In spite of being a highly skilled sport, cheerleading may be dismissed by some as a trivial activity. This misconception is simply dispelled by statistics that cheerleading accounts for 66% of all catastrophic injuries in female US athletes.
Requiring an array of dynamic skills and discipline, cheerleading is not only a highly demanding endeavour but also markedly high-risk, illustrated by research reports that cheerleading is the most statistically dangerous sport for US women.
First and foremost cheerleading is a highly-skilled sport, requiring highly dynamic movement, gymnastic demands and dance elements, and like any athletic endeavour carries a high risk of injury - particularly at the professional end of the spectrum where stunts and performance carry a higher risk of fall and overuse injuries. In fact, a study by the University of North Carolina (UNC) National Catastrophic Sports Injury Research found cheerleading to be the cause of more injuries to US females than any other sport. The author of the report Frederick Mueller, Ph.D. commented that "A major factor in this increase has been the change in cheerleading activity, which now involves gymnastic-type stunts." Indeed gymnastics was found to be the second most prolific injury-causing sport in women.
A cheerleader requires the following prerequisite skills and strengths: agility, flexibility, coordination, balance, strength and precision of movement. Timing is also an essential facet in avoiding injury, particularly in terms of regarding the safety of your team mates. Dropping a team mate during a flip or pyramid can have serious repercussions, so a constant mental engagement and awareness is crucial at all times. The requirements for the above mentioned skills obviously intensifies with the proficiency of the team, particularly for cheerleaders performing at a professional or national level.
When considering the specific logistics of certain signature cheerleader stunts - such as 'basket toss' stunts, in which cheerleaders are thrown up to 20 feet into the air - the causation of extremely high injury risk statistics are clear.
A notable cheerleading injury incident that made transatlantic headlines was the case of Orlando Magic stunt team cheerleader Jamie Woode. Watched by thousands during the televised event, a treacherous mis-step caused Woode a devastating fall during a the first half of the NBA event between Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks. Landing on her head, the incident resulted in concussion, three broken vertebrae and a broken rib.
While cheerleading is an established sport in American culture, it is also gaining keen momentum in the UK. Recent figures show that 37% of British schools now offer cheerleading as part of the physical education curriculum, and 68 UK universities were represented at the UK University Cheerleading Nationals in 2015. Particularly with an increase in popularity, ensuring the safety of cheerleading participants with informed advice and regulation is crucial.
The importance of a good coach
As with any sport, a good cheerleading coach is fundamental to the pursuit of progressive quality training, the safety of the athlete and the avoidance of injury risk. Dr. Mueller states, "If cheerleading activities are not taught by a competent coach and keep increasing in difficulty, catastrophic injuries will continue to be a part of cheerleading."
Improved regulation of coaching credentials and cheerleader safety training in the UK and USA have contributed greatly to a recent reduction in reported cheerleader injuries. Bodies such as cheersafe.org also provide cheerleading facilitators, parents and participants with comprehensive cheerleading safety information and checklists for extra-curricular cheerleaders, and those competing within teams in the educational system.
Main causes of injury in cheerleading
The injuries most prevalent in cheerleading are as follows:
- Falling injuries - A high-risk product of stunt work, falling injuries can cause anything from surface abrasions and brushing, to severe fractures and concussion.
- ACL injuries - Mis-stepped landings, a sudden change in direction or pivoting of the knee during full extension of the leg, are all contributing factors to the high risk of ACL injuries in cheerleading.
- Overuse injuries - Common in many sports with intensive training, cheerleaders may be at risk or overuse injuries.
How can injuries be avoided?
A fully accredited and experienced coach providing full supervision and expert guidance is at the heart of safe cheerleading practice. Similarly it is the responsibility of the participating cheerleader to be responsible and fully aware of their own safety, as well as that of their team mates. The individual should ensure they are comfortable with any stunts undertaken, and that they have the sufficient training and ability to perform any given stunt.
Cheerleading regulatory bodies have placed restrictions and regulations on certain stunts, in order to minimise injury risk. A fully accredited coach will always train a squad according to these safety regulations.
As with any athletic endeavour, supporting training exercises are recommended to ensure sufficient levels of fitness and conditioning to help optimise performance, and negate the risk of injury. The recommended training and considerations are as follows:
- Resistance exercises - This is important to gain and/or maintain sufficient strength in the lower back, shoulders and stomach. Pilates exercises and resistance weight training are excellent exercises for cheerleaders.
- Stretching exercises - Flexibility is a vital performance requirement for cheerleaders. Dynamic stretching or yoga are excellent options for cheerleaders to improve performance and negate the risk of injury.
Correct injury rehabilitation - As a cheerleader's performance effects not only their safety but also that of their team mates, it is crucial that cheerleaders do not return to squad training until fully cleared by a sports professional. If injured, seeking the correct treatment and rehabilitation programme is essential.
Despite it's perhaps frivolous depiction in popular culture, cheerleading is a serious sport carrying very severe risks of serious injury. Nonetheless, the correct adherence to regulation, undertaking proper comprehensive training with an experienced and fully-qualified coach and performing supporting exercises all significantly reduce the risk of cheerleading injury.