📚Friendship Lessons from a Dad in a Tutu

I met my friend Patrick Riccards in 2006 when we were both working for Lipman Hearne, a boutique marketing firm serving mission-driven organizations. We had different areas of expertise, yet collaborated on a handful of client accounts. I’ve cultivated many workplace friendships over the years, each an opportunity to learn and grow. Patrick approached challenges with patience and generosity, a mindset I admire and wish to emulate.

Although we’ve both moved on from Lipman Hearne, Patrick and I have kept in touch. Once again, he has served as a source of inspiration with his new book Dad in a Cheer Bow. Since launching Language of Friendship in early 2021, Sara and I have sourced many ideas from the numerous books we’ve read on the importance of friendship, connection and support. We’ve shared insights from research on the science behind friendships and the importance of navigating mental and emotional health.  Patrick’s book is a little different. As a personal narrative, he shares his story of support and personal growth from the perspective of a dad/coach, learning and navigating the world of his daughter’s competitive cheer career. He writes of unexpected connections made and lessons learned. Throughout his career, Patrick has led teams, but as a cheer coach, he learned the value of being a small, yet important, part of a team.

Patrick and I recently spoke about his decision to write about this life-changing experience and the ‘incredible, unique bond’ with his daughter that emerged from their time in cheer together.  Following is an excerpt from that exchange:

LOF: You share in your book how you prioritize supporting your children in their interests, working to balance that with professional demands. Becoming a cheer coach takes that to a whole new level! What made you decide to get actively involved with coaching your daughter’s squad?

When she was 10 years old, my daughter Anna was undecided whether she would continue cheering. She and her coach struck a deal that Anna would return for a third season if her dad could be one of her coaches. I didn’t learn about that until I received an email from the coach welcoming me to the team staff! At the time, I told the coach I appreciated her indulging my head-strong daughter. So, if she wanted me to come to practice sometimes to carry mats or help clean up, I would do what I could. Instead, the coach threw me into the deep-end at Week 1. By Week 2, I was leading drills. While I may not have intentionally decided to coach, I’m glad my daughter and Coach Chris made the decision for me. I likely never would have considered it, but it is something that has completely changed my life for the better.

LOF: How did you build trust with the girls and their parents?

From the start, I never asked them to do anything that I wasn’t myself willing to do. They would complain about doing strength training and conditioning, but I’d be right there next to them stretching, doing burpees and running a mile (very slowly). I was even willing to step in and help perform stunts if we were short an athlete at a practice. Since I lacked technical knowledge and ability, I knew I had to be encouraging and supportive. And I had to be specific in what I was praising and critiquing to show I was paying attention. Articulating those specifics showed I cared. On the rare occasions I raised my voice, the squad noticed. They weren’t used to that from me.

Building trust with parents was a different exercise. To look at me, you’d see I look like I belong on the sidelines of a football practice—not on the mat for a cheer pyramid. In my first season, there were parents who didn’t understand why I was there. Some would stay and watch practice for hours, just to keep an eye on me. One grandmother told me I had no business working with the team. But over time, those same parents saw that I cared for their daughters as I would for my own. Not only was I encouraging at practice, but I made myself available for questions afterwards. I talked with parents about how their daughters were doing. I worked to make personal connections, and soon I was just another cheer mom in the group.

LOF: In your book, you write about when you became “Coach Pat,” you found your role giving encouragement and “Being a cheerleader for the cheerleaders.” How did you settle on that role?  

When I started coaching, I had to learn the vocabulary and the sport because I’d never cheered myself. The closest I had come was having cheerleader friends in high school and watching the movie Bring It On. I tried to obtain book knowledge so that I could instruct, but I would never instinctually know what to do based on my own past experience with the sport, so I became the great encourager. I worked at giving constructive, positive feedback to each athlete each week. My squad knew my coaching bag was always stocked with critical supplies, and I always was the one with extra hair ties for the girls who forgot theirs. I knew I’d never be the most knowledgeable, experienced or skilled coach, but I worked hard every day to be the most encouraging coach I could be.

I am a better person now because those around me accepted me, embraced me, supported me, and believed in me. Now I seek to pay that kindness forward.

Patrick Riccards

LOF: How did you balance the attention you gave to your daughter with the attention you gave to other members of the squad?

The only reason I became a coach was because my daughter wanted me there. At the start of each season, we discussed whether she wanted me to continue coaching. Each season, she said she wanted me there. I cherish the conversations we had before and after practices, and I remember the elation and the heartbreak we shared after competitions over the years. But coaching your own child is hard! During practices and competitions, my attention had to be on all my athletes. I wasn’t there as my daughter’s personal coach, and I had to direct my attention to the squad.

There was a point when my daughter’s frustrations were impacting the entire team, and I did need to focus on her. I started pulling her aside for talks and empathizing with the members of her stunt group. Earlier in her cheer career, my daughter needed to develop away from me, but in proximity to me. As she matured, she needed more direct attention and tough love. It was a constant balance. As a result of these experiences during cheer, my daughter and I are thick as thieves. We share an incredibly unique bond that is precious to both of us.

LOF: You share in the book some of the bias you faced as the only male coach in this female-dominated sport. How has this experience as initially someone being regarded as someone who ‘didn’t belong’ changed your interactions with others who may feel like outsiders? 

I love the fact that I coached in a town that had a female football coach! We’ve heard we were the only town in the country to experience that! We all face some form of bias in our lives, no matter how minimal. It’s how we confront or overcome it that matters. Each of the young women I coached faced biases in their lives: race, family income, school performance, size. You name it, they faced it. Yet, each of those young women is stronger for having dealt with it. All my cheer daughters are strong, successful young women capable of accomplishing just about anything they set their minds to.

 As I taught my girls, we all need to pursue our passions. Whatever discouragement comes from those who don’t share your vision, you need to do what feels right for you. I knew some didn’t think I had any business near a cheer mat. So, I had to own that bias. I would show up for competitions in a black-and-orange feather boa (a gift from my fellow coaches) and an orange tutu (a gift from a mom). Instead of trying to just blend in, I decided to stand out. I wanted each of my girls to know how proud I was to be their coach and to be part of their team.

LOF: What were some of the most unexpected things you learned about yourself in this journey?

I was surprised how quickly I embraced my role and how willing I was to adjust my work schedule to make sure I didn’t miss a single practice, game, or competition. I made coaching a priority. I hadn’t expected to make the deep friendships I made with my fellow coaches and parents, and I didn’t expect being a cheer coach to be such a central part of my identity for as long as it has. I certainly didn’t expect my cheer daughters to be as important to me as they were and are.

Above all, I learned I was capable of just about anything, the same lesson that I tried to teach to my athletes. I am an introvert by nature. I was forced to be an engaging extrovert. In my professional life, I am the one who usually has answers. As a coach, I had no answers and needed to learn along with everyone else. As a father, I learned how to be a more supportive, active part of my daughter’s life. And as a husband, I learned how to be a better listener. I also learned I really could rock a boa, tutu, and a sparkly cheer bow!

Most importantly, though, I learned how to be a small part of a team, and to appreciate my role in it and the impact I could have on those around me.

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