Cheerleaders are known for being “America’s sweethearts,” bringing joy, passion, and a sense of unity into our communities. Cheerleading combines elements from gymnastics, acrobatics, and dance. There are about 400,000 highschool girls participating each year with many continuing on to cheer for their college. Outsiders think it’s all pom poms and glitter but the sport has become more dangerous than ever. Although the sport is considered to have a low-injury rate, the injuries that do occur are severe. The cheer world has seen its fair share of scares.
Cheerleading is a disciplined sport but when trained improperly, can lead to dangerous situations. Majority of “catastrophic” athletic injuries to highschool and college athletes are sustained through cheerleading. The top three injuries related to cheer include strains and sprains, back injuries, and the most concerning one, concussions..
Strains and sprains can occur in almost any ligament, muscle, or tendon and can account for more than half of all cheer related injuries. Ankle sprains are the most common. Back injuries typically occur over a longer period of time. With lots of heavy lifting, hard landings, and mid-air twisting, the vertebrates can become weak leading to back pain and in time something more serious.
Concussions are third on the list, but just because they don’t happen as often, doesn’t mean they aren’t as serious. Concussions can lead to serious brain injuries if not properly taken care of. More often than not this type of injury is sustained during competition, about 64% of all concussions, when athletes are giving it their all. In cheerleading however, there is a higher concussion rate during practice. Certain skills and positions performed are considered more dangerous than others.
The following skills cause the most concussions: stunts with 69%, pyramids with 15.7%, tumbling with 9.1%, and others with 6.2%.
Unfortunately, cheerleading is still not taken as seriously as other sports; therefore they don’t always get the proper provisions. Many schools do not classify cheerleading as a sport which is leading to unfit practice conditions and under-qualified coaches. I had the opportunity to discuss one athlete’s experience with this and how it changed her life forever.
Ryleigh Benjamin, 21 from Danville Pennsylvania, was practicing a stunt with her group when the top girl kicked her foot out, kicking Ryleigh in the jaw and knocking her out cold. Her “coach” who had been required to have concussion training and denied it, was an untrained woman from the community and had her athlete continue on with practice. Ryleigh was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Concussion Syndrome. For the first 7 weeks after her injury, she couldn’t open her eyes and once she did, she was pronounced legally blind with tunnel vision and floaters. She couldn’t walk on her own for over 20 weeks and even missed her sophomore year of highschool. Once she was able to return, she needed lots of assistance. Because of the severity of the injury, Ryleigh could never return to cheerleading.
“My injuries took many years of therapy and years of assistance,” she said, “which I currently still receive, and to this day I am considered Epileptic and Dyslexic.”
Another athlete was more fortunate when it came to her coaching staff. Regan, 22 of Paxinos PA, had been practicing a new stunt with her group when the top girl fell and hit her in the face. When the girl fell it had snapped her neck back causing a C2 fracture and concussion. At the time of the accident, Regan was lucky enough to have had two coaches present, one having a background in athletic training. Constant headaches made it hard to focus on her school work and wearing the neck brace made sleep and daily activities a hassle. Initially the injury was going to leave her out for 6 weeks but with the fracture not healing right, an additional 4 weeks was added for safety.
“I was very thankful that one of the coaches who was there at the time had a background in athletic training so she knew how to handle the situation and prevent me from worsening the injury after it happened,” she said. “Many all-star cheer coaches are certified in teaching skills, but many truly do not have the necessary first aid skills to deal with major injuries. I truly feel that all-star cheerleading is the most dangerous sport I have ever been a part of throughout my life.” Regan sure was lucky.
Overall the amount of concussions have doubled in the last decade and there are two factors that come into play: increase in injury or diagnosis. Athletic trainers (AT) have become a useful tool in highschool athletics. According to Prevacus Statistics, schools with ATs have higher concussions rates than those who do not. This could be due to the fact that they are able to diagnose the signs of a concussion rather than an athlete going home then to the doctor.
Although cheerleading is now mainly a female domain, males have had their feet in the sport since before the 1920s. They tend to account for the majority of the injuries due to their positions within the team.
Their role on the team can vary but they provide great visuals in tumbling and jumps as well as strength for stunts. An article from The Nation published in 1911 described a cheerleader as “one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college…it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.” Being a male cheerleader can also come with some backlash.
As you can see cheerleading isn’t just sparkles and pom poms; it is a dangerous sport that requires lots of attention and training. All of these injuries mentioned, including concussions, are one hundred percent preventable. You should always follow the Four S’s for Safety in Cheerleading: STRETCHING, STRENGTHENING, SPEAK up if hurt, and be SERIOUS at practice. Your environment is the first place you should take precautions. Limiting the amount of distractions will allow everyone to remain focused. Always use spotters! I cannot stress this enough! Make sure that you have mats down to allow for softer landings. And never work beyond your skill level without the proper assistance. Personal prevention is also very important. Make sure you warm up and cool down before and after each practice. Stretching before and after is also good for muscle soreness. To prevent back pain, be sure to strengthen your core muscles. Always have the right shoes to prevent feet and ankle injuries. And lastly, always practice safe landings (i.e. Tuck ‘n’ Roll). Practicing these techniques will help keep you safe.
Cheerleading has risen to great fame over the years. With just above 1.5 million participants a year, the competitive cheer industry is more popular than ever. Although it does have a low injury rate, the sport can still be very dangerous if not practiced properly. Stay safe everybody.
*Image references attached to graphic*