A recent article in the USA Gymnast Magazine sparked the idea for this blog: Dealing with injuries. In a sport that I’ve often said closely resembles a never ending game of Russian Roulette (one bullet in the chamber, spin and pull the trigger), dealing with injuries will consume much of the coaches daily planning. No matter how you look at it, even the most optimistic gymnastics fanatics and loyal supporter have to admit the sport is simply grueling and unforgiving. Injuries are inevitable. It is not a matter of IF your upper level athletes will become injured, it is just a matter of WHEN and HOW SEVERE. (Don’t panic parents … this is true in all sports).
A phrase stolen from a plaque on the wall at the National Team Training Center in Houston helped me to put injuries in perspective. “It is what it is”. I used to spend valuable time digging myself out of the perpetual state of frustration and depression until I came to the realization that injuries are stitched into the very fabric of gymnastics. Now that is not to say that coaches should stop caring about adequate prevention, safety and rehabilitation. Nope, no throwing in the towel. In fact it is the fact of inevitability that helps keep coaches sharper. Just like fear of injury is a sobering focus lesson for the athletes, this fear can also take coaches to the next level.
Knowing that coaches will have to deal with injuries SHOULD give ample motivation to put as many safe guards in place as possible thus limiting the exposure to the inevitable.
1- Physical Preparation- One advantage that current coaches have over the pioneers in this sport is that we ALL NOW know that STRONGER is better. We have volumes of information on how to condition our athletes properly. The main issue here is that many coaches do not apply this important information on a consistent basis. There is zero replacement for physical preparation (and no a couple bent knee leg lifts, a few saggy back push ups, and a dip or two is not the definition of being physically prepared).
2- Supplemental Conditioning- A well rounded conditioning program is one that covers all vital areas of the body. Some coaches get caught in the trap of over developing certain sports specific muscle groups but fail to realize that it is the balance of strength throughout the entire body (quad/hamstrings, bicep/tricep, front/backside core etc) that protects the body from injury.
In addition to a well planned overall conditioning program, we have to realize that there are some areas of the body that are particularly susceptible to overuse and abuse injuries (ankles, wrists, knees, lower back, elbows etc). With this being understood it would only make sense to make sure that we supplement these areas. With time being at a shortage for most training systems, the use of IDLE TIME STATIONS works well for supplemental conditioning. (in line at vault or tumbling, standing at the chalk box, waiting for a bar or beam etc.)
3- Safe Facilities- Having spent a good portion of my early Michigan days training in a facility that was substandard at best I can tell you unequivocally that an efficient, well laid out, safety oriented facility does make a difference in the reduction of injuries. Had 1996 Olympic Trials qualifier Katie Teft, had a facility to train in, I fully believe her career would have finished differently (possibly with a 2000 Olympic team medal). Are resi pits, open foam pits, safety platforms, tumble traks or rod floors, over head spotting rigs, in ground trampolines going to guarantee an Olympian at your gym? NOPE, but I really can’t see developing upper level athletes without most of these modern day gymnastics training bells and whistles.
Having the ability to train in a facility that allows you to break skills down and progress from soft to harder and then to competition ready surfaces is a major plus. Having the ability to back up a few squares when an athlete relapses on a skill eliminates unnecessary risk that accompanies performing technically flawed skills. Safe facilities allow coaches to err on the side of caution in skill development while still progressing forward.
4- Instinctual coaching- (or is it experienced based coaching?). Sticking to a plan with an unwavering stubbornness has been the crust of many coaching mistakes. Discipline dictates that we establish tough standards and sticking to a plan falls in this category for sure BUT coaches sometimes fail to read the situation and make the appropriate adjustments. How many times have we seen the exhausted athlete take one more turn than they should have been allowed to do and BAM, a knee, an ankle, an elbow scream the painful results. Coaches need to adopt the “Live to fight another day” philosophy of training. When we suspect a kid is out of gas, cut em some slack, water down the requirements, spot them, let them finish in a softer surface or whatever it takes to maintain discipline without putting the athlete in dire straits. A side effect of showing a little compassion in situations like these is that you gain great respect from your athletes in that they will realize that you DO care about their health and well being and not just the results of the upcoming competition. This approach often gets a great return on investment when these athletes will come back the next day refreshed and willing to run through walls for the coach who showed a little caring.
5- Open Communication- All to often a communication gap exists causing a situation where athletes are afraid, or don’t know how to tell a coach they aren’t feeling well, they just broke up with their boyfriend, they just got grounded or their cat was found tumbling around inside the clothes dryer. Likewise coaches are sometimes to busy or ego struck to inquire when something is obviously not right. Being mentally focused is certainly step one to lessening the chance of injury SO if your athletes are in “lights on but nobody is home mode”, ask them what the problem is and back off if need be. Live to fight another day. Coaches should encourage and stimulate open communication so as to never have an avoidable injury happen due to not having an option for the athlete to provide input.
Illness and or injury and the related recovery process shoots a crater size hole in any training plan. This is frustrating for all involved so the natural tendency is to jump back into training full force so as to close the gap. The determined achieving athletes will want to push themselves prior to being ready. The blind coach will allow them to do so. During the initial stages of recovery the athlete’s energy level is low, power ability is depleted, focus and attention to detail non existent and the potential for injury significantly higher. Coaches should be very aware during these recovery times and wean their athletes back to full health a step at a time.
5- Pad it- Some of the overuse injuries that are often incurred are avoidable with a little forethought and a few preventive measures. For instance, wrist problems and forearm splints are often an issue for those training the round off entry vault. We have found that putting athletes in wrist guards prior to having any issues has basically done away with this problem in our gym. PREVENTATIVE MEASURES.
Heel bruises are an aggravating overuse injury. They frickin hurt! They occur mostly on balance beam due to the repetitive nature of the event and the hard training surface. SO PAD THE BEAM. I know… your kids are tough and so were mine BUT now mine are “sissies” with healthy feet that win meets. Same applies to padding the heals for release moves on bars. It seems like common sense but I can’t tell you the number of clubs I see just winging it and chancing it (ever tried tumbling on a bruised heel or achilles?). Pad it!
6- Constant reminders- We as coaches get tired of repeating ourselves over and over. Sometimes we wonder if we are actually speaking a language that is understood. “Am I speaking English?” There are however somethings worth repeating and that would be reminders that will help prevent injuries. For Instance just prior to any blind landing (A Phelps vault, a double front off bars, or double arabian on floor) I always remind the athlete of the inherent dangers of locking out the legs upon landing. They in turn do a little mental landing ritual and all is good. Another example (and there are plenty of others) is the reminder to actually SEE THE BEAM on a round off dismount. Even the most experienced athletes can take this cue for granted and end up body slamming a dismount. Remind them of this visual cue and BAM… no problems.
7- Mental Rehearsals- Injury potential is reduced significantly when athletes are focused. Few injured athletes ever scrape themselves off the mat stating that they were 100% focused. Teaching the mind to focus is as much a part of training process as anything else. Developing key words for certain skills and an inner “tape recording” of self talk that locks the mind on target certainly helps with consistency of performance. Consistency in technical execution will undoubtedly reduce exposure to pain.
Training the mind is a complicated process and one that might require outside assistance from sports psychology professionals or at the very least some research on the part of the coach. I suggest Dr. Allison Arnold (often used by USAG for our national TOPS program training camps). This is an investment well worth the time and effort.
8- Extensive Re-habilitation- Injures have a tendency to reoccur IF they are not properly cared for during the recovery process. This is where assistance from a sports specific (very important as some medical professionals just don’t “GET IT” when it comes to complexities of gymnastics) medical staff can reap big rewards. Setting up proper rehabilitation programs requires extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology of movement, the nature of the sport and the heeling process itself. This is best left to professionals. In any case, rehabbing the injury to a point of being stronger than before is a must so as to eliminate the chronic re-occurrences. This often takes time from the regular training schedule but so be it. Rehabbing the injury needs to be a priority no matter how it gets accomplished (before, after, during or outside of practice time).
As you can see reducing the exposure to injuries encompasses many areas of concentration. The more effort that is placed in the above stated areas the greater results you will have. Safe landings to all!
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