Although most fans only see the injuries that occur to the football players on the field, it’s actually the cheerleaders on the sidelines who are most at risk.
A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics in October found that cheerleading is the most dangerous sport for females because of the high risk for concussions and “catastrophic” injuries, which are classified as injuries that result in long-term medical conditions, permanent disabilities or a shorter lifespan.
Bekah Rammos, coach of the University of Florida Competitive Cheerleading team, said that any sport has inherited risks, but cheerleading can be dangerous because many athletes try to progress too fast before they are ready.
She added that a cheerleader needs to have a good technical foundation otherwise he or she will be more prone in the future to be seriously injured. Rammos has been involved with cheerleading for 11 years and said she has seen a few concussions in that time, but she does not feel that the number is higher than any other sport.
While the club team freely practices any of the stunts that it wants, which includes throwing cheerleaders into the air, the UF cheerleading squad adopted a grounding rule in November 2012. That rule prevents the athletes from tumbling on the ground or being held or tossed high into the air.
Last year, Senior Athletics Director Steve McClain stated that the decision to take away some of the more dangerous stunts was to take a “protective stance to protect the cheerleaders.”
Rammos said that being grounded severely limits what cheerleading is and pushes it back decades into what she calls “game time cheerleading” instead of the competitive sport that it has become.
She added that she worries about serious injuries, but she does everything she can to make sure her girls are safe. She does this by making sure the girls do not try anything they are unprepared for and when they are trying new skills there are extra people around to help.
The study found that 66 percent of these types of injuries come from cheerleading and that more than a third of girls who suffer a concussion are unaware of the symptoms and thus do not report them.
Taylor Davis, the president of the team, has been involved in cheerleading for 16 years and said the biggest danger is that a lot of programs do not teach the correct technique.
She said that girls should begin learning the proper techniques by the age of 10. She added that, so far this year, the team has had a member suffer a concussion and that there are usually about one or two each year. The member who suffered the concussion was required to pass a series of tests from doctors before she was allowed to return to practice.
Davis has no intentions of grounding her team and wants to continue how the team operates now. She said that if UF was to ever ground the program there would really be no reason for them to continue to exist because the majority of what they do is tumbling and stunting.
Some of the other injures she has seen besides concussions are torn ACLs, torn MCLs and broken elbows from falling, but she said most of those injuries are not common.
Eileen Handberg has been the owner of Florida TeamCheer for the past four years and has been involved in cheerleading for eight years. Her business offers cheerleading classes for ages 4 to 18.
She said that significant injuries like muscle tears or concussions are rare and that most of the injuries her students have are minor, because they are practicing on foam floor while many other teams practice on hardwood floors.
Handberg said the biggest way to decrease the amount of injuries is to make sure the coaches are experienced. She doesn’t feel as if cheerleaders are more prone to injuries and that most of the injuries that do happen are because many programs hire former cheerleaders, who have not gone through proper safety training to be a coach.
She protects her cheerleaders by making sure her safety program is up to date, which includes hiring experienced coaches like Abner Perez. Perez used to work with the UF cheer team before coming to Florida TeamCheer.
He said the U.S. All Star Federation, which forces many competitive cheerleading teams to implement safety rules, has helped to make the sport safer by enforcing safety rules throughout every program.
Very few parents have voiced any concern over injuries that could occur but are more concerned with how much the athletes are practicing and what can be done to make sure the students are getting better.