The etiquette of the cheer

Back in the '70's, I tried out for the North Junior High Wildcat cheerleading squad, but I didn't make the cut. Today, as a mother of six, I have finally earned my golden pompons: I sit courtside, poolside, and matside until cross-eyed, cheering my children through innumerable (if not sometimes interminable) competitions.

The only sport I've played competitively is tennis, where I was sixth seed on a six-player losing junior varsity team. As it turns out, my expertise (I know the difference between a rally and a volley) has lain dormant because my kids have chosen other sports: volleyball, basketball, football, softball, baseball, swimming, wrestling, gymnastics, soccer, dancing, track, cross-country, and bicycle racing. And baton-twirling.

If that sounds excessive, let me say that no one plays hockey, climbs mountains, or races dogsleds, for which I'm grateful. What does one yell to cheer on a dogsledder? Mush?

Frankly, most of what I yell is mush. While other parents shout directives ("Choke up on the bat!" "Shoot for three!"), I know neither proper form nor playing strategy. What I do know about athletics ("Be a good sport!" "Wear proper safety gear!") doesn't shout well from the stands.

So I've learned to stick to the vaguest basics ("That-a-way!" "Good effort!") and inflate my cheers with hearty clapping. But games are long, and the late afternoon sun is warm against my neck. I find my mind drifting. I contemplate the parents around me and wonder hazily if the game holds more interest to those who understand its subtleties. The clink! of bat on ball startles me as a child spins the orb into foul-land, and I hear myself shout "Good interest!"

Good interest? What sort of cheer is that? A fellow spectating mother gives me a sideways glance, and I shrug. She returns her interest to the game at hand, and I try to do the same.

Spectator etiquette frowns upon criticizing other parents' whoops of encouragement. But there is clearly a division in the bleachers between the Knows and the Know-nots. I have developed profound respect for the Knows, and have at times tried to imitate their cries. But plagiarism poses pitfalls.

For example, "Stride out!" sounded to me like a spirited, all-purpose cheer for runners, until my daughter explained (not so gently) that there is a time to stride and a time to sprint – not to mention a time to sit down, and a time to be quiet. I was, in effect, shouting my ignorance to the crowd. If I continued to yell "Stride out!" at track competitions, she was prepared to stride – nay, sprint – as far as possible from her family cheering section.

A friend of mine similarly drew exasperation from her wrestling son when, as he lay struggling, his back to the mat, she rose to her feet and yelled, "Stop! You're hurting him!"

And so I've come to depend on innocuous, bland cheers. "Go, (child's name)!" is a safe bet – unless the said child's name drops temporarily out of one's mind. I've heard myself shout, to my own children, at the top of my lungs, "Go, Eloise! Er, I mean, Go, um, Polly!"

A catchy cheer like that calls for a cartwheel.

At a recent track meet, I hollered my heartiest "Go, Steve!" in support of a boy whose parents were sitting near me. Trouble was, Steve was not the boy's name, but the father's. (If he's anything like me, Steve takes encouragement where he can get it.)

The blunders that thunder across ball diamonds and gridirons, wrestling mats and stadiums, are minors, not majors. Make that pee-wee. As cheerleaders, we parents are at times short on bounce and weak on wits, but we've got spirit, yes we do, we've got spirit, how 'bout you?

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