WHEN Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Lai Qing Xiang died last month in a cheerleading accident, the tragedy underscored just how dangerous the largely unregulated activity can be.
The 19-year-old was attempting to do a backflip when he fell and injured his head. He slipped into a coma, never regained consciousness and died two weeks later. Although it was the first cheerleading fatality in Singapore, it was but the latest in a long line of cheerleading tragedies around the world.
In 2011, a 19-year-old Taiwanese woman died after being tossed 3m into the air and hitting her head when she landed on an unpadded floor.
Three years earlier, a 20-year-old cheerleader from Massachusetts in the US died of a collapsed lung after a teammate, who had been thrown in the air, accidentally kicked her in the chest.
Statistics on cheerleading-related injuries are not available in Singapore, but a 2011 University of North Carolina study found that 65.2 per cent of all catastrophic sports injuries occurred in cheerleading. This made it the second most dangerous sport in the United States, after American football.
Deaths like these have triggered much soul-searching in the cheerleading community elsewhere.
Now, in the light of Qing Xiang's death and the activity's growing popularity here, perhaps Singapore should do likewise.
Existing regulatory system
ACCORDING to the Education Ministry, only three primary and secondary schools offer cheerleading as a co-curricular activity (CCA).
But other schools offer cheerleading programmes under the Sports Education Programme, a collaboration between the ministry and the Singapore Sports Council.
These cheerleading programmes are typically more recreational than competitive, but are required to meet a set of guidelines set by the ministry and the sports council. They require cheerleading coaches to:
- Be accredited by the National Coaching Accreditation Programme;
- Attend workshops on student-centric coaching;
- Have a valid first aid certificate;
- Submit programme details which include a risk assessment management plan.
But the bulk of competitive cheerleading is practised at the tertiary level, where there are fewer controls. The polytechnics, universities and Institutes of Technical Education all have their own cheerleading squads. At this level, co-curricular activities are managed largely by students. Teachers in charge are mostly hands-off when it comes to managing the teams.
Singapore also has a handful of cheer teams not affiliated to schools, such as independent team Legacy All-Stars and Wildcards, which was set up at the Ulu Pandan Community Club.
Cheerleaders and coaches estimate that there are currently about 15 active competitive cheer squads in Singapore compared with fewer than five a decade ago.
As the number increases, so does the intensity of competition. Cheerleaders choreograph stunts and routines of ever greater difficulty to outdo their rivals, score points and impress judges.
And they train hard. Some cheerleaders are known to lift their teammates instead of lifting weights or to perform squats with another member perched on their shoulders. The risk of mishaps is there.
Obstacles to progress
PROGRESS on improving safety is complicated by the fact that there are two rival associations promoting cheerleading here.
They are the Federation of Cheerleading Singapore, supported by the International Federation of Cheerleading based in Tokyo, and the Cheerleading Association (Singapore), affiliated with the International Cheer Union in the US. There appears to be no fixed standards. Both international organisations have their own sets of competition rules and regulations and conduct their own coaching accreditation, which the local groups follow.
Cheerleading also does not have national sports association status, which, for other sports, means access to public funding, which can go towards better equipment, as well as courses and workshops to train coaches in safety procedures.
Even in the US, the authorities have ruled that the activity remains too underdeveloped and disorganised to be treated as a sport on both the university and national levels.
The way ahead
BUT that does not mean nothing can be done to improve safety now. Lessons can be gleaned from gymnastics - a similarly high-risk activity.
According to the coaching programme developed by Singapore Gymnastics, the state-recognised governing body, those interested in coaching must undergo a rigorous programme that emphasises both technical skills and safety know-how.
For example, coaches have to learn how to supervise groups instead of individuals and how to implement safety procedures in a gymnastics programme.
They are also taught to provide support to gymnasts as they perform stunts, and to observe and analyse movement patterns in participants to pick out areas they are weak in.
The coaching exam comprises a practical assessment where coaches draw up a lesson plan and take participants into the exam venue to conduct a practical session based on the plan.
By comparison, accreditation for cheer coaches conducted by the Cheerleading Association of Singapore is less rigorous.
It comprises a written examination and a hands-on test. But the test does not require coaches to personally perform the skills or work with cheerleaders.
Instead, they explain verbally to the examiner how they would perform each skill if they were coaching a team.
This will not do. Cheerleading bodies need to improve their accreditation process.
Perhaps it is now time for the two local cheerleading organisations to put aside their differences and work together to develop a better safety framework. They could even adopt the guidelines laid out by the ministry and the sports council.
As cheerleading gains popularity, safety must come first. Qing Xiang's death should be the last cheerleading tragedy here.