True Gymnastics Safety, Not Just Liability Risk Management

Our Gym Safety Philosophy – Gymnasts Are More Important Than Lawyers

Our view on gymnastics safety differs significantly from that of USA Gymnastics and most gymnastics federations, lawyers and insurance companies. We are primarily focused on doing everything possible to keep gymnasts safe, not just on liability risk management. While those may seem like the same thing, they are very definitely not.

Safety vs. Liability Insurance

For example, the YMCA bans trampolines in their gymnastics programs and in their facilities because of the legal liability and additional insurance costs. Trampolines, however, are one of the best and most efficient training tools for teaching gymnasts air awareness (knowing where they are when they are upside down and twisting and flipping). Removing trampolines does not improve gymnastics safety for gymnasts, especially gymnasts doing somersaulting and twisting skills. Gymnasts should do more trampoline work, not be restricted from using them.

Follow the Rules of the Sport

Gymnastics already exists as a sport with rules determined by an international gymnastics federation, not insurance companies. Our philosophy is to enable gymnasts to prepare and train for gymnastics, up to and including the highest levels of international competition, in the safest possible manner.

The Safest, Easiest and Most Beautiful Way

It is our belief that doing gymnastics skills correctly is the easiest, safest and most beautiful way to do them. When you do gymnastics skills in the technically correct manner, you are also doing them in the safest possible way. The skills are the easiest to do when they are technically correct. And technically correct skills look the best, especially when you add your own personal style and flair to perfect execution. For this reason, we are dedicated to teaching gymnasts the best and safest ways to learn and do gymnastics skills.

Free Safety Training from GymnasticsZone.com

Finally, it is our philosophy that safety for gymnasts is of such paramount importance that we will never charge for safety training. We would not like to think that a coach or instructor did not take a safety course or read our safety information, because they couldn’t afford it, and for that reason missed learning safety information that could save a gymnast from serious injury.

Gym Safety Goals

As in any endeavor, having specific written goals, gives the best chance of achieving them. We have only one goal – Zero Tolerance for Injuries. We do not accept that injuries are a part of the sport, even at the highest levels of the sport. In my own coaching career, the most severe injury that occurred was in the first week I coached – a broken leg. After that, in over 27 years of coaching, I have never had any other serious or career-ending injuries (more than small cuts, bruises or a sprained ankle) with anyone I was coaching or in any gym I owned.

Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance for injuries means that the occurrence of any even a very small accident or the recognition of any even slightly dangerous situation means a complete reevaluation of safety and safety procedures and training and re-training of all coaches and instructors for any new safety procedures or safety modifications that result.

Ban Dangerous Skills

An important part of our gymnastics safety philosophy is that we do not teach any gymnasts skills that we believe are inherently dangerous. For example, we do not teach any gymnast any skills that are designed to rotate toward their head, like 1&1/2 twisting or 1&3/4 dive rolls and certainly no combination of those two, even to men. I have personally seen two accidents on diving skills at competitions that resulted in serious neck injuries to adult male competitors. If it is possible for strong adult male competitors to be injured, then I certainly would never entertain the thought of teaching such skills to women, young girls or young boys.

Danger vs. Scoring Trade-Off

If you have been watching men’s floor lately, you will see that our philosophy in this regard is completely counter to the common practice of doing “dive” skills to avoid having to stick all your passes. Our philosophy is that there are plenty of other skills to choose to meet difficulty requirements that there is no need to do a skill where a single lapse can result in a permanent neck injury.

Gymnastics Professionals?

The current USA Gymnastics requirements for “gymnastics professionals” are minimal at best. Any gym parent can take the safety test online with an open book or coaching from others and pass the safety requirement, pay their money and be certified as a “gymnastics professional.”

Coaches and instructors, therefore, must on their own, get their own training to become a real gymnastics professional. They should set as their primary learning goal to learn how to safely teach gymnastics to gymnasts. That will put them far down the path to being a successful gymnastics instructor and winning gymnastics coach.

Gym Owners Safety Considerations

It is of some concern when gym owners are not real gymnastics professionals. For example, when gym parents with zero coaching experience buy or start a gym or a businessman with no gymnastics experience at all buys a gym thinking it to be a good investment. Neither of these groups of people are likely to have any real understanding of the true safety ramifications of some of their business decisions. Gym owners in these categories should actively seek the advice of their own gymnastics professionals to help them with any business decision that may affect safety (read that – any business decision).

Pay Now or Pay Later

There is a TV commercial where they say “Pay Now or Pay Later” and gym owners should keep this in mind. You can either pay the amount of money it takes to provide a safe program or you can risk paying an enormous amount later, in a lawsuit, if you have a serious accident in your gym and you did not take every step possible to prevent it.

Create Gymnastics Professionals

Among other things, gym owners must hire or create their own gymnastics professionals. There is a tremendous shortage of qualified experienced coaches in the United States. If a suitable staff of gymnastics professionals is not readily available for hire, gym owners must invest in training to produce their own from in-house. One of the reasons that loose foam pits (preferably bungee tramp loose foam its) are an essential piece of equipment in every gym is that not all coaches are capable of spotting every skill and loose foam pits provide a safer place for gymnasts to learn skills without being spotted.

Budgeting for Safety

Any gym owner that does not have a line item in their annual budget for safety training, safety equipment, a safety program and implementation of that program is risking their gymnast’s safety and their own liability status.

Equipment and Mat Purchases

Gym owners have a responsibility to purchase safe equipment and in particular, to buy and provide safe matting for all equipment. In addition, there are certain pieces of training equipment, like foam vault tables, that are safer for the early learning stages of skills like Yurchenko vaults. Gym owners should keep that in mind when they are planning facilities and buying equipment.

Equipment Safety

Even sturdy gymnastics equipment needs to be checked and maintained on a regular basis. A system of reminding staff or coaches to do that, and to document it for potential liability purposes, needs to be in place.

Equipment Matting

Simply put – Mat, Mats, Mats. There is no such thing as having too many mats. My personal criteria is that I want mats placed anywhere and everywhere a gymnast might even possibly fall.

Pits

We are firm believers that no gym is as safe as it could and should be if there is not a gymnastics safety pit of some kind in the gym. I would not consider working in a gym without a pit and would not recommend any gym without a pit to parents or gymnasts. Pits are an important part of equipment learning progressions and equipment progression is an important part of safe gymnastics training. Further when it comes to gym and pit design, the standard pit edge matting is in my opinion, deficient. Whenever I design gyms and gym equipment layouts, I design in a much safer matting option.

Emergency Systems and Plans

One of the largest failures of gym owners, management and coaching is the lack of a specific emergency system and plan. Especially in the event of a catastrophic injury, it is essential that all gym staff members know exactly what to do and that there be an effective emergency system in effect and in physical reality. If an accident occurs in a back area or area not visible to the front desk, there must be a system to either notify the front desk to call 911 or phones in the gym, either wall phones or cell phones. Be aware that many 911 systems will be able to respond faster if you call from a wall phone instead of a cell phone as they can automatically determine the location you are calling from.

Built-In Emergency System

It would not be out of line for a gym truly dedicated to safety to have an emergency system with alarms everywhere in the gym, so if there was a catastrophic accident, would alert all staff immediately to initiate the emergency plan. Even without such a dedicated emergency system, there must be an emergency plan and training for all staff in how to quickly implement that plan.

Hiring Practices

Gym owners need to exercise due diligence in hiring coaches. I’m not saying that gymnastics coaches would ever lie about their experience levels and their ability to coach National Champions and Elite gymnasts – ok, if all the coaches who said they coached National Champions and Elites really did those gymnasts must all have had at least a dozen coaches. One coach I know told gymnasts, parents and a gym owner that he taught a famous Olympic gold medalist and World Champion. His actual resume showed that he had been the office manager in that gym.

Training

No matter how great a coach is and especially if a coach is not yet great, there is a need for constant training of coaches. If nothing else, there are new skills being developed every year that coaches need to keep up on. There are, sometimes monthly, rules changes from the various gymnastics committees. There are new pieces of training equipment developed and marketed (although not as many or as fast as we would like) that coaches need to be aware of. There are areas of training outside of gymnastics, like first aid training, in which coaches should be keeping current. Training is essential to keeping up with the sport and improving safety.

Program Areas

Most gyms, driven by economic necessity are designed to minimize building costs. While this is completely understandable, it is not necessarily the safest way to design a gym. For example, it takes more space and duplicated equipment to provide separate areas for different programs in the gym, but it is safer to do so. Especially in the case of pre-school programs, a separate area for pre-school gymnasts, is a safety bonus.

Gym Design

There are areas of gym design in which traditional gym designers and gym designs are deficient. For example, I have rarely seen a gym that has clear paths to emergency exits or for pre-schoolers to navigate through areas with higher level and much bigger gymnasts. Of course, if the gym were designed with a separate preschool are and separate areas for all programs, that would mitigate that problem.

Parents and Gymnasts

Parents of gymnasts and gymnasts need to contribute to their own safety and the safety of other gymnasts around them. Since it is not required by most gyms, parents should make sure their gymnast is medically fit for gymnastics by having a Medical Exam performed by a physician prior to enrolling or participating in gymnastics. If a gymnast is ill, especially with a potentially contagious illness, they should be kept at home. Just like in schools, no one is happy to see the Perfect Attendance winner show up coughing and spreading their germs all over.

Fitness Level

Gymnastics is not an aerobic sport, either in competition or in most practices. With childhood obesity so prevalent, gyms and parents should understand that a regular gymnastics class may not be the best place to start their child’s gymnastics career. If a child is obese and wants to do gymnastics, they should participate in a sport, program or class that will help them attain a safe fitness level before they start rolling over their head and neck.

Written Program

Written program and written lesson plans for every level and program should be in place and all coaches should be trained and familiar with the proper teaching, skill and equipment progressions for each skill and event. While it is possible that high level coaches with few gymnasts and considerable experience will have little need for written lesson plans, they are still good to have as liability protection in the event of a lawsuit. The tracking of written programs not only can speed the teaching and learning process, it can also be a useful marketing tool.

Safety Education

Safety education should be a part of every gymnastics curriculum, just like vault, bars and beam are. Safety education should be targeted at the understanding level of each gymnast in each program. Safety education should include things like safety fall training and teaching the safe ways to land in a pit.

Legal Liability Concerns

Gym owners, gym management and gymnastics coaches and instructors need to have an understanding of the legal and liability ramifications of all of their policies and actions in the gym.

Failure to Warn

One of the primary historical basis of suits in the sport of gymnastics is for the failure to warn gymnasts and parents of possibilities of injury, paralysis and possible death due to participation in the sport of gymnastics. Failing to let gymnasts and parents know those things are possible has now become established legal precedent in the United States. Obviously, this brings up some marketing problems, but there are also potential negative subconscious psychological effects from doing this.

Gymnastics Education and Training

A better approach is a comprehensive safety education and training program that teaches gymnasts how to be safe and does not put images of catastrophic injury into their subconscious for them to act out sometime in the future. Unfortunately, what is best for gymnasts and legal liability may not always correspond.

Coaches/Instructors Duties and Responsibilities

All staff members, especially coaches and instructors should have clear guidelines and understanding of their duties and responsibilities, particularly in regard to their safety responsibilities and liability issues.

Risk and Inherent Risk

There is a legal difference between risk and inherent risk and different states do or don’t recognize gymnastics as having inherent risk. It is probably wise to include language having parents acknowledge gymnastics as having inherent risk in your waivers whether your state recognizes the sport as having inherent risk or not.

Negligence

There are probably at least 150 to 200 areas of questioning that lawyers could and would address in any effort to show that a gym or its employees was negligent, many of which may not even apply to the situation for which they are suing. It makes sense to have a plan and documentation for the competent management of the gym in all areas. It will increase your own and the gym staff members awareness of the variety of factors in and importance of running a good program and provide some defense in a lawsuit.

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