the right thing.

Intense Discussion

After all we’ve seen and heard, the other coach and I sit down to discuss the needs of the team, the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, and the needs of the candidates themselves.

Each year brings a new team with new challenges. In the first couple of weeks, we assess what we think will be the unique challenges for the year, and that is a huge determining factor in our selection of cheer captain. For both captain and co-captain positions, it is important that their cheerleading skills are credible but also that they can lead together and on their own a team of our size (over 20 girls).

Usually we select the head position first and decide her two co-captains after to supplement her weaknesses. Because our team is large, three leaders is a good number for us and provides balance for them. The discussion can be intense at times, but every year I think we have made the best decision we could have. I always confidently stand by the decision.

Announcing Your New Cheer Captains

This is where heartbreak happens and the part I dread. It’s never fun to dash the hopes of young women, but choosing the right leaders is important for having a successful year.

We begin by talking about the process and the needs of the team and the people we’ve chosen. Then we announce the specific new leaders. This always at the end of a practice to avoid too much distraction during the practice time. We typically meet with the new leaders right after and offer ourselves to discuss the decision with the others the next day to give them time to process.

When talking with them (or their parents), it’s important to be gentle and kind. They don’t need a laundry list of their weaknesses. Help them see their strengths and give them a small way to improve. And find other ways they can contribute. Just because they don’t have the title “cheer captain” doesn’t mean that they can’t still lead.

Dealing with the Aftermath

I often find that there are not a lot of wrong answers. You just have to choose the best people you can and mentor them to be the leaders that you know they can be. If you know you will enjoy working with them and they have basic leadership skills, mentoring can bring them the rest of the way. Sometimes the right people just need the opportunity to lead in order to grow. Sometimes born leaders need to be told “no” in order to grow. Embrace the process and do what is best for the team and the individuals.

Then stand by your decision. This is incredibly important. If you don’t choose cheer captains you believe in, you’ll cave under the smallest amount of pressure … and parents will gladly provide that pressure. You’ll get calls or e-mails. As I said before, be kind and loving because they are hurting. But stand behind your decision. After a few weeks, the anger will have subsided and the year can continue.

If after the year is over (or as it progresses) and you feel that you made the wrong choice, own that and learn from it. A good leader takes responsibility and ownership of their decisions. But I confidenly believe that often (not always) the difference between the right cheer captain and the wrong one is how well you lead and mentor them as leaders. You are the difference between right and wrong.

Invest the time, because it will also make you a better leader.

What do you incorporate into your process for choosing cheer captains?

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