Olympic Gymnast Injuries: Does Working Through Pain Send Wrong Message to Kids?

PHOTO: A young gymnast works the balance beam at Excel Gymnastics in Saugerties, New York.Courtesy Rhonda Dixon
A young gymnast works the balance beam at Excel Gymnastics in Saugerties, New York.

Yesterday two members of the Olympic gold medal winning gymnastics team took major falls off the uneven bars onto a cement floor during a 40-city exhibition tour.

One of them, team captain Ali Raisman popped right back up and kept going. The other, vaulting sensation McKayla Maroney, was sent to the hospital and may have fractured a bone in her lower leg. This was on top of the broken toe she nursed all through Olympic competition.

These are just the latest injuries to the troup of elite athletes featured on the tour. Fellow Gold medalist, Jorydn Wieber is suspected of having a stress frature in her foot. And former Olympic champions Alicia Sacromone and Shawn Johnson have struggled with numerous physical ailments over the past year.

For gymnasts at the elite level, performing with pain is part of the package. Many of them continue to train and compete while suffering broken bones, torn muscles and other severe injuries. Experts wonder what message this continue-at-all-costs mentality sends to young gymnasts.

There's been a tremendous surge in gymnastics participation since the Fierce Five leapt, flipped and tumbled their way to Olympic gold this past summer. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, participation in the sport is up 18 percent since 2009. But dreams of becoming the next Gabby Douglas aside, parents do need to be aware of the risks involved in the a sport that demands 10-15 hours of practice a week all year round before children -- 70 percent of them girls -- reach the age of ten.

"It's an amazing sport but it's also a demanding one," said Tina Ferriola, the owner of NYC Elite, two large gymnastics training centers in Manhattan. . Just like any other competitive sport, it can be injury-prone."

Risk of Injury

Of the three million children between the ages of 6-17 who do gymnastics, more than 25,000 of them are treated for gymnastics-related injuries in U.S. emergency rooms each year, according to recent report by the Center for Injury Research and Policy in Columbus, Ohio. That's on par with the injury rates from contact sports like lacrosse and hockey.

Aches and pains of the shoulders, wrists and other upper body extremities dominate the list of gymnastic-related injuries. Ankle, knee and spine injuries are also common. Some are the inevitable trauma of overuse. Others are the result of an unfortunate misstep or short landing.

About 40 percent of injuries take place at the gym and another 40 percent during school recreation programs. But for budding athletes between the ages of 6 and 11, sending them to the gym is likely to prevent harm -- a much higher percentage of accidents for kids in this age group take place at home where they're jumping off coffee tables and bouncing on couches without the benefit of a mat or supervision.

"When gymnastics is done properly, it looks daring but the athletes have actually been taught the basics of how to move their bodies safely," said Randy Nebel, who has coached all levels of gymnasts nationally for the past decade. "A program where there's proper spotting and coaching undoubtedly saves a lot of kids from getting hurt."

Jim Thornton, president of the National Athletic Trainers Association agreed, adding that it's important for coaches to spend ample time on balance and flexibility training as well as overall conditioning. "They might be sore after a workout and that's OK but they should never workout with pain that doesn't resolve within a few days," he said.

He also warned parents to watch out for coaches who drive kids too hard. "If a coach is telling your child to ignore the pain and keep going, that's a red flag," he said.

Pushy Parents

But sometimes it's the parents' aspirations that put their child at risk. Convinced they're raising the next gymnastics sensation, they goad their young athlete to push too hard or beyond their abilities.

Rhonda Dixon, owner of Excel Gymnastics in Saugerties, N.Y., recalled one parent who wanted her daughter to move up the competitive ranks even though her coaches didn't feel she was ready. "She had a terrible season. She was scared of the skills and cried a lot during practices. Meanwhile her mom was on the sidelines asking her why she couldn't do what the other girls were doing."

Thankfully such parents are few and far between. When they do get out of hand, Dixon said it's the coach's job to gently remind them that safety comes first, especially when it's a younger kid who is eager to please and can't speak up for herself. Occasionally she'll take a parent aside and ask them to back off.

As for the message elite athletes send to up and comers that training through injuries is not only OK -- it's expected -- Olympic Champion Nastia Lukin says they may not see the whole picture. According to Lukin, top gymnasts will take a break if the injury is severe enough and they risk long term damage.

"I've dealt with aches and pains and you certainly put them out of your mind during competition if they're not severe but it's so important to communicate to your coaches, your parents and your medical staff," she said. "If it's spotted early it can be taken care of. If it's really bad, you don't want to make it worse."