From the stands, spectators see poms and megaphones and hear the cheerleaders leading the crowd. In reality, cheerleading is much more than Friday nights on the sidelines. It serves as an avenue that provides the groundwork for teaching valuable life skills that can be applied far beyond the playing field.

It provides the framework for a healthy lifestyle.

Stunts, pyramids, tumbling and jumps may seem effortless, but in reality they require serious strength, athleticism and endurance, and they offer a variety of health benefits. Along with the technical skills involved in cheerleading, there is often dance, an obvious cardio benefit. In fact, according to a recent study from the University of Brighton, dancing can burn up to 300 calories per half an hour! According to Nick Smeeton, a principal lecturer at the University of Brighton and coauthor of that report, dancing requires “movement in all directions” which increases the energy output and provides a better caloric burn. Then add in stunts, pyramids and tumbling, which leverage the body’s own mass to build muscles. On top of physical fitness, cheerleading also has mental health benefits. The BBC recently published research that identified that “dance and movement are known to have physical and psychological benefits for those with mental illness.” Generally speaking, cheerleading fosters a positive outlook on life. Cheerleaders tend to be optimistic and hopeful about everything they do, which has a direct and positive impact on their overall state of mind, with the added benefit of uplifting those around them. It is a cheerleader’s job to motivate; so in return, a cheerleader is naturally positive and encouraging towards his/her peers.

It builds a community.

Much has been publicized about the “loneliness epidemic” of late. According to research presented in 2017 at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, there is a significant correlation between loneliness and a premature death. In fact, USA Today stated in an article in 2018 that “loneliness cuts life expectancy by about the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more than obesity. It is also associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” It is modern civilization’s greatest irony that while we are the most connected generation in the history of man, we are also the loneliest. Being a part of a cheerleading team, much like other organized activities, provides a sense of community and a feeling of belonging that helps to combat isolation. Cheerleaders are trained to encourage others, and that starts with their teammates. Adding to that, cheerleaders also are often more engaged with their broader community, and are 70% more likely than their peers to volunteer and 50% more likely to be in some kind of service club in school.

It cultivates leadership skills.

According to a study conducted by Varsity Spirit, 90% of cheerleaders see themselves as role models to their peers compared to 57% of average teenagers. In fact, 7 in 10 hold leadership positions in activities or out of school. Similarly, 94% of cheerleaders believe they will be successful in life compared to 73% of average teens; while 83% of cheerleaders state that they never give up compared to 53% of average teens. Because of this, cheerleaders are 48% more likely than their peers to believe they will leave their mark. And they may not be wrong – Culinary tycoon, Rachael Ray was a cheerleader for her upstate New York high school; news gurus Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer both cheered for their hometown teams as teens; in the dawn of her acting career, Reese Witherspoon cheered on her high school squad; and the material girl herself, Madonna, even had a spot on the sideline and perfected her pre-celebrity moves at Rochester Adams High School.

From a personal standpoint, cheerleading has certainly shaped me into the woman I am today. I’ve never stopped “practicing”; cheerleading helped me develop healthy habits, and fitness has been a priority for me ever since. Growing up as a cheerleader, I was surrounded by role models—my own coaches, teammates and camp instructors—who pushed me to dream big and gave me the strength to stand up for what I believe in. For me, it instilled self-confidence that I otherwise would not have had and molded me into a passionate leader. Cheerleading started as something fun for me, but it quickly turned into my purpose when I accepted a job with Varsity Spirit in 2001, and gave me an avenue to help shape the lives of young people all over the world.

So remember to look past the poms and see the true leaders who stand on the sidelines. These athletes are the go getters and the doers. They are the believers. And they are laying the groundwork for a bright future ahead.