The 14 cheerleaders from Henderson Middle School in East Texas are sitting on the grass at Southern Methodist University looking glumly at their sneakers as they're sized up by their "sponsor," who serves as unpaid coach, chaperone and shoulder to cry on. "Stunts, good. Cheer, good. But your spacing was off," says Tangela Washington. Her tone isn't angry, though it might sound harsh to a 13-year-old. The squad is about to face its first evaluation at a three-day summer camp run by the National Cheerleaders Association. "We've got to work like a team," Washington stresses. "You were off in la-la land, and somebody is going to get hurt. I understand it's your first year, but you've got to get more confident in yourselves. Your parents paid $260 for this camp to hear what I tell you every day."
The girls, clearly dejected, whisper among themselves after Washington steps away, but when other cheerleading teams start a game of Little Sally Walker on the lawn, the Henderson girls rush to join in, giggling. "Hey, girl, do your thing, do your thing," they chant as they circle two girls doing hip-hop moves in the middle. Another pair takes their place, and the singsong verse continues. With ponytails flopping, the 13- year-olds look as if they haven't a care in the world.
If only it could last. At 13, however, innocence is quickly losing ground to hard, high-pressure realities. Ask any of the girls in that circle. Thanks to cheerleading, they've gained confidence in themselves, but they have all begun to feel the weight of great expectations bearing down on them. An activity that used to be more of a vanity showcase for well-connected kids now reflects the increasingly competitive nature of childhood, not only to excel but to be well rounded as well. Cheerleaders rush from school to practice to private coaching sessions, then home to cram in schoolwork before a late bedtime, only to rise early so they can make more practices in the morning. Good grades are a must, not only to get into college--just five years away--but also to keep their spot on the squad. And peer pressure is rising as old friends suddenly become jealous enemies or embarrassing reminders of a childhood left behind. Then there are the simmering rivalries inside the squad itself, sometimes fueled by parents with their own agendas. Finally, there's the pressure to perform in front of family and friends (yikes, there's that cute boy from homeroom!), all the while being pretty, pleasant and smiling. Cheerleading, in fact, may be the ultimate magnifying lens for the manifold pressures of being a modern 13-year-old.
Katie Root of tiny Crandall, Texas, says the trouble starts with how deceptively easy and fun it all looks. "People say, 'I want to be a cheerleader, woohoo, I'm done,' but it's not like that," explains the petite 13-year-old, a wrinkle creasing her young brow. You need muscle for lifts and precision up in the air, and there's a constant risk of injury. "What we do takes as much preparation as football. People don't understand how much pressure it is."