It's the satisfaction of a perfectly executed routine. It's the thrill of spinning around the uneven bars or swinging from the rings. It's the precision of the balance beam. It's gymnastics, and for millions of people with Olympic dreams, it's a great sport and a fun way to get a muscular, toned body.
Gymnastics presents a very real risk of injury, though, with its demanding physicality and immovable equipment. To help keep things safe during practice and competition, follow these tips.
Why Is Gymnastics Safety Important?
Many gymnasts have been injured by colliding with and falling off of equipment, but lots of injuries occur during floor exercises too. Most injuries are relatively minor — with sprained ankles, wrist sprains, and foot injuries among the more common ones.
Broken bones, ligament tears, and concussions are also hazards for gymnasts, as are lower-back problems, Achilles tendonitis, and other overuse problems. Gymnasts also might put pressure on themselves to stay thin, and poor diet and nutrition can make people weaker and more prone to injury.
What you will need in the way of protective equipment varies from event to event. Some of the more common items include:
Wrist straps, guards, and grips. These are used by male gymnasts on the still rings, high bar, and parallel bars and by female gymnasts on the uneven bars. They're meant to improve a gymnast's hold on the apparatus and decrease friction on the skin to keep hands from developing painful blisters. Most grips consist of a piece of leather attached to a wrist strap. Other options include wrapping the hands in sports tape or gauze. Gymnasts, especially beginners and youngsters, should use grips, tape, or gauze to protect their hands from blistering and tearing. Typically, the pros go bare handed to "toughen" their palms with calluses but it's a painful process that can take months.
Footwear. What you wear (or don't wear!) on your feet depends on the event, the performing surface, and your experience. If you wear shoes while competing in the vault, you might want to use ones with a reinforced toe to help absorb the pressure of landing. Some balance beam competitors prefer shoes with rubber soles to protect against slipping.
Spotting belts. You'll want to use a safety belt whenever you are practicing a new trick or attempting difficult maneuvers. Generally, these belts hook into cables that are attached to the ceiling.
Get into the habit of checking that the equipment you'll be performing (or practicing) on is in good working order. Setup is important too: Equipment should be spaced well apart and set up in such a way that gymnasts can't collide with other gymnasts, spectators, or equipment.
The floors of the facility should be well padded to reduce the force from landings. Mats should be placed under the equipment and properly secured at all times.
Be sure there is first aid — and someone who knows how to administer it — available anywhere you practice or compete. You should also be prepared for emergency situations by having a responsible adult or someone with a driver's license on hand to take an injured athlete to the emergency room. Call 911 for emergency medical services if someone has a head or back injury, but don't attempt to move a person who has had a serious fall. Keep a cell phone handy or know the location of a public phone to call for medical help if you need to.
Before You Practice or Compete
As with any athlete, gymnasts benefit from advance planning. Here are some things you should do:
Stay in good shape. Eating a healthy diet and staying in good physical shape — whether you're competing or not — is particularly important for gymnasts. Almost all gymnastic maneuvers require strong muscles and excellent coordination, both of which are enhanced when you keep yourself fit. Staying in shape also will make you less susceptible to injuries.
Get a good night's sleep before a practice or competition. You'll be more at risk of injury if you try to perform a routine when you're tired.
Warm up and stretch thoroughly. Before you take the floor or get on any piece of gymnastics equipment, do jumping jacks or jog in place for a few minutes to get the blood flowing. Then gently stretch your muscles and joints, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
Know your own skill level. When you are first learning an event, start with simple maneuvers and learn them well before you move on to something more difficult. Trying to attempt something beyond your abilities is a good way to get hurt. Never attempt a maneuver in competition that you haven't practiced before.
Progress on each piece of equipment incrementally. For instance, when attempting to learn the balance beam, start with a line on the floor and then a beam on the floor before moving up to a raised beam.
When practicing a routine or trick that is difficult or dangerous, have a coach spot you and ready to catch you in the event of a fall. This will greatly reduce your chances of getting injured and help you maximize the benefit you get from practicing.
If you don't feel comfortable doing a maneuver, let your coach know. Gymnastics is supposed to be fun. Doing a routine that you're not comfortable with will make you less confident and more likely to get hurt.
Know and follow all the rules governing your event, and always know where you are during practice and competitions. It may seem silly to say, but you want to make sure you never wander into an area where you may be in danger of colliding with a gymnast doing a routine.
If you notice any pain or discomfort while performing a routine, let your coach know right away. Don't do any more gymnastics until the pain goes away or you've had the injury looked at by a doctor and been cleared to start practicing again. "Playing through the pain," as they say, will only make injuries more severe. That can keep you sidelined even longer.
If your school or gym club has a trampoline, don't go under it when someone else is using it. Keep the tarp surface clear of items like shoes and clothes. If you are on the trampoline, make sure the area around it is well padded, and always aim for the center of the trampoline when you land.
OK, so bulimia, anorexia, or other eating disorders aren't actually "injuries" — but they can lead to them. Not getting the right nutrients can weaken gymnasts and cause serious health problems that aren't limited to injury.
There's a lot of pressure on a young gymnast to keep an unhealthily trim physique. If you think a friend or teammate might have an eating disorder, don't be afraid to tell a coach or parent. The best way to fight eating disorders is to catch them early. Telling doesn't mean you're a snitch; it means you're a true friend.
Teen gymnasts are at a point in their lives when it is most essential to maintain a healthy diet for their growing bodies. Eating disorders will lead to very serious health problems down the road.
As with any sport, keeping things in perspective is key to your enjoyment — and safety. Gymnastic events can be dangerous if you're giving anything less than 100% of your attention and effort. If you're not enjoying yourself, or if you feel like you're under too much pressure, take a step back. Try to remember why you got into gymnastics in the first place. It's a great sport, and nothing beats the thrill and satisfaction of a well-executed routine. So aim to have fun and take pride in what you do!