Accidents and injuries are an unfortunate, yet inevitable risk of sporting participation at any level, but further amplified in the world of performance gymnastics due to the nature of training that is undertaken.
As coaches, as much as we work to reduce and manage the risk of injury, it is impossible to protect the athlete entirely. Despite gradual methodology of technically accurate skill development, the appropriate environment, equipment, and excellent decision making, the chances of a scenario when the athlete falls, or fails a skill to the point of injury still remains high, with undesirable consequences. We cannot completely control what an athlete does.
Sometimes there is just bad luck.
Most of our time spent coaching is invested in training athletes to do the right thing, without mistakes or technical inaccuracy. But it is essential we teach them what to do when things go wrong.
It will happen, it has to happen; it’s part of learning.
The first questions you need to ask when an athlete is performing a new skill are:
What will happen if this goes wrong?
What could go wrong here?
If the gymnast makes an error, can they escape without harm?
Are they coordinated enough?
Have they been trained to fall correctly?
Slips, trips and falls are the single biggest contributor to injury in the typical workplace, and I guarantee that a significant number of injuries within the world of gymnastics are due to athletes falling incorrectly.
For the avoidance of doubt, when I refer to ‘falling’ I am not just talking about dropping off the beam or bars safely due to a technical error, I am referring to the athlete demonstrating a lack of control or awareness to how they are moving and physically ‘falling over.’
‘Self preservation is the first law of nature’, and it is our instinctive action to ‘brace/break’ our falls by using our arms and hands to slow us down. This particularly exposes the joints of the shoulder, elbow and wrist, commonly leading to dislocations and fractures.
Of course, sports that challenge balance, stability and spatial awareness are pre disposed to high amounts of falling, such as snow- based sport, ice-skating and several gymnastics disciplines. But let’s not forget comparably basic ‘everyday’ activities and incidents such as riding a biking, tripping over a shoelace or slipping on a wet floor.
So what should we do about it? Fortunately, there are easy steps we can take as coaches to improve an athlete’s awareness of controlling their falls. The most critical thing to teach an athlete here is how to roll safely when over rotating, which is performed in the direction that the athlete is travelling.
Here are my top tips:
Before you beginning teaching skills that involve rotation, twisting or a high risk of falling, use drills to teach the athlete how to fall safely. As a rule, the athlete should NEVER USE THEIR ARMS OR HANDS to brace falling, irrespective if it is forwards, backwards or sideways.
If falling backwards relatively flat, the athlete should protect the arms by crossing them over the chest OR backward roll if they are over rotating.
If falling/over rotating forwards, the athlete should either quickly turn onto their back before contacting the floor (again with their arms covering their chest – this takes excellent reactions and awareness) OR add a forward/diagonal shoulder roll.
If they are falling flat to the front, they should land with the arms stretched out flat. Legs should also be flush to the floor, do not encourage or allow a hands and knees position! This is particularly relevant for when athletes miss release and catch elements on bars. Plan for this, as it will happen A LOT!
Yes, this may primarily ‘wind’ the athlete depending on the surface they are landing on, but that is a small price to pay compared to breaking/dislocating a joint or bone.
Regularly drill exercises to improve familiarity of falling and general awareness. You only need to spend a few minutes a week doing this, but keep it fresh in the mind of the athlete.
Make the gymnast aware when they have fallen badly, or with poor ‘technique.’ Emphasise the importance of falling correctly. They need to be consciously aware.
Know your athlete’s mental state and signs of fatigue. If your athlete is not focused, in the wrong state of mind, fatigued, distracted or unprepared for a skill, then you are exposing them to a higher risk of making a mistake. (There may be times when you NEED the athlete to train fatigued, or under pressurized scenarios to develop mental and physical robustness, but these times must be CALCULATED, with appropriate measures taken to manage risk.)
In this video of MAG vaulters you can see that they are intentionally over rotating their warm ups and using safe rolling technique throughout:
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