Cheerleading's come a long way since Lawrence Herkimer introduced the split jump in the mid-1900s. Today over three million women and men cheer in the US alone. And like the sports they root for, cheerleading is an athletic activity that runs its own risks. Cheerleading injuries have tripled since the 1980s. But with growing emphasis on safety these days, modern cheerleading can be both challenging and safe. Still, accidents do occur. And sports doctors have seen their share of cheerleaders. Things doctors have most commonly treated are catastrophic injuries, sprains, and strains.
- Catastrophic cheerleading injuries
- Other common cheerleading injuries
- Preventing cheerleading injury
- Making cheer safe
- Cheer safety organizations
Since cheer became competitive, and with the introduction of all-star cheer in the 1980's, newer, more challenging stunts are continually being created. High school cheer athletes have stepped up their game, sometimes pulling off difficult stunts on asphalt surfaces with neither padding nor proper training. Injuries have resulted in permanent disability and even death. The number of cheer injuries has risen from 1.5 million per year in the 1980's, to 4.8 million in 2009, according to a June, 2013 article posted at Medicaldaily.com. The United States Sports Academy has ranked cheerleading second highest sport for catastrophic injury, next to American football.
With athletes being flung as high as 60 feet into the air on a basketball court, it's not surprising that cheerleaders are often treated for broken bones, serious neck and spinal injuries, and concussions. The National Public Radio (NPR) reported that in 2011, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR) concluded that two-thirds of debilitating injuries to high school and college-aged female athletes are from cheerleading, ranking it the most dangerous women's sport.
To be fair, cheer proponents say statistics fail to consider that cheer is a year-round sport so the number of reported injuries is higher. So, while yes, cheerleading runs huge risks, with proper safety measures, many catastrophic cheer injuries can and have been avoided.
The Orthopedics Institute published encouraging results from a recent study ranking cheerleading sixteenth among sports with the highest number of injuries. The 2011 study sites the most common cheer injuries as being sprains and strains, accounting for more than half of all cheer-related injuries. Back and spinal injuries, and concussions are fairly common also, with athletes often lifting their teammates high over their heads, and catching them - in most cases. Add to that all the tumbling, twisting, and dismounting cheerleaders do, and conditions become ripe for accidents.
One giant leap for cheer safety is making cheerleading a sport. In years past, cheerleaders jumped, some tumbled, and teams performed easy stunts, so coaches and trainers weren't necessarily required to be safety-certified or have special qualifications. As cheer did not so much involve competing, it didn't require strict safety guidelines. As the complexities of cheer rapidly outgrew safety and coaching requirements, athletes were getting hurt.
Doctors believe the solution is to officially recognize cheer as a sport, so in October, 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asked that the American Medical Association (AMA) do just that, so it becomes protected under the same athletic department that oversees all other sports, under Title IX. So far, only 29 states in the US call cheer a sport. As such, in those states cheer is protected by stricter guidelines giving cheerleaders access to more qualified coaches and training. But whether the AMA will give cheer the official sport stamp remains to be seen.
In June of 2013, the AMA was to take it to a vote at its annual house of delegates meeting but decided to hold off until a final report about cheerleading is prepared, which could take a couple years, according to a June, 2013 article that appeared in Women's Health. For now, it varies from school to school. Whether a team's cheer activity can call itself a sport is up to the team's primary aim. Most high school and college cheer teams both cheer and compete. But as long as cheering is the primary aim, by definition a team cannot call its activity a sport, according to the Women's Sports Foundation's position statement. At the college level, the NCAA does not yet consider cheer a sport.
If we call it a sport or not, today's cheer is a highly skilled and risky athletic activity. A few of AACCA's general safety guidelines suggest that:
- Cheer squads be directed and supervised by qualified coaches in a safe facility
- Environments be taken into consideration before performing a skill
- Technical skills not be performed on hard, wet, or uneven surfaces
- Skills not yet mastered be performed in a supervised practice area
- All squads be thoroughly trained in proper spotting techniques
- Cheerleaders be properly trained before attempting any form of cheer gymnastics
- All squads adopt a comprehensive conditioning and strength-building program
- Cheerleaders properly warm up before activities
- Cheer programs follow a recommended teaching progression
- Cheerleaders be spotted until they demonstrate mastery of a skill
- All stunts and skills be reviewed and approved before executing
Current AACCA safety rules can be obtained here.
With the evolution of cheerleading, its athletes run a greater risk of injury. But with improvements made in cheer safety, cheerleaders can reap the rewards and challenges with fewer injuries.
AACCA. Founded in 1987; works in partnership with high school and college athletic associations to continually improve cheer safety through its coaching certification program, conducting regular safety courses, and establishing safety rules and guidelines.
NCSF. A cheerleading organization recently founded by Kimberly Archie to prepare for, and manage modern cheerleading risks. NCSF has teamed up with US Sports Academy to teach and promote cheer safety, and raise the standard of care to reduce catastrophic injury from cheerleading.