There is nothing more important in cheerleading as the issue of safety. With the advent of Google and YouTube, any and every one can go online and see new tricks and skills to perform. Unfortunately, they are not always being attempted by teams that have the skills or the knowledge to perform them safely.
As a spirit coach, our responsibility is to become familiar with the rules in our state. In the state of Nevada, the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS), Spirit Rules, governs cheerleaders. We also have rules developed by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) and the Nevada Spirit Coaches Association (NSCA). A Spirit Director over-sees our programs and enforces these rules. If a violation occurs, fines and restrictions are assessed. It was not designed to limit our activity; it was meant for the safety of our athletes. This being said, I know that each state is different in its requirements. The state of California, for example, follows the rules developed by the American Association of Cheer Coaches and Administrators (AACCA). The rules used to be quite different, but in the 2012 rule changes, they have become more streamlined in their requirements.
The coaches are the front line in the safety of the athletes. We have a few guidelines that we MUST follow to ensure the safety of our athletes and our program.
According to a study by Live Science, cheerleading was the cause for 65% of all catastrophic injuries in girls over the past 25 years. It falls on the coach to make sure that the athletes know the rules and are following them. Protecting them from unnecessary injuries will protect both the coach and the athlete.
Make sure that the team understands that there is to be NO stunting or tumbling without a qualified coach present. While cheerleaders may understand the stunt and how to perform it, they may not understand how to teach all parts of it. The easy way to set guidelines is to establish a qualifying system. An example would be: Before a squad can perform stunts or skills without spotters they would need to perform it 5 times without error. Similarly, before they can learn skill 2, they must be cleared to perform skill 1.
Coaches need to be aware of the current trends in cheerleading stunts and tumbling. Because of the differences in states, what you see being performed online, or at Nationals could be illegal where your team is. Always check with your Athletic Director about your requirements. Some states offer rules and stunt clinics to their coaches. Find out who is in charge of these and get in contact with them. If there isn’t any info, do the research yourself and know both the AACCA and NFHS rules. Keep copies of the rules with you at all practices, events and games.
Develop an Emergency Plan
Like a fire drill, an emergency plan is best when learned, practice and never used. Just in case you do have an emergency, it is best if all members of the team know what to do. Know who will be in charge of calling 9-1-1 and make sure that everyone knows what the address of your location is and where the emergency forms for the team are located. It would also be a good idea to know what to do in case it is the coach that is injured. The last important part of any emergency plan is to practice. Have someone pretend to be injured and have the team practice what to do. You may never have to use it, but if you do not have it in place, chaos can ensue.
The AACCA has developed a video to help with this:
Your athletic director or athletic administrator should be asking these questions already, but if they are not you can make sure that you are prepared when they do.
The main purpose of our spirit program should be spirit and leadership. Do we have a mission and purpose for our spirit squad in place and does it focus on leadership through spirit?
Do the squad members project an image consistent with the expectations of our school and athletic department?
Do the squad practices balance spirit and athleticism? There should be equal if not more focus on developing spirit in the student body than competitions.
Are we allowing the squad adequate time to work on academics? Are we monitoring the academic progress and GPS’s of the spirit team?
Does our program follow mandatory safety guidelines? Are the coaches familiar with these guidelines?
Assessing Squad Ability
First, develop the stunt progressions that your team will follow. Once they understand the progressions you need to assess their ability to perform the skills. Listed is a checklist for coaches when allowing athletes to perform tasks.
1. Strength- Is the athlete strong enough to perform the skill safely?
2. Power- Does the athlete have enough power to perform the skill safely?
3. Flexibility- Does the athlete have the flexibility to perform the skill safely?
4. Freshness- Is the athlete tired? Does the athlete have enough energy to perform the skill safely?
5. Understand- Does the athlete understand the skill and how to perform the skill?
6. Environment Conducive- Is the environment and the surroundings safe for performing the skill? Example: not raining if outside, high ceilings for extended stunts, performing on mats, etc.
7. Spotting- Does the athlete know and understand how to protect the participants if a skill fails?
When reading this list, some coaches will feel overwhelmed at the duties placed upon them. I promise, the safety part of coaching gets easier. Once the safety items are in place and you practice them, they become second nature. Stick to it and make sure your team understands the expectations and punishments if the rules are not followed. It is better to perform lower level skills perfectly at a game than to have limited skills because team members are sitting out with injuries!