Cheerleading, like all sports, comes with risk. We’ve all heard the phrase that “injuries are part of sports”. That isn’t a reason to turn a blind eye to prevention and just accept that any injury is part of the game. As coaches, as parents and as athletes we all must refocus our energies on preventing injuries. With this focus in your program, you lower the risk of injury and increase the chance that when there is an injury it can be attributed to an unpreventable accident instead of something that never had to occur.
According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study, 60% of injuries most commonly result from a stunt. It stands to reason that a focus on reducing the number of falls from stunts can result in a lower injury rate in cheerleading.
Falls happen. They happen when learning new stunts and they happen even after stunts are mastered. Again this is true of all sports. Who hasn’t seen an Olympic gymnast fall on the beam, resulting in a landing on the neck or head on the beam or simply having to step off after losing their balance on a turn. This is a skill she has been working on since she was probably 4 or younger.
But falls, no matter how small, open the window for an injury. Even when caught properly by spotters and bases, there is still a risk of injury. After all, the focus of the spotters and bases during a fall is to protect the head, neck and shoulder area of the top person. Landing on someone’s foot can still twist, sprain or even break an ankle depending on the force and angle of the landing. Properly trained spotters, bases and top people are still humans, and can make mistakes. When you combine multiple people working together to achieve a stunt, performance errors can occur which combine to put someone in a position where they are not properly caught. Matting can help, but it is not a fail-safe and landing on the head, neck or back on any surface increases the chance of a major, life-changing injury.
A recent story (http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_15786593) about the dangers of cheerleading highlighted a young girl who is tragically paralyzed after a fall. The article explains that she was diagnosed with a “relatively small subdural hematoma, or bleeding of the brain” and was eventually released by the hospital after several days of observation. Tragically, the hospital did not perform a CT scan prior to her release and therefore missed the opportunity to perform an operation that could have kept her from waking up at home with “massive brain damage, retardation and paralysis.”
We don’t know from this article what was the cause of the fall or if it could have been prevented. But stories like these should highlight the need for proper coaching, which includes teaching spotting skills and following skill progressions to minimize the risk of having a fall occur in the first place. What could be a “routine” fall can quickly become something worse if the spotter catches wrong, the top person inadvertently lands on an ankle or, in a case like this, a misdiagnosis or error at the hospital occurs. It would be a tragedy on top of a tragedy for something like this to have happened if it could have been prevented by having proper safety measures in place.
“Perfection before progression” is a common term used amongst cheer safety advocates and coaches. Of course we all know that true “perfection” cannot be achieved with any athletic skill, but the term reinforces the importance of drilling and practicing repetitions until proper technique becomes a habit. As coaches, we must require that our stunt groups demonstrate a high proficiency before moving up in skill level. We must demand proper spotting demonstrations in drills and during any falls and make sure the spotters understand their role of protecting the top person’s head, neck and shoulder area. Top people in stunts and pyramids must demonstrate safe dismounting procedures to protect themselves and their bases. All of these things should be done beginning with the very first stunts and should remain standard operating procedure throughout your program.
If your program is not following a philosophy of “perfection before progression”, it may be time to talk to the coach, administrator, or gym owner about your concerns. If you feel they are pushing to hard and fast to hit skills without taking the time needed, then it may also be time to reevaluate your continued participation in this program. When stunts are falling, the risk of injury – possibly a serious one – goes up.
Injuries are part of sports, but they should be a small part, and they should be from accidents that were out of a coach’s or athlete’s control. Falls are part of cheerleading, but they should also be a small part. Preventing a fall is the first step in preventing an injury.