Cheerleading, Strength and Safety: What to Know
As we enter the month of August, many children and teenagers are headed back to school. Many of us remember our high school football games on Friday night with the cheerleading team on the sidelines helping to lead the crowd in chants to help their football team win the game. Cheerleading is no longer just girls holding pom poms and shouting from the sidelines of a football or basketball game. Cheerleading has grown into a highly competitive athletic activity over the last 25 years.
Is cheerleading truly a "sport?" This question has been asked throughout the years and often heated debates can ensue depending on the individual that you speak with. The definition of “sport” by the Oxford Dictionary is: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
If you purely go off of the definition of the word “sport,” many of today's cheerleaders do indeed fit the criteria. All Star cheerleading as well as competitive high school and collegiate cheerleading require both physical exertion as well as skill when teams compete against one another at many of the cheerleading competitions that are held across the country.
Children can now begin participating in competitive cheerleading from the age of 4 through the collegiate level. All Star Cheerleading gyms are popping up all over the country in which teams practice year round and typically compete from October through May every year.
There is no doubt that cheerleading is a physically demanding activity between the tumbling, jumps, and stunting that are required during the competitions. Even though cheerleading has a lower injury rate compared to other contact and collision sports, cheerleading tends to have more severe injuries when they do occur such as concussions and fractures. Often, these athletes end up in physical or occupational therapy in order to help them to return to the sport they love.
As a physical therapist and former All-Star cheerleading coach, the prevention of cheerleading injuries has been an interest of mine that has grown over the years. I suffered multiple injuries as a competitive dancer and cheerleader, and unfortunately, one injury can affect the whole team because the entire routine often has to be modified and/or changed when one person is missing. Sometimes injuries happen despite good training, great coaching, and steady tumbling and stunting progressions. However, I would like to provide some tips that parents and athletes can apply to their weekly practices to improve their odds of having a healthy and injury free season.
- Trust the coaches that promote steady and safe skill progressions: There are six different levels in All-Star cheerleading that encourage safe skill progressions and allow the athlete to perform more challenging skills as their strength and technique improve. The more novice athletes compete in levels one and two with skill progressions that go up to level six. It is crucial for the athlete to learn how to stunt and tumble in proper progressions to develop the strength, confidence, and technique needed to advance to the next level.
- It is not the end of the world if your child is on the same level team for two or even three consecutive years. Some children and adolescents take longer to develop certain tumbling and stunting skills than others. It is human nature to want to “move up” from one year to the next, however, the athlete that is advanced too fast could potentially injure themselves by attempting tumbling or stunting skills they are not ready to perform, or they could injure another teammate by participating in certain stunts when they do not have the proper technique to execute the stunts safely.
- Utilizing proper technique when stunting: Many bases will complain of an aching back at some point throughout the season. Most of the time, the pain in the back is due to a combination of poor core strength as well as improper technique and body position when lifting their flyer into the air. Novice bases tend to use their back and arms to lift their flyer compared to a more advanced base that uses power and momentum from their legs as well as engaging their abdominals to maintain a neutral spine position in order to lift their flyer.
- Strength and conditioning exercises: Hopefully, the coaching team at your child’s gym is doing strength and conditioning for these athletes on a regular basis. Conditioning exercises for cheerleaders should focus on both upper and lower body strengthening, core stabilization, as well as flexibility. Some exercise examples include:
- Burpees: From a standing position, squat down and jump back into a plank position. Perform a push-up and jump the feet back to a squat position. To complete the burpee, jump in the air with your arms extended overhead before landing softly with bent knees. Start with 10 reps and work up to 20 repetitions.
- Planks: Get into the push-up position, then bend your elbows to 90 degrees and rest your weight on your forearms. Your shoulders should be directly over your elbows and your body should make a straight line. Make sure you are engaging your abdominals by pulling your belly button in towards your spine, squeeze your glutes and thighs together. Hold for 20-30 seconds for 2-3 repetitions and work up to a 2-minute hold.
- Wall sits: Perform a squat with your back against the wall. Pull your abdominals in towards your spine. Make sure your feet are hip width apart and your heels are far enough away from the wall in order for your knees to not extend in front of your toes. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat 2-3 times and work up to 5 repetitions.
- Single leg bridges: Lay on your back with one foot on the floor and the other leg extended ~ 18 inches off the ground. Pull abdominals in towards your spine and lift bottom off the floor. Try to keep your hips level and hold for 5 seconds. Start with 10 reps on each leg and work up to 20 repetitions.
Heather Harrison, PT, DPT, OCS is a physical therapist and the Therapy Manager at OrthoCarolina Huntersville, NC. She is a board certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists. Heather was a competitive dancer and cheerleader for 12 years. She was the Captain of the UNC-Chapel Hill Dance Team for the 2003-2004 season. Heather was a Cheerleading Camp Instructor for UCA and Spirit Xpress for 6 years and an All-Star cheerleading coach at White Lightning Athletics for five years.