I have been involved with the sport of cheerleading since 1996. It has been a LONG stint with the sport. I started coaching in 2004, working for Liberty Cheer Institute (LCI) in Broomall, PA. Since the beginning of my coaching experience, I have had a certification attached to my name. Initially, it was AACCA (American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators). Then, when working with All Star, I had a USASF (U.S. All Star Federation) certification. I have also had an NFHS Certification. Recently, AACCA merged with USACheer, and my last certification test was with them.

What are certifications?

Let’s talk about what a certification is.

All the certifications I’ve taken for cheerleading come with a course or set of courses to teach the knowledge they should have to coach. At the end of the courses, they require participants to take a test on the knowledge they have learned.

In addition to providing the test, these certifying groups offer rules and regulations for each level of cheer. NFHS provides rules for high school teams. USASF provides guidelines for the different levels of All-Star Cheer. USA Cheer has game day and competition rules for College Cheer.

Also, these certifying organizations sometimes perform background checks on coaches, provide look-up services for finding coaches in your area, and generally promote cheerleading. Some provide additional insurance backing for people who have completed their certification process.

What are the safety rules?

I have been working most recently at the Collegiate level, so let’s discuss the USA Cheer rules that govern college.

These rules provide a set of safety standards designed to keep cheerleaders safe while performing cheer stunts and tumbling at college games.

There is an important subtext that might be missed here:

Cheerleaders are not the ones competing in these games. They are attending football, basketball, or some other sport. Cheerleaders are there to provide school support and lead the crowd.

The rules and guidelines set out by USA Cheer are designed to enhance the game’s experience without diminishing it. They are designed to protect the cheerleaders, fans, and athletes.

One of the rules added recently had to do with rigid signs.

C. General Restrictions […] 2. When using props(signs, etc.) that are made of solid material or have sharp edges/corners: a. A top or middle person may not release the props to the ground. b. A person on the ground must gently toss or place the props c. (NEW) A top person may not perform any skills (i.e. toe touch, twist, etc.) to a cradle.

The rule above talks about preventing the top person from throwing a sign down and hitting another cheerleader, fan, or athlete. This rule was not in effect when I was in college, and the signs were always going all over the place, which did seem dangerous to me. Part (c) is new this year, which limits the dismounts to only straight cradles.

Here, USA Cheer is trying to prevent injury.

Why do we care so much about the rules?

There are several apparent reasons we care about the rules.

Firstly, they minimize the risk of severe injury. According to FiveThirtyEight (yes, this is an older article), cheerleading is associated with a significant number of injuries. Some have argued that it is the most dangerous sport for severe injury for high school-aged female athletes.

Creating certifications and rules has made the sport significantly safer, and I’ve seen it in my years of coaching. According to USA Cheer’s Data Research, the trend line of cheerleading injuries has decreased over the years.

There is another reason we care about rules and safety. It is about avoiding injury, but it is also about continuing to do stunts and tumbling at games and events. We want to prevent cheerleaders from getting grounded. A quick search of the web can find articles like:

As a college cheerleader, I vividly remember a cheerleading incident at a nationally televised college basketball game. The stretcher was brought out for her, and she was carted off the floor while doing motions to the fight song while her neck was immobilized. I remember watching the game and thinking there was a chance my team would get grounded because we were in the same league as this team.

Beyond the concern for the cheerleader, which is of obvious first concern, injuries to cheerleaders at games can cause interruptions to gameplay. Seeing someone get hurt can also upset fans. This reason, along with risk of expensive injury and settlements have led many schools consider grounding their cheerleaders. Luckily, most of the considerations deem that having cheerleaders stunt and tumble do add the game-time atmosphere.

Putting rules in place is there to minimize risk, keep people safe, and keep cheerleaders stunting and tumbling.

Why are the rules so strict?

If you are a big D1 program competing in rewind full-ups, why is it illegal for you to do a one-armed lib at a basketball game? If you don’t understand cheerleading, this is a pretty basic skill for someone who is pretty advanced.

The rules are structured in a way that provides a reasonable guideline for most programs. Let’s think of all cheerleading programs on a spectrum. There are programs on the lower level with minimal cheerleading experience, all the way up to programs with elite-level cheerleading experience. Programs that recruit out of high school and offer some form of scholarship.

Cheer Rules Scale

The goal is to provide a standard that fits most groups and keeps the most people safe. It limits people at the top level of the scale because we don’t want to encourage people in the middle of the scale to try the advanced things.

So what’s the problem?

This all sounds good; why write about it? What’s the problem?

It has taken far too long to get here, but the problem is that while these organizations provide rules, the enforcement and oversight of the regulations still need to be improved. I know of several programs (not just one) that need to follow the safety guidelines, and as far as I can tell, there is never a repercussion.

Taking a test is all good, but some certifications last several years. Staying current and fresh on the rules is something that happens up to every FOUR years. Rules change yearly; if you are only checked on them every four years, you may miss new safety regulations.

Enforcement is up to those who know the current rules and have them report violations to the certification event. Things are different in the All-star world, where there are safety judges at competitions, but for school-level teams, there is very little safety validation at games and events.

If injuries were to rise, we might again see fears of schools grounding their cheerleaders or, worse, increased severe injuries.

What’s a solution?

There are many solutions, but the easiest is continued education for coaches. When I first got AACCA trained, it was an in-person event. You had to physically go and meet with a certified teacher and demonstrate your knowledge. All testing is done online and can be done in a couple of hours or a day. The convenience of the online experience is fantastic, but maybe something is lost in not making those connections with certified instructors. You have someone with more experience than you to use as a resource if you have a safety question.

Camps and competitions often provide an excellent space to build connections, but many cheer programs do not compete. Building coaching resources outside of camps and competitions might be another solution to this issue.