by Gwen Holtsclaw, President and CEO of Cheer Ltd.

It had been a great seminar.  The coaches at this national conference had listened intently as I discussed “The Ethics of Coaching.”   When I opened the Q & A session, I expected to get questions on a variety of ethical dilemmas like confidentiality, body image, and bullying.  I was wrong.

The first question was “Do you believe coaches are unethical when they knowingly overtrain these young athletes just to win?”  and that question opened the floodgates:  What constitutes overtraining?  Is overtraining even a real thing?   Whose “fault” is overtraining?

Let’s take the questions in reverse order.  Overtraining is not an issue of “fault.” Rather, it is a classic example of coaches and cheerleaders doing the wrong thing for the right reason.   Coaches practice too long, too hard, and too frequently because they want to create a successful and winning season for their team.  Cheerleaders work too hard, play past real pain, and ignore an injury because they don’t want to let the team down.  The reasons are right—the overtraining, however, is wrong.

Overtraining is definitely a real thing.  It masks itself as dedication and “no pain, no gain” when it is really an epic failure to balance hard work with proper rest and recovery.    Too often, cheer coaches fail to realize that they are not coaching full grown adults.  Children and teenagers are vulnerable to growth-plate injuries all the way to 18 years of age with 16-18 being prime injury years.  Overtraining has the most direct impact on these growth-plate injuries.

How can coaches know what constitutes overtraining and when they have crossed the line from a well-disciplined team to an overtrained team?  Take a broad look at your team and see if you detect any of these documented overtraining symptoms:

  • Burnout
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Failure to improve
  • Chronic muscle or joint pain
  • Increase in injuries, illness, and infections
  • Irritability
  • Lack of competitive drive

The best way to eliminate the possibility of overtraining is to rethink your traditional approach to team practices and training.  Longer practices do not mean better practices.  “Suck it up” is not an appropriate response to a cheerleader’s complaint.  Athletes are not meant to play year round … not even the professional athletes attempt the rigorous year round schedule many cheer coaches require of their teams.  Athletes require an extended amount of time to rest and recover and recharge.  Warm-ups followed by repetitious executions of the same routine is a set-up for overtraining.  Consider the options below to protect your team from overtraining.

  • Cross train.  Add yoga, Zumba, Pilates, and visualization to your practices to balance out the way your cheerleaders are using their bodies.
  • Create a plan.  Outline your practices for a month in advance and make sure to include a variety of training methods.  A well-organized practice makes for a more efficient, shorter practice and results in more rest and recovery time for your cheerleaders.
  • If it hurts, don’t let your cheerleaders work it.  This includes muscle soreness, bruises, joint pain, etc.
  • Don’t overdo stunt practices and tumbling practices.  Reinforcement is a great learning tool, but make sure you balance reinforcement with rest and recovery.

Coaches know that the balance between training and rest lives on a very thin line.  The biggest challenge to today’s cheer coach is walking that line and not doing the wrong thing for the right reason.