Support Needed

January 29, 2015
From safety concerns to competitive opportunities, there are many questions surrounding cheerleading today. The most important one is: Do you oversee and support the program as thoroughly as you do other sports?
By Cynthia McMannon

Cynthia McMannon, CMAA, is Activities Coordinator at the Arizona Interscholastic Association, where she developed and oversaw the state's inaugural Spirit Line Championship in 2002. In 1996, she was a recipient of the nation's first NFHS Spirit Contributor Award for both the state of Arizona and NFHS's Section Seven, one of only seven individuals so honored nationally. She can be reached at:

"Cheer isn't a real sports program so it doesn't need an actual coach."
"The principal takes care of cheer. I don't worry about it."
"Cheer is just a bunch of girls having fun."

Do any of the above sentiments sound familiar? If so, prepare yourself for an awakening. As Susan Loomis, liaison to the NFHS Spirit Rules Committee, says: "There are two kinds of athletic directors--those who are in charge of the cheerleading program and those who will be."

Cheerleading continues to experience rapid changes. From increased participation numbers to more of a competitive focus, cheer is evolving and cannot be treated the same way it was a decade ago. More than ever before, now is the time to take a critical look at your school's cheerleading program, with a specific focus on increasing participant safety.

Your school may already have an excellent coach and program. Or you may not currently oversee cheerleading at your school--yet. Regardless, as Loomis states, "the athletic director is key to the success of any cheerleading program."

The 2007-08 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey lists cheerleading as the ninth most popular girls' high school sport with over 111,000 student-athletes involved in competitive cheer alone. It gained more participants than any other sport with over 16,000 new students joining its ranks. In addition, three million young people participate in cheer on all-star, recreation, and youth league teams. Over 225 colleges and junior colleges now offer full or partial cheerleading scholarships.

In a fairly short time period, cheer has evolved from an activity rooted in generating spectator enthusiasm to a sport requiring athleticism, stunting, and tumbling. Cheerleading competitions are now commonplace on television and state association sponsored championships have increased from 23 in 1996-97 to 33 in 2007-08.

As cheerleading has become more athletic and participation has risen, so have the number of accidents, injuries, and related lawsuits. This summer, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research unveiled its 25th Annual Report, and the dangers of cheer were quantified: "During the past 25 years there have been 80 direct catastrophic injuries to high school female athletes ... of which cheerleading accounts for 65.1 percent. A major factor has been the change in cheerleading activity, which now involves gymnastic-type stunts. If these cheerleading activities are not taught by a competent coach and keep increasing in difficulty, catastrophic injuries will continue to be a part of cheerleading."

Our society becomes more litigious every year, and, as athletic administrators, we have definite cause for concern. Should a student-athlete experience a severe or catastrophic injury, we can lose our jobs. Far worse, we can be destroyed psychologically, emotionally, and financially due to a life-changing cheerleading accident.

As athletic director, you hold the key to upgrading and improving your cheer program. The solution starts with the right approach: Regardless of whether your cheerleading program is considered a sport or an activity, you need to oversee it in the same manner as all of your other sports teams.

The first step in providing the proper supervision for cheer is for the athletic director to hire and mentor the squad's coach. Having a competent coach helps ensure the sport is safe and in line with up-to-date techniques and procedures.

As noted in the NIAAA's Athletic Administration: A Comprehensive Guide, one of the 10 duties related to negligence litigation for athletic administrators is the duty to "select, train, and supervise coaches, including ensuring that appropriate skill and knowledge levels exist among members of the coaching staff to ensure appropriate levels of safety and well being among athletes." It also states, "Athletic administrators are obliged to select supervisory/coaching personnel who are able to supervise, teach, and condition athletes appropriately. These employees should be able to recognize dangerous practices, conditions, or practices and to remove athletes from harm's way."

One of the athletic director's biggest challenges is finding a qualified cheer coach. Unfortunately, there is no feeder system for cheer coaches so candidates can be scarce. When experienced coaches are not available, look for a new teacher or staff member who is willing to learn and become certified.

What should you look for in a candidate? To start, this person should have the maturity to conduct a safety-oriented program. For example, squad members may want to continue performing stunts they have learned while attending camps or clinics, but violate NFHS rules. The coach must have the confidence and awareness to put his or her foot down and make sure this doesn't happen.

The coach must also be able to develop and maintain a professional relationship with participants and parents. Interpersonal skills are necessary to gain the trust and respect of teenage girls, parents, other coaches, and the community, especially as the sport continues to evolve.

Look for candidates who can police themselves and learn from mistakes since they don't have the luxury of an enforcement agency, such as game officials in football and other sports. Cheer coaches need vision and foresight to plan ahead, the ability to recognize what individual team members are capable of achieving, and the ability to understand the limits of their own knowledge and expertise. They must be compassionate and insightful enough to assess each student's physical and psychological readiness to perform.

Once the cheer coach is hired, take an active role in mentoring him or her. Statistics reveal that cheer coaches stay in their position an average of three years. To reduce the likelihood of leaving, the athletic director must equip the coach with the tools she or he needs to be successful.

Those who have limited or no formal coaching training will need a lot of personal attention. Simply turning everything over to them and hoping things will turn out okay can overwhelm a new coach and chase them from the profession. Help them deal with the more stressful aspects of their jobs by providing opportunities to obtain the education and professional development classes they need. Pay for their training and provide time for them to pursue it.

If you already have a coach, it's probably a good idea to develop a stronger relationship with that person. The key in this situation is to explain that you want to work hand-in-hand with her or him to upgrade the program. You may need to take it slow and explain any new requirements, education, or procedures she or he will need to address.

Whether the coach is a veteran or novice, the single most important thing you can do is continually mentor them on how to be successful in the job. Here are some ideas:

• Help them work effectively with students, parents, and other coaches and administrators.

• Make sure they understand the school's education-based athletic mission, and that they will face the same professional expectations and responsibilities as other coaches.

• Explain the legal implications of what they do.

Another key to making the coach successful is to treat her or him as a full-fledged member of the coaching staff, who must fulfill the same responsibilities and follow the same procedures as any other coach. To do this:

• Get rid of any traditional cheer team "constitution" and instead provide the cheer coach with your department handbook to follow.

• Make sure the coach is called a coach and not an advisor, refer to the participants as student-athletes, and include them in all athletic department activities.

• Include the coach in all coaches meetings and the department's communication chain.

It can also be helpful to educate your other coaches about the cheer program. Explain what is involved, the athletic ability required to participate, and the unique problems faced by cheer coaches. It can work well to invite the cheer coach to talk about the nuances of the sport during a department-wide coaches meeting.

That meeting is also a nice opportunity for the other coaches to discuss their concerns and expectations for the cheer squad and vice versa. These interactions will go a long way toward developing mutual respect and support between the cheer coach and his or her colleagues in other sports.

A crucial component of upgrading and updating a school's cheerleading program is that the cheer coach must be given the right to select squad members without impediments to the process. Don't permit students, administrators, teachers, or others to participate in the selection of squad members. You don't allow untrained individuals to conduct tryouts for the football team, and the cheer team shouldn't be any different.

If your coach hasn't overseen tryouts before, help her or him learn how to effectively evaluate prospective cheerleaders. The coach should use a process similar to that used by other coaches and the criteria for selection should be spelled out in writing before any cuts are made.

However, coaches should avoid using score sheets during tryouts, which is common in the sport. Instead, just as sport coaches do, cheer coaches should evaluate students over the course of the tryout period and make notes related to the student's performance in the various areas being evaluated. Parents and students understand not making a team, but they do not understand the difference between 91 and 92 points on a cheerleading score sheet, which they will often demand to see. This can lead to a difficult conversation, with the cheer coach forced to justify those scores or explain minor differences in points.

Make it clear to athletes and parents that the coach will select the squad. You can be proactive in preventing the typical complications that come with implementing a new system by scheduling a pre-tryout meeting with parents and athletes where the process is thoroughly explained. During that meeting, have all the candidates and their parents sign off on the new selection process and judging criteria.

If your coach feels the need for initial assistance during the selection process, consider using a panel of one or two additional qualified judges to help. These people should be seasoned coaches from other district schools, college coaches, or professional cheerleading instructors. But even when a judging panel is used, final decisions always belong to the coach.

The first year under the new system may prove difficult. However, students and parents will eventually accept that the cheer squad is selected in the same way as every other team, and that the cheer coach is in charge of the cheerleading program in the same way the football coach is in charge of his program.

Along with providing mentoring and the autonomy to choose the team, you'll need to give your coach additional resources necessary for success. This entails working with them to find information (magazines, articles, clinics, workshops, and conferences) and providing funds for seminars and certification.

Professional development opportunities for cheer coaches are available from a number of sources. These include:

Safety certification: Cheerleading safety certification is offered through the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA), a national non-profit educational organization that promotes cheerleading safety and coach education. The AACCA Spirit Safety Certification Program includes a three-hour lecture, a review of the AACCA safety manual, and a timed exam. Course topics include legal and medical responsibilities, spotting, skill progressions, environmental safety concerns, and psychological and physical readiness. The fee is $75.

National-level educational opportunities: The NFHS Fundamentals of Coaching course is especially crucial for cheer coaches who have no prior coaching background. The student-centered curriculum covers educational athletics and the coach's role, the coach as a manager/teacher, interpersonal skills, and physical conditioning. There is a minimal time commitment (four to six hours for online completion) and nominal cost that varies by state.

The NFHS also offers a Spirit Coaches Education Program, which develops coaching skills in three important areas. They include: safety (via the AACCA Safety Certification Course), administration (Spirit Program Management), and technique (sample courses include partner stunt progressions and motions, jumps, and tumbling).

Local-level educational opportunities: Most states have designated state spirit directors who offer NFHS courses at state conferences, as well as their own workshops. In Arizona, for example, courses and AACCA safety certification are offered seven times a year in both the spring and fall.

Professional organizations: Many states have local cheerleading coaches associations that offer camps, clinics, and seminars. On a national level, the NFHS Spirit Association provides networking and educational opportunities as well as $1 million of liability insurance.

Last, and of greatest importance, all athletic administrators must demand continual attention to proper cheerleading participant safety on the part of the cheer coach. This entails several different steps and areas.

To start, the athletic director and coach must understand what constitutes appropriate standards of care for cheer athletes. Coaches should also be familiar with common health and safety issues in athletics, the proper use of informed consent, and the duty to warn.

Inadequate or improper supervision continues to be the most prevalent charge in negligence lawsuits. Therefore, the coach must provide appropriate supervision at all times. Mature students, teacher assistants, custodians, parents, and booster club members, for example, are not considered acceptable substitutes.

The optimal level of skill and safety training will depend on the type of program being offered. If the squad is limited to sideline spirit raising and halftime entertainment, the coach will need less training than for overseeing a competitive program. But this means no tumbling, partner stunts, or pyramids.

If your school's cheer team participates in competitions, more training on safety is needed. First and foremost, AACCA certification by the coach should be required before students are allowed to stunt. From there, coaches must have training equal to or above the level of activity in which they permit their squad members to engage. Here is a list of possible requirements for coaches to fulfill:

• Qualified in proper spotting, partner stunt techniques, tumbling, landing, and catching.

• Able to teach simple to complex progressions of skills.

• Able to assess performers' physical and psychological readiness.

• Able to evaluate potential safety hazards prior to permitting practices or performances.

• Trained in first-aid techniques and emergency procedures.

• Aware of risks specific to cheerleading, which include spinal cord injury, head injury, and severe orthopedic injuries (fractures, ligament damage, muscle trauma).

• Aware of the female athlete triad (disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis) and an understanding of the role that conditioning, nutrition, and weight loss play in preventing it.

• Ability to work with the school's athletic trainer or strength coach in developing a mandatory strength and conditioning program that stresses flexibility, endurance, and building overall physical strength.

In addition, it is crucial that the cheer coach remain up-to-date on pertinent NFHS safety rules and regulations. This not only improves participant safety, but in the event that legal problems arise, will demonstrate that the coach has made an effort to attain the skills and expertise necessary to adequately oversee the school's squad.

Cheerleaders should have pre-participation physicals and must be taught to take responsibility for their own safety by not attempting stunts or movements that they are not confident can be safely completed. Student-athletes should be required to have their own copy of the NFHS Spirit Rules book and should be tested on its contents.

The athletic director should be a partner with the coach in ensuring safe participation. You can do this by familiarizing yourself with the NFHS Spirit Rules book and annual rule changes, attending a spirit rules meeting, sitting in on a safety clinic, and dropping in on practice at least once a week.

It's just as important to provide your cheerleaders with safe practice and performance areas and equipment, including appropriate matting for the activities being performed. Cheer squads should never be allowed to practice in hallways or on hard, non-matted floors. If funding is limited, practice mats can be purchased one strip at a time. Keep in mind that their liability is your liability.

As an athletic administrator, you have the opportunity to be a mentor, advisor, and champion to your cheer coach and to improve the safety and quality of your school's cheerleading program. All young people deserve the chance to participate in sports and reap the benefits gained from their athletic experiences.

Offering a safe, well structured, and successful cheerleading program with an effective coach in charge will allow cheerleading to remain an exciting and gratifying athletic activity. You have the ability to influence improvements in your school's cheerleading program. Are you up to the challenge?

The National Federation Web site has several resources for cheer coach education. Under "Education," click on "coach education" and "spirit education."
The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators is a non-profit educational association for the over 70,000 cheerleading coaches across the United States. Its Web site includes news about the sport and a link to its safety course.
This link from the Georgia High School Association is an excellent source for viewing videos of stunts performed correctly and safely. Click on "rules," then "videos and rulings."
To see a list of sample criteria for cheer tryouts, type "cheer criteria" into the search engine.
To read an Athletic Management article on cheer safety by Dr. Richard Borkowski, type "Three Cheers for Safety" into the search engine.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research provides more information about its study on its Web site.
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