There are many stereotypes about cheerleading. Clearly it isn’t a conventional sport with a ball and equipment like knee pads and helmets. When you hear the word “sport,” cheer probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your head. But a sport is defined as a physical activity that involves propelling a mass through space, or overcoming the resistance of a mass. A sport must also be governed by rules and conditions by which the relative skill of the participants is compared and a winner is declared. Cheerleading meets all of those requirements, so cheerleading is a sport.
First, I need to clarify the difference between sideline and competitive cheerleading. Sideline cheerleading is the stereotypical waving poms and doing a dance to support a team and show school spirit. I think this is why people often draw conclusions about cheerleading not involving much skill and being degrading to women. Competitive cheerleading, however, is nothing like sideline cheering.
Competitive cheerleading involves gymnastics and stunting, which require skill, accuracy, and practice. Cheerleading competitions are cut-throat, and the fiercely competitive world of all-star cheerleading often takes people by surprise, due to false portrayals in TV, movies, and even the NFL.
A cheerleading squad is not girls dancing in short skirts; it’s a group of athletes – both male and female – practicing day in and day out, just like any other sports team.
In addition, the technical difficulty and risk of injury in cheerleading are seriously underestimated. I’ve seen competitors break ankles by landing incorrectly on a padded mat. According to The Washington Post, cheer is the leading cause of catastrophic injury in girls at the high school and collegiate levels. It ranks number two as most dangerous sport for males and females, second only to football. Even the American Medical Association says that cheer should be considered a sport simply because of its risks and rigor. In addition, the United States Sports Academy says that falls from gymnastic-like stunts can have a greater impact than being tackled by a professional football player. When you consider the risks involved and skill needed to toss another person in the air or throw yourself backwards onto your hands, it’s crazy that people would say cheerleading isn’t a sport. And we do this without any padding or helmets!
Cheer requires as much skill as any other sport, if not more. Soccer players are trained to run fast and have amazing coordination from a young age. They specialize and often excel in certain positions like midfield or goalie. Clearly soccer requires agility and skill. Cheer is no different. Cheerleaders learn tumbling skills including back handsprings, back tucks, and even more complicated gymnastic stunts on the elite level. Just as in any other sport, years of practice are required to master these skills. Like soccer players, competitive cheerleaders specialize in stunting positions such as flyer, base, and backspot, each fulfilling a vital role for their team.
Cheer might seem different from other sports, but essentially all athletes do the same thing: perfect their talents for the sake of a common goal for their team. I’ve found that naysayers often just don’t have the facts about cheerleading. By definition, competitive cheerleading is a sport and cheerleaders are athletes. Between worldwide competitions on ESPN, endorsement from the American Medical Association, and more colleges offering scholarships for cheerleading, this sport is on track to shatter sexist stereotypes. So before you make up your mind about cheerleading, consider the risks, rigor, and skill it requires.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.