For any high-performing gymnast, injuries are essentially inevitable. But there are ways that gymnastics coaches can approach their training program — both physical and mental — that can help prevent the injuries that are potentially avoidable, and to create an environment where gymnasts are both safe and empowered. We spoke to some of the country’s top coaches to get their philosophies, their methods, and their strategies.
1. Focus On Avoiding Overuse
In a given week of training, gymnasts can easily end up doing thousands of reps: thousands of handstands, thousands of walkovers, thousands of handsprings. It’s no wonder that over 65 percent of gymnastics injuries happen from overuse. Coaches can avoid many of these injuries by being smart about varying up exercises, surfaces, and training methods.
“You need to find the balance between enough repetitions for confidence and improvement, but not so much that you’re doing damage,” says Sarah Korngold, coach at Paramount Elite. “You have to be smart with your workload, smart with your repetitions.”
GAGE’s Al Fong avoids overuse by training his gymnasts on soft surfaces whenever possible.
“It’s okay that you don’t use a hard vault table to vault — you can use a soft mat,” he says. “It’s okay if you don’t use a board every time — you can use a trampoline.”
He also stresses the importance of straying from the repetitions-as-punishment style of coaching: “It’s okay if a gymnast falls off a balance beam on a skill. Don’t punish her by making her do 100 to stay on — that’s how you get hurt.”
2. Balance Out Your Gymnasts’ Strength
Gymnastics naturally places incredible demand on certain muscle groups, such as the quads, hip flexors, inner thighs, and calves. But as Dave Tilley of Shift Movement Science writes, “We must also make sure that we are not ignoring the countering muscle groups and training them in a similar amount of volume/intensity.”
In the lower body in particular, this means the glutes, deep hip rotators, the hamstrings, the lateral/rotary/anti-compressive core musculature, and the shin muscles.
“In gymnastics, we’re really, really strong in the front, but the kids are really, really weak in the back,” says Korngold.
So every week at Paramount Elite, they do training with a strength coach and physical therapist to make sure that their gymnasts are balanced.
For Fong, balancing out his gymnasts means working both sides for walkovers and cartwheels, as well as various exercises that involve opposing sides of the back.
“If you’re strengthening both sides of their body,” he says, “you’ll have less back injuries; you won’t have one side pulling against the other.”
3. Track Your Gymnasts’ Growth
Gymnasts are growing — constantly. And between the ages of 9 and 13 — for many gymnasts, the period of time when training is particularly heavy — they’re going through growth spurts, many of which can seem to happen at random. Tilley therefore urges coaches to track their gymnasts’ growth to better prepare for and prevent growth-related injuries.
“From a body systems point of view, the tolerance of new developing tissue in bones, tendons, and cartilage may be lower during rapid growth,” writes Tilley. “As new tissue is laid down, its ability to accept load isn’t as good as fully developed tissue. With a high-force sport like gymnastics, it can be very easy for the forces of gymnastics to be greater than the tissues ability to handle the load, leading to an overuse type injuries.”
Korngold has seen this strategy work first-hand.
“I have an athlete that grows this time every year, and her Sever’s flares up every time. So we try to keep her calves loose and stretch out her Achilles, and when she does start flaring up, we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going to do Tumbl Trak today.’ We try to modify for her so she can still stay in the best shape she can without being tortured.”
4. Never Stop Educating Yourself & Your Fellow Coaches
After decades of coaching gymnastics, Fong is adamant about the importance of education, particularly of newer coaches who are working with younger gymnasts.
“You need a team of people who can help with level 3, level 4, level 5,” he says. “But that also means that Armine [Fong’s wife and co-coach] and I always have to be at the grassroots helping to educate these people: to stand right next to them, to show them how to spot.”
Fong works to develop his coach’s foresight, so that they’re able to anticipate potential mistakes or falls and plan for them accordingly.
“Perfect example: a level 4 coach or a level 5 coach may not understand the gravity of asking the gymnast to jump from the low bar to the high bar for the first time. So when the kid does it, and peels off the bar and falls down and reaches backward, because that’s the kid’s instinct, they break their arm. Now the coach is smarter — but it’s too late. So you have to have to have those educational opportunities for coaches to foresee those kinds of incidents, and prevent the accident.”
“There’s always something, so the best thing you can do is educate yourself and make a holistic program that finds the underlying cause [of an injury] and tries to address it,” says Korngold. “Every year, you get a little more knowledgeable and a little more educated.”
For Korngold, education also comes from self-reflection. If she was seeing one particular injury in many of her gymnasts, “I would look at our program and be like, ‘Oh my God, why does every kid in our gym have hamstring issues,’ or something like that. You need to be reflective and self-aware and really tune into if something you did wasn’t the best strategy.”
5. Take Fear Out of the Equation Early On
There’s no doubt in the correlation between fear and injury; a gymnast balks, or is too tentative going into a skill, and the potential to get hurt increases significantly. So working to create a safe environment — where the gymnast feels as safe as she is in reality — is a particularly important aspect of training, especially with gymnasts that are at a young age.
“You have to create an environment in the gym where first of all, it’s safe enough to make mistakes, and then second of all, you’re not going to chew someone’s head off for making a mistake,” says Fong. “This sport has built its reputation on great gymnastics because people made mistakes, and then they created new skills because of it. What an awesome thing that is.”
Another way to mitigate fear? Teach the gymnasts how to fall.
“At GAGE, we work really hard on teaching the kids how to fall properly,” he says. “Every day, there’s some kind of warmup or some kind of exercise for falling and not putting their hands down, or not taking a landing without being careful about your surroundings. A lot of these injuries can be prevented if you just use a little foresight.”
6. Empower Your Gymnasts
Fong is a big believer that if you empower your gymnast — if you educate them and give them the skills to take ownership of the things that they do, both in and out of the gym — the benefits are endless. For example, he teaches his gymnasts how to properly spot their teammates during drills. (You can see examples here and here, from Fong’s Instagram account.)
By doing that, “you have now created an environment where you have leveraged the coach. If you have a team of eight, you now have eight mini coaches who are helping each other be responsible for their own safety, in their own learning process, in their own learning to work together,” he says. “It’s not just cheering for each other at meets or mimicking each other when they do a floor routine. It’s about doing things that make you better, more successful, stronger. But you can’t do that unless you have an environment that allows for that to happen.”
Brette Warshaw is a freelance writer and consultant based in New York City. You can follow her at @bstarwarshaw.