While many cheerleaders are still out on the sidelines getting crowds involved in sporting events and rousing teams to victory, cheerleading today is also a competitive and demanding sport. It requires as much (or more) athletic ability and skills as other high school or college sports.
Cheerleading is one of the leading causes of sports injuries. Most injuries are not serious, but the more complicated cheerleading stunts get, the greater the risk of concussions, back and neck injuries – and these are serious.
Follow these tips to help keep your young cheerleaders safe on the sidelines and the floor.
Before practice or competitions:
- Choose a safe place to practice. It might surprise you to learn that most cheerleading injuries happen during practice. Help prevent practice injuries by finding a safe place for your kids 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 allow practice to take place on basketball courts or other hard surfaces.
- Find a qualified coach. Before you enroll your child in any cheerleading program, 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 cheerleading safety measures and regulations.
- Keep kids fit all year. In addition to the normal reasons kids should eat well and exercise all year long, cheerleading requires a tremendous amount of strength and coordination so staying in shape is in a cheerleader’s best interest. Many coaches recommend an off-season strength training program for cheerleaders.
- Take rest days. Make sure kids take two days off per week from any single sport and one day off per week from all organized sports. Also, kids should take at least two months off each year from any particular sport to lower the risk of overtraining or overuse injuries.
- Enforce warm ups and stretching before practice and competitions. This means jumping jacks or jogging in place for a few minutes followed by dynamic stretching.
- Wear the right gear. Make sure your kids 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, kids should take time to perfect less complicated skills before moving on to more difficult ones.
- Be sure a coach is on hand to supervise all new stunts, practices and competitions. If kids don't feel comfortable doing a stunt, they should let the coach know. Doing something they’re not comfortable with makes it more likely injuries will happen. If a child’s coach isn't supportive about your child’s concerns, then your child should know they can talk to you.
- If kids feel any pain or discomfort while practicing or competing, they need to let the coach know right away. They should not continue cheerleading until the pain subsides or they've had the injury looked at by a doctor and been cleared to start practicing again.
- "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 that parents help kids follow the doctor's advice.
A few other reminders:
- Kids should have a pre-season sports physical exam (different from a regular physical exam) before every season to be sure they are ready to play.
- There's lots of pressure to stay thin in cheerleading, so the sport carries a risk of eating disorders. Make sure your child knows they can talk to a parent or coach if they think a friend or teammate has an eating disorder. Remind them that telling doesn't makes them a true friend, not a snitch.
- Find out what your child’s team emergency plan is and be sure both you and your child are familiar with it. If someone suffers a serious injury, being prepared can make a big difference.