Health Column: Safety is paramount in cheerleading

The Riverhead varsity cheerleaders placed 20th at Nationals today in Orlando, Fla. (Courtesy photo)
The Riverhead varsity cheerleaders placed 20th at Nationals earlier this year. (Credit: courtesy)

It’s an activity in which strained tendons, split lips and the occasional concussion are expected — and your safety relies wholly on trusting your teammates to back you up and catch you when you fall.

It’s cheerleading — which last week was unanimously recognized as a sport by the New York State Board of Regents. To this I say, it’s about time.

Here’s why, based on my firsthand experience. 

While other sports revolve around throwing or catching a ball, cheerleading revolves around throwing and catching people — real live, twisting, kicking people — and making it look good in the process. Skeptics may think cheerleading isn’t tough or “game” enough compared to other sports, but it was the most physically demanding sport I ever participated in, field hockey and track included.

The strained tendon, split lip and concussion — I had them all. They were battle wounds in the sport I loved, in which I participated from age 5 through college. And I didn’t have an athletic trainer standing on the sidelines during practice overseeing a slip or fall. If anything, we hid any injury out of fear of having our beloved program cut by the district, which may not have wanted it there to begin with.

So were those injuries a result of my own negligence? Perhaps the carelessness of my teammates?

Or, were they just a reality of the sport?

I would argue some of the people who oversee high school programs aren’t trained to understand the risks of injury and teach participants how to avoid them — just as every football coach is trained to teach players “how to take a hit.”

According to a 2012 study conducted by the America Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading has accounted for approximately 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries among female high school athletes over the past 25 years.

Not surprisingly, the study found that stunting accounted for about half of all cheerleading injuries, while sprains and strains were the most common types of injuries overall.

My experience as a high school cheerleader left me practicing stunts in hallways, on hardwoods floors and, when we were really lucky, on the wrestling team’s old floor mats, from which any provided comfort had been beaten out in the decade before.

And while my coach at the time did the best she could, the safety and techniques of stunting relied mainly on us — and the YouTube videos we watched and attempted to copy. Sounds safe, right?

Well, this is the reality at many small high schools with fledgling cheering programs. Hopefully, with the state Board of Regents decision, that reality will change.

And, hopefully, coaches will now be required to undergo the same safety training other sporting officials do.

Miller_HeadshotGot a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].