Have you hopped on the bandwagon that is the Netflix show Cheer? It’s completely mesmerizing. These athletes—from a wide range of backgrounds—all work as hard as possible as they cheer for Navarro College in Corsicana under coach Monica Aldama.
The ultimate goal: to make mat at the national finals (translation: make the group of 20 cheerleaders that will perform at the final competition of the year).
The show also gives an insight into what these athletes put their bodies through. Competitive cheerleading is nothing like what we typically see on the sidelines of football or basketball games—the cute dances and catchy cheers with the pom poms.
These cheerleaders throw themselves into the air, balance on teammates’ hands, shoulders or legs, and trust their teammates will catch them and hold them in place. They do part gymnastics, part dance, where one landing can send their backs (or ankles, or knees, or hips) into severe injury.
In other words, competitive cheer is not for the faint of heart. In spite of that (or because of it), the sport remains incredibly popular.
So we spoke with Dr. Troy Smurawa, the director of sports medicine at Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, about competitive cheer and the physicality that’s involved. We also asked him for tips that parents might find helpful before they send their kids to the mat.
What are some things parents should consider before signing their kids up for competitive cheer? It’s always important to make sure the child has the appropriate skill level for the activity. Coaches should always assess each of their cheerleaders’ skill levels to help avoid injuries, and parents should ensure each practice is fully supervised.
A lot of injuries occur when there isn’t adequate supervision by a coach. Hard floors and uneven surfaces also lead to a lot of injuries. Sprung floors and landing mats can help reduce injury risk.
What are the most common cheer-related injuries? We see patients with injuries that primarily occur with falls, twists and landings. Sprains are very common. Ankle, knee and wrist fractures and dislocations are also common. Head and neck injuries are not as common, but when they occur, they are usually more serious. Cheerleading is second to only football in concussions and head injuries.
Most of our patient’s injuries occur during stunting or tumbling. In cheerleading, there are different positions. Spotters are more likely to sustain upper body and back sprains and strains. Then, there are flyers who are usually smaller. Flyers need to make sure they have the strength needed to safely be able to balance and execute the required coordination.
Tumblers are more likely to have lower back pain and upper extremity strains. No matter the injury, all cheerleaders must be completely rehabilitated before going back out there to avoid risk of further injury.
Is there typically an age range where the injuries become more common? [It] typically depends on what the cheerleaders are allowed to do. Younger kids don’t typically toss or stunt as much, so injuries are less common. [Usually], 20–25% of injuries happen during stunting. When kids reach the 12–17 age range, we see a lot more acute injuries occurring.
Can injury prevention for cheer translate to other sports injuries as well? Conditioning and strengthening as an athlete most certainly can translate in other sports. We can’t emphasize enough how important sports sampling is to avoid overuse injuries. Any time a cheerleader is keeping up with their strength training and conditioning, they’re not only setting themselves up for success, but also doing their body a favor by utilizing other muscles and avoiding burnout.
If a child has had one too many injuries, will their doctor tell them to stop competitive cheer? How should a parent approach that conversation? There’s always pressure for kids to participate and not miss time. It’s very important to not pressure an athlete, especially when they’re young. We advise open communication.
Tell [them] they may not be ready for activity until they’re fully healed. After injury, when they’re ready to resume, we really emphasize starting with lower level skills and impact, and working their way up to higher levels and higher confidence to limit re-injury.
Kids focus on the “here and now” and don’t necessarily focus on the long-term. This weekend’s competition isn’t the last one ever, but they can’t always see that. Further injury can be avoided by parents taking time to explain that it does take time to recover from an injury and you want to make sure you’re 100% before coming back.
Parents should be an advocate, but also [be able] to make the firm decision to protect that child if they’re not ready. Building trust is key.
Image courtesy of Netflix.