Special needs cheer teams are part of a sustained effort to give children of all ages the opportunity to participate and compete in fields that have historically been inaccessible.
“I think it’s absolutely incredible that everybody gets a shot to do what they love. I think it provides great opportunities for the less physically able,” said Xander Simmons, a sophomore.
Students in the programs learn elements of cheer such as tumbling, jumps, stunts, and dances as well as chants and the best ways to rally a crowd. They then apply their skills by performing at pep rallies, athletic events, and competitions.
While the individual cheer teams vary in size, many larger teams, such as Peak Athletics, perform their routines at national competitions biannually. They often last two to three minutes and consist of tumbling, stunting, and jumping, both standing up and sitting down. The Peak Athletics team participates in multiple in-state competitions each year.
Varsity Spirit offers competitions under the name CheerABILITIES in three divisions ranging from exhibition to elite. Routines are limited to two minutes and thirty seconds, and follow the same ranking system used for non-special needs teams.
Participating in cheer positively impacts the health of the athletes. It helps athletes build fine motor skills, flexibility, and memory. Additionally, it provides athletes the opportunity to be part of a team, allowing them to bond with teammates and coaches.
The teams also provide an example for how to run special needs sports programs in other sports that do not have them yet. With clear competition structure, coaching requirements, and teaching skills that suit special needs students, the cheer teams give opportunities to students and coaches to expand their sports to include all, regardless of physical ability.