Cheerleading is no longer just a "sideline sport." The competition is fierce, as squads try to out do each other with acrobatic, crowd-pleasing and sometimes dangerous stunts.
27 Newsfirst investigates the dangerous moves that make cheerleading the most dangerous sport for young women.
More and more youngsters are training to become the next generation of possible national champion cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are just as competitive as their counterparts on the playing field, leaving the sidelines behind and concentrating on show stopping performances to win competitions.
"Competitive cheerleading has moved into more of an entertainment factor." said Brian Elza a professional coach.
But what it takes to win those competitions has some calling the sport dangerous.
"There is so much going on in these routines now that it so easy to get hurt, but really I mean if you go by the rules and are safe with it you are fine." said 13 year-old Jessica Sherbert, an all-star cheerleader.
Brian Elza is a professional coach who owns Kentucky Elite. Elza has trained hundreds of all star cheerleaders.
"There are going to be risks involved in it, but what we are trying to do as coaches and at our gym and most of the gyms like ours across the country is to educate the students prior hand and let them know what they can do. Preventative measures so that injuries don't occur." said Elza.
Many of the cheerleaders we talked with say they have had broken bones and pulled ligaments while cheerleading, and many of their friends have had the same things.
According to a study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics, from 1990 to 2002, cheerleading injuries landed nearly 209 thousand young people in emergency rooms. Most of the injuries were suffered by 12 to 17 year-olds. Nearly 40 percent were leg, ankle and foot injuries. A former Harrison County cheerleader, Brittany McMichael was one of them.
"It was my life, I did it in middle school, its just what I always thought about." said McMichael.
But at 15, the sport Brittany loved changed her life forever.
"At first when I fell I couldn't feel my legs, I knew that I was numb half way down, they kept poking me to see if I could feel anything." said McMichael.
Practicing for a national competition, Brittany broke her back while tumbling.
" I was scared to death, you hear when people break their back their going to be paralyzed." said McMichael.
But Brittany wasn't paralyzed, she would sit out the rest of her season in a brace. She even traveled to her competition in a wheelchair, but six weeks later when Brittany discarded her brace cheerleading went with it. Brittany's squad had certified coaches, but some cheerleaders don't have that advantage.
At professional gyms coaches are specialists. Over the last several years, the sport has tried to make sure trained and certified coaches are at every level both school and all-star and that the places kids train are safe. Things Elza admits wasn't the case 10 years ago.
"We opened our gym in 1997 we just had a little bit of foam with carpet, which is much more dangerous. So there have been a lot of steps taken to try and make sure the injuries are curbed." said Elza.
At gyms like Kentucky Elite you'll find spring floors--creating fewer injuries. At the all star level every person who works with a student must be certified, and soon the students at the all star level will have to pass certification as well.
As for Brittany McMichael she says she misses the sport that was once her life, but realizes how much strain it put on her body.
"I still have pains everyday, but I've gotten use to it, I've learned I have to live with it, but I'm glad I didn't ever cheer again."
If you are a parent and your child wants to participate in cheerleading either at the school level or at the all star level here are some things you should know.
Is your child's coach:
Trained in CPR and First Aid
Certified by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators
Certified by the United States All Star Federation
Professional coaches say you should walk through the gym or place your child will practice or perform and look it over and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Other Tips for Parents:
From Connect With Kids www.connectwithkids.com
Participation in cheerleading is skyrocketing, with the numbers tripling to almost three million teens over the past eight years (ESPN). Movies, media focus and it's a new competitive nature have all helped make cheerleading more popular and more hazardous. Cheerleading is now considered one of the most dangerous school activities. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported nearly 25,000 cheerleading related injuries requiring emergency care in 2001.
The main source of injuries results from the increased difficulty of stunts, also referred to as pyramids. Stunts are used at pep rallies and games, but are used more frequently at competitions. Most stunts involve one flier (person on top of pyramid) and two, three or four bases (people on bottom of pyramid). During competitions, up to 40 stunts may be performed by a single squad in three to five minutes. A large portion of a squad's competition routine is focused on the use of gymnastic elements. Common cheerleading related injuries may include:
Head injuries (including concussions)
If your teen decides to sign up for competitive cheerleading, there are some steps you should take to ensure their safety. The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh suggests:
- Make sure your teen's cheerleading coach is certified and properly trained for the job.
- Read the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors (AACCA) safety guidelines. The AACCA regularly updates its guidelines for high school age and younger, and college age level.
- The National Federation of State High School Associations publishes the "Spirit Rule Book," a technical and safety reference resource for cheerleading coaches.
- Be sure your children practice and perform cheerleading only when supervised by their coach.
- Be sure your youngster receives proper training for gymnastics and other stunts and techniques.
- Make sure your child knows his or her ability level and does not attempt advanced stunts before mastering lower level skills.
- Warm-up exercises and stretches are as important for cheerleaders as for other athletes.
- If your child sustains an injury, get them the proper medical attention and follow-up.
Visit these websites to learn more about what safety guidelines are in place for cheerleading.