Tuesday, 12 February 2013

That filthy word


The gymnastics world tends to be very dismissive of cheerleading. The eternal complaints against it are most often that cheerleaders do not exhibit great form and obviously do not master four apparatus' like gymnasts do. Great powers of deduction but how does that make it any less worthy of admiration or acknowledgement as a sport? Because of course, that is the other great annoyance I have surrounding cheerleading. It's classed as dance.
Does that look like dance to you? These girls (and sometimes guys who make up 5% of the total number of cheerleaders) are displaying strength, agility, balance, flexibility, endurance, athleticism, competitiveness and above all, LONG hours of training and practice. Gymnastics is a sport, and cheerleading should be too. It has evolved so much from waving pom poms around and needs to be recognised for what it has become. Much like gymnastics has evolved from arm-waving and the odd cartwheel on beam and floor. Because keeping it from being a sport means these things happen:

- Cheerleaders make up just 3% of female high school athletes. Yet they account for 66% of all catastrophic injuries in this category. These are not the incredibly common injuries like strains etc., but serious, disabling and fatal ones. College cheerleading has a slightly higher injury rate. Statistics are from the National Centre for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research annual report from 2008, compiled by the National Cheer Safety Organisation.
- There are more than 60 national and regional cheerleading competitions in the US. This means that winning nationals means absolutely nothing, it cheapens the reputation of the sport, and further prevents it from being declared a sport in the future. It's hard to get an exact figure- I've seen a lot of references to 'more than 60' and one for 72.

Injuries happen in any sport. It's just that most sports (including gymnastics, which is the second offender in the above statistic, at just under 10%) do all they can to limit them, and have as much safety equipment or protection as possible, as well as highly trained coaches and top class facilities. In cheerleading, that is not the case. NCAA insists on college cheer coaches being trained to a certified health and safety programme, but there are still a lot of holes regarding this at school and college level especially the fact that it's not part of NCAA by virtue of not being a sport. College has rules, and all-star is governed, but thay still have problems and everything below them is a free-for-all. Check out the mats and floor they use! All star equipment is not adequate, and further down the line it's worse with lots of reports of extremely old, thin mats that don't cover enough area, or any mats all all- like those who practice in school canteens or carparks. Obviously they can't use giant padded mattresses because of the speed, pace, dance and even surface needed...but they could use 8 inch mats, with extra ones where tumbling passes end in the corners and possibly under the pyramid too if that's not too much of an obstruction, which I suspect probably would be. The height they get, the speed of the routines, the neccessary synchronisation, the hard pounding of the multiple tumbling runs..it is a recipe for disaster. And no team is immune. Cheer Extreme Senior Elite, the team above, are highly regarded as being the best- or at least, having the most difficulty. In a routine only a few weeks back, the difficulty is clearly higher than the one from a few years ago shown above, even in the jumps they do, but especially the stunts. There are 2 falls though neither hit the ground thankfully, and 2 near collapses that I can see and they appear to have received a big deduction for not having another flier (the girls who are in the air) assist at the most intricate parts in the pyramid towards the end, which I would agree with- the point flier (the centre girl who assists in tossing the others) looks to be under a huge amount of strain. And that is coming from the top of the sport, where the girls train substantially more than the majority of cheerleaders. This extremely high level of stunting is pretty rare, but the same height and therefore the same risk is present in pretty much all levels.

I have a lot of respect for cheerleaders. What they do is incredibly difficult and just amazing to watch. Here in Ireland, cheerleading does not exist at all and the idea of my secondary school having a squad or having a squad at local GAA (our national sports) matches in the rain and mud is hysterical. Hence having no exposure to cheerleading except episodes of Sabrina and Sweet Valley High and the film Bring it On. The day I stumbled across all-star cheerleading routines on youtube was a great day because they are utterly mindblowing. Finding out how at risk these girls are and how their sport is perceived...not so much. So, cheerleaders don't do standing fulls and backhandsprings with perfect form? Well..so what? It's not something they have to care about, so why would they bother? And since when is gymnastics a bastion of perfect form anyway?
Copyright- United Press International
Copyright- MJ Lawler
Copyright- Michael Regan/Getty Images
Copyright- Emmanuel Dunand/Getty/AFP
Not that these issues are brand new to gymnastics. Lack of toepoint used to be a lot rarer, but leg seperation used to be a lot more common and crossed feet and shoddy form on backhandsprings and layout-stepouts are no new inventions either. It is just that slight form issues used to be ignored. They still can and are ignored, but they ARE now in the code of points. The point is, they are valid deductions in gymnastics and are still rampant.

In short, I'm sick of seeing how maligned cheerleading is in some circles. It's not your cup of tea? Fine. But no need to spread negativity about it. Not liking something is fine. But you should respect the hard work and talent that goes into it. The fact that cheerleading remains in a dangerous limbo when golf and darts are going to be Olympic sports in Rio is frankly, sickening.

Oh and this is worth watching. Penn and Teller's episode on cheerleading- contains profanity, footage of injuries/falls and very very brief nudity at the start. I will say that the 30,000 ER visits is a little misleading, because the vast majority are not kept in, or serious or even treated. The huge increase is concurrent with the huge increase in girls taking up cheerleading compared to stats from decades ago., and the fact that cheerleading is a year-round sport means that its injury rates cannot be directly compared to sports that only run for a season, like football. That's why I used the stat above instead of 30,000 cheerleaders admitted to ER!!!!!!!!!111for shock value. But it's still a very good video. Look out for the part showing a practice session, 30 seconds in a girl lands on her head in a tumbling pass and doesn't get up. What does the coach do? Rush over and implement emergency procedure to assess the presence of concussion or anything worse? Haha, you must be joking. The girl is asked if she's okay and continues. With no assessment. It's the worst part in the whole thing and shows just how big the problem is.


  1. This is an interesting post, Catherine. I was formerly a gymnast and later a cheerleader, although I usually admit it with an embarrassed laugh.

    In the USA, we have sport(s) connected with public and private schools and that is really where cheering was born.

    My mother was a cheerleader and back then it had more to do with school spirit and yelling. When my sister and I participated, it was because of our background in dance and gymnastics ( she was the better dancer, I was the stronger gymnast) and the desire to use those skills when we moved on from our gym. There was also the stereotypical girl (we had one boy participate) who most likely was well-liked or popular. ( I think my gymnastics skills were the reason I was chosen )

    Now cheering is really a combination of the earlier incarnation and acro gymnastics. They do have this type of cheering in college, but the private competitive clubs are big business, like club gymnastics and competitive dance. IE: Dance Moms.

    It can be dangerous if there isn't proper supervision and/or training. I can remember standing on the backs of 2 girls at a basketball game when someone got the bright idea that I do a back tuck (having never practiced beforehand) and severely spraining my ankle when I rolled it on the landing. This was on a gym floor, before a basketball game.

    I consider any sport to be dangerous without lack of proper equipment, training and/or supervision.
    That being said, under ideal conditions, cheering isn't any more dangerous than any other sport.

    I have been watching a lot of acro gymnastics on YouTube lately, that seems to really stress everything I love about gymnastics strength, flexibility and grace. It is like Cirq du Soleil without the weird.

    Thanks (again) for such an informative post!

    1. That's quite sad that you feel the need to be self deprecating about it. I understand that, I did Irish dancing for 5 years which also doesn't have a brilliant rep here due to the 'look' and male dancers would be dealing with crap from the image of it as well. Though I would probably get defiant about it if they had a problem. It shares some similarities in that it's BIG business, competition fees, class fees- and the stuff costs a bomb, dresses are €1000 plus, and at least a few hundred for one you could wear even to small local competitions. Shoes, hard shoes, socks, headbands.. And people go ALL out with wigs, fake tan, make-up. It's also more global than cheerleading, it's big in the UK, Canada and USA and is making inroads elsewhere too. The major difference is that it's not dangerous and injuries would be very uncommon, even minor ones. My dancing teacher once fell off the stage and broke her leg. That's about all I've ever heard of.

      Moving on, I'm glad you like the post with your background in both sports, as I am a complete outsider to it so I wouldn't be confident that this post would come across as having a clue what I'm talking about. I agree that it isn't more dangerous than most sports once it has ideal conditions..like gymnastics with all it's safety- nothing can stop you from hitting your head on the beam as you fall, or landing a vault or tumble dangerously if that's the way it's headed. And contact sports and field sports are a given. It's just so unneccessary in cheerleading, with a higher potential for fatalaties and paralysis. You can do serious damage to your bones and muscles in a sport like rugby or american football, but you've much less chance of disastrous injury.

      I like group acro gymnastics. Have you seen Spellbound on youtube? They are incredible! They won Britain's Got Talent and some of them have performed at the Acrobatic worlds (and got shafted by Russians with errors. Sigh.)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I have not seen Spellbound as of yet, but since I am off work today and the Man Utd vs Real Madrid game won't last forever, I will be sure to watch!

    4. Now I am laughing at my poor grammar in the first comment: I was formerly a gymnast. What I meant to say was I am a former gymnast!

    5. Haha I didn't even notice. Spelling and grammar have always been a strength of mine, though my sentences here can get a bit informal and convoluted since nobody's grading it. I still find it so annoying when I skim a post and there's a few typos..grr...

  2. Thanks for writing this post.
    In Taiwan, gymnastics releated sports aren't popular at all. Maybe RG is some people's choice. Cheerleading just exists in some university and it is just an unpopular activity. Last year a student died as the coach didn't protect them when they were practicing a risky skill. It was a shock news and that university decided not to hold the cheerleading game anymore. I just think that we have FEW professional gymnastics related coaches so these sports can't be popular like baseball in Taiwan.People usually don't really understand what these sports are but have negative attitude to them. It's so bad :(

    1. Same here. Tiny population here with all of its sport fixation already on national sports, field sports, and the odd Olympic sport that we are good at. There's nothing left over. I am hoping the astonishing rise of British Gymnastics will have a knock-on effect here. There's NO hope for cheerleading or RG.

  3. Safety in cheerleading has always been something that I've been quite concerned about. Cheerleading is almost non-existent until university level where there are a bunch of competitions amongst different universities and internally amongst different halls of residence. I find it very scary to be training with very little padding, with people who may be completely clueless with usually no artistic gym/acro training and with 'coaches' with neither qualifications nor significant personal experience in gym/acro. I'm a dancer and if anything that makes me more wary, because I know how important technique is and being able to do things safely such that if it goes wrong, you know how to get out of it unhurt. I flat out refused to take part in any cheerleading or stunts because I had no confidence in other teammates being able to catch me and without proper training. And those are not complex, incredibly high and risky stunts like you see in the US...

    1. Oh yeah, and it's annoying how people go on about things not being something else. Sure, artistic gym isn't dance. I do like watching routines with nice form, it's great watching elegant gymnasts who can dance and have nice choreo, but that's not the benchmark for the sport. If I wanted to watch dance I would watch dance. In the same way, cheerleading is different from artistic gym, yes. Gym is also different from acro. So what? Doesn't make any of them less of a sport and an art form in itself, and it certainly shouldn't mean that safety is neglected in some.

    2. I find the thought of that scary! There also seems to be a disregard of the importance of spotting- for example, more than one personal account of a serious injury state 'My coach said I didn't need a spotter/I was told to go ahead and do it etc.'

      I love love LOVE 'complete' floor routines, like Cheng Fei's 2004 routine which personifies perfection for me. That said, I'm happy to take either/or and love them for what they are- like Lia Parolari's glorious routines with weak tumbling, or routines like Raisman, Dos Santos and now Skinner. Good for them. And yes, I do find that annoying too. The opposite is bad too 'omg they had like no difficulty in the 80's...'.

    3. Yeah, with floor routines sometimes it's just 'something special' they have. Cheng Fei in 04 was amazing (I've watched it a million times), but I also loved her 08 one for the emotion and the atmosphere and how it was her redemption after falling off beam and watching ASac. I also loved Izbasa's 08 EF, Komova's all-round London was mesmerizing, I even liked Aly's London EF... the way she mouthed 'wow' after the routine was pretty amazing. Those are the ones that stick with you more than perfect landings or crazy hard skills necessarily or amazing dance. It's just something coming together right and sucks you right in.

    4. I love all of her routines, but 04 stands out. I'm not a fan of Izbasa's 08 routine, it feels a bit empty and blah to me. She improved over the years since. Komova's command and perfection made that routine, cause the music was awful and the choreography didn't make the most of her. Yes, I love Aly's EF routine for how ridiculously strong it was, the landings and her immediate reaction.

  4. interesting article! i know nothing about cheerleading outside of 'bring it on', 'cheer perfection' and the books of this 80s/90s (SVH and BSC).. and I recently watched some nationals or worlds comp on YouTube.

    but there are no cheerleaders in clueless! unless you're referring to the tv show....

    1. Thanks! :) Wait who's a cheerleader in BSC? Is it Stacey/Claudia? God I loved those books, I'd happily reread.

      Really?? There's a film pre-Bring it On with some, I was so sure it was that and even came across to a reference to it today. I don't know what one I'm thinking of, I'll chuck that bit out.

    2. oh goodness here i am showing my nerdy side but stacey had a brief stint as a cheerleader in BSC ;)

      im sure there were a couple more films with cheerleading in the 90s but i can't think of them! :)

    3. Ah thanks..I knew it couldn't be Kristy, Maryanne, Mallory or Dawn since they were all saps..