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Reducing Injuries

nick ruddock Feb 09, 2018

The sport has seen some significant shifts in recent cycles, and shows little sign of slowing down. The most obvious of course being the change in the general structure of the code of points to the current ‘open ended’ system, meaning athletes will now strive to have the highest level of difficulty possible in their routines.

The second ever changing shift is that of the equipment. Whilst the general specifications of the equipment has remained largely unchanged, the technology behind it has sky rocketed. The floor surfaces in competition are the most advanced and elastic ever used in artistic events, and the same can be said for the vault table too.

These springier surfaces provide even greater opportunity to perform higher difficulty elements, and open up new avenues to athletes who previously couldn’t perform them on the less elastic floor.

The third shift we have seen is the gradual increase of the average age of international competitor. It is now very common to see athletes in their mid to late twenties competing in Woman’s Artistic events at major international competitions, and doing very well also. (Some teams are made up entirely of athletes in their twenties!)

This can only be a great thing for the sport, as we move away from stereotyping the age, maturation, physique and style of how a gymnast ‘should be’, and move towards an inclusive, varied offering for participation.

Sounds great right?

Despite all of these benefits to the sport, when combined, we can create a recipe for disaster for our athletes.

Higher difficulty + surfaces with higher forces + older athletes = INCREASED RISK OF INJURY, particularly to those who aren’t physically robust.

As the sport evolves, so must we as coaches …

Through best practice, we can significantly decrease the risk of injury, and I truly believe that a significant percentage of injuries encountered within gymnastics are preventable, and shouldn’t be accepted as ‘part of the sport’.

It is in fact our role as a coach to ensure that our athletes are returned better than we received them.

Here are some easy to apply tips to preventing injury within your club.

  1. Have a balanced programme. It is well known that we are encouraged to have a ‘balanced diet’ for our nutritional needs, and physical preparation must be considered in exactly the same way. Instead of relying on solely ‘gymnastics specific preparation’ we must look to other areas of importance such as specific strength, power and ‘prehab’ training. Physical preparation should ‘fill in the gaps’ that technical training doesn’t cover. A lot of traditional gymnastics preparation is just replicating what the gymnast is performing throughout their technical skills, instead of offering them something different to ensure a more holistic level of preparation.
  2. Be proactive. If you don’t make time for preventing injuries, you have to accept making time for the injury when it comes around. There are many ‘red flags’ that can be spotted at a young age, some of which are almost guaranteed with young athletes, including (but not limited to) poor landing mechanics and hip/knee/ankle control, hyper extension of the elbows or knees and tight hip flexors, combined with an anterior pelvic tilt (APT.) By proactively working at these red flags, you are ensuring your athlete stands a greater chance of them not being affected by them, which won’t just decrease injury risk, but also help to optimise technical performance also.
  3. What gets measured gets mastered. Having some simple screening tools and exercises to identify red flags, key physical movements and monitor progress is critical. They’ll increase your chances of spotting any physical deficiencies which may later present a challenge to you. Doing this just once every few months will help identify gaps and progress, which in return helps you to construct an appropriate programme for the individual.
  4. Get the balance right. It’s important to get the right balance between physical and technical abilities. As a golden rule, your athletes need to have a greater degree of physical ability than they have technically. If this balance is tipped the other way, there is an increase risk of injury. I advise spending 25-33% of training time on physical preparation activities, which should develop enough physical competence to perform the relevant workload and complexity of the technical work that is being performed.
  5. Teach good technique. It sounds obvious, but good technique is not only great for technical performance, it drastically decreases the risk of injury also. Good technique dissipates energy through the body better, avoiding ‘hot spots’ such as ‘hinging’ of the lower back when arching backwards, or collapsing knees on landing. Poor take off technique, twisting and flicks are a common cause of injury caused through repetition.
  6. Allow for recovery. It might seem challenging finding times for athletes to recover when they are training 5-6 times a week and upwards of 25-30 hours, but if you’re serious about your athletes health and performance you’ll recognise that recovery is key. Recovery doesn’t just mean a day off! It can mean training at a lower intensity, soft tissue work such as massage and foam rolling, eating the right foods and getting enough sleep. It can even mean training at a standard level of intensity but avoiding muscle groups and movements that have been trained a lot recently. Recovery is essential to rejuvenate and repair the body from the toll that high performance training takes on the body. Ignore it at your peril.
  7. Have an injury audit. Linking to point number 3 (what gets measured gets mastered) I recommend all of my clients to have a detailed audit of current and prior injuries. This goes far beyond filling out an accident/incident form and placing it in a drawer gathering dust. An audit collates data on type of injury, part of the body, symptoms, time of year, how much training the athlete does etc. It’s used to identify patterns, and also to raise alarm which may be useful for potential interventions. For example, if 75% of your injuries are ankle and knee related, it goes without saying there is a great opportunity to ensure that more time is proactively spent on strengthening these areas.
  8. Listen to your athletes. When your athletes’ are telling you (or showing signs) of injury, listen to them. We understand that some discomfort can flare up through growth and the associated pains etc, but great communication with your athlete is essential for you to best manage loading and volume, plus to build a great athlete and coach relationship for the future.

So there’s a few quick tips for you. Make common sense common practice, and remember your role as a coach – to return the athletes better than they began.

Don’t just associate injuries with ‘the way the sport is.’ Be better than that, and work relentlessly to reduce injuries and accidents as much as possible.

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