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Sacrificing my pom poms for my mental health: rigid cheerleading policy must change to support athletes’ well-being

Many professional athletes have dealt with their mental health struggles by taking breaks from their respective sports. Taking a mental break from a sport should be a decision that is respected by their coach (Contributed by Greershotz Photography).

One of the things that I love most about Staples is how they prioritize mental health. Dogs are brought in to calm students’ nerves during stressful weeks, there are mental health awareness clubs and teachers understand the stress that is put on students. I wish I could say the same about the athletic department.

However, in my experience, my mental health was handled poorly by my cheerleading coaches and I found no support from the athletic department. If the school believes that it’s important for students to have a good mental well-being, the athletic department should, too.

At the start of this school year, my cheerleading coaches implemented a rule stating:  “If you quit the competition team, you’re kicked off the game-day team.” So, when I joined the competition team, I accepted this  policy. However, in September, I quickly became overwhelmed with balancing cheer and my course load. 

Going from game-day practice, which only met once a week for two hours, to competition team practice, which met for an additional six hours plus competitions, was quickly becoming too much for me to handle. And then, my mental health hit an all time low when my doctor diagnosed me with anxiety. 

 I knew I needed to put a pause on cheerleading to recharge  in order to be at peak performance for my team. So, I provided the school with my doctor’s note, reluctantly reached out to my cheerleading coaches, and asked if I could step away from the competition team and remain on the game day team. 

Asking them was scary, but I hoped they would see that I was not asking to quit the team and that they would ultimately support me in a time when I was struggling. 

I was wrong. My coaches told me that, per the new rule, I could no longer be a Staples cheerleader at all. 

To be honest, their decision came as a shock. The policy was supposed to pertain to cheerleaders asking to quit the competition team. I was merely asking for a pause. I wanted to return when my mental health was better. 

Mental health is something that needs to be taken seriously. Although I’m an athlete, I’m also still a kid and a student.

— Katherine Phelps '25

When I was diagnosed with a concussion last year, my doctor’s note granted me a two-week pause from the competition team in order to recover from that injury. So why did my doctor’s note citing my anxiety diagnosis not grant me the same courtesy of treatment?

Prior to my departure from the team, I even reached out to my teammates explaining my situation. I was shown immense support. They understood I wasn’t abandoning them.  I received numerous text messages of support and love from them. I became even closer to my teammates after this experience, and that is something I’m incredibly grateful for. My teenage teammates understood my feelings, so why couldn’t the coaches?

Not only that, but I truly love cheerleading. I’ve made great friends and memories through cheer. I found something that I was passionate about. I knew when I made the competition team as the only freshman two years ago, that I found something that would have a positive impact on my life. My well-being soared during my freshman and sophomore year, but that just wasn’t the case my junior year. 

Mental health is something that needs to be taken seriously. Although I’m an athlete, I’m also still a kid and a student. But even adults who are athletes need a break, too. Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles has struggled with her mental health. Biles withdrew from the Olympic competition team in 2021 when she developed “the twisties” –a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose track of their position midair. In this scenario, she put her mental health ahead of her medals. Her teammates supported her decision, her coaches supported her and the world supported her. 

And yet, when I made the tough decision to speak about my mental struggles, I was shown no empathy. 

How will other teenage athletes in the future feel when they’re struggling with their mental health? Will policies like the one implemented by cheerleading pressure students to stay silent and suffer? And will they also ultimately be kicked off the team if they speak up about it? 

I understand rules are important. However, when it comes to mental health, exceptions to these rules should be prioritized. 

I hope that by sharing my story, some awareness is brought to future situations like mine regarding athletes and their mental health. Athletes shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against their struggles because nobody deserves to suffer in silence. 

[This article was originally published in the January 2024 edition of Inklings. It was modified and republished to the web on 2/7/2024]


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About the Contributor
Katherine Phelps ’25
Katherine Phelps ’25, Opinions Paper Editor
Katherine Phelps ’25 loves Inklings so much that this year she is working as an opinions paper editor again, partly because the class became an outlet while navigating the stresses of high school.  “Mentally draining, fun sometimes and tiring,” Phelps said when asked to describe her first two years at Staples.  The “fun” came from her diverting experiences in the Inklings room, which also led her to foster her journalism passion in the off season.  “I did a program with the New York Times for sports storytelling this summer,” Phelps said. “When I’m older I want to major in sports broadcasting.”   

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