Question of the Week

January 16, 2006


Cheerleaders are no longer expected to just stay on the sidelines and cheer for the athletes on the field or the court. More and more, the cheerleaders are the athletes.

"Cheerleaders catapult in the air, climb human pyramids and catch their tumbling teammates as they fall to the ground. They also make lots of emergency room visits. Research indicates cheerleading injuries more than doubled from 1990 through 2002, while participation grew just 18 percent over the same period. ... Almost all the patients in the study were treated at emergency rooms and released. But because researchers used only ER numbers gathered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the true number of those injured is likely even greater, since many kids are treated at doctors' offices or by team trainers, researchers said. The rise in injuries is probably because the stunts are increasingly difficult, the researchers said. ... 'It's not just standing on sidelines with pompoms going, "Rah, rah, rah." It uses gymnastics, and some stunts are certainly more dangerous than others,' said Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine in Rockville, Maryland, who was not involved in the study."

"... The rise in injuries is probably because the stunts are increasingly difficult, the researchers said...."

"Researchers said those injuries are becoming more common because cheerleading for different sports has become a sport itself and the competition is fierce. Brenda Shields, a researcher at Columbus Children's Hospital, found that almost 209,000 young cheerleaders aged 5 to 18 were treated at hospitals. In the 13-year study, Shields found most injuries happen in the legs and feet of girls between the ages of 12 and 18. These days, cheerleaders are expected to do complex gymnastic routines and sometimes without the proper training, she said. ... Shields found that coaches are not always trained, and some schools lack the proper facilities and equipment. And some cheerleaders practice in hallways and on other hard surfaces."

Lack of training for coaches is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. While some feel that addressing the safety issues with proper training would be sufficient, others think that still more needs to be done.

"Cheerleaders and their coaches agree their sport is demanding and risky, but insist training is more important than padding when it comes to physical safety. 'Cheerleading is dangerous,' said Samantha England, 14, a cheerleader at Full Out Cheer in Watertown. 'But if you know what you're doing, you're not gonna get hurt. Padding would just get in the way.' Ruth Burns of Medford, mother of 14-year-old Ashley Burns, who died last year after rupturing her spleen during a cheering stunt, is recommending a law named for her daughter. 'Ashley's Law' would require coaches to provide EMTs and protective gear at games, competitions and even practices. Cheerleading injuries have doubled between 1990 and 2002, according to a study by the Journal of Pediatrics. But Shauna McGoldrick, England's teammate, worried about how helmets and padded vests would look with pleated skirts and ponytails. 'It wouldn't look great in competitions,' said McGoldrick, 13."

Take the concerns of a parent who lost her child to a cheerleading accident. Then counter these with the concerns of teens who think that extra padding, "wouldn‚t look great in competitions," and is unnecessary because, "if you know what you're doing, you're not gonna get hurt. Padding would just get in the way." One can see that there is still a long way to go for the future of safety regulations in this evolving sport.

"There are three groups responsible for safety in school cheerleading; the cheerleaders themselves, the coaches, and the administration. ... By following the same procedures as for any other athletic activity, along with providing safety mats, administrators can rest assured that their cheerleading program is in compliance with the recognized standard of care."

Treating cheerleading as a sport -- and cheerleaders as athletes -- will help a school to assure that its cheerleaders are given "the recognized standard of care" that would be offered to students participating in other sports. For some schools, this will mean looking at cheerleading through new eyes and making some changes.

"Cheerleading is not considered a sanctioned sport by some state high school athletic associations. As a result, coaches are not always trained, and some schools lack the proper facilities and equipment, said the study's lead author, Brenda Shields, an injury researcher at Columbus Children's Research Institute in Ohio."

Some schools have already seen the need, and changes have been made.

"[O]n February 10, 2005, the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors voted to adopt the Activity Advisory Proposal requiring all cheer coaches directly responsible for the supervision of a stunting cheer squad to be AACCA [American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors] Safety and Stunt Progression Certified. This requirement will be in effect for the fall of 2005. As cheerleading stunts become increasingly more difficult and complex, the need for properly trained coaches has become crucial. Requiring these classes will assure properly trained coaches and a safer environment with less chance of injury for participating students. Schools and/or coaches that choose not to become certified in AACCA Safety and Stunting Progressions may still offer and coach sideline cheerleading, however, these squads will not be allowed to perform any stunting activities."

"The AACCA Spirit Safety Certification Program is a lecture course, study manual, and timed exam designed to educate cheerleading and dance coaches in all aspects of spirit safety and risk management. ... The minimum age to take the course for certification is 18 years of age. Those under 18 can take the course as a benefit to their safety awareness, but certification will not be given until the age of 18."

Having coaches who are better educated about "spirit safety and risk management" is important. In addition, those participating in the sport also need be aware of safety concerns and precautions they can take to reduce the risk of injury.

"Although researchers did find a dramatic increase in the number of injuries, they were relieved to see that they were not serious most of the time. Only about one in five cheerleaders is hospitalized for their injuries, and the rest recover at home."

Just doing the math: If over 200,000 cheerleaders are injured each year (and this number is on the rise), then over 40,000 are hospitalized for their injuries in a given year. The rest need recovery time at home.

Questions of the Week:
When a sport is evolving, how does that change what administrators, coaches, parents, and students can do to create a safe training environment? Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the training environment offered by the school is keeping up with the demands of the sport and the needs of the athletes? What can/ should students, parents, coaches, or administrators do if they think a training environment is not safe? If no rules are being broken (because the training environment fits within the standards of the law -- or there are no standards), then how does this change what those with concerns can/ should do? Who should determine what constitutes a safe training environment?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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