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SPECIAL REPORT: Research shows cheerleading injuries declining with coach education, regulation

(HOI) – At one point, cheerleading was in the headlines for being dangerous.

But since 2005, injury numbers have decreased significantly at the high school level.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled cheerleading is, by definition, not a sport.

But if you ask anyone on these floors, they’ll tell you differently.

“It’s definitely a sport,” said Debra Wilson, cheerleading coach at Fusion Athletics. “There’s no question about it.”

“We practice just as hard, just as much.”

They say it’s more than just bows and bedazzled tops – it’s gymnastics, high flying stunts and jumps that are not only physical…they’re dangerous.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries…” said Lexi Huntsman, a former cheerleader of nine years.

“I’ve been in a boot probably three or four times…” said Alyssa Mueller, who was a cheerleader for 12 years.

“Rolled ankles…sprained ankles…” Huntsman said.

Those eye-catching flips have their consequences.

Research shows the most common injuries are concussions and ankle sprains.

However, the old headlines saying cheerleading is more dangerous than football is misleading.

Research by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that in 2014, there were over 47,000 ER visits for girls basketball players age 14-18 across the nation.

That same year less than half that amount came from cheerleading at around 22,000.

The only sport with less was girls’ volleyball.

More recent research by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury found that from July 2017 to June 2018, 54 percent of catastrophic injuries came from football.

Only one percent came from cheerleading.

Catastrophic injuries are defined as severe injury to the spine, spinal cord or the brain.

However, research gathered by shows the numbers haven’t always been this low.

So what’s causing the decline?

Coaches and officials say it’s proper education to keep injuries of these floors and the numbers support that.

“When they started a long time ago, they brought in anybody that wanted to coach, in,” Wilson sad. “When you have someone that doesn’t know what they’re doing, a lot of injuries happen.”

Wilson has been coaching cheerleading for almost 20 years and believes the key to keeping athletes safe is education.

However, she knows at the high school level, sometimes that’s easier said than done.

“It’s hard to get cheerleading coaches into schools because you don’t get paid much,” Wilson said. “So, I know I was one of them.”

That’s why the Illinois High School Association steps in to enforce rules.

“With cheerleading, we have two elements that I think have really helped decrease injuries in the last couple of years,” said Angie Wilmington, an official and clinician at the IHSA. “The National Federation of High Schools has set rules to keep kids safe.”

“It’s not to be prohibitive or restrictive but it’s all about athlete’s safety.”

Wilmington’s job is to make sure coaches know the rules and athletes follow them.

“…and secondly, I feel like there’s been an uptick in coach’s education,” she said. “Coaches are really reaching out to learn more about the sport – it’s not just the new teacher in school, let’s have them be the cheerleading coach.”

Coaching now begins with major requirements: orientation, sports first aid and a test on the IHSA bylaws.

“Every year, rules are reviewed on their safety and sometimes rules can change from year to year,” she said. “Last year, we had a rule where you had to have three catchers – if you had an extended stunt, you had to have three catchers.”

“Well after reviewing the rule they realized it wasn’t that dangerous. There has been a huge push, thankfully, in the area of concussions.”

And for these former cheerleaders, they know it can be pesky to be cleared from injuries at times.

But it’s in their best interest.

“I had a concussion specialist and they said no you have to do these steps,” said Alyssa Mueller. “And I was like, ‘c’mon just let me go back in’ but it helped in the long run.”

Mueller turned in the pompoms after 12 years of all-star and school cheerleading.

However, the dreams of college cheerleading were taken away from Lexi Huntsman after a hip injury required surgery just weeks ago.

“I had a lot of just like…damage within my hip – so they say if you look at a frayed rope, that’s what my hip looked like,” she said. “After having so many injuries, I’m like OK I need to be done.”

“But knowing I can still go on and cheer in college, that’s what’s making it so hard is that they’re saying no you can’t.”

But together, they’ve turned their love of cheerleading into coaching.

Concussion protocol in sports has changed a lot and cheerleading is include with that.

Athletes cannot return to compete or even practice until a licensed medical professional gives them the all-clear.


Jason Howell

web producer and stills photographer for 25 News and Heart of Illinois ABC

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