Go, Fight, Win! If cheerleading brings back memories of cute uniforms and pep rallies, you may be envisioning the same fun future on the sidelines for your daughter. But cheerleading has evolved into an intense sport that rivals gymnastics when it comes to skills and football when it comes to serious injuries like concussions and spine injuries, prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to release a new policy statement. “There's been a real uptick in the number and severity of cheerleading injuries,” notes pediatric sports medicine specialist Cynthia LaBella, M.D., a member of the AAP council on sports medicine and fitness and coauthor of the new guidelines. “It has become extremely competitive in the past few years, incorporating more complex skills than ever before.”
At the same time, cheerleading is soaring in popularity. The number of girls ages 6 and up turning cartwheels has reached an estimated 3.6 million in the U.S. The problem is, for all its prominence and the high level of athleticism it requires, only 29 state high school athletic associations currently recognize cheerleading as an actual sport. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn't include competitive cheerleading in its list of sponsored sports. Designating cheerleading as a sport—a main goal of the AAP—would ensure that participants of every age have access to qualified coaches, athletic trainers, and preseason physicals, emphasizes Dr. LaBella.
While cheerleading injuries typically rise with age as the competition heats up and the complexity of stunts increases, parents of younger girls need to take precautions. Elementary school cheerleaders and those in squads run by private clubs are possibly getting even less safety supervision than older athletes, notes Dr. LaBella. “Parents should find out if the coach has taken a certification program, knows CPR, and can recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion,” she emphasizes. “You should also inspect the facilities and the condition of equipment, like floor mats.”
We asked our Facebook fans: Have you let your daughter join a cheer squad?
“I did, and she was injured falling off the top of a pyramid, despite being in great shape. They work them too hard. Certainly more training for the coaches is necessary.” —REBECCA O.
“I will if she asks, but I will be the mom eagle-eyeing what the coach is doing at every practice. lol!” —ASHLEIGH M.
“First, I signed her up for basic gymnastics to help her prepare.” —KAT N.
“My seventh-grader is a flyer. It's scary to watch. She's been hurt a couple times, but she's so happy doing it. I figure everything is dangerous to some extent.” —AMY K.
“Yep. My daughter is nine and loves it. Really, it's more dangerous to ride in a car.” —JESSICA M.M.
“Sure. Cheering can be risky, but so is soccer. What can you do? Wrap them in bubble wrap?” —MORGAN S.
“Yes, but I thought cheer wasn't really a sport and no big deal. Was I wrong! Those girls work so hard.” —JENNIFER D.D.
Show these five guidelines to your kid's cheer coach:
- Cheerleaders should be trained in spotting techniques, meaning they know how to watch for falls and other injuries.
- Girls should try new stunts only after the coach has approved their skill progression, and if they feel ready for it themselves.
- Stunts should be performed only on a spring or foam floor, or a grass or turf field—but never on a wet, hard, or uneven surface.
- Coaches, parents, and athletes should have access to a written injury emergency care plan before the season starts.
- Any cheerleader suspected of having even a mild head injury should be taken from practice and competition until cleared by a doctor.