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What A Netflix Documentary About Cheerleading Taught Me About Leadership
As someone who’s been fascinated by competitive cheerleading since 2000, AKA when Bring It On came out, I couldn’t wait to binge watch Netflix’s latest original documentary, Cheer.
Cheer follows one of the top cheer teams in the country, Navarro (which if you didn’t know is a Jr College located in Texas), throughout their journey to Daytona, FL where the largest cheer competition in the country takes place. While the journey might be what you expect for the athletes: long hours of practice, some bruises and broken bones, and people being pushed beyond their limits from the stress, there was something that stood out to me which I think ultimately contributed to the team’s success: their Head coach, Monica Almada.
Monica Almada embodies everything a true leader should and there were several things I learned from her that can be applied when leading a team of any nature.
A good leader knows each person’s strengths and weaknesses.
Monica Almada proved this to be true by knowing each member of her team and what they needed to work on. This allowed her to be strategic when choosing which combination of team members to invite to perform in Daytona (She could only choose 20 out of 40 individuals to perform in this competition). She also could provide each person personalized and individual coaching to help them grow and develop. This helped her gain the respect of her team because they truly felt that Monica wanted to help them succeed, and not just point out their flaws for the sake of criticism.
A good leader has standards.
While Monica cared individually for each team member, often times referring to them as “her children”, she also had to enforce some strict rules and discipline when it came to her expectations of them. The team knew what the rules were and that there were consequences when they didn’t abide by them. She knew when to take off her “mentorship” hat and put on her “business” hat when it came to having to make tough decisions based on those standards as well. For example, she wouldn’t choose someone to perform in Daytona who wasn’t a top performer just because they had a great personality and attitude. Instead, she chose the strong team members who she knew would give a high performance and ultimately get the team higher scores. She also had a no tolerance rule for any actions performed by the team that didn’t represent Navarro well, which we see leads to the dismissal of law breaking teammates.
A good leader has their team’s back.
Let’s face it, team members can mess up at times. What made Monica special in this case was that she always had the team’s back and would defend them. In one example, a tumbler on the team named Lexi, had been the victim of a nude photo leak from when she was a teenager. After they gained the courage to admit this to Monica, fearing their separation from the team, Monica personally helped her go to the police and file a report on the person leaking those images. She took time to understand the situation and that Lexi was a victim. This went a long way with Lexi who ultimately became more committed to both Monica and the team.
A good leader motivates their team by believing in them.
Because Monica had such high standards for anyone chosen to be on the team, each person knew what a great opportunity it was to be a part of the squad. Throughout the documentary it is apparent at times that each person at some point had been the victim of self-doubt, which is something I think we can all relate to. What got them through that low point was knowing that Monica believed in them, which motivated them to succeed. If they weren’t going to try hard for themselves, they wanted to do it for Monica. The thought of letting her down seemed worse to them, than letting themselves down. In my personal experiences with the different leaders I have had, this level of motivation and inspiration by a leader, seems very hard to come by.
A good leader cares about the outcome.
Lastly, at the heart of every good team is a leader who stands behind an outcome. If the team doesn’t have a specific goal in mind, then there is no drive or determination for people to work together. This is not the case for the Navarro Cheerleading Team. Their mission is quite clear: to win the 2019 NCA Competition in Daytona. Monica was maniacal and regimented when it came to doing the things that needed to be done to hit their goal. Incorporating everything from extra practices, training the back up members of the team just as hard as the “first round” picks for the performance, to superstitious things like not touching the ocean when they arrived in Daytona (as they believed that was a fun celebration only for the winning teams). She truly cared about the team hitting their goal and knowing exactly what they had to do to get there. She pushed the team until they did things correctly, instead of taking breaks when it seemed like people were reaching their edge. Knowing what you are set out to accomplish and having a plan to get there and get everyone’s buy in makes a big difference when it comes to being a manager vs. being a leader.
Aside from feeling completely out of shape from watching these athletes fly through the air after this bingefest, I left my couch feeling inspired and motivated to be a little more like Monica when it comes to some of the teams I am on. It also allowed me to reflect on some of the leaders in my life and not only appreciate their strengths but also be able to give them some feedback on things they could be doing better. I won’t spoil the ending for you on whether or not Navarro won that competition, because in the end as long as you’re part of a great team with great leadership I think you’ve won by default.