Flying High, Landing Hard

Whether you’re a cheerleader or a soccer star, the pressure to perform could be putting you in serious danger. Here’s why 2.5 million young athletes go to the ER every year with injuries— and what you need to know to protect yourself.

As soon as cheerleader Ryleigh Benjamin threw her teammate up in the air, she knew something was wrong.

The girl was supposed to touch her toes in the air before being caught, but her timing was off. As she came plummeting down 15 feet, her leg collided with Ryleigh’s jaw, pushing Ryleigh backward and—smash!—driving her head into the ground with dangerous force.

“She knocked me out cold,” says Ryleigh, who was 15 at the time.

It was the third time Ryleigh had hit her head at practice that week—the previous day a teammate had accidentally kicked her in the sternum, knocking her to the floor, and later that same day, another girl had fallen from a pyramid and landed on Ryleigh’s head. Even so, Ryleigh’s coach didn’t seem concerned. Once Ryleigh regained consciousness, she checked to make sure Ryleigh had all her teeth.

Then she said to get up and do the stunt again.

Despite feeling dizzy and confused, Ryleigh did what she was told—and that’s not unusual for student athletes. In one survey, 42 percent said they had hidden or downplayed an injury so they could keep playing or participating in their sport. When asked why, they said things like, “It was an important game” or “I couldn’t let the team down.”

But playing through the pain can have devastating consequences. Nine out of 10 student athletes say they’ve had a sportsrelated injury, and while some are simple sprains and strains, others cause debilitating longterm problems—or even death.

Ryleigh survived her accident, but her life was never the same. Doctors diagnosed her with serious brain damage caused by repeated concussions—hits to the head that make your brain shake violently in your skull. Her condition worsened until she was unable to walk, let alone do a backflip or a split. She lost vision in one eye, had trouble thinking, and developed tremors in her legs that made her entire body shake violently. She never cheered again.

Playing Through Pain

Stories like Ryleigh’s and the popular Netflix documentary Cheer, which follows a cheerleading team in Texas as they endanger life and limb in pursuit of a championship trophy, have drawn increased scrutiny of the dangers of the sport. But cheerleaders aren’t the only ones at risk. Student athletes in all sports are playing harder and practicing more than ever before—and they’re getting hurt at alarming rates because of it.

Experts say too often athletes, coaches, and parents sacrifice safety for a chance at athletic glory. “The pressure on young athletes is greater than ever,” says David Geier, a sports medicine doctor and author of That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever. With college scholarship money on the line and professional athletes’ salaries skyrocketing, many parents and coaches push kids to specialize in one sport early and play hard on elite travel teams that compete all year.

That pressure may make teens think they have to be “tough” and keep playing when they’re in pain, says Geier. Football players go back in after they get hit in the head, even if they’re dizzy and disoriented. Baseball players keep throwing even though their arm is throbbing. Cheerleaders pop back up from a collapsed pyramid and try the stunt again. “You’re supposed to get up, do it again, and smile,” Ryleigh says.

Is Your Coach Keeping You Safe?

Students may be developing this potentially dangerous “win at any cost” mentality because of their coaches. “I have seen some coaches who are absolutely ignorant, who are absolute bullies to the kids and just want to put them in,” even if they’re injured, says Jennifer Rheeling, an athletic trainer in the Washington, D.C. public school system.

And even if your coach genuinely wants to prioritize keeping athletes safe above winning championship trophies, they may not know how. Many coaches were star athletes when they were younger, but that doesn’t mean they’re experts in preventing and diagnosing injuries. Concussion symptoms can be especially tough to recognize without special training.

Some states and high school athletic associations require youth sports coaches to undergo concussion training, learn CPR, and get special certification. But those rules may not apply to coaches for club sports or teams outside of school.

Athletic Trainers Can Help

Some schools have athletic trainers in addition to coaches. Their job is to spot problems that could put you in danger: equipment that doesn’t fit correctly, an approaching thunderstorm, or early signs of heat stroke.

Athletic trainers also have medical training, so they can diagnose injuries, provide immediate care if you get hurt, and help you through the recovery. Research shows that schools with an athletic trainer have significantly lower overall rates of injury compared with those that don’t have one.

Whether or not your school has an athletic trainer, you can do a lot to make sure you play safe. The key is to be aware of ways to lower your risk of injury and to not be afraid to speak up for yourself or for a teammate.

Be a Safety Advocate

Dyson Smith, 18, the quarterback of his high school football team in Washington, D.C., took that advice to heart when he was worried about a teammate. At a recent practice, another player stumbled while catching a pass. The player said he was OK, but Dyson noticed he was limping: “I was like, ‘You need to go see the coach. If you keep running on it, you’re going to injure it more— and we need you for the game’,” Dyson says.

It’s an approach Ryleigh wishes she—or a teammate—had taken back when she hit her head. She missed five months of school following her accident: It took her 7 weeks just to learn to open her eyes, and 10 weeks to re-learn to write. It took months to regain her balance.

Today, after years of physical therapy, Ryleigh’s a junior at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, with a passion for hip-hop dance. She still has some vision problems and difficulty concentrating.

Ryleigh doesn’t regret her time cheering, but she wishes she had spoken up for herself. It never occurred to her to push back when the coach wanted her to try the stunt again. She now believes that was a mistake.

“I want other kids to know that they can say ‘No,’ and that they can ask for a break if they’re in pain,” she says. “If you hurt, tell someone.”

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