From American Sports Fields to British Schools – The Growth of Cheerleading in the UK

Mention the word “cheerleading” to many Brits and they’ll immediately think of the peppy teenage girls waving pom-poms in movies set in American high schools. Cheering is a serious business, however, and it has become more and more popular in the UK in recent years. So what does it involve and why is participation in it on the rise here?

Competitive Cheerleading – Is it Really a Sport?

In 2010, the Daily Mail reported that 37 percent of UK schools in England were offering cheerleading as a sport, five percent more than in 2008/09. The paper claimed that the sport’s popularity was “ironic given there is little team sport to be cheered for, with ministers warning that levels of competitive games in schools remains ‘disappointingly low’. Many people would agree with the Mail’s assumption that it can’t be seen as a sport itself – but those participating in it would definitely disagree.

In an article in the Telegraph earlier this year, Megan Charles, a former member of the Crimson Heat Tigers, a Berkshire-based club which has won a host of prestigious cheerleading trophies, pointed out that taking part in the sport requires “strength, team-work, co-ordination and focus”.

She also noted that it has significant health benefits: “Each 1-2 hour practice is said to burn around 600 calories, the equivalent of an incredibly tough (and much more boring) hour and a half on the treadmill,” she wrote.

The competitive version of the sport features many of the moves performed by Olympic gymnasts, including tumbles and complicated jumps, as well as the balances and team work you’d see from sports acrobatic teams.

As a result, it’s a sport with risks attached. The idea that participants simply dance about with pom-poms shouting encouragement to the real athletes is put firmly into perspective when you learn that, according to Charles, “66 per cent of catastrophic sports related injuries among women in the US are due to cheerleading.” The term “catastrophic” includes fatalities, cardiac arrest, neck fractures and a wide range of other serious conditions. Therefore, putting in the hours in the gym under proper supervision is as essential as it is in any other sport.

Why is the Sport Booming in British Educational Establishments?

In her Telegraph article, Charles pointed out that Loughborough University’s cheer team, Goldrush, “reports that the number of members has increased by 27.3 per cent this year”, while the Exeter Emeralds, the University of Exeter’s squad, “have seen a whopping 85 per cent increase in membership numbers since 2011.” Cheering is on the rise amongst sixth form college students and younger pupils too, with many British educational institutions offering it as an option for students studying BTEC qualifications in Physical Education.

Of course, American culture has a huge impact on the United Kingdom and part of the sport’s popularity is likely to be because it’s frequently featured in movies and TV shows from across the pond. However, it’s also exciting to watch, exhilarating to perform, and offers those who aren’t attracted to traditional sports, like hockey or netball, the chance to enjoy the camaraderie that team-based sporting activities provide.

There are plenty of competitions for British squads to enter nowadays too, so participants have titles to aim for. The UK Cheerleading Association (UKCA), for example, hosts five major competitions each year: the Winter Championships, the Schools’ Championships, the Spring Championships, the National Championships and the Northern Ireland Championships.

Despite the fact that cheering has traditionally been seen as an all-female sport and portrayed in some movies as perhaps being overly concerned with looks, it’s also gradually becoming more diverse. Mixed-sex stunt groups are already in existence and academics at the University of East Anglia recently published a study claiming that the sport has “the potential to challenge traditional ideas about gender and to be an inclusive activity for both boys and girls.”

With so many reasons for young people to take part in it, this sport’s likely to continue to grow in the UK.

Do you think cheerleading is a sport? Have you competed in a cheerleading event? Tell us your experiences in the comments section, or join the discussion on Facebook or Twitter.