Ask The Coach
Subject: Gymnastics/Tumbling 6 year old
Gymnastics Level: beginner
I just spoke with a YMCA coach and she told me that the girls actually USE their head when learning to do a (backwards somersault) they start on a ball on their back and bring their hands over their head to a mat then place their head on the mat then bring their feet over. I was concerned because my daughter pulled her neck when she was taught to do this and now the lady is telling me that putting weight on the top of the head is how it’s done? I would think that the hands should hold the most weight?
This is actually an excellent question. And you are correct that their hands should hold the most weight off their head and neck for safety. The danger and concern here is not rolling on the head, but on putting too much weight on the neck. Gymnastics coaches must always be hyper aware of any potential for injury, especially in relation to the neck and back.
Backward Roll Safety
Beginner gymnasts actually do often use their head (and neck) as the primary support structure when doing backward rolls. But they do it because they are either too weak, too inexperienced, not well enough prepared, not well enough coached or training out of safe progression. The ideal for doing backward rolls would be to hold the entire body weight off the head and neck with the hands. This ensures no possibility of any type of neck injury.
Coach for Total Safety, Not Risk Percentages
While the vast majority of average children are never injured when they do roll directly over their heads, it is not a particularly safe assumption to allow beginner and untrained children to roll their full body weight onto their head and neck without a coach spotting them to ensure their safety. Especially with so many children now suffering from overweight/obesity problems (which would place more weight on the neck) at younger and younger ages, back rolls are a potential situation just waiting for an neck accident to happen.
Poor Technique Decreases Backward Roll Safety
Many young and beginner gymnast only use one hand when they do backward rolls, which means both that they are not likely to be able to hold their weight off their neck with just one hand, but means they will possibly go crooked putting weight to the side of their neck instead of right over the top. This could be even more dangerous.
There are a number of solutions/progressions to overcome the safety problem. If the coach spots the gymnast, they are able to keep too much weight from being placed on the neck. Spotting until the gymnast can correctly use their hands to keep weight off their neck is the safest solution to the problem. most There are certain equipment set-ups involving things like pits and soft mat hills that can make doing backward rolls safer, but likely nothing is safer that a coach safely spotting the skill.
Either Spot or Use Safest Progresssion
Keeping a perspective, it is relatively unlikely that your child or even 2% of children will be injured doing backward rolls on a soft mat surface, but truly professional coaches would either wait to do backward rolls until the child’s neck and arms definitely strong enough and the have the proper technique of using their hands control their body weight off their neck or spot the skill until that time.
Zero Tolerance, No-Excuse Coaching
And while the head and neck will likely touch the mat when doing backward rolls, it would be incorrect to say that the preferred method to do this skill is to just roll over the head and neck without supporting the majority of the body weight on the hands. The coaches here are likely either just rationalizing their behavior, are ignoring the potential for injury (even if the likelihood is not large) or do not know the proper method of doing the skill.