Football and women’s soccer are no longer the only sports being brought up in the discussion about concussions. The UIL, which oversees high school athletic competitions in Texas, has launched a pilot program this year to make competitions safer.
Cheerleading wasn’t considered a sport by the UIL before this year, but this designation changed as more athletes reported concussions and other serious injuries.
In order to ensure that cheerleaders adhered to their concussion protocol, the UIL held their first ever Spirit State Championship in January.
“The focus of the spirit competition and its addition as a UIL activity is based on safety,” said Kate Hector, media coordinator for UIL. “Prior to adding a competition in spirit, the UIL added specific safety requirements for cheerleading participants and safety training for cheerleading sponsors.”
This new competition placed a greater focus on spirit and teamwork rather than complicated stunts, which are the most common cause of head injuries in cheerleading.
Concussions can occur in a number of ways in cheerleading. The two most common concussion incidents involve flyers hitting a base in the head during stunts or falling to the ground. The second case is far more serious and can cause serious damage to the head and neck.
Jeoff Johnson, head cheerleading coach at Paschal High School, said that the first type of concussion is very common in his practices, but steps are always made to ensure the safety of the athletes.
Cheerleaders must now meet the same guidelines as all other athletes when returning to competition after a suspected concussion. The UIL protocol requires that the athlete’s doctor provide a written statement once the athlete is cleared to return.
“We do make sure to take our time getting them back to make sure, at this young age, their brain has had time enough to fully recover, which is different for everyone,” said Johnson. “We are lucky to have a connection through Fort Worth ISD to have the Ben Hogan Sports Medicine and Concussion Center at our disposal.”
Although the UIL has changed the way teams compete, not much has changed in Johnson’s cheer practices.
“We just try to spend more time relearning the basics and fundamentals of spotting as well as stunt technique,” said Johnson. “This way those involved in a stunt know on instinct how to react if something goes wrong and those that are safety spotters can step in to fill any gaps.”
Johnson uses the Ben Hogan Sports Medicine and Concussion Center even before following the UIL mandated concussion protocol to ensure that athletes are fully prepared to return to action. He said the safety of the cheerleaders lies mainly on the shoulders of one individual.
“All in all, it’s really on the coach to know the level of ability for each squad to know what stunts they should and should not attempt and a proper progression to improving skills in a safe manner,” said Johnson.