During Cheerleading Safety Month, Starpoint coach, Excelsior trainer explain why technique, strength, & communication matter
LOCKPORT, N.Y. – The sport of cheerleading is not for the faint of heart.
Competitive cheerleaders must be proficient in tumbling, a form of acrobatics and gymnastics, in which athletes perform handsprings and flips in the air.
Flyers must trust their teammates to toss them to great heights and hold them steady. Base teammates and spotters must have the confidence and know-how to safely lift, bring down, and break the falls of their squad mates.
Like with any sport, cheerleading comes with a risk of injury, and National Cheerleading Safety Month aims to make sure athletes, coaches, parents, and trainers are aware of what they can do to keep their kids and teammates safe.
“I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of strength, power and endurance needed for our team to compete at such a high level,” said Kendall Marshall, an Outreach Athletic Training Team Lead with Excelsior Orthopaedics. “From an athletic training perspective, a lot of the injuries I see are related to muscular imbalances, where one area of the body is significantly stronger than another.”
Marshall is the athletic trainer for Starpoint Central School District, whose cheerleading team recently placed second in New York State and had an undefeated competition season.
Varsity coach Carissa El-Sharif recognizes cheerleaders are more prone to certain injuries.
“Tumbling is a huge part of cheerleading, and we have athletes that perform standing and running tumbling skills at an advanced level,” she said. “Tumbling can definitely take a toll on a person’s body; you are putting a lot of stress on your ankles and knees. Stunting is another part of cheerleading where we experience the majority of our injuries, which also makes cheerleading a full contact sport. When we stunt, we are tossing, launching, twisting and catching the flyer in the air. This takes coordination and lots of practice, however, if the proper technique is not being used, the whole stunt group is at risk of injury. “
El-Sharif says concussions, sprains, and fractures are the main types of injuries experienced when groups perform stunting. Proper technique, conditioning, and stretching are among the best defenses to prevent getting hurt.
In addition to technique, Marshall says strength and balance training are also important components of injury prevention.
“A lot of the chronic injuries can be prevented with a focused and individualized strength and balance training program,” he said. “With acute injuries, coaches are required to undergo training about spotting and safety considerations for tumbling and stunting, which I think has an impact in reducing injuries.”
When someone is injured, Marshall is equipped with the knowledge and skills to help an athlete right away, highlighting the importance of having an athletic training on hand or close by.
“It’s important to remember that these athletes are throwing another person into the air. That person may be flipping or twisting, and then [teammates] are responsible for catching them safely or breaking their fall. Accidents are going to happen, and I’m glad I’ve developed a level of trust in our coaches to recognize on their own when an athlete needs some time off or to call me down so we can work together to find a way for the athlete to participate as much as their condition will allow.”
Then there’s the competitive mental aspect to cheerleading. Some student athletes may try to overdo it, especially those whose weekly schedules are not just JV or Varsity cheerleading, but also tumbling lessons, additional elite teams, or otherwise. Marshall is currently working on research related to student athletes who are at risk of overexerting themselves.
“For any sport, the best rule of thumb is to use an athlete’s age as the maximum amount of hours each week they should be engaging in a sport,” is the advice that Marshall offers. “If an athlete is 13-years-old, that’s 13 hours each week across all practices and games for any team they are on, combined. Once you start to go above that number, say 16-20 hours per week for a 13-year-old, that’s when you’re setting the athlete up for an increased risk of injury, burnout from the sport, and other negative effects on their overall quality of life.”
He believes that, in general, coaches and parents need to better communicate when a child or teem is on multiple teams so that a balance can be found and the athlete doesn’t become overwhelmed with a multitude of commitments every day.
Another mental aspect of cheerleading safety is when a student athlete fails to share the full scope of his or her injury due to fear of missing out. And Marshall says, in his experience, being benched is a legitimate fear.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about reporting an injury or medical condition is that you’re either able to participate fully or you have to sit out. In reality, there’s a lot we can do to treat the injury; typically, our student-athletes will continue to participate with some modifications…or I work with the athlete and coach to identify what they can do in practices or on the sideline to then progress them back to full activity and compete with their team,” Marshall said.
I hope more clinicians can have that conversation with parents and athletes when they are determining a treatment plan as I believe this is a legitimate fear of many athletes and a barrier when it comes to them reporting any issues before they progress to a point where the only option is to not participate at all.
Finally, social progress has greatly affected cheerleading advancements: Breaking obsolete stereotypes have helped the sport. El-Sharif says she believes that because cheerleading is taken more seriously now than it was 10 years ago, cheerleading injuries are taken more seriously, too. With that, she feels National Cheerleading Safety Month does even more for her student athletes.
“The awareness campaign…is important because it makes our athletes feel validated. Even though cheerleading is a recognized sport in New York State, there is still a stereotype that cheerleaders are just there on the sidelines. This sport is a full contact sport that involves countless hours of training, planning, and coordination,” El-Sharif said. “Just like any other sport, there are injuries that happen, and it is great to see that our athletes are given the best possible care when injured to help them get back to the sport they love most.”