“What inspires me?” This is one of the most frequent questions I have been asking myself since I began attending college. After following a series of paths commonly considered to be necessary for success, where to go next is a matter I constantly ponder — and I believe many of you may do so as well. The Netflix documentary “Cheer” may push you to consider this question even harder.
“Cheer” is a series that depicts real events that took place at Navarro Community College in Corsicana, Texas. The coach of its cheerleading team, Monica Aldama, has led the team to 14 NCA National Championships in the junior college division, as well as five Grand National designations since the year 2000. The documentary holistically portrays the everyday life of cheerleading training at Navarro in a complex, emotional story full of joy, tears, stamina, teamwork, camaraderie, challenge and hope.
As the central figure in “Cheer” and the soul of the cheerleading team at Navarro Community College, Aldama appears so self-contained, calm and enthusiastic that you can easily see her passion for her current career. Though she holds a finance degree from a top college as well as an MBA, she is extremely dedicated to her “kids” and their training. She is determined and driven, but also caring and loving. The contrast between her seemingly stone-cold face and her true love for her students is exceedingly charming.
Aldama takes a tough love approach to coaching and is exceptionally strict with her team. She pushes her students hard with absolute “heartlessness”; she encourages them to persist, even in the face of physical exhaustion and pain. She says in the documentary that many students on her team were never expected to exert themselves to this extent and had little structure in their lives before coming to Navarro. Thus, Aldama feels she needs to guide them to cultivate self-accountability, gain confidence and ultimately translate their hard work during cheerleading training into fuel for their lives later on.
Aldama is harsh on her students, but she is a firm supporter of each of them. Even though she is a conservative and religious person, Aldama respects every student regardless of their background or sexual orientation. She said she would fight tooth and nail for her students. Aldama becomes emotional when she discusses how she disagrees with people in church who disrespect LGBTQ+ teenagers.
It seems her stern demeanor never obscures her students’ understanding of her love and purpose. You can clearly see how much they respect and love her. One of the students interviewed in “Cheer” expresses that she would sacrifice anything for her coach.
Aldama has helped many students from unstructured, unstable and directionless backgrounds find their purpose and potential. She exemplifies a truly great coach — someone who is not only driven to lead her team to win championships, but is also dedicated to developing cheerleaders who can be champions in their lives beyond cheerleading. I was struck by the powerful impact of the true heart and love of a teacher. I was also surprised by how much her students could influence and nurture her in return.
“Cheer” not only depicts Aldama’s dream and mission as a coach. It also reveals the values and focus of her students. Aldama’s harsh training regimen pushes students to work hard, but also to cherish life. Many students featured in the documentary share how their cheerleading experience took them out of a life with no direction and led them to feel determination and hope.
The sense of belonging that the “Cheer” students feel when they are part of the team might be critically important to all young people. As explained by one of the students in the documentary, his broken family made it difficult for him to find meaning in life, but joining the cheerleading team allowed him to find a new place to call home. During his interview, the student looks hopeful and bright, and his face is filled with unlimited expectations for the future.
Working hard toward a common goal unites the “Cheer” team and provides each of the members with powerful feelings of partnership and attachment. Having a focus in life is also important. With the shared goal of winning the national championship, these student cheerleaders are laser-focused on their training, through which they develop resilience, diligence and persistence.
“Cheer” has led me to think about a relevant concept in psychology: the paradox of choice. The more choices we have, the more anxious and unhappy we may become. A strong and persuasive focus in life might be a significant factor for happiness because it leaves no room for unnecessary or negative thoughts. The mental satisfaction derived from the training process might further inspire the students to work hard and stay focused on whatever they do in the future.
It seems many of the previously “lost” young people who joined Aldama’s team gradually found their purposes in life. As one of the students says the night before the open competition, “We are competing against ourselves, not others.” Without deep reflections after struggles, joy and tears, it would be hard to imagine someone could come up with this conclusion and be able to express it in such a firm and convincing voice.
What about you? Do you remember the last time you were laser-focused on something? What motivates you?