Think cheerleading is for weaklings? Think again.
A university study says chearleaders lost five times as many days to injuries as football players.
“They are injured less frequently … but when they do get injured it tends to be more severe,” said Dr. Mark R. Hutchinson of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
High school cheerleaders lost 28.8 days from their activity due to injury, compared with 5.6 days for football players, according to one study cited in Hutchinson’s review in a medical journal.
His own unpublished survey of seven high schools in central Kentucky confirmed the severity, Hutchinson said. It’s simply because cheerleading is literally a rough and tumble activity.
“These young ladies are up on towers and doing cartwheels and gymnastics,” Hutchinson said. “They have to have complete control. Everything has to be working for them to return.”
A football player with a broken hand might be sent back into the game wearing a cast, but a cheerleader with a similar injury has to stay out, Hutchinson said. The football player might still be able to run and block, but the cheerleader won’t be able to lift partners into human pyramids or do tumbling.
Cheerleading is hard on the ankles, knees and hands because of constant twisting and leaping, he said.
Relatively little research has been done on cheerleading injury, and it is rarely comparable directly to research on other sports. But the data indicate that, although cheerleading injuries can take a participant out for a longer period, the chance of getting hurt is far less in cheerleading than in the sports they cheer for.
Cheerleading had fewer than one injury per 100 participants, in one study of cheerleaders who attend summer camps. In contrast, NCAA data showed football had 9.6 injuries per 1,000 games or practices.
Just the same, cheerleading requires its participants to be in very good physical condition. Some of the elaborately staged moves are as difficult as gymnastics.
“My opinion has been for a very long time is that this is underrated,” Hutchinson said. “These young ladies perform very athletic maneuvers.”
And, he said, a lack of respect may contribute to injuries. Cheerleaders may have to practice in a classroom or an unused part of the gym, without the padding they need to cushion falls. Their’s is also an endless season - cheerleaders may stay active for an entire school year, plus competitions and summer camps, so they may never have the time they need for rest and recovery, the researcher said.
Several cheerleaders groups want to improve cheerleaders’ strength and fitness by encouraging weight training and aerobics.
“If you are a better athlete, you have a better chance of being a cheerleader,” said Greg Webb, of the Universal Cheerleading Association of Memphis, Tenn.
The growing interest in cheerleading competitions could reduce injuries, by encouraging cheerleaders to train harder, said Carol Humble, a training expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It needs more serious thought given to the conditioning, strength and endurance that goes into it,” Humble said. “That’ll bring it up to the other activities. They’d be a lot easier for us to work with if that seriousness went into their schedules.”