High School Cheerleading: Pompoms and Pressure

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Cheerleading is much more than a sideline sport, as the more than 3 million American cheerleaders can tell you.

Far more than cheering on the guys, competitive cheerleading requires serious physical stamina and mental discipline. It can also be a path to popularity, achievement, and even a full scholarship to college, which is why some parents -- mostly mothers -- push their cheerleading daughters so hard.

Ryan Martin, a sophomore at Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., suffers from a double whammy: Her mother, Donna Martin, is her cheerleading coach.

"I feel like she's always watching me and critiquing me and going to get angry if I do something wrong," said Ryan, who has been cheering since she was 3 years old.

"Cheerleader Nation," a new reality TV show that is shown on Lifetime, follows Dunbar's cheerleading team from tryouts through the national competition. The show captured one mother promising her daughter a cell phone if she mastered a certain cheerleading move.

It also captured Martin pushing her daughter and the other cheerleaders quite hard. Martin, who was a high school cheerleader and has coached cheerleaders for 21 years, said she didn't push them too hard.

"I think there are coaches out there in every sport that probably push kids too hard," she said. "I think the good coach has to learn what each child is capable of, mentally and physically, and they have to learn what motivates those kids and what their limits are."

Knowing the students' physical limits is very important, as Kristi Yamaoka's high-profile injury proved. Yamaoka, a Southern Illinois cheerleader who fell 15 feet and landed on her head when a stunt went wrong during a women's basketball tournament this week, suffered a concussion and a cracked neck vertebra.

After Yamaoka's injury, the Missouri Valley Conference barred cheerleaders from being launched or tossed, or taking part in formations higher than two levels during the tournament.

High school cheerleading is safer, Martin said.

"Our girls don't do some of the stunts that college cheerleaders do," she said.

But there are still dangers.

"I guess it can be dangerous if you try something new for the first time on wood [floors], but we only do stuff we're used to and comfortable with."

Cheerleading teens must deal with the physical and mental demands -- compounded by the academic demands and angst all high schoolers experience.

Ryan says her mother, who also teaches biology at Dunbar, pushes her academically, too.

"She pushes me hard on everything," she said, "not just cheerleading but in the classroom and to be the best person I can be."

"I know Ryan is a very strong student, a very talented athlete," Martin said. "So as her mother and her coach, I know how far to push her. She may not agree."

One scene showed Ryan bringing home a report card with all A's and one B, and her mother only focused on the B.

"Her B was a 90," Martin said to "Good Morning America's" Charlie Gibson. "A few more hours studying and off the telephone, that could have been an A. She wants to be a doctor. She needs to get all A's."

"I want her to get as many opportunities as are out there for her," she added.

Ryan said she thought most cheerleading moms had their daughters' best interests at heart.

"I don't think any of the parents are obsessive with cheerleading. They want it because we want it."

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