Fitness and Performance
Cheerleading: A Technical Look
Throughout my childhood dance was my choice of extracurricular activity. Over 16 years of training I mastered a number of different dance styles and competed at a national level as well as gaining high-level exams. However, when I went to university, my institution did not have a dance society or dance lessons available to students. I was stuck with what sort of sport I could do to keep myself active while enjoying myself as much as I did when I danced. I soon discovered the cheerleading squad and immediately signed up for try-outs and miraculously made the cut through my dance experience alone. I know that to a number of people this may not be surprising, as the common ideal of a cheerleader is someone who prances around with pom pom’s rallying support for their team, but what I was soon to discover is that cheerleading is one of the most physically demanding and dangerous sports around. Of course, dance plays a part in a cheerleading routine, but other vastly more demanding components include tumbling, jumps sequences and stunting (the latter in which comes with an extremely high risk of catastrophic injury) that are compiled together to form competitive routines that are taken to national and international cheerleading competitions.
Despite the level of power, strength and endurance cheerleaders have to work at; my university (and an awful lot of sports people) do not consider cheerleading a sport. In this piece, I am going to take you through the various components of the sport and the risks in which the athlete are exposing themselves to and hopefully encourage a few people to get involved in cheerleading (It’s super fun!) and get the sporting recognition I believe it deserves. It must be remembered that all cheerleading coaches are qualified to their specific competing level in the sport and injury risks are vastly lower with good and thorough training, however 83% of all cheerleading related injuries are sustained during training rather than competitive performance (Walters, 2013).
Let’s start with what I personally feel is the most terrifying component of cheerleading, stunting where approximately 56% of all cheerleading injuries are obtained. Within a routine, pyramids and tricks are carried out by a combination of or single groups of 4-5 athletes, a flyer, 2 bases and a back spot (and sometimes a front spot). The flyer is the cheerleader who is at the top of the stunt, pulling shapes in the air while being tossed or supported by the athletes below. A flyer doesn’t necessarily need to be light, but requires an incredible amount of core strength and flexibility. When being held approximately 8 ft. in the air on an unsteady platform the size of your shoe on a single leg, a flyer needs to be able to retain exceptional balance, which is vastly improved when deep core muscles around the torso and hips are contracted (a lot of my time captaining my squad was spent shouting ‘SQUEEZE!’ at wobbly flyers). Once in the air, a flyer is required to pull a number of shapes both in front of the body and behind. This requires the centre of gravity of the athlete to change, which the athlete must adapt to in order to maintain their balance and while holding their shape. The speed in which the shape is pulled helps to contribute to the ability to maintain balance meaning that explosive power is required by the muscles to hit the shape within an instant. However, if a flyers balance isn’t maintained and they fall from the extended stunt position, it is important for the base team to toss the flyer’s feet in a forward motion to endues a position that is easiest to catch the flyer in. Unfortunately, some falls are not so easy to recover from and most injuries are obtained when a stunt falls (14%), failing a manoeuvre within the stunt (15%) and spotting the stunt as a base (24%) (Bagnulo, 2012). Flyers can fall in any direction meaning that the base team needs to respond quickly to adapt positioning and not drop the flyer. Finally once a successful stunt is completed, a neat and fast dismount is performed. In general, the flyer is tossed by the base team and the flyer must ride the height of the toss and snap into a tight cradle position in order to be caught most effectively by the team below. A floppy cradle position runs the risk of the athlete becoming heavy and difficult to catch, which is when flyers fall through their stunt team.
The base pair and the back (and maybe front) spot require masses of explosive power and strength. To begin a stunt the flyer steps into the bases hands that are positioned at waist height. The bases are in a squatted position with the back up straight. This is extremely important as when the bases dip in their squat using only their legs, their upper bodies don’t move towards each other (and possibly head butt each other). The absorption from the dip in the knees is used to quickly drive the arms into an extended position above the head while still maintaining a firm grip on the flyers feet. The back spot traditionally aids the flyer to reach a standing position and then either grips the flyers ankles or the bases wrists to prevent as little movement occurring at the joints as possible, while also providing an upwards force diminishing the flyer’s weight a little from the base’s wrists. The base teams elbows should all be in a ‘locked’ position for maximal stability and all adaptions to centre of gravity positioning from the flyer should all be adjusted to by using the hips and legs. To drive the toss in order for the flyer to cradle from the stunt, the base team must again bent their knees and use the energy from the thigh muscles then propel the flyer into the air and extend their wrists and fingers to maximise the toss height. With arms still extended the bases are then required to catch the flyer and bring them in towards their torso, again keeping the back up to avoid collisions. The back sport catches the flyer from their back so that the flyers upper body doesn’t fall backwards and the entire stunt team doesn’t end up hitting the floor with high force.
The Basket Toss
A second kind of stunt, which is the highest and most risky, is a basket toss. Here the base team launch the flyer into the air with maximal effort in order to achieve as much height as possible. All base team members must put EXACTLY the same amount of effort into the toss to ensure the flyer rides in a straight line. Any deviation in power would force the flyer to be sent in a sideways/forward direction. This is very dangerous as there is no contact between base team and flyer, which increases the risk of the flyer not being caught and severely injuring themselves. Once again the cradle catch in a basket needs to be executed to perfection as the flyer is being caught with drastically more force. Stunting is responsible for injuries such as concussions, closed head, neck and spinal injuries to occur and the absence of safety equipment in comparison to other sports heightens this risk (Walters, 2013). A video clip on YouTube by Sports Science demonstrates the dangers while performing a basket toss in comparison to the dangers of American football. http://youtu.be/GvpgqT5vh6s
Tumbling skills are also required to be demonstrated in competitive cheer routines. Cheerleaders are generally required to perform a round off flick at a relatively low competition level, with the highest levels performing tumbles with twists during stunts. As with gymnastics, tumbling in cheerleading puts the ankles, wrists and back under tremendous stresses due to the hyper extension and hyper flexion required at these joints, which can be resultant in sprains in all three areas. Tumbling also requires a lot of effort from the shoulders to enhance the pace and height of the tumble by popping the shoulders when passing through a handstand position. Cheerleading requires the athlete to tumble while wearing footwear, unlike gymnastics. This therefore means that tumblers who wear cheerleading shoes must firstly buy tumble appropriate cheerleading trainers, but also adapt their tumbling technique to wearing shoes. In trainers the foot and ankle are slightly elevated from floor level, which results in the athlete making contact with the floor sooner than when bare footed. These millimetres of change can disrupt the exit of a tumble and is therefore increasing the change of an ankle sprain (or in worst cases, a fracture/dislocation) occurring (Pediatrics, 2012) (Bagnulo, 2012).
Jump sequences are generally made up of a combination of plyometric style jumps while hitting a shape whilst air born. The greater the number of consecutive jumps, the better the jump sequence. The positions cheerleaders are required to hit require lots of flexibility, especially within the hamstrings and gluts. In addition to this, the power and endurance of the entire lower limb muscles needs to be optimal for the athletes to reach maximal height and an explosive rebound in between jumps much like plyometric jumps (as little time is spent in contact with the floor as possible). Without the combination of flexibility, power and muscle endurance the likelihood of injuries such as a muscle strain occurring is increased. Cheer routines are generally performed on a sprung surface, meaning that the landing surface of jumps is fairly unstable. The landing of consecutive explosive jumps on a surface such as this can lead to ankle instability during the landing phase of the jump. This can promote injuries such as lateral ankle sprains occurring and therefore it is important for any team members with ankle instability to be encouraged to strengthen the muscles within the ankle complex (Pediatrics, 2012).
Despite the injuries that can be sustained (and probably will if my experience is anything to go by…) cheerleading is an immensely enjoyable and competitive sport, with its popularity ever growing within the UK. The adrenaline of performing and the success of completing advanced stunts and skills is huge motivation to power on through the risks present within the sport. The risks discussed are definitely enough for sporting associations to recognise that Cheerleading is a sport and requires the same level of coaching training and attention as other sports. Unfortunately, this is something that has not yet happened within the U.S. where the sport is far more advanced than in the U.K. so this may be a few years off.
Bagnulo, A. (2012). Cheerleading injuries: A narrative review of the literature. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association. 56 (4), 292-298.
Pediatrics. (2012). Cheerleading injuries: Epidemiology and Recommendations for Prevention. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 8 (1), 966-963.
Walters, N. (2013). What goes up must come down! A primary care approach to preventing injuries amongst high flying cheerleaders. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. 25 (1), 55-64.