It’s official! Cheerleading – love it or hate it – isn’t just about short skirts, big smiles and pompom waving. According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), cheerleading is just as athletic and potentially as dangerous as a sport and should be designated as one.
In addition, to making it a sport, the AAP urges coaches, parents and school officials to follow injury-prevention guidelines, develop emergency plans and ensure cheerleading programs have access to the same level of qualified coaches, medical care and injury surveillance as other sports. They also recommend better supervision including on-site athletic trainers, limits on practice time and better qualified coaches.
“Not everyone is fully aware of how cheerleading has evolved over the last couple of decades. It used to be just standing on the sidelines and doing cheers and maybe a few jumps,” said Cynthia LaBella MD, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Injuries have increased as cheerleading has become more popular. Over the last two decades, the number of cheerleaders injured has climbed dramatically. Hardly surprising given that cheerleaders engage in stunts such as creating human pyramids that reach 15 feet high or more. Common injuries include severe sprains, broken arms and legs, neck injuries and concussions.
Last year alone, there were almost 37,000 documented emergency room visits for cheerleading injuries among girls aged 6 to 22. That’s a 400% increase from the 1980. And while the overall injury rate in high school cheerleading is lower than in other girls sports, such as gymnastics, soccer and field hockey, the rate of catastrophic injuries like skull fractures and spinal paralysis is higher. In fact, cheerleading accounts for 66% of all catastrophic injuries in high school female athletes.
Data suggest there are more than 3 million cheerleaders nationwide, most of them girls. While most belong to traditional cheerleading squads that support schools’ athletic teams, many schools have also created competitive cheering teams.
Some schools and state high school sports associations already consider cheerleading a sport and require the kind of safety oversight that the academy is recommending. But many do not, says Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches & Administrators.
Lord and the AAP agree on a number of safety recommendations including limiting the height of human pyramids in high school cheerleading to just two people and banning routines that include pyramids, tumbling or tosses from being performed on hard surfaces.
Lisa Kluchorosky, a sports medicine specialist who works with the academy and the National Athletic Trainers Association, believes the new policy will not only help to reduce injuries but also help erase misconceptions that cheerleading is not very athletic.
What do you think?