Whether it’s chronic low back pain, knee problems, hip impingement or ankle sprains, you are probably familiar with injuries.

One non-solution is to take this for granted and to tell yourself that every sport has injuries and gymnastics is no different. Another is to argue that AGG is unique because the body isn’t meant to flex and extend as gymnasts do. While there is some truth to those narratives, there are also things that you can do -and things that you should stop doing- to at least decrease the risk of getting injured. Here are some of the most important.

Strength training

A review of 25 studies in 2013 that included a total of 26610 athletes concluded that strength training reduced sports injuries to less than one third. That’s an astonishing 33% reduction! Also in this studies, strength training reduced overuse injuries to 50%. That’s huge. Strength training will also improve key performance indicators like your vertical jump and your postural control. That alone should make you seriously consider making strength training a priority.

Culturally, gymnastics is often anchored to the idea that lifting weights will get you hurt or that it will make you “bulky.” All this is nonsense: A gymnast won’t lift weights like a bodybuilder, but as an athlete that wants to develop power on the carpet. The two are entirely different goals, and anyone with a minimal understanding of physiology and training will know the difference.

Perfect technique and adequate progression is a must, and you need to strength train at least one to two times a week year-round to produce visible results on the carpet.

Another great benefit of lifting weights is increased bone density. If you don’t want gymnasts to be fragile, you need to put a moderate amount of stress on their skeleton. Jumps are one part of the equation, weightlifting with perfect form is the other. Doing too much of it could be a bad thing, but gymnastics without a base of strength is trouble guaranteed.

Don’t fear the weights: every athlete works hard in the gym, and there is no reason why gymnasts shouldn’t. Don’t wait to get seriously hurt to start strength training.

Let injuries heal

Gymnasts will rush getting back to training while still injured but recovery times need to be respected.

Perhaps you have found yourself in a position where a competition was coming up and one of the gymnasts you coach wasn’t fully ready. However, you decided to go ahead and risk stepping on the carpet. This is typically a terrible choice, and you want to think more long-term than that. Remember that there are many competitions, but gymnasts only have one pair of knees and hips and one lower back.

If a gymnast is injured, wait patiently. Try replacing her, or if necessary don’t compete at all. I don’t care how important the competition is: You do not want to be the coach that causes a young athlete serious back problems and triggers an early retirement. Nothing is more important than the golden rule of coaching: do no harm.

The golden rule of coaching is to do no harm.

The human body, while extremely complex, often gives us clues on what it needs. Pain or the lack of it is a good indicator of how much should we push or pull back in training and competition. Young gymnasts need to be treated with extra caution because they are less attuned with their bodies.

High-level gymnastics is not for everyone

Gymnasts come in all shapes and sizes, but the ones that are built for AGG are scarce. The sport demands excellent coordination, supple joints, shallow hip sockets and perfect feet among many other characteristics. And that is just physically -the psychological demands are more exigent. You need a competitive mindset, the cognitive ability to learn new movements lightning fast and the will to devote a good chunk of your youth to a sport that few people have heard about outside of your family and friends.

With all these requirements to become a top gymnast, it’s no wonder why the lower AGG divisions have dozens of teams. At the national level however, teams struggle to recruit girls. No one likes to be injured or in constant pain. By definition, not everyone is built for elite sports, and that’s alright. There’s a place for everyone in AGG, but there’s not a place for everyone at the top.

If you’re a coach and you don’t have the privilege to coach gymnasts that are built to compete at a high level, don’t go too far pushing their bodies. If a gymnast has been training thoroughly, but her spine doesn’t tolerate rotation and extension very well, leave it alone. Structural lack of mobility at the upper back, hips, and ankles will result in low back and hip, leading to chronic injuries. This is real life, and the frog doesn’t turn into a prince no matter how much you stretch.

There are only so many girls that can take the abuse to the body that AGG requires at the highest level. But even then, remember that it is just gymnastics. Your physical and psychological health is more valuable than any trophy.

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References:

  1. Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & Labella, C. (2013). Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3), 251–7. doi:10.1177/1941738112464626

  2. Lauersen, J. B., Bertelsen, D. M., & Andersen, L. B. (2014). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(11), 871–7. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092538

  3. Myer, G. D., Jayanthi, N., DiFiori, J. P., Faigenbaum, A. D., Kiefer, A. W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L. J. (2016). Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes. Sports Health, 8(1), 65–73. doi:10.1177/1941738115614811

  4. Piazza, M., Battaglia, C., Fiorilli, G., Innocenti, G., Iuliano, E., Aquino, G., … Di Cagno, A. (2014). Effects of resistance training on jumping performance in pre-adolescent rhythmic gymnasts: a randomized controlled study. Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology = Archivio Italiano Di Anatomia Ed Embriologia, 119(1), 10–9. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25345071