There’s no way to put it delicately: Cheerleading can be hazardous. Cheerleading and cheerleading safety have been getting a lot of media attention recently because of the release of the 26th annual study “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research: Fall 1982-Spring 2008” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The study found that a major factor in the increase of catastrophic injuries to female athletes was due to cheerleading, which now involves gymnastic-type stunts. The number of emergency-room visits made each year due to cheerleading injuries more than quintupled from 1980 to 1997.

Falling straight back into someone’s arms from up high is OK — if there’s someone to catch you.

But at least one Springfield-area cheerleader has discovered that you have to know someone’s got your back when you’re pulling that stunt.

“We had a girl last year, she usually falls straight backwards into everyone’s arms, and we were standing in front of her. She was up,” said Liz Sinclair, varsity coach for PORTA High School’s cheerleaders.

“We were all standing in front of her talking to her, and when I told her to get down, her habit was going back, so she fell backwards and there was no one there,” said Sinclair, who was the junior high coach at the time.

The cheerleader landed on the head of another cheerleader, who crumpled to the floor.

“They were fine, but the whole point is, lack of focus. She knew that we weren’t back there. She was talking to us, but lack of focus,” Sinclair said. “It takes 100 percent focus by everyone involved in the stunt. If one person loses focus, the stunt’s going to fail. That’s all there is to it.”

There’s no way to put it delicately: Cheerleading can be hazardous.

Cheerleading and cheerleading safety have been getting a lot of media attention recently because of the release of the 26th annual study “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research: Fall 1982-Spring 2008” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study found that a major factor in the increase of catastrophic injuries to female athletes was due to cheerleading, which now involves gymnastic-type stunts. The number of emergency-room visits made each year due to cheerleading injuries more than quintupled from 1980 to 1997.

Cheerleading has many participants. Although determining the exact number of high school girls involved in cheerleading is difficult — some states do not classify it as a sport, but rather as an extracurricular activity — the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators estimates that 3 million people participate in cheerleading in the United States.

For comparison’s sake, the UNC research shows almost 2.4 million girls participated in other sports in 2007. So by sheer volume, cheerleading would be expected to have many injury reports.

But according to the UNC research, the number of serious cheerleading injuries (including fatalities) suffered by female high school cheerleaders almost equaled the combined number of injuries reported by girls in the other 10 sports surveyed.

One of the major culprits is the evolution of cheerleading from shaking pompons and doing high kicks on the sidelines to squads performing more high-flying stunts (such as building a human pyramid) that require skill in gymnastics and dance, and physical conditioning.

Avoiding injuries

It’s paramount that participants’ safety be an integral part of any cheerleading discussion, the cheerleading coaches association said. The recent study from the University of North Carolina emphasized that point.

“If these cheerleading activities are not taught by a competent coach and keep increasing in difficulty, catastrophic injuries will continue to be a part of cheerleading,” the study said.

“We talk at our parent meeting that cheerleading can be very dangerous ’cause you’re throwing girls in the air,” said Becky Leonard, coach of Rochester High School’s varsity cheerleaders.

“A lot of times that’s when (injury) happens. Not always. Sometimes it’s when they’re jumping and they come back down and land … We talk about that there is a big risk with cheerleading.”

Sinclair agreed that it’s the coach’s job to educate. Camp attendance also helps in injury prevention.

Learning safety — especially related to stunting and spotting — was a big part of the Universal Cheerleaders Association camp that PORTA cheerleaders attended this summer at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School’s gym. Cheerleading squads participating in the camp adhered to the “UCA Safety Pledge” to “maintain constant vigilance with respect to spotting.”

“They don’t really let us tumble here because they say that they’ve had a lot of accidents in the past,” Sinclair said one day at the camp. “They do let us stunt, but everything is very, I would say, slowed down and basic so everyone learns the right mounting and dismounting.”

The PORTA varsity squad, which has several practices each week during the summer, has been conditioning. The regimen includes running and handstand push-ups with help.

Soreness is among injuries the PORTA cheerleaders have dealt with.

The worst injury Sinclair recalled involved cheerleaders who were too close to each other. One accidentally whacked the other in the eye.

“She couldn’t see for about an hour,” Sinclair said.

Injuries happen to the Rochester cheerleaders, Leonard said.

“Not any severe injuries. A lot of sore wrists, sore ankles,” Leonard said. “We get a lot of sore wrists because they’re holding the girls in their hands, but nothing too severe.”

Rochester cheerleaders have to do some form of conditioning (push-ups, sit-ups or running) if a flyer (person at the top of a stunt that gets lifted or thrown in the air) touches the ground during a stunt. There’s no goofing off during stunt performance.

“We have a lot of really good bases, which are the girls holding them up,” Leonard said. “They have to communicate. If they don’t feel steady, they have to say, ‘Bring it down.’ ”

Most of the Rochester cheerleaders take strength training as a physical education course. Practices involve stretching, running and push-ups (sometimes they do jumps to warm up, too).

Even veteran cheerleaders can make mistakes that result in injury if they try something they’ve never done before or if they lose focus.

“Oddly enough, if they’re trying something new … sometimes like the two bases might run into each other,” Leonard said.

“One of the cheerleading stunts that’s actually pretty difficult is spinning down, and so a lot of times flyers’ feet will accidentally hit somebody … We have to make sure they’re high enough when they don’t spin, before they can spin. They have to be able to do step number one before they can move onto step number two.”

Cheerleading’s main focus is to promote school spirit, said Sinclair, but she knows that sometimes that may come with a price.

“There’s not a lot of sports where you’re going to get punched straight in the eye or braces and (get) ripped up lips,” Sinclair said.

Tamara Browning can be reached at (217) 788-1534 or tamara.browning@sj-r.com.

Preventing injury in cheerleading

Progress has been slow, but there has been an increased emphasis on cheerleading safety, according to the 26th annual study “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research: Fall 1982-Spring 2008.”

It offered a list of sample guidelines that may help prevent cheerleading injuries.
They include:

_Cheerleaders should have medical examinations before participating.

_A qualified coach with training in gymnastics and partner stunting should train cheerleaders.

_Cheerleaders should be taught proper conditioning programs and spotting techniques.

_Cheerleaders should receive proper training before attempting gymnastic and partner-type stunts and should not attempt stunts they are not capable of completing. A qualification system demonstrating mastery of stunts is recommended.

_Mini-trampolines and flips or falls off pyramids and shoulders should be prohibited.

_Pyramids more than two people high shouldn’t be performed. Two-high pyramids should not be performed without mats and other safety precautions.

_Emergency procedures must be provided in writing and available to all staff and athletes if a physician or certified athletic trainer isn’t at games and practice sessions.

_Cheerleading coaches should have some type of safety certification.

Did you know?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported an estimated 4,954 hospital emergency room visits in 1980 caused by cheerleading injuries. That number had increased to 26,786 in 2007.

Studying cheerleading

According to the “Catastrophic Sports Injury Research: Fall 1982-Spring 2008,” female high school athletes suffered 168 catastrophic injuries during that time period, including 56 deaths.

Among female cheerleaders, there were nine deaths either directly or indirectly related to cheerleading over that period, and 25 injuries that led to severe functional disabilities.

The death toll was higher for sports such as basketball and cross country — mostly due to heart conditions of a young athlete’s heart. But the overall injury toll for female high cheerleaders was almost as high as all other sports combined.