Taking Out Double Downs by Jim Lord, Executive Director, AACCA

When the 2012-13 high school cheerleading rules were released, we knew people were going to be upset. Regardless of the new skills we were now allowing, we knew the main focus was going to be on the removal of what is widely recognized as the pinnacle skill available to high school cheerleaders – the double down. Many, especially those programs and athletes who have worked very hard to achieve this skill, questioned why we removed it. To get to that point, I will need to back up just a bit.

Earlier in the year, the rules committees for the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA) held a conference committee to look at areas where we could more closely align our two sets of rules.

It was a great opportunity to share each group’s concerns about particular types of skills and decide where we could find common ground. I was pleasantly surprised that much of the conversation centered around what rules restrictions were obsolete; were we holding on to restrictions just because we had always had the rule, or was there evidence that a particular skill or type of skill was unsafe? It was this conversation that led to the rules changes that now allow all low-level inversions and braced rolls/flips with specific controls on them.

As is our responsibility, we also looked at whether or not there were trends or concerns that needed to be addressed by a rules change. The topic of double downs came up, as it has for several years. Both rules committees have seen a trend towards the performance of more double downs but without an increase in the level of performance and technique. Both rules committees have warned about this issue, with the NFHS addressing it in their “Points of Emphasis” four times since the 2007-08 Spirit Rules Book and the AACCA going so far as to prohibit middle schools from performing double downs and basket tosses starting with the 2010-11 school year.

In addition to the empirical evidence and experience of the rules committee members, we were presented with studies that showed an increase in the concussion rate of cheerleaders as well as a clear issue that needed to be addressed: head injuries at practice. Cheerleading is tied last in overall concussion rates in two high school sports studies; however, both studies showed that the concussion rate at practices was higher than during games or competition – a statistic that is opposite of most sports. In addition, a two-year study of all types of high school sports injuries (not just concussions) showed that while cheerleading was ranked 17th out of 20 high school sports for overall injury, head injuries at practices were ranked 3rd, behind only football and wrestling. Of these head injuries, over 60% were from body-to-body contact; the type that occurs when heads spin into shoulders, elbows spin into bases’ heads, or landing on the stomach results in face-to-face contact between tops and backspots.

The experience on our two committees, from being active coaches, representing coaches’ associations and high school athletic associations across the country, working with coaches’ education and conducting cheerleading camps and competitions, determined that the warnings we had been giving about double downs had unfortunately been ineffective.

Cheerleading safety is a combination of coaches’ education, adherence to skill progressions when teaching, appropriate deductions at competitions for poorly executed skills, and rules restrictions. When all other options have been tried and have not resulted in improvements, it is ultimately the responsibility of those of us who write rules to step in and protect the athletes who participate in cheerleading.

Since rules were first written for cheerleaders in 1984, we have had to remove several skills from high school cheerleading when they started presenting safety concerns. These include skills such as pyramids over 2-persons high, basket toss flips and other flipping dismounts, the use of mini-trampolines, and tumbling double fulls. We also removed several skills from the basketball court surface to minimize injury and lower the risk of having even a minor injury interfere with the continuation of a basketball game. We have also made changes at the college level regarding tumbling, the number and type of skills allowed in a basket toss and basketball court rules.

In every case, some coaches and cheerleaders responded that we were ruining cheerleading and that no one would want to participate. There were also softer voices, larger in number, that were glad to no longer have to push their cheerleaders to do skills where they were seeing injury. There were parents who were glad to no longer wince when their daughter was performing some of these skills that pushed the envelope. There were administrators who were happy to see their cheerleaders leading the crowd more than performing “daring feats” on the basketball court. And, there were cheerleaders who were going home with fewer injuries from attempting some of these skills. Clearly, after these rules went into place, cheerleading survived and is still alive and well. What happened is that cheerleading became more creative and more safe.

In addition to the restriction on double downs, the rules committees saw that injuries percentages did not decrease when single fulls were removed from the basketball court surface. We also looked at other disciplines of cheerleading and determined that low-level inversions and properly braced rolls and flips could be done with no significant increased risk of injury.

It is never an easy decision to remove a skill. However, when you see that there’s no option left but to make a change or continue seeing a trend toward more injury, that decision is made easier. My expectation is that when we see this year’s rules changes implemented, we are going to see very exciting and creative routines and that high school cheerleading will continue to grow and be a place where we can showcase our amazing talents in safe environment.