Cheerleading has been booming in popularity over the last ten years. Rightfully so, cheerleading is a spectacular and amazing sport to watch when the routines and skills are executed properly! As athletes started choosing cheerleading as their sport of choice at an earlier age, the high influx of participants caused the level of the skills required to increase dramatically in a very short period of time. Cheerleading skipped from a pastime straight to a sport with high level acrobatic requirements. There was not a long enough evolution time for the skills requirements and expectations to grow safely and therefore cheerleading has also evolved into the most dangerous sport in the country on a catastrophic level.
Of course cheerleading is dangerous, as is every sport but according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, in 2013 alone only looking at the sport from an academic school competitive aspect (not counting private cheerleading centers which have higher skill level requirements potentially making this number worse) cheerleading accounted for 66% of all catastrophic injuries (a severe injury to the brain, spinal cord, or spine) in female high school or collegiate sports. This number is quite scary to look at and also unacceptable. Some may make the excuse that of course the number is high, they are tossing each other in the air; But, if you want to look at the sport from a skill perspective although the level has risen and there are unique components to cheerleading such as stunting and a large number of athletes active at the same time, the difficulty of skill is no where near comparison to that of gymnastics so the injury level should not be higher.
The problem of injury does not come directly from the higher level of required skills, it comes from the lack of training in preparation for completing them. Putting aside the lack of education provided for coaches of the sport to instruct the actual skills (because this is a large problem for any sport in the United States because our rules for being eligible to coach differ from just about every other country) the athletes participating in cheerleading most of the time acquire an injury because they lack the strength needed to complete the skill safely.
Most of the time people assume athletes, especially those who do a sport which require acrobatics are strong. What they forget to realize is that they are comparing an athlete to an average person; not to a top athlete in the sport they must use their strength for. When you watch the fluidity and form of an athlete in motion you can see a lot of their weaknesses; ex: are they struggling to straighten their legs, is their core lax, do they struggle to increase momentum during a long pass, do they struggle to control the direction of where their limbs are going during a skill, do they struggle to keep their balance etc. All of these errors come from a lack of strength, not a lack of technique. An athlete should be able to move their own body in the way they command it to move at all times and many times this is not able to happen because they aren’t strong enough.
Let’s look at the strength dynamics of a stunt group… In a stunt group the top or flyer needs to be able to keep her support leg contracted and straight, keep her core contracted and straight, move her arms and legs exactly where she needs them to go without being able to look at them, maintain full muscle contraction while using extreme flexibility, control herself while being tossed into the air, and control her body when being caught; all of this takes a lot of muscle control which needs to be developed before she actually gets on top of her stunt group. Every athlete on the bottom of the stunt group must be able to act as a strong base support and landing net. Bottoms need to be able to contract virtually all of their muscles, stay in a squat position to begin the stunt while keep their core and spine straight, be able to lift their flyer up while controlling their arms and pushing with their legs, completely and totally keep the balance of their flyer which requires a lot of tiny and fast muscle contractions while holding a substantial amount of weight, be able to keep their core contracted and spine straight when the flyer is above their head to not injure their spine, be able to reach and grab their flyer when she is switching positions without looking at the motion of their own arms, be able to walk with her safely above their head, and of course be able to contract their muscles to catch her to eliminate some of the impact and strain she puts upon them. If an athlete cannot successfully do similar body motions to what they specifically need during their actual performance alone on the ground; ex: lift their legs while keep their knees straight and controlling the full range of motion, squat and control their body, lift a small weight above their head with proper form and without getting fatigued, etc. then they are not ready to participate in a stunt as a group. When you look at things this way over the population of cheerleading approximately 90% would need to stop stunting and start strengthening. Due to the all too often short season layout, an appropriate amount of time is not allotted for this to happen.
It is so important for an athlete’s body to sustain the impact of their training. Sometimes improper training can lead to an overuse injury but many times the injuries happen instantaneously because when a skill starts going wrong, the athlete is not strong enough to control their body and prevent anything from bending or twisting the wrong way! Especially during stunting when many athletes are involved and falls happen in a split second, the reaction time of both the top falling down and the base catching must be instantaneous. To help in both scenarios, but especially to prevent falls, drops, bad landings, unsafe catches, loose flying execution etc., specific conditioning should be done to strengthen the athlete’s body similarly to the way it is actually used during their sport. By giving the muscles memory of how and when to contract and by making the body overall stronger, the athlete can better control the movement of their body and ultimately keep their joints safer. Their level of confidence will also grow making skills easier to complete and it is not only because of their body image, but mainly because they know they can trust themselves to control the skill they are doing and be safe from injury even if the technique goes haywire.