Cheerleading Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

This article was originally published in NYSIR News Spring 2012

There is a risk to any athletic activity but cheerleading appears to have more than it’s fair share of injury. According to the National Cheer Safety Foundation, head injuries account for almost 13% of all cheerleaders seen in the emergency room; and while the most common injuries are arm and leg strains and sprains, cheerleading is the number one cause of catastrophic injury – paralysis or death – to female high school athletes.

Quantitative data for cheerleading injuries, as reported by several organizations, may differ because there is no formal reporting system in place for recording cheerleading accidents. Further, many minor injuries are not recorded because the injured students aren’t treated in hospitals but are instead treated by coaches, trainers and private doctors. However, what the statistics available do appear to agree upon is that injuries are more prevalent for cheerleaders than in any other high school sport except football.

The Problem
Cheerleading has evolved over the years from a sideline show into a physically challenging and competitive sport that demands that athletes execute complex gymnastic maneuvers that pose serious threat of injury. Coupled with the fact that it is not a recognized school sport in every district, cheerleading doesn’t always receive the support it deserves. For example, the cheerleading team may have a classroom teacher doubling as a coach rather than a professionally trained cheerleading coach. Also, because it is not generally an official sport, it’s not always subject to the uniform safety regulations – mandatory off-season, routine physicals and soft practice surfaces – that apply to school sports.

Some of the increase in injuries can be attributed to the growing interest in the sport and the increased number of students participating in cheerleading programs. The rise in catastrophic injuries is ascribed to the increasing difficult and daring acrobatic routines cheerleaders perform under the direction of inadequately trained coaches and spotters.

Making Cheering Safer
The good news is that cheerleading
has become safer in the last several
years, although there is always room
for improvement. A main area of risk
management focus is on the coaching
staff. A preferred coach:

  • has experience in first aid and CPR training
  • knows how to coach athletes in regard to their development, strength, conditioning, flexibility, skill level and age
  • has experience in supporting cheerleading activities and techniques
  • ensures that a qualified person is always present
  • is able to make changes in routinesif something looks unsafe

Other risk management protocols can be used to avoid injury including the use of mats and a spring loaded floor to cushion falls, maintaining equipment and safety gear in top condition and having coaches regularly attend safety clinics, specific skill technique courses and sport first aid programs. Reviewing the safety guidelines set forth by The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, which are annually updated, can also be helpful. For example, the organization recommends against basket tosses, a maneuver in which multiple teammates throw a cheerleader spinning into the air on a hard basketball court floor.

“When it’s done properly, cheerleading is as safe as any other sport that kids can take part in,” said Jim Lord, Executive Director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators.

Liability Issues
Generally, the school is not liable if a student is hurt while performing a supervised activity when the injury could not have been avoided by reasonable care by school officials. However, according to NYSIR’s Underwriting Manager, Fred Black, one very important but sometimes overlooked general liability policy item is that most insurance carriers exclude coverage for use of trampolines, with some providing only a limited scope of coverage for a narrow range of rebounding equipment. “Coverage for this area should be discussed with the insurance carrier prior to implementing a cheerleading program. Rebounding activity should also be discussed with the student accident carrier to determine if there are any coverage restrictions or exclusions for the program,” advises Mr. Black.

For additional information about
cheerleading safe practices, visit the
following websites:

  • National Federation of State High School Associations www.nfhs.org
  • American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators www.aacca.org
  • National Cheer Safety Foundation www.nationalcheersafety.com/