Gymnastics and Tumbling Safety

Gymnast, Tumbler and Athlete Safety in Athletic Facilities, Training and Competition

Safety is the first consideration for any athletic program, especially for children. It should be the first thought and concern of every gymnastics or tumbling coach, gym owner, parent and gymnast.

Zero Injury Tolerance

Every building owner, gym owner, coach, instructor or parent should have a zero tolerance for injury. The cause of no injury is an acceptable risk. Any injury, no matter how small or even any situation that arises that does not cause injury but in any way demonstrates that an injury might have taken place must be immediately analyzed and everything that can and should be done to remedy that potential danger must be done before the skill is performed again or before the situation can arise again.

There is never any excuse for not taking every available safety precaution especially when dealing with young gymnasts. The safety attitude should not be “Survivors compete” but that there is a zero tolerance for injury. Before the performance of any skill, training or competition, every thing that can be done for safety can and must be done.

Zero tolerance for injury is the only acceptable attitude and mind set for coaches, gymnasts and gym owners.

How Safe is Safe?

It is possible to coach for over 30 years and never have a severe, serious, career-ending or catastrophic injury to any gymnast. It is possible to coach for over 30 years and never have a broken bone or torn ligament, muscle or tendon during training or competition. I know it is possible because I personally did it.

Building and Gym Safety Audit

No program for young athletes should occur in any facility that has not been audited, evaluated and complies with safety protocols. The owners of the building, the gym program and the coaches should all share responsibility for making sure the entire facility is audited and made safe for young gymnasts and tumblers. Every building configuration has, in addition to normal hazards that need to be eliminated, special hazard or hazard areas unique to that building.

Equipment Safety Audit

Any and all equipment used in a gymnastics and athletic training and/or competition facility should be audited, inspected and maintained in safe condition on a regular basis.

Immediate Practice Area Safety Audit

Each coach should do an audit of each area where they take gymnasts to practice before any gymnasts begin doing anything. Equipment should be checked and mats should be deployed in the safest configuration.

Safety Mental Programming

Coaches must say and gymnasts must focus on “Rotate past your head, neck and back and land on your feet.” To say “Don’t FALL ON YOUR HEAD” makes the subconscious mind first get the image of falling on its head first and then try to negate it. But the “fall on your head’ image was in there first and has become some part of the subconscious mental programming of the gymnast, cheerleader or tumbler. Retrain yourself to say and your gymnasts to think and focus on what they want and need to do to be safe. The following are examples of what to say to program your gymnast’s mind to land safely and be safe:

  • “Rotate past your head, neck and back.”
  • Keep your head tucked in safely between your knees in both the pike and tuck positions.”
  • “Land on your feet first.”
  • “Make sure you are positive you can do this safely.”
  • “Follow the proper safety progressions.”
  • “Focus on sticking this landing safely.”
  • “Go aggressively to stick this landing safely.”
  • “Rotate the somersault(s) quickly and get rotated to the point you focus on a safe stuck landing.”
  • “Make sure you ‘see’ yourself sticking this landing safely.”
  • ” Visually ‘See’ yourself to safety by keeping your eyes open and observing where you are at all times to keep yourself safe.”

Know the Danger Points

It should be obvious that in any somersault,whether it is a simple single somersault or a multiple twisting and/or double somersault, that the primary danger is a neck and back injury. To make tumblers and gymnasts injury-proof , they must first and primarily be protected against any neck or back injury. The five most critical danger situations to avoid would be:

  1. Always use the most reasonable, softest and safest landing surface and keep the head tucked safely in between the knees so you can avoid landing with the head back, you can avoid catching the forehead on the landing and you can avoid snapping the head back, even in the pit.
  2. Always use the most reasonable, softest and safest landing surface and always rotate past your neck so you can avoid landing on the neck or head and risking a potential neck injury.
  3. Always use the most reasonable, softest and safest landing surface and always rotate past your back so you can avoid landing on and injuring your spine.
  4. Always use the most reasonable, softest and safest landing surface and ensure a soft enough landing surface and make sure you rotate past the bottom of your spine to avoid landing on your seat so you can avoid the potential of causing a spine compression injury.
  5. Always use the most reasonable, softest and safest landing surface and avoid severe under-rotation or over-rotation where you could come around and land without hitting your feet, either at all or insufficiently to slow to a safe speed. You must land safely and rotate past or avoid landing in a dangerous arch position, on your head, neck or back or on your face so you can avoid a potential a back or neck injury.

Pits and Matting

In the learning of all new skills, wherever possible, pits should be used. Skills should always be first learned with the softest, safest landing surface possible. All potential and possible danger areas should be heavily matted.

Strength = Safety

Coaches and gymnasts should both make sure they have enough general strength to successfully perform any skill they are attempting. Make sure your arms are strong enough to protect your neck and back and avoid injury. Make sure your legs are strong enough to sufficiently rotate you past your head, neck, back and seat in all somersault skills.

Make sure you have done everything possible to develop neck strength to protect the neck with your neck and shoulder muscles as much as is possible. This means neck and shoulder strength training should be a part of any gymnastics strength training program.

Flexibility

Flexibility can be a key factor in safety as well as the beautiful execution of gymnastics and tumbling skills. Before any gymnastics or tumbling skills are executed, sufficient flexibility training should already have taken place.

Neck and back flexibility must be developed to the safest degree possible and special care must be taken during the training of neck and back flexibility. You must develop both the strongest and most flexible neck and back to maximize safety possible.

Practice the Falls First

Falling on gymnastic and tumbling skills should not happen for the first time by accident. Safety training, training for safe falls and controlled safety fall progressions and practice particular for each skill should happen before a gymnast ever falls by accident.

A complete safety program should be instituted at the very beginning of gymnastic and tumbling training to teach all of the general safety concepts, skills and safety falls. For each progression and skill learned after that, any and all uniquely individual safety concepts, skills and safety falls should be taught before the skill is attempted.

Safety falls should always be practiced in a safe progression, just like every other gymnastics and tumbling skill. Safety skills should proceed in order of safety and from the very safest and lowest heights and on the safest and softest of mats, pits and equipment and progress to the safe learning of falls for individual skills at the heights and on the equipment they will be performed and on which they will competed.

Another one of the ways safe falls can be learned is for coaches to spot gymnasts through falls during training and not only make sure they are safe but that they learn to fall safely as well.

It is never safe or smart to practice falls on hard or competition surfaces. Any extra safety fall practice is by far outweighed by the chance of injury on the harder surface. All safety fall practice should occur on soft mats or mats in pits to avoid needless risk of injury.

Injuries Waste More Time Than Safety Training Takes

Training time and competitions missed because of injury are far bigger wasters of time than the amount of time it takes to make gymnasts and tumblers as safe as possible. Injury not only causes damage to the athlete, but interferes with safe and orderly skill progression and competition success. There are no acceptable safety shortcuts. Everything possible should be done to avoid injury.

Safety training and practice are insurance against the waste of human time, potential and competition success that injury creates. There is never any acceptable reason to push for more rapid progress than is safe. Practically speaking, it is not only immoral but stupid to risk injury during training since injury will always delay progress and success more than any amount of time safety training or practices could even begin to take.

All Competitions are Artificial Deadlines that Cannot Compromise Safety

All competitions are artificial deadlines that should be ignored in the pursuit of lower level competition success and can and should not compromise long-term safe training. And let’s be serious, the only gymnastics meets that are not really lower level meets are Nationals, World Championships and the Olympics. And except for the Olympics, even those meets and certainly for every other meet you are thinking about, there will be another equivalent meet along in a year or less. None of those meets is worth risking life and limb for by pushing faster than safe progression dictates. Safety first and upcoming meets is not a deadline or an excuse that should alter safety practices in any manner, shape or form.

Prerequisites

There are certain things that a gymnast must or may need to be able to do before they can do other things. These are called prerequisites. Certain aptitudes, knowledge, abilities or experiences they must have before they are safe and ready to proceed to a new skill level, tumbling pass or routine.

We have already talked about a few of those already including strength and flexibility. There are also sometimes skills that you need to be able to do before you are ready and safe to do other skills. For example, you should already be able to safely and competently rotate and land front somersaults before you attempt to land Arabian front somersaults. Already knowing how to rotate and land front somersaults allows you to focus and concentrate on adapting to putting in a ½ turn before the front somersault.

There are also prerequisite mental attitudes, beliefs and experiences that may be necessary to safely do some skills. You must be mentally prepared to learn new skills, do new skills in combinations and routines and to do skills under pressure in large competitions. To be safe, coaches should provide just as safe a psychological progression as they do a physical skill progression for their gymnasts. So when a gymnast goes to try a new skill or goes to their biggest most important competition, that everything has been done psychologically and mentally to prepare as well as physically and skill-wise.

Careful Progression

There are a number of different methods for physical skill, combination, routine and competition progression. The normal and commonly accepted talk about training progressions usually refers just to skill progression from the simplest of skills to increasingly difficult skills. This is certainly a key to gymnast safety. Skills should be taught and learned in order of difficulty (although the actual proper progression may vary from individual gymnast to gymnast depending on their relative talents and abilities in certain areas, for example, some gymnasts are better front tumblers than back tumblers and so they might safely learn twisting fronts before attempting twisting back somersaults).

Timers are also a part of careful gymnastics progression. Timers are some part of a skill that is done with the intent of getting used to doing some part of a more difficult skill or warming up a more difficult skill before attempting to do the whole difficult skill. For example, even at meets and certainly in practices, gymnasts do a ½-On as a timer for Tzukahara vaults. Learning, mastering and warming up with timers is an important part of safe gymnastics skill progression.

There can be debate about the relative merits of when to use spotting and when not to and whether it is a crutch, but spotting definitely has its most important role in ensuring gymnast safety. There are on some events and on some skills, gaps in normal progressions that are larger than on other events and skills. On one of those events where sometimes there is sometimes a big gap from the timer to the actual skill, spotting may be the only safe progression. Spotting can also be a safety back-up when a gymnast has already done a skill a number of times, but there may still be uncertainty if there consistency is 100%. Spotting or “standing there” can be a definite safety factor in ensuring the safety of gymnasts until their safety consistency is firmly established.

There are also equipment progressions that are not as commonly talked about or always used carefully. For almost every skill on every event, there are equipment and matting option progressions that can and should be done in the orderly process of safely learning gymnastics skills. For example, beam skills may be learned and practiced on a line on floor, a foam floor beam, a low beam, a medium beam and then finally a high beam. The transition of tumbling skills from being done in a pit, on trampoline, on a tumble tramp, on a rod floor and then and only then on a competition FX mat is another example of equipment progression. Adding in the use of 8 inch soft mats to each of those pieces of equipment allows even more safe steps of equipment progression to be added into the learning process increasing the level of safety.

There is also experience progression where by increasing the number of meets and competitions a gymnast attends makes them increasingly safer (and better) competitor. A wise coach will plan their season so gymnasts move from lower pressure smaller in-gym and local meets to larger, more important, higher pressure Invitational meets. This also usually increases a gymnasts early season success levels and gives them greater confidence and success later in the season.

Warning: It is Dangerous Not to TRAIN FOR SAFETY

It is important that in any gymnastics or tumbling activity, especially any activity involving height or motion, to BE SAFE and avoid anything that could possibly result in severe, serious or catastrophic injury.

All coaches should be Safety Certified, but safety certification is only the first step.

Both coaches and gymnasts should be educated and aware of the potential danger points of any skill they are performing and the gymnast should be physically and mentally prepared to avoid any and all of those dangers.

Every reasonable and possible safety precaution should be taken, especially when the participant is an underage child.

Safety training is always FREE at Gymnastics Zone for coaches, gymnasts and tumblers.

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