how i get it done

How Cheer’s Superstar Coach Monica Gets It Done

Monica Aldama. Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Monica Aldama is one of the most successful athletic coaches in the country, having brought in 14 Junior College Division National Championships and five Grand National Titles for the cheerleading team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. While she may not have the name recognition of coaches in other sports, Netflix’s hugely popular new docuseries Cheer is poised to change that. The series focuses on Aldama as her team prepares for the 2019 championships in Daytona Beach, Florida — a road marked by serious injuries, personal tragedies, and a whole lot of pyramid practice. Aldama lives in Corsicana with her husband and has two kids, both college athletes at SMU. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On her morning routine:
I like to be up at least two hours before I’m going to be somewhere. It’s not that it takes me that long to get ready; I just like to not be rushed. On a typical day, I try not to get in before nine. I don’t have breakfast or drink coffee, but I have my little shake that has collagen and some BCAAs. I’m very diligent about taking all my vitamins. And then I drink a protein drink, and that gets me through till dinnertime. I usually work straight through lunch, because I’m so busy that I don’t even think about it.
On her coaching style:
I try to be very consistent so they know that when I’m serious, I’m serious, and that I do have rules and I expect them to follow them. But at the same time, I want them to know that they can come talk to me and that I am going to be empathetic. It is a friendship, but at the same time, it’s a respectful friendship, where you know that I’m still the person that’s going to be bossing you around for a minute or two at practice. You also find that they’re all different; some want you to be tough with them and then if you use that same approach on someone else, it’ll just tear them down. I really try to figure everyone out. When they get here, you start watching them and learning what’s going to motivate them and what they can handle.

On making hard decisions:
I want to make decisions with my heart. But then I also know I can’t. And I know that they’re going to be disappointed at times that they’re not in that spot that they want, and I do get so attached to these kids that I don’t want them to be disappointed. When I was younger and first starting, it was really hard for me. But now I just put that coaching hat on and make the decision. Sometimes I’ll even pull them to the side and tell them what they can work on in a certain area, just so that they understand the decision and maybe feel a little better about it. I think that they respect me for being honest and having those conversations in a more understanding way, instead of just yelling. I’m not a yeller. Even if I’m disciplining someone or talking about something that they need to do better, I try to have a respectful conversation.

On diverging from her set career path:
When I was graduating college, I really thought that I would be in finance, maybe in New York doing work on Wall Street. But first, I just needed to get a job, so I took a job in Dallas at a computer company. I had been there about a year and was really not happy, and it just so happened that a friend of mine who was a coach here reached out to me and said that I should apply for the coaching job. I love cheerleading and figured I could do that at least temporarily, until I figured out something else. But when I got here, I was also going to be the very best that I could, and I wanted to build up the program — and I’m still here 25 years later. I kept thinking, Okay, I’m gonna make that switch. I’m going to move over to the finance industry. And every time I would seriously start thinking about it, I would feel like: This program is my baby. I built it. How can I ever turn it over to someone else? And then we started raising our kids here, and all the dynamics just kind of fell into place where I thought, you know, maybe this is my purpose in life — to be a part of the kids’ lives and be a mentor to them.

On the importance of composure:
I definitely have always told myself no matter what I’m feeling inside, I can’t let the team know. Because cheerleading is a very mental game. We can do all this work preparing mentally, but if they see me looking terrified or scared or losing it, all that work that we’ve done could go down the drain. I’ve gotten pretty good about hiding it any time I’m concerned about something. When we were at finals and Austin got hurt, I was proud of myself because I literally went into focus mode. And although I was terrified, I couldn’t even go there because I was so focused on what we needed to do to fix it in a very short time span. We had a few minutes to put Alex in and teach him what we’re going to do. I know they’re looking to me as their leader, and how I’m feeling is going to radiate out into them. I don’t want to have my nerves make them more nervous than they might already be.

On navigating failure:
Losing at Daytona in 2017 was tough because we took a lot of time putting some really difficult skills in our routine and then to have a couple of mistakes that we never had in practice was almost shocking to me. I allowed myself to take a few weeks when we got home to reflect on it, and honestly just to be sad. I was so devastated about it, and I wanted to get it all out and not bottle it up inside me. And as soon as I felt like I had allowed myself to have a little self-pity about it, I was like, Okay, now we’re ready to go. You can’t ever stay in that moment, because then you won’t ever get the things done that you need to. But in general, any time we have a setback, I’m always thinking of a plan B, C, D, F. As soon as something happens, my mind’s already thinking, What’s the next step?

On balancing safety and ambition: 
Obviously any time someone gets injured, I feel terrible about that. I’m a parent; I’m looking at the kids as if they were my own. We have staff, we have a head athletic trainer, we have a student athletic trainer, in every single practice, and they make sure that these kids are getting treated, they’re doing physical therapy, they’re getting an ice bath — whatever they need to do to heal their muscles. We’re not just trying to win at the cost of someone’s health by any means.

I know that it looks a little crazy. But they were here for four months filming, and all that had to be edited down to six hours. What it didn’t show is that we actually do take a lot of caution when we’re learning new skills. We do progressions, we have a lot of spotters, and we don’t ever put an entire pyramid together until we know that each section individually has been consistent enough. Sometimes, there’s a great idea in my head, and then once we try it, I’m like, Oh, that looks more dangerous than I thought. We won’t even go there. When we do basket tosses, the first thing I do is say, Who even wants to try it? Because if that’s scary to you. I don’t even want to put you in that position. The scene with T.T. [where Aldama makes him practice while he has a back injury], that was a very short scene within a two-hour practice. You didn’t get to see the conversations I had with the trainers about what was going on with his back. There are certain things where we say, “Are you hurt or are you hurting?Because there are lots of times as a college-level athlete where you’re going to have some bumps and bruises that hurt, especially with tendinitis and stuff like that, but it’s not going to hurt them to do what we’re doing; it’s just not going to be comfortable.

On her politics:
I see the world completely differently, just from these kids being a part of my life. I’ve become way more empathetic. When you’re young, you kind of think, Oh, everybody’s just like me. You don’t really realize. I was pretty young when I got this job. And then I started seeing all these kids from different backgrounds, and it really touched me. I have relationships with these kids where I feel like a motherly figure, and I want to protect them and I want to take care of them. And that’s why, in the show, I said I’ll fight tooth and nail to protect my boys. [There are a number of gay athletes on the team.] Because I’ve had kids cry to me, I know their emotions and I get upset when I see the world being so harsh and not understanding. I am not a very political person at all. I would say I’m smack in the middle; I’ve got some of the very conservative, some very liberal. I just don’t understand how someone can be not willing to at least have a conversation. I think everyone needs to be open to learning about different people’s lifestyles and not be so closed-minded.

On the impact of the show:
I knew, of course, that they were focusing on certain individuals, but I didn’t know some of the raw details that came out. When you see someone that you care about telling their story with such emotion, it really pulls at your heartstrings. I’ve watched it multiple times, and I cry every single time. We had no idea that this show would blow up how it has. We’re just trying to catch our breath, because it’s been a whirlwind. But, you know, our top priority of course, is making sure that these kids are taken care of and are not too overwhelmed. And you know, we’re in Daytona season right now. Obviously, I hope that they all get every opportunity they possibly can to have some kind of successful career out of this. But right now, we have another job to do as well, because we just started our competition season. And we need to stay focused on that.

How Cheer’s Superstar Coach Monica Gets It Done