In the world of athletics there are sports that don’t get enough credit where credit is due. Whether it’s because they don’t bring in the same money to athletic programs as football and basketball or they are simply misunderstood, certain sports don’t get the recognition or treatment that they deserve. The lack of acknowledgment of skill and athleticism that it takes to play certain sports , in my opinion, is unfounded. The average person is incapable of running a 9 second 100 meter dash, kicking an upper 90 goal, doing a back handspring let alone a full yet, they are quick to dismiss certain sports with ease. On the reverse side, there are coaches and athletes that participate in these sports who acknowledge the skill athleticism it takes, but ignore the training portion that it takes to foster being an elite athlete. This gets further exacerbated when fitness professionals and sports medicine professionals also don’t give the sport the time of day. So I started this series to discuss different sports that don’t get the recognition they deserve from outsiders but also from within. Today it’s all about cheerleading.
When most people think cheer all they can think about is “rah, rah, rah” when in reality it has evolved from that into a very high intensity, acrobatic sport. With the evolution of the sport it still struggles to find that recognition from outsiders. This is typically fostered by the misconceptions most people who don’t play the sport have. They don’t see the work that goes into it, they have probably never been to a competition, and I scarcely doubt most of these people can perform a single stunt. The other issue is, the athletes, sports performance professionals, sports medicine professionals, and coaches involved in the sport don’t treat it like other sports. Personal Trainers and Strength Coaches don’t make programs designed for cheerleaders, Orthopedic doctors don’t specialize in incorporating cheerleading into their practices, Athletic Trainers/Physical Therapists aren’t going to seminars for cheerleading injuries or learning techniques geared toward the sport, and cheerleading oaches don’t utilize the former professions rarely if at all.
Cheerleading and Injuries
As it is with all of athletics, injuries can and will happen. Cheerleading is no exception to the rule. Cheerleading athletes are prone to ankle sprains, spine injuries, concussions, knee injuries, and wrist injuries to name a few. There has even been much debate about the dangerousness of cheerleading in regards to injuries. Depending on the year, cheerleading has ranked amongst the most dangerous sports or the least dangerous sports in all athletics. This is because the data can be very misleading due to a misunderstanding of the sport. For instance, data for concussion rates is collected in certain instances during competitions. A football game, regardless of how often the clock is running, has a combined total of 48 minutes in highschool to 60 minutes in the NFL. During a cheerleading competition, a routine is usually no more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds long. If the rate of concussions is looked at when comparing time cheerleading will absolutely have a higher rate of instance. However, if you look at sheer numbers, cheerleading may run in the middle of the pack or toward the bottom compared to other sports.
The secondary problem with information regarding injuries related to cheerleading comes from the overuse/chronic side. There are many chronic wrist, back, knee, and shoulder injuries that would rival sports like basketball or baseball/softball. The problem is many of these types of injuries go unreported or undocumented because; A) Both coaches and athletes see them as a normal part of battling through injury in the sport, B)at the highschool level they are dismissed by their Athletic Trainer for being a cheerleader, or C) It is a club sport, so there is no Athletic Trainer present to document these injuries at all. This causes less research or data to be presentable on how to reduce or treat these types of injuries. If any of these types of injuries occurred in another sport they would get the evaluation, documentation, and rehabilitation required to allow healing and prevention of the same or more injuries. Because information is all over the place with cheerleading it usually gets ignored in the world of sports medicine.
Lastly, most athletic injuries occur during practices. This is a well known fact. In the highschool setting, the administration does not place high value on Athletic Trainers being provided during these practices. If injuries happen they happen without the appropriate medical staff being provided. As I stated before in the club setting there aren’t Athletic Trainers provided during practices. If no one is around to evauate, document, and treat injuries that happen at practices how does anyone know what they are or if they even existed? Regardless of acute or chronic it’s impossible to know what is going on in the world of cheerleading in regards to injuries when there is no one present.
Cheer Leading and Injury Prevention
As previously stated Cheerleading has its fair share of injuries ranging from skull fractures to jumpers knee. Many acute and chronic injuries in cheerleading can be reduced/prevented. Some can be prevented by simple education while others require action. Cheerleading is a non-contact sport, thus many soft tissue injuries have a direct correlation to a lack of strength, mobility, or both. In a sport that requires so much landing, planting twisting, and jumping it’s astonishing how very little is done to prevent injuries. In comparison to a sport like basketball where so much has been done to decrease ACL and ankle injuries, which has been on a steady decline, cheerleading has not taken the same actions while these types of injuries are at a steady increase year to year. The same injury prevent programs that other sports implement, with a few tweaks geared toward cheer, can be easily implemented and it would greatly impact the sport.
Every athlete across the globe is engaging in movement analysis screenings to assess movement dysfunctions. They are a great way to find the problem before they become an issue. For such a dynamic sport as cheer it’s necessary to implement these screenings to keep athletes on the mat. A proper movement analysis will go a very long way in the prevention of injuries and increasing performance.
Cheerleading is literally all plyometric related activities. In my previous article ( insert article here!!!!) I discussed how important learning to land was in plyometrics. As I also stated previously in this article soft-tissue injuries that occur without non-contact involvement typically stem from some sort of dysfunction. Whether it’s a mobility or strength issue, adding poor landing form with dysfunction is a definitive way to get hurt. Teaching cheerleaders proper landing techniques makes all the difference. From simple verbal cues to advance video analysis, can show athletes how they are landing, correct movement faults, and eliminate many non-contact injuries.
Injury Prevention Program(s)
Educating, evaluating, and treating concussions in cheerleading is just as important as football and soccer. The first step is establishing appropriate education regarding concussions so athletes, parents, and coaches understand what they are, recognizing the signs/symptoms of them, and how to appropriately treat them. The second step is to provide athletes with the proper pre-concussion screenings prior to participation. And lastly establishing protocols when concussions are suspected so the athlete does not sustain a second concussion by returning to play too soon
Acute/Chronic Soft Tissue
If it’s understood that specific injuries to the wrists, ankles, knees, and back can and will occur during a cheerleading season it makes sense to act accordingly. Adding short 5-10 minute programs to prevent injuries before or after practices can greatly impact a season. These can be easily implemented after a movement analysis of a program is performed or simply added based on the type of injury that is trying to be prevented. These exercises can range from simple core strengthening, ankle mobility, or thoracic spine mobility programs. Adding these programs is the difference between having a full roster or an inconsistent roster.
Treatment of Injuries
Injuries like ankle sprains are a religious occurrence in cheerleading. Unfortunately most cheerleaders seem to R.I.C.E. themselves right into a second, third, or fourth, injury. Following the injury these athletes rely heavily braces that aren’t really doing anything because braces were meant to be combined with some form of treatment.To end the cycle of injury/re-injury cheerleaders need to address their injuries appropriately with rehabilitation as no injury can heal properly without it.
Sports Performance and Cheerleading
How often do you see cheerleaders in the weight room? How often do you see a cheerleader doing a box jump? How often do you see a cheerleader with a strength and conditioning coach? The answer, rarely to never do you see a cheerleader performing these activities. While the skill component and choreography of a routine is incredibly invaluable to win competitions, basic strength components to performance shouldn’t be ignored. For a sport that requires so much power to perform it, there is a serious lack of training these athletes to actually be powerful. It doesn’t make any sense that staples like resistance-training, footwork, or vertical training is in every sport yet, cheerleading it’s relatively non-existent.
Besides the fact that this would tremendously cut down on injuries shouldn’t this be a requirement? In order to be a base it requires strength. Strength comes from resistance training. Starting to get the picture? Bases and those proving front and back spots shouldn’t just be taller than other girls on the team they should also be much stronger. Not only will cheerleaders have less upper extremity injuries from catching people/drop less people, stronger bases are stable bases. A more stable base will not only safer for flyers but also allow them the stability needed to perform their stunts cleaner. With more strength, bases can also send the athletes higher into the air and catch them from greater distances giving routines higher levels of difficulty.
There is a lot of precision for performing routines. There are a ton of moving parts. Being able to move your feet with a certain amount of precision is a bit of a must. Cheerleaders need footwork to move frontwards, backwards, and side to side. The benefits from footwork/agility drills will teach cheerleaders the how to move their feet smoothly, efficiently, and fast. Choreography will become smoother and having the wherewithal to know where they are in space and time without stumbling over their own feet makes for much needed ease of movement.
To perform complex stunts it requires a certain amount of time in the air. The more time in the air you have the more time you have to pull off clean looking, safe stunts. The less time in the air the more average the performance of a cheerleading routine. Implementing vertical jump training into a cheer program is a game changer for all levels of cheer. If an entire cheer program can out jump the competition the possibilities are limitless for the advanced level of stunts that can be pulled off during a routine.
I think it’s time to face the facts. Cheerleading is a sport, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s going to keep growing/evolving as time goes on. To the outsiders looking in, give respect where it’s due, as the skills they have can’t be mimicked by you or many others. For those who are on the inside looking out vying for respect in the athletic world, treat the sport like it is one. Train like athletes and treat injuries like athletes, it’s that simple.
Audric R. Warren