At the risk of sounding cliche, it is important to stress that children truly are our future. The life lessons and experiences we share with them help shape who they are and provide perspective. When we take a close examination of our culture and see how the lack of any consistent guidance in the lives of our youth can lead to a life of strife and high levels of difficulty, we see it is our responsibility to raise champions. Coach Catherine Calloway, founder of the Technique Gems based in Chicago, has taken a pledge to help change the landscape and the future of our youth through her program. We spoke with her about why she started her organization and how it adds value to our world.
Tell everyone who you are and what you do.
My name is Catherine Calloway and I own Technique Gems. Technique Gems is a youth program operating out of Kennicott Park in North Kenwood that offers competitive cheerleading and hip-hop. Our athletes are ages 2-18. We have nine competitive teams this season. At Technique, we focus on building better people, not just great athletes. We are very successful competitively, but our main goal is to produce people who have the discipline, the foresight and a sense of responsibility to change the world. We want our kids to know that they have the power to affect the world around them. It’s their job to leave their schools, their communities and their families better than they were before they got there.
What is it about sports that help to build character?
Character building is the main reason for Technique Gems. We use something the kids love to do and teach them life long lessons. At Technique our athletes learn discipline. Our athletes learn responsibility and time management. These kids attend the top schools in the city and have maintain a strict practice schedule, other activities and make sure that they are stellar students. At Technique, we don’t accept fear as a reason to stop. Our kids push through fear to get the skills they must have in order to move up in the sport. They learn the soft skills hiring managers look for later in life. They have to be on time, be responsible, leaders, results driven, great communicators, analytical and understand team work. Cheerleading, in particular, is ideal for those lessons. In cheerleading, if just one person is missing, we can’t do some element in the routine. There is no substitute. We can’t take any one off the bench to fill a spot. We need you, and the best version of you, every single practice and every single performance. If you make one mistake, you let your while team down. If you or your teammate is having a bad day, you have to figure out how to get that person to function at at high level so the team doesn’t suffer. We analyze score sheets after every competition to see where we can improve and put together a plan for how to do that. In a sport where winners and losers are decided by tenths and sometimes hundredths of a point, your individual actions have a huge effect on our success. Therefore, our kids learn to be their very best at all times. More importantly, if you aren’t your best, let’s work together to make a plan to get you there.
What makes your squad unique?
I think our focus on character development makes Technique unique among programs I’ve seen. The lessons they learn in the sport are more important than the win to me. We push our kids until they can’t be pushed anymore. Then, we push more! There is always another answer, a better way. The athletes leave Technique and go to college with an understanding that they are capable of anything. It’s not easy. They have to be self analytical, critical thinkers. It’s hard to take an honest look at yourself. Although critical thinking is very frustrating to an emotional 11, 12 or 13 year old, if they can start then, we are putting some game changers in the world. That is truly our goal. At the end of the day, we are truly one big family. The families in our program support one another through thick and thin. The coaches serve as strong mentors for our athletes as well. We have kids hanging out at the gym for 8 hours on a Saturday just to be around. I have to make them leave. I love that. That means we’re doing something right. Technique is their home.
How challenging is it to be involved in a sport that does not have many African Americans involved in it?
This sport just wasn’t designed for us to succeed, but we never use race as an excuse for a lack of success. Things that we cherish as a people-individuality, outstanding athletic ability aren’t what makes for successful teams in this sport. It is about synchronization and uniformity. But when you play the game, it’s your job to know the rules and follow them to the tee. We take our kids strengths and make them work within the scoresheet. We’ll do what is required but make it our own.
The biggest hurdles we have to face are financial means and family dedication. Cheerleading is an expensive sport. By its very nature, it wasn’t designed for the very families that we serve. A uniform alone is $150. The hotels, the plane tickets, the competition fees are expensive. Being involved in cheer, and at a highly competitive level, is a lot of money. There are specialty camps to attend in the summer that are an upward of $1000 for a week of training. Our families truly do sacrifice for their athletes to be on Technique.
It is a lot of pressure for those kids as well. When you know that your parents have sacrificed so much, you have to produce. When you look around and don’t see anyone who looks like you, it’s even more difficult. There aren’t many other teams to identify with, especially at the higher levels. There may be a few on an all white team, but successful all Black teams are rare. Your struggle is uniquely yours. It’s always hard for the first, but that’s why we train our athletes to be mentally tough.
It’s equally difficult as a program facing obstacles unique to our community and families. Understanding true teamwork is a great hurdle we have overcome. Parents can’t use missing practice as a punishment because it punishes the whole team. You can’t pull them off in the middle of the season for poor performance in school. We have to come up with another plan. Parental decisions now have to include other families. Parents also don’t understand how much this truly is a team sport until they’re in it. That concept is difficult for our community. There are families with two working parents, sometimes single moms having to balance. Families have to rearrange schedules and priorities to be a part of Technique. The trade off is that you now have a huge village to support you. If you’re a part of Technique, everyone is your mother and father. We all support and discipline all of the athletes in the program.
Most all star programs have their own facilities that run 7 days a week to produce the number and level of teams we have. Technique practices at Kennicott Park 3 days per week. We have a great relationship with the park and I’ve invested in a lot of portable equipment, but there are still obstacles to our space. We’ve gotten very creative. Often times we have several teams practicing at the same time. We also use various rooms at the park to practice. The teams we compete against practice more days on better equipment, some times million dollar facilities, but that’s just the nature of the beast. We can and do still beat those teams. It just goes to show that some obstacles are just illusions.
What are some of your greatest accomplishments as a coach and as a team?
We are the only team in Chicago invited to attend the prestigious All Star Games in Las Vegas in April. There are only three programs in Illinois attending. We also received a paid bid to the Black Cheer and Dance Nationals in North Carolina. Technique is taking two teams to that event. We also have won bids to THE ONE in New Orleans for all of our full season teams. One of those bids is paid, as well. Our teams go from the lowest to the highest level of cheer, levels 1-5. We’re the only program in Chicago that is that broad. That is a HUGE accomplishment for us. We have a team for everyone-from the little ones just learning to walk to the highly competitive athletes.
Last year, we started our first level 5 team. There are only a handful of Black level 5 teams in the nation. It was difficult finding the athletes and families with not just that skill level, but that amount of dedication to see this team through. Many at that level pursue larger programs in the suburbs. At our first competition, we won our division and received Grand Champion honors. That means we were the best level 5 team of the day! That was a great feeling. Just to know we’re breaking down barriers every time our kids hit the floor is amazing.
The greatest accomplishment is to see kids I’ve coached come back happy, healthy and successful. Seeing them doing well means what we’re reaching our goal. Technique is making a difference in our community.
Why is this team so important to you?
Technique is my purpose. It is what I was put on this planet to do. It’s so much more than a business or a team. It’s who I am. I wanted a program like this growing up and there was nothing for me. As I look around our community day to day, I see the need. Our kids need to be accountable. They need to feel special and wanted. Technique fills that void for this generation. We had a village when I was growing up. Teachers, neighbors, friends, family, coaches, park district workers-everyone was responsible for you and you were in turn accountable to them. They corrected you when you were wrong and praised you when you did well. You could seek advice and direction from so many people and places. Our parents weren’t the only ones we answered to. They weren’t the only ones we turned to either. I want Technique to be that village for not just our athletes, but the community. I want to make Chicago a safe space for all of our kids.
What is next for you?
It’s time to grow. Technique has deliberately been a small program for a number of years now. I love that we’re exposing cheerleading to an audience that wouldn’t know it otherwise. Our kids are doing amazing things and we have to open that up to more people in more communities. It’s time to make a bigger impact. We’re planning now how to make the program more accessible for those who need it most. We’re going to diversify the programs we offer to increase our reach. Next season, our teams will be even better and more competitive as well as being a space for beginners to comfortably train.
What encouraging words do you have for our readers?
The only way you do the impossible is to believe that it is truly possible and work with every fiber of your being toward it. Be true to your vision. See your vision with such clarity you can’t see anything else. Once you see it clearly, start takings steps toward it. If you keep working hard, there’s always a break through. The times we’re in are difficult ones. We’re dealing with police brutality, social services being cut, education is underfunded. You can see the political statements from celebrities. The next generation is at stake. Our kids have to be the ones leading their own fight. Show them the way. Teach our kids to stand their ground and not run from right. It won’t be easy, but things will be better because of it. Our future depends upon what we’re teaching our kids right now.