Saturday, October 11, 2014

We're Going to Pump You Up!


Recently, I attended my last high school homecoming pep rally. Over my 34 ¼ years of teaching, I’ve been to a zillion such gatherings. I have enjoyed maybe one of them which was when my 21-year-old daughter was five and was Little Miss Homecoming.


The Homecoming Queen and five-year-old Kelsey as Little Miss Homecoming

Pep rallies usually follow the same routine – loud cheerleaders cheer, loud drum line plays, loud coach introduces the team, loud skits performed and so on. At the high school where I currently teach, those in charge of the pep rally jam about 1,500 kids into the gym. Teachers are required to attend, so I usually show up with my camera, snap some pictures for the yearbook, and sneak back to my classroom to get a few extra minutes to grade papers.  

I don’t enjoy big crowds, but I don’t shy away from them either. However, I do prefer nice, orderly crowds. Most of the time, I do some people watching to pass the time. At high school pep rallies, as with most large gatherings of sports fans, you’ll find people dressed in crazy masks and costumes.

Milo from Planet of the Apes came to the pep rally.
This unicorn didn't bring much magic to the players. Our team lost the homecoming game later that night.

I thought this was a real person's face when I first saw it. This baby looks so life-like by crying real tears.



Pep rallies, and the need for such, have always puzzled me. What’s the point? Does it really do something to pump up the players to get them ready for that night’s game? I asked two student athletes who had different opinions. One said it did nothing for him, but another said that it built up his ego because he was one of those being honored. I can see that latter athlete’s point: pep rallies allow the band, cheerleaders, dance team, etc. to be praised for their efforts. Pep rallies also give students time to socialize and maybe learn to behave at such gatherings. I’m not too sure about the behaving part, but at least we can say we gave them the opportunity to learn.

Social psychologists have used pep rallies to study human behaviors. In these crowded settings, a person can experience

  • The cocktail party effect which lets you hear your name called across a crowded, noisy room.
  • Conformity which is obvious. Everyone is dressed in the school colors and chanting the same cheers.

  • Deindividuation which goes along with conformity. The person is no longer an individual because he is part of this group.
  • Procedural memory which is memory for a skill, a step-by-step process or knowledge of how to perform a task (cheerleaders, dance team, band).

  • increased sensation of the sympathetic nervous system. This system helps in the control of most internal organs. It’s the “fight-or-flight” response. This effect is the one I notice more when I’m trapped in the crowded gym.
  • Figure ground which lets a person distinguish between a figure (cheerleaders, coach) and the background (bleachers, court), deciding which is the figure or the ground. I'm sure you've seen the drawings that are really the picture of two items, usually one black and the other white. Your eye's have to adjust to see each.


Some students could care less about pep rallies and would rather not attend. These nonconformists hang out in the cafeteria or outside which is not a bad choice, as far as I’m concerned.

Any rowdy crowd allows us to perform in ways that we normally wouldn’t if we were on our own. Being a member of a crowd offers security and acceptance which is ok unless that crowd is doing something wrong. Remember those cheering crowds who watch public stonings or executions? Violent gangs are also the wrong crowd to join. Those crowds are the ones my mom warned me about when she said, "If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

High school pep rallies seem like a harmless group of which to be a member. The kids have fun, the cheerleaders and dance team get to perform for the crowd, and the players and coaches get to be honored for their hard work. 

HoweverI'd like them better if they were quieter and less crowded. What's wrong with the cheerleaders  whispering their chants and holding up signs or the band playing kazoos?