Cheerleading and Concussions: The Hidden Dangers in this Popular Sport for Girls

Darcy at football game 1.jpgCheerleading has long been a popular sport for girls, with football games and cheerleading being a Friday night staple in this country. Recently, a lot of focus has been put on the dangers of concussions in football, but very little attention has been paid to the concussion dangers involved with cheerleading. And that may be putting our children in danger.

Today’s cheerleading is very different from that traditional image of sideline cheering on a Friday night under the lights. As competitive cheer grows in popularity, it is changing the face of the sport. More and more, cheerleading is becoming a serious athletic sport, combining expert level gymnastics, dance, high-flying jumps, and technically difficult stunting and basket tosses. And that is making cheerleading more dangerous.

Just how Dangerous is Cheerleading?

While the overall injury rate for cheerleading is relatively low compared to other sports, the injuries in cheer tend to be more severe. In fact, cheer has the 2nd highest rate of injuries resulting in time loss of at least three weeks. In addition, high school cheer is responsible for over 50% of catastrophic injuries in high school girl athletes. College-age cheerleaders have an even higher injury rate, 5 times the rate of high school cheerleaders. Catastrophic injuries sustained by cheerleaders include:

· Skull fractures

· Severe head injuries

· Concussions

· Cervical fractures,

· Spinal cord injuries

· Ligament injury

· Paralysis

· Death

Concussions were the most common cheerleading injury, accounting for about 31% of all injuries, according to a recent study. Most head injuries in cheer occur while stunting (96%) and are the result of a fall, with practice being more dangerous than competitions, perhaps due to the fact that cheerleaders are learning and trying new stunts during practice. Contact with another cheerleader while falling accounts for 58% of all concussions and contact with the floor is responsible for another 38%. Both flyers and bases appear to be at risk.

Why is Cheerleading so Risky?

One of the problems stems from the fact that the rules governing safety in the sport have not caught up with the realities of the sport. In fact, only 29 states even recognize cheerleading as a sport and subject to the rules and safety regulations of high school sports associations. High school cheerleaders are performing dangerous and difficult gymnastics moves on solid floors without the safer spring floors–required in traditional gymnastics and competitive cheer-that soften the impact of landing. Cheerleaders called “flyers” are flipping in difficult stunts high off the ground and then are thrown 15 feet in the air in baskets during routines that are increasingly complex and challenging. And all of this is being done without much protection.

Furthermore, competitive cheer teams are competing at more and more difficult levels, and feel pressure to perform ever more difficult stunts and tumbling passes to win prestigious competitions, which increases the chance of injuries and concussions.

So, when does a cheer injury become a possible lawsuit and not just the result of an inherently dangerous sport? When there is negligence on the part of the gym or coaches. If a coach or a gym consistently fails to provide a safe cheer environment, then injuries are bound to happen.

When is a Gym’s Behavior Negligent?

Cheer gyms can be negligent in a variety of ways. Having improper or inadequate equipment or equipment that is in poor condition is one way. Cheer gyms are supposed to have spring floors that are in good working condition to protect their athletes. If they don’t, injuries can occur. High School teams need to assess the cheer equipment they have and determine what tumbling and stunting moves are appropriate to that equipment. For example, during a basketball game when there are no tumbling mats, what tumbling and stunting is safe to perform? Gym floors and football fields offer inadequate protection to cheerleaders doing dangerous stunts, high flying tosses, and complicated tumbling passes. So, coaches need to adapt the cheer routine to make sure their athletes are safe. In addition, both high school teams and competitive gyms need to have specific injury and safety protocols in place, and coaches who are trained in these protocols.

Cheer gyms and high school teams are supposed to maintain a safe environment at away competitions, as well. This rarely happens. All too often, there is inadequate supervision of cheerleaders during a competition. At one competition that I know of, a girl was injured when her team decided to engage in silly stuns without adult supervision before performing. In addition, teams are also regularly known to practice dangerous stunts before a competition in areas where such activities are prohibited for lack of any padding on the floor. This further jeopardizes the athletes. When my daughter was a flyer for a well-known cheer gym, this was routine. And it is a recipe for disaster.

When is a Coach’s Behavior Negligent?

Coaches should follow safety protocols during every practice. When they don’t, they put their athletes in harm’s way. One of the reasons we left a competitive gym was because a coach kept allowing girls to be dropped on their heads in practice. Our daughter’s team was practicing a stunt called a “pancake” where our daughter had to bend at the waist and bring her head down towards her feet before her bases caught her and flipped her over. The problem was that the bases did not always catch her, and she fell repeatedly to the floor on her head. She even brought the issue up to her coach who brushed it off. Needless to say, we went to the owner of the gym as soon as we heard this, and the stunt was removed from the routine. But this is an example of a coach who ignores safety issues, endangering her athletes. When cheerleaders are practicing a new stunt, there should be enough spotters so that athletes do not come crashing to the floor. Alternatively, athletes can practice new stunts on softer, thicker mats to protect against falls. When athletes do have a fall, coaches should take the injury seriously and have their athlete rest or see a trainer at the gym if one is available. And the coach should always tell a parent about any falls.

Some coaches keep pushing athletes beyond what is safe. The “suck it up and keep going” attitude may be typical with many coaches, but it is not a good motto. When cheerleaders are really tired, they are more likely to get injured during tumbling or stunting, especially if the tumbling move requires a lot of strength, like standing tucks. However, some coaches insist that their athletes do 20 standing tucks at the end of a tough practice even though they can see that some are barely landing the stunt and their technique is really sloppy. This is reckless, and it is only a matter of time before a cheerleader gets hurt. Other coaches put too much pressure on athletes to try stunts and tumbling that they are not ready for. If a coach insists on a stunt group trying a new and difficult stunt without making sure they have the necessary skill and experience, this is a recipe for disaster. Likewise, coaches who push cheerleaders to throw tumbling passes that they are not experienced or skilled enough to try, are courting trouble. Coaches need to know how to safely progress their athletes from one skill to the next.

Some coaches ignore concussion protocol. If a cheerleader sustains a head injury during practice, that athlete has to stop practice and be seen by a doctor before being cleared to practice or compete again. It is not up to the coach to make the call on whether the injury is serious enough. Usually the athlete needs to take time off from cheerleading. The current studies on the dangers of concussions are sobering. And the research shows that multiple concussions impact an athlete’s health much more than a single incident. If a coach pushes an athlete to continue practicing after a serious fall on his or her head, that coach is being negligent, and could be causing the athlete long-term brain damage. If the cheerleader has another fall, the chances of serious consequences rise dramatically. Any blow to the head has to be taken seriously from the onset, with the coach insisting that the athlete stop practice and informing parents right away.

What About Waivers?

Most parents of cheerleaders are required to sign a waiver before their child can participate in the sport. So how do those waivers affect your child if they are injured? Waivers do not allow coaches, gyms or schools to do anything they want. They still have an obligation to provide a safe environment for their athletes. If they ignore safety practices, concussion protocols, or injury protocols, then a waiver will not exempt them from liability.

What Should You Do if Your Child has been Injured?

If your son or daughter has been injured in a cheerleading accident that you believe could have been avoided, please talk to one of our experienced athletic injury lawyers. Your child may be entitled to compensation and may need an attorney to represent him or her. Call us for a free consultation on your case.

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