Superstition – United States of America

Cheerleading: The Spirit Stick

Beyond pom-poms, tumbling, and stunting, there exists within cheerleading a superstition. This superstition is about the “spirit stick;” it must NEVER touch the ground. If a squad’s spirit stick does touch the ground, it is considered very bad luck—although the actual consequences are never really specified…it’s just “bad.”

What exactly is a spirit stick? It’s a cylindrical stick about 1.5 inches in diameter and 12 inches long. Often, it is decorated in the squad’s colors, but sometimes spirit sticks are given from one squad to another. At a National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) cheerleading summer camp a couple of years ago, certain squads were given spirit sticks as a result of having done particularly well on a given day. Squads were given spirit sticks based on how well they worked together as a team, how much team spirit they exhibited, stunting prowess, or other qualities. The spirit sticks were handed out at the end of the day, and it was crucial for team members to ensure their stick’s safety until the next day, when the stick would have to be turned in and redistributed to another squad (or sometimes, it would be returned back to the squad it came from).

During meals, while practicing, and even while sleeping, the spirit stick’s safety was always a factor. Many seasoned squad members bring a stuffed animal to cheerleading camp to act as the spirit stick’s “protector.” While the squad is in possession of the spirit stick, it is usually attached to one of the stuffed animals somehow. This way, if the squad needs to work on a routine and set the spirit stick down, the protector will come between the stick and the ground. However, constant vigilance is still necessary. The first time I was at cheer camp, one of the squads set their protector (with spirit stick) down on the ground, and one of the camp instructors walked by and took the protector and the spirit stick away. Later that night, the instructors announced the squad’s punishment for their lack of attention towards their spirit stick: they had to write the instructors’ names all over their arms and legs for the next day of camp. At the end of cheer camp, each squad received an NCA spirit stick as a kind of souvenir for having participated.

I first became a cheerleader just before I turned 14 (spring 2002). During my first year cheerleading, I had no interaction with a spirit stick, but I had heard about them before. The first time I went to cheerleading camp was during summer 2004, and I went again during summer 2005.

Most people outside the realm of cheerleading have heard of a “spirit stick,” largely due to its prominence in a popular 2000 cheerleading movie called Bring It On. In this film, the main character, Torrance is dared to drop the spirit stick in front of the entire cheer camp. As she does this, the seriousness of the spirit stick is satirized, with the camp instructors all diving in slow motion after the spirit stick, in an effort to save it from touching the ground. Later, one of the instructors tells Torrance that whoever drops the spirit stick “goes to Hades.” Throughout the rest of the movie, she feels like she’s cursed from the spirit stick. If anything doesn’t go smoothly for her, she blames it on her dropping the spirit stick.

Cheerleading, in general, is a pretty light-hearted sport. Yes, there is a competitive side to it, but cheerleading is not typically taken very seriously. The presence of the spirit stick is a very serious phenomenon though, contrasting the rest of the nature of cheerleading. Once being a cheerleader myself, I am able to understand the importance cheerleaders place on the spirit stick; however, the whole idea probably seems very silly for those who have never been on a squad. Granted, some cheerleaders don’t take the superstition seriously. As for myself, I didn’t really think that bad luck would come to me if I dropped the spirit stick, but I made sure to handle it with care whenever it came into my possession. The bad luck associated with the spirit stick is unclear—a definite outcome for dropping the spirit stick is never named. Sometimes, the bad luck might be attributed to the cheerleading squad itself, or the sports team they cheer for.

One possibility for the spirit stick is that it is a phallic symbol. Although the sport began as an all-male spirit group, cheerleading has evolved to include females. Currently, females account for the vast majority of cheerleaders in America, effectively making it a “girl’s sport” in some people’s eyes. However, I’m not sure exactly how a status as a phallic symbol would have significance for the superstition about the spirit stick touching the ground—perhaps some kind of loss of power? The origin of the spirit stick, as I learned from fellow cheerleaders, is that the first one was broken from a tree branch and given to a squad that had exhibited tremendous spirit and team unity, because there wasn’t a trophy set aside for this particular category. This origin doesn’t seem to have any kind of gender-related or phallic symbolism basis at all.