Well, we made it. We survived our first big tryout week. Honestly, it was better than I expected. Even if my daughter hadn't made the 7th grade cheer squad, I'd still say that.
I was nervous going in, mostly because of the crazy cheer momma stories I'd heard about people freaking out over their child's competition and pulling sneaky moves. I didn't want to be like that, of course, nor did I want to fall into the category of being so obsessed with the outcome that I spent the week being strung-out, stressed, and overly invested in conversations about which girls have an inverted toe-touch, and who can do a back tuck.
After all, every girl who tries out for cheerleading is somebody's daughter. Their parents love them like I love my child. And while I certainly hoped and prayed my daughter would make it, I didn't want to wish misfortune on anyone or secretly delight in fantasies of girls messing up so she would look better.
So I prayed to keep my head and heart in the right place. I prayed for my daughter and the other girls. Most of all, I looked hard for the life lessons I needed to learn.
Because win or lose, I knew there were insights I was supposed to gain from this experience to help me grow as a parent and a person.
Here are eight lessons that stood out. While this list will evolve with time (especially as we have tryouts with different results), I hope it's helpful to anyone who wants to find meaning in tryout week and see it as so much more than a means to an end.
Lesson #8: A mother's attitude affects her daughter's attitude. To be our daughters' emotional support, we have to set a calm, positive tone.
When Ella began working with a cheer coach last May, she was lukewarm about the sport. She enjoyed the practices, but she wasn't sure this was her "thing."
After a few months, however, her heart changed. She began getting a special glow after practice and jumping in the car to say, "I really want to be a cheerleader!" It thrilled me to see her so passionate about something... yet this also raised the stakes. If cheer didn't work out, she'd be heartbroken.
As tryouts approached, the stress hit her. A lot of strong athletes had signed up, and naturally that made her nervous. While I felt nervous for her, I took the advice moms had given me about not letting it show. Instead of feeding her fears, I told her how excited I was that her day to shine was almost here. I reminded her of how hard she'd been working, and that she was ready to show her stuff!
Soon after this, Ella made a paper chain to "count down" to tryouts. It was like the chains my girls make for the Christmas countdown, only these slips had daily exercises on them. The smaller the chain got, the more excited she became. It surprised me to see her anticipation grow from a tiny seed I'd planted. While she still got nervous tryout week, she remained excited. She understood it as a goal to look forward to, not dread.
It's hard for moms not to get emotional, and to walk that fine line of building your child up without underestimating the skills required to make a team in this day and age. But with your daughter's emotions running high, and her body tired from practicing, she needs a rock. The steadier you are, the more she benefits.
Lesson #7: Tryout week is a great opportunity to love on your child and her friends.
One highlight of my daughter's week was getting the rock star treatment. With friends and aunts dropping off candy, family members posting encouraging notes in her room, and her choice of breakfast and dinner each day, it became a week she'll always remember. Even siblings were given strict orders to be extra-nice and affirming.
Breaking the routine to give Ella and any friends she had over special perks and extra attention was fun. Tryout week can be so overwhelming that it's important to surround them with love and positive energy.
Lesson #6: Watching your child transform is one of the best parenting experiences.
After the first clinic, the girls are scared. With nervous laughter they show you a dance that looks so fast and complicated you're silently thinking, "Oh dear heavens, will they ever get that?!!!!" while plastering a smile on your face that you hope conveys total confidence.
But over the week, the girls evolve. A mini-miracle takes place as they struggle, grow, break through, and fly. When things finally click, it's awesome. Those once unsure girls are now confident and spirited. They're adding smiles and having fun. As they swing their bodies and ponytails around, you realize how they're growing up in the best way.
They're learning to believe in themselves and seeing how hard work pays off.
By Friday, you have a new child. You're in awe of what's happened. And while you really want them to make the cut, you're already so proud. In your eyes, they've won. They've faced their fears, entered a scary unknown, and emerged stronger on the other side. The lifelong benefit isn't whether they make it, but the confidence they've gained by pushing their body to new limits and the courage they'll develop by performing in front of judges.
Tryouts are a chance to practice being brave. They teach our kids to take risks, even when they're nervous and scared. Our world celebrates results, but what really deserves celebration is the transformation of each child. These girls walk into clinic the first day as one version of themselves -- and walk out the last day a new version. To witness that as a parent is pretty amazing.
Lesson #5: No outcome will bring 100 percent happiness.
Even if your child makes it, she'll have friends who don't. As you scan the newly posted list, your heart will be torn. You'll rejoice for the names on there, yet mourn those missing.
And next year, it could be your child's name missing. There are no guarantees. Since everyone's in this boat, you have a heart for any girl who may be crying in her mother's arms at home.
Moms whose daughters have not made cheerleader tell me that it's better to reach out than to do nothing. I suggest saying a prayer for wisdom before texting or calling to make sure your words ring with love, not pity. Another idea is to drop off a special treat that night, or maybe a cup of Starbucks hot chocolate the next morning. Write an encouraging note that highlights the girl's talents and strengths.
Most of all, remind your daughter to keep including these friends, because their biggest fear is missing out on fun times and being left behind.
Lesson #4: It's comical how many adults project their tryout experiences on kids.
Good or bad, we all remember our first tryouts, right? It's locked into our memory for life.
But please, when you're talking to a starry-eyed kid going out for a team, don't share your sad story. Don't focus on "that time I didn't make the cut" and tell the child up-front how she'll be OK if she doesn't make it either, because it all works out.
I laugh as I write this because I project my experiences all the time. But what my daughter's tryout experience taught me is how discouraging this can be, because so many adults do it. And when your daughter looks at you with sudden confusion and self-doubt, wondering if all these gloomy predictions will come true, you find yourself saying, "Don't listen to them! Their story isn't your story! Tryouts are a sore subject for people. You're amazing and doing awesome, so keep believing in yourself!"
My advice is to encourage these kids, pray for them, and fuel their excitement. If they don't make the team, share your sad story, but until then, assume the best. Otherwise they feel defeated before they've even begun.
Lesson #3: A coach has a huge impact on your child's confidence. Particularly during tryout week, the coach's words carry more weight than yours.
The older my daughters get, the more I realize how I'm not enough to be their only female influence. They need additional women in their life to build them up -- mentors they respect and want to learn from.
In the months before tryouts, Ella worked with two awesome ladies on cheer and gymnastics. They know their game and can give honest feedback with encouragement. During tryout week, she quoted them. She remembered tips she'd heard along the way. I could applaud my child all day, but the applause that spoke loudest during that crunch time came from the experts.
A girl with a dream needs someone who "gets" that dream to help her accomplish her goals. Since my gig as a high school cheerleader hardly qualified me for cheer standards today -- and because my encouragement is often met with the words, "You're my mom, you have to say nice things!" -- I was grateful to have coaches and other women Ella looks up to speaking the truth with love, confidence, and conviction.
Lesson #2: When your child beats herself up -- and she will -- remind her of how far she's come. Remember that a breakdown is perfectly normal.
Ella's breakdowns happened before clinic started, over her back-handspring. I felt helpless trying to offer support. I tried to emphasize how far she'd come since starting this journey, but the words didn't sink in until I was downloading iPad videos one night and came across one of her.
It was from her first cheer session nine months earlier, and realizing the progress since then was remarkable. The video -- which captured low jumps, loose motions, and a timid voice -- was her point of origin. It served as proof of her growth.
Since comparison to others makes us beat ourselves up, offer your daughter another measuring stick. Tell her to compare where she is now to where she started. Emphasize the progress, and if you have a video to prove it, by all means show it.
Lesson #1: Root your confidence in God's plan.
The reason parents freak out over things like tryouts is that we want our kids to have a place. Making a team gives them an instant tribe, and sometimes recognition among peers. While I certainly get this and know how deeply adolescents crave a sense of belonging, we often keep too narrow a view of the options.
We believe that if Plan A doesn't work out, there is no Plan B.
But there's always a Plan B. And a Plan C, a Plan D, and so on. Having faith means knowing that the God who created the universe has known since the beginning of time whether our child will make the team. And believe it or not, He cares. He understands the impact on her heart. As much as we love our child, God loves her more. His plan for her is full of wonderful surprises.
So as you drop your daughter off at tryouts, your stomach churning, your eyes watering, and your heart hammering, remember it's in His hands. Say a prayer of thanksgiving as she disappears behind the school doors and be GRATEFUL that she's healthy and able and can try out for a team. Because truly, that is a privilege.
And if you're worried, remember how you once worried that this daughter might never get her cartwheel. Now here she is, flipping all over the place. How silly of you to doubt her cartwheeling future! If only you'd known! Your worries then are like your worries now, and one day you'll look back at this woman losing her cool in the middle school parking lot and laugh at the memory of her.
Whatever happens, it's all good. In every scenario there are lessons to be learned and opportunities to grow. This is true for the girls trying out, of course, but just as importantly, it's true for the mothers who love them dearly and with all their heart and soul.
Follow Kari Kubiszyn Kampakis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KariKampakis