When I was teaching middle school ten years ago, I was asked to coach the new cheer squad. I was a state certified athletic coach, and a Tae Kwon Do instructor, who had more than the required first aid training and physiological background knowledge, but I declined to take on the position. Why? Because when I asked about training, I was handed a three-ring binder with a dozen pages of basic information and told “don’t worry, you’ll be great.”
Cheerleading is not your grandma’s pep squad anymore, and as I am technically old enough to be someone’s grandmother, I feel qualified to make this assessment.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, Cheer makes up 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries in girls’ high school athletics, which is scary when taking into account that cheerleaders are only 12 percent of the 3 million high school girl athletes in the U.S.
In fact, in the last 26 years, 72 girls have suffered catastrophic injuries participating in cheerleading. And two have died.
“Catastrophic injuries” are not sprains, strains or even the occasional broken arm or ankle. These injuries have lead to permanent disabilities because of skull fractures or broken necks and backs.
30,000 cheer squad members are seen in emergency rooms every year, with the average age of the injured being just 14 and a half years. The number of ER visits by cheerleaders has tripled since the mid-1980′s when cheerleading became more about gymnastics than waving pom-poms and inciting enthusiasm.
What hasn’t changed is the lack of regulation. As Cheer has become more athletic, it’s failed to attract the attention of state athletic agencies, which regulate high school sports. Cheer is a sport without oversight in all but two states. Michigan and West Virginia are the only ones to require cheer squads to adhere to the same safety rules as all other athletic sports. And even scarier — only 13 other states even require the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), at minimum, to certify their coaches. However, AACCA certification requires coaches to take an online test only. And it doesn’t require coaches be trained in gymnastics or spotting techniques.
As cheer has become more and more about the tumbling, spotting–someone who is stationary and supporting the athlete in a maneuver–has become more important than ever. In most states there is no requirement for the spotter to be a trained adult. Often the teenagers are spotting for each other with disastrous results.
Many of the moves performed place athletes high in the air over hard surfaces that don’t cushion falls. Unqualified coaches ask equally untrained students to perform technically difficult acrobatic stunts, dangerous enough, that the potential to leave teens permanently disabled exists.
Though regulated at the college and competition level, Cheer remains an unsupervised sport at the junior high and high school levels and teens, the vast majority of them girls, have the life-long scars to prove it.
photo credit: thanks to lifeabundantly via flickr