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Confessions of a Cheer Dad: February '17

I have a secret…and it is about to become public. So excuse me if this Confessions of a Cheer Dad post is a “coming-out” of sorts.

What is my secret you ask? It’s simple: I am a large, grown, outdoors-type, man’s man who is also a quivering scaredy-cat.

Whew! I said it. I am a scared, nervous, worry-wart of a parent. Somehow, though, making this public doesn’t help my anxiety. I’ll tell you why.

On average of four days a week, my daughter, Devyn, gets dropped off at a world-class cheer gym in West Chester, OH called Midwest Cheer Elite. Owned by Tanya Roesel, it is a huge facility with more than enough mat space for the hundreds of athletes destined to make their parents proud.

And four days a week, I cringe when she enters its doors.

I cringe because I know that for the hours she spends at MCE, she will be running, jumping, bending backwards, rounding off, flipping backwards, flipping frontwards, and doing her all-around best to be an amateur contortionist.

In the downtime when she isn’t tumbling, like a crazed lunatic, she will be the base/back-spot for several flyers whose very life are dependent on her strength, hand/eye coordination, communication, and ability to work as a team. And she is not alone.

My worry stems from the fact that cheerleaders are at risk for very serious injury every time they step on the mat. A 2011 study from the from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina stated that 65.2% of all catastrophic injuries in youth sports occur in cheerleading (catastrophic injuries are defined as injuries that result in a fatality or in a non-fatal brain or spinal cord injury, skull fracture or spinal fracture). According to a 2015 study by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 31% of all cheerleading injuries are concussions, followed by ligament and muscle injuries (20% and 15% respectively).

So what does this mean?

As a parent, it’s about my daughter, as it is with your cheerleaders and prevention and preparation are key elements in minimizing injury risk. If the risk of injury is directly correlated with the number of times an athlete participates on a cheer floor, as is theorized in recent research, then all parents should be concerned about the steps taken to minimize the risk in cheerleading. From proper stretching and up-to-date equipment (including floors) to coaching education and safety certifications, there are plenty of resources available to help with injury prevention.

One of the best ways to minimize the risk of injury lays with the athletes themselves (and their parents). The athletes should have a routine of proper stretching and at-home exercises that create muscle memorizations. But let’s be honest, that rarely happens on a consistent basis so many gyms and coaches integrate these routines into flex classes and pre-practice warmups.

Even with proper stretching and flexibility, injury can still occur. And I personally believe it stems from a growing problem across the industry: progression without merit.

Most of us reading this blog have dealt with or heard of a scenario where little “Suzy” is a Level 3 tumbler but wants to be on a higher level team because “it would just break her heart” if she didn’t make it. And in some of these cases, it probably is allowed.

Whether Level 1 or Level 5, athletes do not wake up one day and start doing layouts and fulls. There is a progression, consistent with other sports that are important to the long-term development of the athlete. They need to continuously learn the proper technique in order to avoid the risks associated with throwing stunts their bodies are not accustomed to performing.

In this day and age where stunts are getting more intricate and dangerous, listening to coaches and evaluators is more important than ever to minimize the risks associated with All Star cheer. As parents, we need to believe in the process and push our athletes for better results, but we also need to understand the systematic progression each gym uses for development. This progression should ALWAYS be about what’s best for the athlete in the long run and not about how quickly we think “Suzy” can be on a Level 5 team.

The risks of cheerleading are becoming more known as the industry continues to grow, but what gets lost in all of this is the time and emotional investment of the gym owners, staff, and coaches. The next time I drop off my daughter for practice, I will still cringe (Devyn is still my little princess even at 13). But I will find consolation in the trust I have in the expertise of the gym and its coaches. And I will trust my daughter that she knows what she can and can’t do.

To me, these are the best defenses against risk. Whether she is a Level 2 or a Level 5, I will still beam with pride when she runs out on the stage without the fear I feel at practice. I won’t fear as the lights come up and the music comes on because I know the coaches placed her at a level equal to her experience and ability. I won’t fear because the coaches, gym owners, and my daughter have done all they can do to prepare for this moment in a safe way. And I won’t fear because she has been properly trained, stretched, and primed for the performance ahead.

Ok…maybe I will fear it a little since she will always be my baby girl. But it’s what us Cheer Dads do!

(See the recent post from MCE owner Tanya Roesel about additional steps being taken at our gym. It should hammer home the point I made about gym owners who truly care about their athletes)

AJ Johnson is the father of 13-year old Devyn, a member of MCE’s Sr. 2 Bangals who has been a competitive cheerleader for six years. He and his wife Amber are also the parents of 11-year old Aiden who plays soccer and basketball, coached by AJ. The soccer/basketball/cheer dad is an Operations Manager for US Bank.

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