According to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading accounted for 65% of direct catastrophic injuries to female athletes at the high school level between 1982 and 2009, and just over 70% at the college level. Although catastrophic injuries, which include closed-head injuries, skull fractures, and cervical spine injuries resulting in brain injury, paralysis, or death, account for only a small amount of cheerleading injuries overall, that number is still concerning. Aside from catastrophic injuries, cheerleaders are also at risk for sprains and strains, abrasions and contusions, fractures, dislocations, concussions, and other head injuries.
The problem is that many states and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) do not recognize cheerleading as a sport, so it isn’t regulated as strictly as other sports are. Although the sport does work internally to try to reduce the risk of injuries, cheerleading groups are not subject to the same rules as other sports and do not always have access to resources that other sports have, like certified training facilities, coaches, and medical staff.
While injuries cannot always be prevented, cheerleaders, coaches, and parents can take steps to make the sport safer. The following precautions are recommended for cheerleading safety.
1. Coaches and trainers should be certified.
The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA) acts as the governing body for cheerleading, and works to improve training and credentials for cheerleading coaches. The AACA also issues rules for cheerleaders and coaches to follow to ensure safety.
2. Cheerleaders should participate in conditioning programs.
Cheerleading can be very physically demanding, so it’s important that cheerleaders are in good shape to keep up with the demands of the sport. A well-rounded program should include strength training and regular stretching, as well as aerobics. Working with an athletic trainer or sports medicine professional is recommended to develop injury prevention strategies.
3. Cheerleaders should never perform stunts without proper training and spotters.
Because many cheerleading stunts are so technical and there is a high risk of injury if something goes wrong, it’s important that cheerleaders do not attempt stunts before they are ready. Only when they have demonstrated that they have the proper skill set and proficiency should they be allowed to perform stunts. Stunts should also never be performed without the assistance of properly trained spotters.
4. Technical skills and stunts should be performed on the proper surfaces.
Mats and spring floors should be used as much as possible when performing technical skills and stunts. Stunts should not be performed on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt, or any surfaces that are wet or uneven. If the event is outdoors and mats cannot be used, stunts should be performed on grass or turf.
5. Injuries should be treated with caution.
If there is any sign of injury, cheerleaders should be evaluated by a medical professional and should not be allowed to return until they have been cleared. This is especially important if a concussion is suspected; symptoms are not always present right away. Returning to the sport with a concussion could result in more serious damage, so it is important that all cheerleaders be properly evaluated after any fall in which the head hits the ground.
Safety needs to be a top priority in cheerleading, just as it should be with any other sport. While cheerleading is not officially recognized as a sport in some states, it is very physically demanding, and we need to take steps to ensure the safety of its participants.