It’s been a decade, but I swear it feels like just yesterday when I auditioned to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. I had just graduated from college and moved to Dallas. I was trying to find my way. Honestly, it was a bad breakup that led to my decision to audition in the first place. I was sitting at home, moping around when I saw a commercial on TV for the upcoming DCC auditions. Deciding I needed a change in my life, I marched myself up to the stadium on the morning of tryouts to give it a go. I remember not being nervous; but looking back, it was out of complete naivety. I had no idea how hard the auditions were, and how long the process would be!

The audition lasted for two weeks. Those who made it through were invited into the DCC training camp, where the squad of 48 would be cut down to 35. Training camp is three months long, five days a week, for five hours a day; 13 girls would be cut before even making the squad, so it was grueling. I also had the stress of working a full time job during the days to pay my bills! I would go to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then head straight to the football stadium for rehearsal from 6 to 10 at night. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It was physically tough, but definitely more mentally challenging. The saying proved true: Only the strong survive! I ended up making the team, and am proud to have been a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader for two years. I had a great time, made some great memories, and learned some life lessons along the way – many that have made me a better mom today!

For starters, I discovered the importance of mental strength. It’s even more important than physical strength sometimes. Going back to the training camp process, it was designed to be stressful, and not a process the weak would survive. Not weak physically, weak mentally. In training camp, everyone is a good dancer, so we were all on an equal playing field there — but it was about who had the mental and emotional ability to put the stress behind them and keep powering on when things got tough.

During tryouts, I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t control who made the squad; all I could do was offer the judges my very best, and hope I was one of the girls they decided to put on the team. If they decided not to choose me after that, I had to be okay with their decision; clearly, it would have been over something that I couldn’t control. I want my children to take this lesson to heart and remember it every time they try something new. It is perfectly fine to fail, so long as you try your best to succeed. You’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay.

Once I made the squad, I finally understood how important it was to take risks sometimes. The DCC was the first thing “risky” thing I had ever done. I tended to stay in my safe zone and only do things that I was certain I could succeed at. I’m not sure if it was a fear of failure, or of just being complacent with what I was doing. At that particular time in my life though — just out of college, and trying to survive a pretty brutal breakup — something in me gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone. And it was totally worth it! By taking a risk and working incredibly hard, I received a big reward. I heard a quote once, and I love it: “If you take a risk and succeed, you’ll be happy; If you take a risk and fail, you’ll be wise.” Amen.

Lastly, I learned not to let others affect my self-image—something I’ll teach my daughter especially! I went into the experience unaware of my body and what I looked like, and I left the squad being overly aware of all my superficial qualities: what my body looked like, how my hair was done, and how my makeup was done. Obviously it was part of the industry but I didn’t like being so self-conscious. Things about my physical appearance were brought to my attention that I had never noticed before. Self-awareness definitely comes at different times for different people; for me, it all happened in a three-month period. I feel though, that if someone brings something to your attention about your appearance that you were not aware of before they brought it up, ignore it. If it never bothered you before, don’t let it bother you now. You will drive yourself crazy trying to make yourself physically “perfect” for everyone out there who has an opinion! Ignore what others say about your appearance and focus on what you know to be true instead.

More from Melissa Rycroft:

7 Life Lessons That I Learned from Being on Reality TV

Q&A: Melissa Rycroft Fills Us In

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