Lisa Stewart ’07 MEd is always challenging herself. That’s why she has participated in rodeos, competed at the Miss North Carolina pageant, played numerous sports, taught middle and high school, and served as a high school counselor. That’s also what drew her to Campbell University to build a nationally-competitive cheerleading squad.
Since she can remember, Lisa Stewart ’07 MEd wanted to coach and work with children and youth. So after graduating from Meredith College, where she played softball, and after obtaining a teaching certification from East Carolina University, Stewart began teaching health and physical education at Erwin Middle School.
The Buies Creek native coached the volleyball, girls’ basketball, and softball teams the first few years she worked there. But when she saw the cheerleading team struggling, she thought that group needed her more. So she gave up coaching the other sports and became the cheerleading coach.
She brought in private cheerleading instructors, attended cheerleading camps with the team, and drew on her experiences in dancing and competing at pageants, including at Miss North Carolina, to rebuild the program. “I was trying to learn as much as I could as the team was learning,” she said. “As I saw the kids learning backhand springs and other skills, I enjoyed their success. It was a new experience, and I loved it.”
After a few years at Erwin Middle School, she moved on to Triton High School, where she coached the Hawks’ cheerleading team to two state titles. Inspired by the kind of questions and life advice her students asked in classes, she decided to transition to counseling, leading her to complete a Master of Education in counseling from Campbell University. “I love learning and challenging myself,” she said.
Today, she’s a full-time counselor at Harnett Central High School and the cheerleading coach at Campbell.
For most of its history, the Camels cheerleading team just cheered at games and was comprised mainly of women. When Stewart became the university’s cheerleading coach seven years ago, she set several goals: make the squad co-ed, participate in national competitions, and improve each year.
In her second year as coach, the team was coed. In her sixth year, the team participated in the program’s first national competition, at Cheer Ltd’s 2013 Open College Championships in Myrtle Beach, S.C., finishing third in the large coed collegiate division. And as far as getting better each year? That has happened, too. Consider this past March, in only its second competition in program history, at the 2014 Open College Championships, Campbell’s cheerleading team placed second in its division.
“I know second place is the first loser, and I’m never satisfied if we don’t win, but that weekend, I was OK with getting second,” Stewart said. “They performed well against some really good teams.”
Also at this year’s competition, cheerleaders Drew Yoder and Sammy Meany won the coed collegiate partner student event, a first for Campbell. “That was the first time anybody from the team had even competed in one of the stunt competitions,” Stewart said. “They did great.”
Stewart talked to Campbell.edu about her roles as a high school counselor and a college coach, what it’s like to work with both college and high school students, and how to build a program. The following is an edited transcript.
What led you to teaching and then counseling?
My mom was an educator and a principal. She recently retired after 30 years. So I’ve grown up around education. I started off as a health and physical education teacher. I got into counseling because of the relationships I developed with the kids I taught when I was teaching health. There were a lot of questions students had that seemed to come out in health class. It sparked my interest.
What do you enjoy about counseling?
I enjoy helping them through difficult stages in their lives and helping them plan for life after high school. I just love working with kids. I seem to have an easy time developing relationships with them.
Why do you think that it is?
I am very open and understanding. I do not judge. I also try to keep up on things that are going on in the teenage world. I feel like I am able to understand and speak their language. Coaching and being around college students helps me in that area.
How did you get interested in coaching and sports?
My dad. I was an only child and grew up a tomboy. I didn’t have anybody around my own age to play with when I was little. My dad played with me and my goal was always to beat him, which I rarely did. Even now, the biggest conversations we have are about sports.
How did you end up coaching at Campbell?
I had been coaching at Triton High School for several years, and I was ready for a new challenge. One of my friends was a former women’s soccer coach here, and he called the assistant athletic director at the time and asked if they had an opening for next year. They didn’t for that year, but the next year the cheerleading coach didn’t return. The assistant AD remembered that the soccer coach had called and had given her my name. I was waiting for the position to become available and was very excited when I had the opportunity for an interview.
Why were interested in coaching Campbell’s squad?
I thought it would be a new experience to coach at the college level and that there was an opportunity to build a program. When I interviewed with the athletic director at the time, he told me he wanted a co-ed program. I had never coached co-ed before so I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I was excited about doing it.
What’s your vision for Campbell’s program?
Right now we’re competing in Myrtle Beach at the Cheer Ltd National’s CANAM-College Open Championships. That’s a national competition where we compete against people from all over; but I would like to compete in Florida at the NCA & NDA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship and on a more national, competitive level -- the level you see on ESPN. At those championships, you compete according to the division your football team plays in so we would compete against other D1AA football teams. We wouldn’t be up to against an N.C. State, Louisville or Kentucky, but that would put us up against schools like Liberty, Sam Houston State and a lot of Texas, Tennessee and Florida schools. I welcome that challenge.
But not only do I expect them to be competitive; I expect my cheerleaders to be good performers and supporters of the sports team. I think the performance at football and basketball games has been better this year than it has ever been. I’m pleased with that, and I would like for that to continue. I want them to entertain the crowd as well as cheer for the team that’s playing.
How does the squad continue to get better and better?
It’s the people. My former assistant coach [Lindsay Weaver], for example, did an excellent job of reaching out to high school coaches and getting students to pick Campbell over somewhere that doesn’t have as strong of a cheerleading program. You have to have people like that who are going to buy in to what you are trying to do. And you have to pick athletes with the skills needed to form a good team. You want it be an honor to be on the team. But not only do you need good athletes, you also need good people. A lot of times, those who don’t fit in or buy in to your program weed themselves out.
When I started coaching here, the cheerleaders had never been treated like athletes before. That was the first thing I wanted to change. I wanted them to be looked at like the other sports teams. As with any sport, the only way to get that respect is to be good. I would tell them, “You have to work just as hard as the football and basketball teams. To get that respect like the other sports teams, you have to earn it.” In the very beginning, I fought for the cheerleaders to be included in athletic department events and activities. Now, they are included in everything. I am extremely pleased with the support they receive from the athletic department and our athletic director, Bob Roller.
Where’s the program now in terms of where you want it to be?
We’re on the right track. The skills we require now are comparable to other college teams. This year I required a standing tuck as well as more elite stunting skills. I’m glad we’ve gotten to the point where we can require a higher level of skill. I felt like it was time to raise the bar in order to be competitive and to perform at a more advanced, collegiate level. Before I was keeping 30 kids on the team; this year I kept 17. But to be a college cheerleader, advanced skills are necessary.
We’re also in the process of hiring a new assistant coach. Our candidate is a former North Carolina State cheerleader who has competed nationally with both the NC State team and in the individual partner stunt competition. He will be a tremendous help in taking our program to the next level.
What do you need to be a good coach?
Time is a big factor. Away from the practices, there are the emails, the phone calls, the appearances, ordering gear; a lot of organizing and secretarial stuff that you have to do. Cheerleading is a long season. We go from August all the way through March. Are you willing to put in all that time? You also have to love what you’re doing and be passionate about it. When you lose that passion, that’s your first clue that it’s time to stop. And you have to take the time to develop and build relationships. You have to be patient and fair. And, sometimes you have to be quick to think and slow to speak.
Is this similar to what it takes to be an effective counselor?
Definitely. A counselor is a kind of a people-coach. You’re coaching the people or the kids that come in your office. You have to be a good listener, both as a coach and as a counselor. However, sometimes as a coach you have to be a little tough on your team and break them down when needed. You don’t necessarily do that as a counselor. You also have to be as passionate about counseling and love what you do. And you have to build strong relationships with the kids on your caseload. All these things make a good coach as well as a good counselor.
What’s different between the two?
I can be more relaxed around my team. Sometimes it is a stress reliever to go to practice. The college students are definitely more independent and are not as needy as the kids in high school. Many of their life decisions have been made. College students are more mature and handle their problems in a different manner so there is less drama at the college level than what I deal with on a daily basis. And with college students, I don’t have to take phone calls from upset parents.
How do you transition back and forth between working with college and high school students?
With either you have to be a good listener and patient and be the type of person that kids are aren’t afraid to talk to. Kids these days have so much on their minds and so much going on in their lives; sometimes they need someone who is not going to give advice and say you should do this or that but someone who is going to listen and let them work things out for themselves. You ask thought provoking questions, which help them reach their own decisions. Sometimes all my kids at school need is a good pep talk, and they need someone to encourage them and let them know that somebody is in their corner and wants them to do well and succeed. That definitely carries over to both the students I counsel and coach.
Why do you coach?
I like developing relationships with kids. I also like building new teams and taking teams that are not very good and making them better. That’s what I’ve tried to do everywhere I’ve coached. And, of course, I love cheerleading. I have a passion for cheerleading and a commitment to both my cheerleaders and to the university. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t coach.
What do you like about building new teams?
I think it’s my competitive spirit. I love the challenge. I also enjoy watching people become better and accomplish new skills. Sometimes people just need a little push to go from good to great. I enjoy being that person who gives them that little push.
Where did your competitiveness come from?
I think it’s innate. I’ve always pushed myself to do new things and be successful. I’ve done the pageants and gone to Miss North Carolina; I experienced a little success in the rodeo circuit for several years. I love learning and challenging myself. I think it is part of my makeup. It’s almost like when I do something and I get where I want to be and am satisfied I’m done with it and want to move on to something else or a new challenge.
So what’s your next “something else”?
Cheerleading is going to be the last. When I finish this, I’m done. I have a 10-year-old son, Hayden. He’s growing in to a pretty good golfer. I’ll be enjoying all his something else-s.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough