When Mia Kelley stepped in to become La Jolla High School’s new cheerleading coach in November, it was a bit of a rough start. She was the third coach in a year to take the reins, and after a change in practice schedule interfered with a handful of senior activities, some of the older students quit the team.
But the Colorado native and professional hairstylist has high hopes for the squad, which she plans to coach for the long run.
“Cheerleaders have always struggled to be respected by their peers who say it’s not really an athletic activity or not really a sport, so that’s my big thing, I want squad members to behave like athletes so they are treated like athletes,” she said, noting that competing in cheerleading contests is also on the horizon.
“Next year, my goal will be to get them conditioned and in shape and ready to compete,” Kelley said. “They want to compete, but they have a lot ahead of them to get there.”
To reach fighting shape, Kelley has her squad, a combination of junior varsity and varsity cheerleaders blended into one team, practice weekly with an emphasis on running and core strength. The team of 14 girls and one boy run a mile before practice, occasionally run up and down the bleachers, stretch, and do core work — all before cheer drills begin.
“It’s not just a free-for-all, I bring some discipline and structure,” Kelley said. “It was hard for them to have a few different coaches and that instability. Without a coach, people missed practices and it was more laid back.”
A junior and third-year cheerleader, Abigail Weber, who has seen coaches come and go, said, “There was a time of about two months where we didn’t have a coach, so we conducted practices ourselves,” she said. “Parents would come and supervise, but it was mostly us running it. I think we will get back on track with this coach.” Coach Kelley, a former competitive cheerleader, said she
was cutting someone’s hair at Bellini Beauty Bar in La Jolla when the client started telling her how his daughter had signed up for cheer. “I told him how great that experience was for me when I did it, and all the opportunities I got from it,” she said. “A month later, he came back in and said they needed a coach.”
Drawing from her experience, Kelley emphasizes jumps during practice. Jumps are used frequently in her routines and she wants to see uniformity in how high the students leap. “We run cheers and make sure they are clean and precise,” she said.
But for as hard as they work, they enjoy themselves, too. “They are really fun and really silly; they all have loud personalities and are natural-born leaders,” Kelley said. “So far it has been a great experience.”
Hoping to keep that experience going, Kelley has plans for next year’s tryouts (at end of the school year) and elevating the team. She plans to have a JV and varsity team. “Everyone is going to have to try out; it’s a clean slate,” she said. “Some might be put on JV, but that’s the way it has to be.”
She also said she would like to work with the athletic department to establish an exercise routine exclusively for next year’s squads. This is both to prevent injuries and to keep the team physically strong and ready to challenge themselves.
In the meantime, Kelley minimizes injury by only allowing the team to engage in jumps or stunts she knows how to do safely and plans to take the squad to camps where they will learn the correct way to prepare for major stunts.
Weber, a flyer (the one who gets thrown in the air and caught by teammates), said she hopes to continue her cheer experience with Kelley and improve her stunt-work. “We’ve had a lot of great teammates and you learn a lot from them. It’s been a great bonding experience,” she said.
Agreeing, junior Sean Nelson, the sole male on this year’s squad, said he enjoys performing with his teammates and the feeling of coming together as a team. “I definitely plan to try out again next year,” he said. “Cheer has given me something to focus my energy on. I used to be a troublemaker, but since I’ve been on cheer, I’ve learned to work hard because now I have something to lose.”
With her new squads — hopefully sharing the enthusiasm of this year’s group — Kelley said she will require that the team cheer during at least one game for every sport at La Jolla High.