Once upon a time, cheerleading meant waving pom-poms on the sidelines of a football
game to get the crowd going. Not anymore. Cheerleading today is a competitive and
demanding sport. It requires as much (or more) athletic ability and intricate skills
as any other high school or college sport.
Cheerleading is a great group activity and an excellent way to stay fit. But it's
not without its risks. Injuries, some of them extremely serious, are a threat, particularly
for "flyers," the young women who are tossed into the air in certain cheerleading
maneuvers. Pressure to stay thin can lead to body image problems that also affect
gymnasts and dancers.
To learn how to keep things as safe as possible, follow the tips below.
Why Is Cheerleading Safety Important?
Cheerleading has been called "the world's most dangerous sport." Although that
nickname is a bit dramatic, cheerleading is a leading cause of sports injuries.
The most common injuries — to feet, ankles, and legs — are usually not
But cheerleaders also can get neck and back injuries. These types of injuries can
lead to permanent disabilities, so practicing and competing in a safe way can really
The rise in popularity of cheerleading in recent years has led to an increased
number of injuries. The gymnastic-type maneuvers involved in cheerleading are largely
responsible for most of these.
Until recently, cheerleading wasn't recognized as an official sport. So it wasn't
subject to the same safety regulations. Fortunately, that's starting to change.
Choose a Safe Place to Practice
Most cheerleading injuries happen during practice. When you're
working on your maneuvers and skills, it's super important to have a safe place to
practice. Find a facility with floors that absorb impact well — like spring
floors or 4-inch-thick landing mats on top of foam floors.
Never practice on a basketball court or other hard surface. Also, always check
out the space where you'll be practicing to be sure it's smooth, level, dry, and clear
of any objects that might interfere with your performance.
Find a Qualified Coach
Before you enroll in any cheerleading program, whether through your school or a
club, make sure the coach or program director is qualified.
Cheerleading coaches should be certified by the American Association of Cheerleading
Coaches and Administrators (AACCA) or a similar organization. A qualified coach will
be up to date on the latest safety measures and regulations governing the sport of
Before You Practice or Compete
Cheerleading requires a tremendous amount of strength and coordination. Given this,
it makes sense to stay in the best shape possible (eating a healthy diet and getting
regular exercise) year-round.
Start getting in shape a few months before
cheerleading season begins. That way, you'll be ready to go when the
time comes — and less at risk of getting sidelined with injuries. Many coaches
recommend an off-season strength training program for cheerleaders.
Just make sure to take 2 days off per week from any single sport and 1 day off
per week from all organized sports. Also, you should take at least 2 months off each
year from any particular sport, otherwise you're at a higher risk for an overtraining
or overuse injury.
Consider enrolling in a gymnastics program or taking gymnastics lessons.
Given that cheerleading at its highest levels requires difficult gymnastics-type skills,
having a solid gymnastics background not only will make you a better cheerleader,
it also will make you more confident in your abilities. That all adds up to a good
way to help prevent injuries.
Always warm up before any cheerleading practice or competition.
Do some jumping jacks or jog in place for a few minutes to get the blood flowing,
and then do some dynamic stretching.
Make sure you have properly fitting, rubber-soled shoes with adequate cushioning
and support. Flyers also might want to consider wearing a lightweight cheer
vest while practicing to protect themselves from bruising and injuries.
While Competing or Practicing
Almost all cheerleading-related concussions
happen during stunts. When learning stunts, take the time to perfect lower-level
and less complicated skills before moving on to more difficult ones. It might
sound boring, but having a solid skill base to work from will make you more confident
in your movements and less likely to get injured. It goes without saying not to attempt
a stunt that's beyond your skill level.
During practices, any time you attempt a stunt or maneuver that is difficult
or dangerous, have a coach or teammate spotting you and ready to catch you in case
you fall. This not only reduces your chances of injury, it also helps you
to maximize the benefit you get from practicing. If you are assigned to spot a teammate,
take the job seriously. Don't divert your attention from the person you're assigned
Be sure a coach is on hand to supervise all practices and competitions.
If you don't feel comfortable doing a stunt, let your coach know. Cheerleading is
supposed to be fun. Doing something that you're not comfortable with or sure about
will make you more likely to get hurt and also put your teammates at greater risk.
If your coach isn't supportive when you voice your concerns, talk to your parents
or an administrator.
During competitions and performances, don't attempt a stunt that you and
your teammates haven't worked on over and over again in practice. Trying
to do something unfamiliar will put everyone involved at risk.
If you feel any pain or discomfort while practicing or competing, let your
coach know right away. Don't continue cheerleading until the pain subsides
or you've had the injury looked at by a doctor and have been cleared to start practicing
again. "Playing through the pain" can make some injuries more severe and ultimately
keep you sidelined even longer.
"Playing through" an injury is especially dangerous when it's a head injury.
The brain needs time to heal after a concussion. So it's absolutely essential to follow
a doctor's advice and wait until all symptoms are gone before returning to normal
A Few Other Reminders
There's lots of pressure to stay thin in cheerleading, so the sport carries
a risk of eating disorders.Body image issues, anorexia,
bulimia, and other eating disorders can lead to serious health problems down the road.
Teen cheerleaders are at a point in life when it's essential to maintain a healthy
diet in order to develop and grow properly. If you think a
friend or teammate might have an eating disorder, don't be afraid to tell a coach
or parent. The best way to fight eating disorders is to catch them early. Telling
doesn't mean you're a snitch; it means you're a true friend.
Your coach or someone present at all practices and performances should
know how to do CPR. Likewise, first aid should be readily available anywhere
you practice or compete.
Find out if your team has a plan for emergencies and be sure you are familiar
with it. If someone does suffer a serious injury, being prepared can make
a big difference.