The next few weeks are an exciting time for a young gymnast. The Olympics are here and Team USA is strong and ready to showcase their skills. Moments like these inspire gymnasts towards more focus, increased energy and a new love for the sport.
Yet for gymnasts dealing with an injury, this is a frustrating time. Often they even “work through” their injuries for fear of doctors telling them that they have to stop completely. However, there is still a lot that you can work on while letting your body heal. Here are some tips that I teach to gymnasts:
- Practice your routines and skills mentally. If you can’t physically perform the skills, mental preparation is the next best thing. Stand on the edge of the beam, hang on the bars or sit on the pommel horse; close your eyes and visualize your routines as if you were actually performing them.
- Learn from team corrections. Watch your teammates perform their skills and listen to the corrections your coaches are making. Video tape the Olympic Games and watch the skills over and over, analyzing how the gymnasts move. The better you understand the technique and form, the better you will be able to perform them yourself.
- Perform your rehabilitation exercises. You have plenty of time in the gym to work on the home exercise program your therapist created. Follow all the repetitions and exercises that he/she is prescribing, and concentrate as if your therapist were right there giving you verbal cues and corrections.
- Work on your core strength. You should spend a full rotation at practice working on your core; not only will core strength help with your injury, but it will also make you a stronger gymnast with an improved handstand when you return.
- Improve your flexibility. Most gymnasts do not perform their splits and other stretches correctly. Now is the time to work on your flexibility. Concentrate on making yourself square when performing your front splits instead of going all the way down to the floor. Work on your opposite leg splits even more than your dominant leg so that you even out your flexibility.
- Maintain your gymnastics fitness. Ask your doctor if you can bike, swim or use the elliptical. If so, exercise with your floor routine music and perform moderate effort for the dance portion of your routine, then maximum effort for the tumbling passes portion. Stop when your floor music ends. Rest a few minutes and perform another bike/elliptical/swim routine to your music, repeating 4-5 times.
- Use the “level rule” when returning to practice. When you have been cleared by your MD and physical therapist to return to practice, start out at a level far below yours and maintain that for a week before moving up.
- Prevention is the key to future success. After you return to your sport, prevention is important in making sure the injury does not occur again. Maintain strength by continuing the rehabilitative exercises that your therapist gave you for at least 3 months.
Having an injury is not easy for any gymnast. Recovery requires patience and support from friends, family, and your healthcare team. The majority of gymnasts you see in the Olympics have battled an injury somewhere in their careers, and they still made it to where they are today. Therefore, you can do it too!
Marla Ranieri is a physical therapist at the Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. She is also a former National/International League gymnast and collegiate scholarship athlete at Stanford University. She currently assists the USA Medical Team staff for the USA Gymnastics Classics and Championships, and is a clinician for gymnast’s healthcare and injury prevention.