The newest sport?
Area cheerleading coaches say the broken arm of a Beloit Memorial High School cheerleader shows the need for better regulation that would come with making cheerleading a sanctioned sport.
The Beloit girl’s family has filed a notice of claim against the school district, saying the cheerleading squad’s practice space isn’t safe.
The claim states that despite repeated requests from coaches, the school district did not provide the squad with floor mats for practices, which were held in the gym, cafeteria, classrooms and hallways.
Leslie Abruzzo, the varsity cheerleading coach at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, said she was “absolutely appalled” at the lack of rules governing cheerleading when she arrived at Badger three years ago after coaching cheerleading in Illinois for five years.
She said she watched other squads in her conference perform illegal stunts. High school squads can build stunts no more than two cheerleaders high, Abruzzo said, but some squads were doing stunts three high.
“In Illinois, if that rule is broken, a squad is disqualified,” she said. “There’s no penalty if you break those rules in Wisconsin.”
She said she holds her squad to the rules because the rules are designed for the cheerleaders’ safety. But it’s not always easy.
“When we go to games, and they see those things, and the crowd is cheering … my girls are upset,” Abruzzo said.
If the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association sanctioned cheerleading as a sport—like the organization does with football, basketball and baseball—cheerleading “absolutely would be safer,” Abruzzo said. The organization could set safety guidelines and establish requirements for coaches’ education, she said.
Because the WIAA does not provide a state tournament series in cheerleading, it is not a WIAA-sanctioned sport. Instead, the WIAA has endorsed the Wisconsin Association of Cheer and Pom Coaches state tournament series.
“We work very closely with WACPC, and they advocate within their membership for safety and for coaches’ education,” said Doug Chickering, executive director of the WIAA.
He said the WIAA provides school districts with materials from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But Abruzzo said the WIAA does nothing for cheerleading squads or coaches.
“I’ve never gotten anything from the WIAA,” she said. “I don’t think my athletic director has either.”
Abruzzo said coaches want a safe place for their squads to practice and compete.
The ideal space, she said, would be equipped with a spring floor and mats, the same kind of space in which gymnasts practice and compete.
The space would be large, well lit and free from distraction.
But perhaps more important is for school districts to provide coaches with opportunities for professional development. And for many, that requires a shift in thinking.
“(Cheerleading) is rarely just standing on the sideline and cheering for a team,” said Julie Jacobson, the District 5 representative for the Wisconsin Association of Cheer and Pom Coaches.
She said it’s more than that. Cheerleading includes jumping, tumbling and stunting. Cheerleading is a sport, she said.
“There is so much athleticism involved,” Jacobson said.
Abruzzo said a cheerleading squad can be as athletic as the coach wants it to be.
“For me, I want a group of athletes who tumble and stunt,” she said. “Other coaches might just want them to do the dancing, cheering, yelling … not the type of acrobatics and athleticism like we do.”
A high school cheerleader herself in the 1970s and now a coach, Jacobson has seen cheerleading change from activity to sport, she said.
“Cheerleading … has moved into the 21st century,” she said. “Not everyone’s thinking has.”
Squads and coaches first need to gain respect within their own schools, Jacobson said. School districts and athletic directors need to take cheerleading seriously.
Abruzzo said she’s been vocal with the athletic director at Badger High School to provide her with all the training and certification available to cheerleading coaches.
Being certified means she understands the basic elements of tumbling and stunting and has learned the drills and conditioning techniques necessary to help cheerleaders build their muscles to perform.
“It’s like becoming a teacher,” she said.
Jacobson said “it’s in the schools’ best interest” to hire qualified coaches and provide them with professional development.
“A well-trained coach is important,” she said.