Editor's note: Lisa Hickey is CEO of Good Men Media, Inc. and publisher of The Good Men Project. She likes to "capture the imagination of the general public and create things that become a part of the popular culture for years to come." She has written three books, has four children and plays ice hockey. She is on Twitter.
Five years ago, my daughter Shannon, visibly excited, told me she had made the cheerleading team. She explained how good the other girls on the team were, how there would be competitions and the chance of travel to other states if they made it far enough. Almost as an afterthought she said, “Oh, and I’m going to be a flyer.”
It took me a beat or two to process what the word flyer meant. Oh. The ones who get thrown up in the air. OH. Shannon saw my mouth open in protest and she quickly interjected, “Don’t worry, Mom.”
At that time, I didn’t even know what to be worried about. This was 3 years before the gym where she was practicing would call me up and tell me to get there as soon as possible. Shannon had been dropped on her head and had a probable concussion. It was 4 years prior to the date where I would be in an overflowing gym with hundreds of spectators waiting anxiously for Shannon’s team to perform. I watched one of the girls on the team before hers go up in the air and come down badly – a jumble of arms and legs. The whole team jumped back into precision formation, smiling broadly to show they weren’t flustered by the mishap. All except for one girl, her arm at an awful awkward angle, desperately trying to continue the routine but too dazed to do so. The judges finally stopped the performance and led the injured girl off.
Shannon is no stranger to injury. Recently, she got her second concussion – this time playing ice hockey. In the emergency room, the doctors and nurses had heard that “an injured hockey player” was arriving by ambulance. They said they were surprised to see Shannon – petite with long flowing blond hair – come out on the stretcher. I asked if they saw many hockey injuries. The doctor replied, “We see injuries with all sports. But the worst is competitive cheerleading.”
How protective do I have to be as a parent? What is an acceptable risk? My strategy has always been to allow a certain amount of risk but to always work to minimize catastrophic consequences. I insist on having them wear protective gear, of course, but it’s also my job to help my kids be as good as they can by practicing with them or sending them to camps or extra practices. I try to make sure they know the sport well enough to actually do it well.
Right before one cheerleading competition, Shannon had been in ICU for a week with an asthma attack. She got out on Friday and had a performance that Sunday. We agreed that I’d go with her to practice on Saturday, see how she did and then make the decision whether to perform or not. I watched her carefully during practice for signs of stress. She made it through but looked ashen. I didn’t want her to perform the next day but knew how much it meant to her. We agreed to a system where she would take her asthma medication 20 minutes before she performed. Even though I was sitting in the audience, she would text me to tell me how she was feeling immediately before and immediately after. I told the coaches and another parent exactly what signs to look for if Shannon’s asthma got too bad: nostrils flaring, the spot in the middle of her neck caving in. I found out where the closest hospital was ahead of time. Was I a worried mom? Yes. But I was comfortable enough that preparedness would be able to prevent catastrophe.
Of course, preparedness cannot prevent every catastrophe, though. When Shannon was just starting her first year of competition, a 20-year-old girl named Lauren Chang on a team in the town next to ours died while at a cheerleading competition. She had been accidentally kicked in the chest while catching a flyer, staggered off the floor and collapsed. My older daughter, Allie, knew one of the girls on the team. “It was the saddest thing, mom,” she said. “My friend just didn’t know how to help Lauren.” Lauren’s family has hoped that her death will lead to reforms. “We hope her death will shed light on the inherent risks of cheerleading, and we hope that additional safeguards are taken," her sister, Nancy Chang told ABC News.
So why do I let Shannon cheer, despite my ever-present worry, despite the risks?
At one of my daughter’s first cheerleading competitions, I watched some other performances. I remembered back to my own high school days – days of awkwardness and low self-esteem. Most days I was too shy to talk. I was uncomfortable in my body, hated my looks and hated being looked at. I spent most of my teenage years trying to hide.
Waiting for my daughter to perform, I watched team after team compete. I saw the camaraderie, the genuine smiles and the passion. I watched teams composed of girls of every shape, size and nationality, girls with a grace and fluidity to their movements. And time and time again, I was always struck by the same thought: “These girls have all the confidence in the world.”