If cheerleading safety can be summarized into one concept, it’s this; skills shouldn’t be attempted before they are ready to be attempted.
While that sounds obvious and oversimplified, failure to follow proper skill progressions is perhaps the number one cause of avoidable injury. Imagine holding a baby in a standing position before it’s ever crawled. Not only can you not expect it to stand, if you let go, you know it’s going to fall! While we can encourage babies to stand and walk, and even help them to do so, we know there is a progression they have to go through that can’t be skipped. Athletic skills like cheerleading are no different. Every team’s safety program should include the understanding and implementation of proper skill progression.
Skill progression begins with fundamental body positions and proper landing techniques. Before going into the air on a person or in a tumbling pass, a top should be able to demonstrate on the ground the various body positions that will be used in the air. These can include hollow body, arch, liberty/stag, heel stretch, scorpion, and open pike for cradles. They should be able to demonstrate proper landing techniques from various heights, starting on the ground. Finding out that there are issues to be addressed while landing from a two-foot high block or bleacher will help keep someone from an improper landing from a greater height in a stunt that could cause an injury.
Similarly, bases should be able to demonstrate a strong, slightly hollow, non-arched standing position while positioning the arms at prep and extended heights. Bases should practice lunges with some body weight being applied to their shoulders in order to perfect the correct stance that will provide stability and balance for the top person. Proper “load in” stances for elevators and baskets, with the feet under the body and the back upright, can also help to avoid errors that over time can cause injury to the bases.
Once the basic body positions and landing techniques are checked off, low thigh-level skills can be performed to allow each base, top, and spotter to practice their skill and create a muscle memory that will need to be second-nature as they move to more advanced skills. Each body position that will be done in the air should be performed at this level if possible.
Intermediate level skills at shoulder/prep level can now safely be attempted. The techniques used for the lower skills, including proper weight distribution, climbing technique, and balance will be utilized at this new level while the top person gains body awareness and becomes comfortable with height. At the same time, bases will add to their balancing and stability techniques. In the event of a fall at this level, skills can be safely dismounted or caught by bases and spotters using the techniques they demonstrated earlier.
Finally, extended skills and tosses can be performed – if and only if the group demonstrated proficiency in the previous skills. Regardless of the intended goal of a routine’s outline, if a skill can only be performed to a certain level, that’s where it should remain until the coach is satisfied that the group is performing safely and is ready to advance.
In the era of more advanced skills and increased competition, there can be a pressure to pick up where last year’s team left off, or to try to hit the highest rewarded skills in a category. Teams may feel like they should spend all of their time working on the “end goal” skills in their routine over and over in order to perfect them, when in fact, skipping progressions is the worst choice for their success. Following skill progressions helps build the techniques necessary for advanced and elite skills found in cheerleading, and will help keep cheerleaders safe by minimizing the risk of injury along the way.