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Parent Perspectives: Balancing Touchdowns and Tumbles

By Mike Lemons, 01/07/24, 9:15AM CST


As we all know and appreciate, moms wear many hats. We recently sat-down with Jena McKinnon to share her experiences as a football and cheer parent-coach. She has two sons playing football for the Naperville Saints, another starting in 2024, and a daughter in cheerleading for DuPage Valley Cheer (DVC). Her husband, Brock, is a Naperville Saints head coach and Board Member.

In this article, Jena shares her experiences and offers advice to first-time program parents on how to manage it all. She shares insights on topics ranging from family dynamics in sports, challenges and rewards in cheerleading, encouraging balance with academics, key lessons from youth sports, advice for new football and cheer parents, and much more.

To start, how do you manage having two sons (soon to be three) in football, and a daughter in cheerleading?


“It is very busy. Since Brock coaches one of the football teams (JV), I shuttle the other kids to their games and practices. Luckily, we have taken advantage of carpooling with teammates who live nearby, and that has really helped. With so many Saints game times on both Saturdays and Sundays, we haven’t had too many game conflicts even between the three teams. We make time for it because it is such a great experience for the kids (and for us). They are excited to go to practice every day to learn new skills and be with their friends.”

What are some challenges and rewards you've encountered while juggling the roles of being a parent and a coach?


"Some of the cheerleading practices were hard for me to get to due to work, but I was able to make it to most of them. The cheerleading teams have a great support system with a professional coach, high school athlete coaches, and a couple of parent coaches, so when I had other obligations, there were always others to take over my role. As a {cheer} parent-coach, the main role is to be an ambassador to the parents of the athletes. We send messages to the team via the app, determine uniforms that will be worn for each game, help keep the team focused during practices/games, etc. Although I have cheerleading experience, it isn’t really required for this volunteer role. We also had parents take on the roles of team photographer and Homecoming coordinator. It was really enjoyable getting to know the girls on the team and the other coaches. They worked so hard to make this inaugural cheer season successful.”

How do you encourage your children to balance their commitment to sports with academics?


"We always put academics first. Our kids come home from school, have a snack, and get their homework finished before practice. In our house, schoolwork takes priority over athletics. There have been times when my junior high son has a lot of homework and he has to come home from practice to complete it, but he usually takes advantage of the study hall at school to get most of it finished. Weekends are also great opportunities to do a little extra work to prepare for the busy practice days during the week.”

What are some key lessons or advice you would offer to other parents whose children are interested in participating in these sports?


"There are a couple things that we really try to focus on with our kids when it comes to sports: First, always do your best. We try to teach our kids that hard work is more important than being the best. As parents, we believe that when you put in the hard work, results will follow–sometimes the results are not immediate, and that delayed gratification is something that is hard for kids to understand. So, we celebrate hard work and dedication rather than immediate success. 

Second, have a positive attitude by being a good teammate and being respectful to coaches and referees. Learning to cheer on your team and work together can be a difficult skill for young athletes. We want our kids to know that they will only be successful if they stay positive and respectful. As a coach, Brock always stresses the importance of being a good son, a good student, and a good teammate. These life lessons are about more than football–they are helping the boys grow into respectful young men.”

As a mom and a coach, What tips can you offer to other parents to foster a positive and supportive environment for their children in youth sports?


“Allow your kids to try many new things and stick with what they love. Our kids have played baseball, wrestling, basketball, soccer, dance, swimming, water polo, tumbling, tennis, golf, etc., and we want them to do what they enjoy. So if they try a sport and it isn’t their thing, they finish the season and don’t play it again. My two older boys have loved Saints Football so much, they talk about playing in high school and afterwards. This was my daughter’s first experience with cheerleading, and although she had some rough patches along the way (cheering for an extra-long game on a very hot day can be grueling), she ended up really falling in love with the sport and is looking forward to cheering again. My youngest son is eagerly awaiting his chance to join Saints football this fall.”

Do you have any advice for first-time football or cheer parents?


“I would advise new families to either or both programs to get involved. Because both organizations are volunteer-run, there are many opportunities for parents to participate. If you know nothing about football, sign up to be a team mom or photographer. If you want to be involved in the action, sign up as a coach or even to move the chains during the games. If you have none of these talents, you can bring the water! Getting involved in any form is the best way to meet other parents and athletes.

It is very hard to play Saints football and another sport at the same time. As much as I’m a proponent of playing multiple sports, tackle football is not a sport where you can miss practices for other things. I know Brock’s JV team changed plays weekly depending on that week’s opponent, so if a player were to miss practice during that week, he would not know the plays they would be running that weekend. Cheerleading is a little different (since there is only one practice per week), but the practices are just as important. That is where all cheers are learned, and stunts are practiced. As with most sports, to get the most out of the season, attendance at practice is essential. 

Keep a positive attitude towards the players, both team’s coaches, the referees, and the other parents. The kids see how the parents behave and they will mimic that. Attend the games, wear your Saints gear, make lots of noise, and cheer loud. Go Saints!”

This mom's story is a testament to the joys and challenges of being deeply involved in youth sports. Her experiences offer a roadmap for other parents navigating similar paths. Her final cheer? "Go Saints!" – a rallying cry for her family and for all families dedicated to sports, education, and the wonderful chaos of raising young athletes.

Brock (Head Coach of JV team, Saints board member), Cade (future Saint 2024), Blake (10U team), Cali (DVC Cheerleader), and Jena (DVC Parent Coach) demonstrate their 3-point stance after the 10U Mom's Day game. Not pictured: Chase (JV team)

Note that while we interviewed Jena for this article, there were 4-5 moms in the 2023 season who were parent-coaches for their daughters’ cheer squads and had sons playing Naperville Saints football. Our hats go off to them for all they do!