Prior to taking the floor for a 2010 competition, former Shine Athletics owner Sydney McBride wrangled her team into the warm-up room where they did a quick final run-through of their routine. Everything was right on schedule, until an unexpected accident occurred. One of McBride’s girls tumbled to the floor, landing on her arm and suffering an open break. The injured all-star cheerleader was scared, in pain and lying on the floor—unable to lift her limb. Someone dialed 911, but it took a full 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
“In those types of situations, when an athlete is in pain, 15 minutes can feel like an hour,” says McBride. “The venue was in a remote area, and there were no medical personnel on site. We just had to sit there with her and wait!”
This isn’t the first time that a wounded cheerleader has suffered from the lack of on-site emergency staff at a competition. Cheer Extreme owner Courtney Smith-Pope once had to wait 21 minutes for an EMT to arrive and tend to one of her injured athletes. On top of that, she says delayed medical attention has even been an issue at competitions where there are stationed medics onsite. “I’ve had several situations where the kid just lies there and the lights go off. The competition may have one EMT, but he’s 16 convention booths away. It can take so long for help to get to your kid. It’s terrifying!” says Smith-Pope.
As we approach the upcoming cheer season, coaches, parents and gym owners are calling for events to step up their game and implement more effective emergency response protocol. After speaking with some key players in today’s competitive cheer world, we came up with a list of suggestions for ways in which event organizers and cheer professionals can work together to ensure that athlete safety is the number one priority.
Allow on-site medics to give the final say on whether the athlete should return to the floor or not. During 2015 Worlds, Smith-Pope had two members of her co-ed elite team suffer pre-performance injuries. One girl got hurt on the warm-up floor and, to make up for the handicap, one of the male athletes attempted a move that was unrehearsed, fell and tore his ACL.
As Smith-Pope points out, a lot of commotion occurs when an athlete is injured—and this case was no exception. “You’re standing back there like, ‘Oh, you got it. You can do it.’ But [gym owners and coaches] don’t know. I actually appreciated the fact that they said, ‘No. The kid is not going back in,’” says Smith-Pope of the medics at Worlds. “They were fantastic. It takes the decision off the coach in an already stressful situation, and I appreciated that it was a trainer having the say.”
It’s not always fully up to the event producer, though—Billy Smith of Spirit Celebration says that while paramedics at his events may voice their opinions on an injured competitor’s situation, athletes’ parents often come down from the stands and override the decision on whether or not their children should go back in and compete. “Sometimes we have to rely on the age of the child, too,” he adds. “If it’s an older athlete, they know their bodies more, versus a younger athlete.”
Ensure better cell phone reception. Many gym owners report that a lack of cell phone service can be one of the biggest obstacles to ensuring prompt attention to athlete injuries. Competitions are often chock-full of parents and athletes, many of whom are on their cell phones in between exhibitions. For this reason, being able to nab a signal in an emergency situation can be challenging, and cheer professionals say they could benefit from event organizers working to outfit their competition sites with mobile hotspots and devices that help facilitate better cell phone coverage.
This is an issue that is also recognized by many event producers, but Smith says it doesn’t affect his emergency response abilities. “To get around this, we don’t use our cell phones at all,” he explains. “We have a manager over each area that has a walkie-talkie and paramedics on-site that are also equipped with one.”
Put a proper emergency response plan in place. McBride suggests that event organizers place banners up that inform competition attendees of what to do in the event of an emergency. “In those panic situations, you don’t always know how to find someone or how to get someone there quickly,” she explains. “You have so many different people in different places that it’s important to actually take the time to make sure everyone is aware of how to get help.”
An event’s emergency response plan should include information such as the address of the event hall and instructions on how a parent, coach or athlete should go about finding an emergency response personnel member in the event of an athlete injury. “When you’re at these big events, a lot of people don’t know the exact address. I can tell you, ‘Hey, I’m at the Orlando Convention Center,’ but what’s the actual address?” says McBride. “It’s little things like that. How can we make help come faster, and how can we help ourselves better?”
Smith says Spirit Celebration tries to keep its attendees in the loop by sending out emergency information to coaches prior to events. “[It’s included] in pre-literature that we email before the event, and then at the event, they have to read it and sign off that they are aware of our emergency response protocol,” says Smith.
Call on paramedics strictly for emergencies. Smith would like to remind coaches that his paramedics are not the same thing as trainers. “They are not there to tape ankles, only to handle emergency situations,” he explains. The Spirit Celebration producer suggests that coaches take a class to learn how to tape their own athletes and that they tend to minor scrapes and cuts, keeping the EMTs free to handle the high-risk situations.
Station a paramedic at a central location. When an athlete gets injured at a competition, people don’t always know where to find the on-site responder. As a remedy, gym owners suggest that each competition place their medical personnel in the same, easy-to-find location within the arena. “It may not be feasible to have stretchers in every performance area, but I think having medical personnel—even if it’s an assistant or somebody that at least has a radio or the ability to perform CPR—parked at the music station where a coach is already positioned would be a great idea,” says Smith-Pope.
Establish consistent rules. According to Smith-Pope, the rules for how injuries are handled during competition need to be consistent across the board. “Your first impression is shocking, especially when you see a very ugly brutal injury. You have to think to yourself, ‘If I push stop, does that mean we get disqualified? Do we start over? Do we start from the beginning? Do we go full out and take a deduction? There needs to be a policy that no matter what competition you’re at or what event it is, the same thing happens when a kid gets hurt,” she suggests.
For Smith’s part, he stresses that that every competition does things differently—and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. As such, he believes that it’s best for coaches to take a moment before each competition to educate themselves on each event producer and their policies. One area where Smith would like to see improvement is better boundaries industry-wide: “I don’t understand why you can step out of bounds with both feet before you get a deduction. Some of our floors have a drop-off, and some have slanted foam that is not safe,” says Smith. “We have to establish a boundary and a safety guideline that being out of bounds is not safe. [The fact that] we don’t have that in our sport just blows me away!”
McBride agrees that some reform is necessary. “Keeping our kids safe needs to be the number one priority,” says McBride. “The best way to do this will be to make sure that competitions have some sort of safety professional there and that parents, coaches and athletes are all familiar with the established safety protocol going into the competition.”