RICHLAND – Ask any competitive cheerleader how difficult their sport is, and they will typically site a litany of injuries.
Gull Lake junior Montana Rehm did just that. A cheerleader for 11 years, she said that while performing she has injured her knee, received a concussion and rolled her ankle.
“Knee injuries are common. Rolling an ankle was just an accident,” Rehm said. “Some injuries take a while to add up. We’re all used to just sucking it up, and that’s when they can get worse.”
Realistically, looking at any athlete who has participated in a sport for several years, very few will have kept the injury bug at bay.
But in competitive cheerleading, safety has become a national topic, with various media outlets sighting data that shows competitive cheerleading to be the most dangerous sport for female athletes. Yet that narrative seems to be changing.
A recent study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted by lead researcher Dawn Comstock, PhD. for the National Federation of High Schools shows that cheerleading’s overall injury rates were lower than all but three other sports — girls’ and boys’ swimming and boys’ volleyball.
The data that is often cited as evidence of cheerleading’s danger is pulled from the 29th annual report from National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, which shows the prevalence of catastrophic injuries in cheerleading (both sideline and competitive) dating back to 1982. The raw number of 83 fatal, non-fatal or serious injuries between 1982-2011 led all female sports and is cause for concern, but the report didn’t take into account the rate of injury (per 100,000 athletes) for cheerleading is lower than many other female sports.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association made competitive cheer a certified sport in 1994, giving the state a leg up on many of the 35 states and Washington D.C. that have reclassified it as an official sport.
“Don’t compare apples and oranges,” said Gull Lake head coach Julie Jones. “If you really looked at Michigan’s injury rates, they would be behind the rest of the nation, because we do have really strict rules we have to follow for safety. There’s certain rules for the middle school level, and they can bump up and you can do more difficult things, but the rest of the nation doesn’t have that same set of rules, so the injury rate is going to be higher.”
Making competitive cheer a certified sport certainly adds to its safety. Without gym time and proper safety equipment like mats, practices could be held on any kind of surface — from cafeteria tile to parking lot asphalt. The requirements for coaches and officials also become more stringent when cheerleading is legitimized as a sport.
Gull Lake’s Varisty Cheer team performs during the Cheer Competition at Gull Lake High School on Saturday.
In 2014, a total of 7,120 girls participated in competitive cheer in Michigan (the MHSAA classifies it as an all-female sport). A safety judge is required at each competition, where teams can be penalized for various infractions over three rounds. The third round is the open round, where teams are judged on floor mobility, vocals, team coordination and skills — and that is when you see the most tumbling and lifts.
“There is definitely some high danger,” said Harper Creek head coach Jess Davis. “But when you go to coaching summits and stuff like that, and they have specific workshops for stunts and things like that, you can help the girls learn the right hand holds, the right timing, the right kind of catches to have the best safety. Having more professional development for coaches has probably also helped our sport grow in a safe way.”
Concussions specifically have become a national topic in sports, as the medical community is beginning to discover more about what causes them and what are the lasting effects. According to a 2012 paper published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, which looked at concussions among high school athletes during the 2008-2010 school years, cheerleading had the 10th-highest concussion rate of the 20 sports monitored.
“Maybe for a while the injuries were higher than what they are starting to be,” said Delton Kellogg coach Zoe Reynolds. “And maybe that was because coaches weren’t as aware about conditioning kids to make sure they were ready for what they are going to do. You are always going to have somebody that falls, or trips or has a sprained ankle or breaks their arm, or whatever those things would be. I think that comes with any sport, regardless.”