The most dangerous sport: preventing cheer injuries

Everyone involved in competitive cheer has at least seen an athlete using crutches, wearing a boot, avoiding practice due to a concussion or some other injury.  During my tenure as a cheer mom I count my athlete fortunate to have only had a sprained wrist and 2 broken fingers (on separate occasions).  Although we’ve had teammates with ankle injuries and even concussions.  You might find it shocking but looking over a 23-year stretch, annual emergency room visits by cheerleaders has increased 189 percent.  

There are over 4 million cheer leaders from elementary school through college and more than 70 countries participating in cheer leading.  And with the upcoming Olympics in 2020, the sport has probably not hit it’s apex.

“The increase in the frequency of injuries is most likely due to the increase in the number of cheerleading participants … and the increase in the athleticism of the activity,” the study says.

Recently, more changes were instituted by the USASF (United States All Star Federation) to protect cheerleaders.  These changes include the following:

  • Better definitions of certain skills so coaches can make sure the skills are taught / executed correctly.
  • No longer allowing tossing stunts in the Mini age division.
  • Level 1: No tumbling is allowed in immediate combination after a round off.  Added to help stop potential injury moving from a power skill to a static skill.
  • Level 1: Making two leg and single leg stunts in pyramids consistent with the timing with the bracers.
  • Level 2: There is no twisting or turning allowed after a back handspring step out. The feet must come together after the skill prior to any twist or turn. This was added to help prevent potential injury created when incorrectly stepping out of a handspring and then twisting.
  • Level 3 and up: Release skills that land in a non-upright position must have 3 catchers for a multi-based stunt and 2 catchers for a single based stunt.  This rule was added to increase safety in release skills which puts it in line with the requirement for cradle dismounts
  • Level 4 and up:  A top person may not invert over or under the torso of another top person regardless if the stunt or pyramid is separate or not.
  • Level 5 and up:  Clarification for safety on twisting stunts and transitions to extended skills.   Only up to 2 ¼ twist, if connected to a bracer at prep level or below. The connection must be made prior to the initiation of the skill and must remain in contact throughout the skill or transition.

And as of 2018, the United States All Star Federation (USASF – cheer’s governing body) has partnered with Quadrant Biosciences to provide USASF gyms access to the ClearEdge Brain Health Toolkit, to objectively measure and track cognitive function, balance and symptoms.  This in hopes of recognizing concussions faster and preventing more damage from participating while concussed.

In the 23 year study mentioned above, completed in 2012,  an estimated 37,344 cheerleaders went to an ER. That’s an average of 100 per day.  And even though the sport itself has experienced a 70% increase over the same time period, the number of injuries is much greater.  Concussions represented 7 percent of ERs; sprains accounted for 48 percent of injuries.  

Most injuries happen during practice or when away from the gym.  Here are some tips to keep athletes from being injured when not under the coach’s watchful eyes:

  • Don’t stunt or tumble on hard surfaces like basketball courts or playgrounds.
  • Always make sure surfaces are free of any debris
  • Be sure you take at least 2 days off from cheering each week – give your body time to build up.
  • Stay in shape even when on “vacation.”  A light work out does wonders
  • Hydrate! Water is great for muscles and keeps them from getting tight.
  • Always take the time to perfect lower level skills before attempting to move up.
  • Don’t “play through” any injury.  If you feel like something isn’t right, have a coach or director check it out.

Cheer leading has been called “the world’s most dangerous sport.” Although that nickname is a bit dramatic, cheer leading is a leading cause of sports injuries.   Safety comes from following the set guidelines, listening to coaches, and not pressuring athletes to go beyond skill levels until they are ready. As this sport continues to gain momentum, watch for safety to become an even bigger concern. 

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