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The Power of Play: Tumbling as a Youth Gymnast into an HSS Physician

Female Gymnast on Balance Beam

The shift from learning the game to win-at-all costs in youth sports has resulted in kids dropping out at an alarming rate. In support of Project Play, an Aspen Institute initiative supported by leading organizations helping to get and keep kids playing sports, we asked a few of our physicians to share their experiences as youth athletes and how they have impacted their abilities as physicians.

In our first installment, learn more from HSS physiatrist Dr. Ellen Casey, who was a competitive gymnast:

When did you start competing in gymnastics?

I started when I was 9-years-old, which is quite late for a gymnast!

What interested you the most about gymnastics?

I wanted to fly! It looked really fun and once I saw it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Why did you continue competing?

During my first two years of gymnastics, I also continued dance, play basketball and swim. After that, I told my parents that I only wanted to do gymnastics so that I could train for longer hours and focus on learning more skills.

What impact did gymnastics have on your life?

Gymnastics had a profound impact on my life. At an early age, I found a passion, and was blessed to have the opportunity to pursue it and compete all over the U.S. and internationally. I was fortunate to continue my love for gymnastics with a full scholarship to college, and unlike most gymnasts, I continued learning and improving my difficulty each year until I graduated. Through gymnastics, I met many of my best friends and found a second passion in sports medicine. Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without having had the experience of being a gymnast.

Where did pressure come from and how were you able to overcome it?

Pressure came from me and the expectations I had of myself. I had to learn how to set small goals with longer term goals in mind. I used meditation, imagery, lots of repetitions and working with sports psychologists to enhance my ability to deal with pressure, but I’m not sure I ever fully overcame it.

What lessons learned when competing did you apply as a physiatrist?

The first time I thought I would become a sports medicine physician was after I had a frustrating patient visit with a doctor for a stress fracture in my leg. I didn’t feel like he understood my sport or how important it was to me. In retrospect, I know that my disappointment and frustration at being injured likely made me a challenging patient to work with, but my memory of this enables me to have more empathy for young athletes dealing with injuries than I might otherwise. I try to understand my patients’ sports and what fuels their passions as much as I can and hope that they feel like we are working as a team to get them back to whatever they love the most.

For young athletes, what is the importance of activity in your opinion?

Engagement in physical activity is critically important for everyone, especially kids. Beyond the health benefits, kids and adolescents involved in sports do better in school, have higher self-esteem and develop critical skills like resilience and teamwork which will serve them the rest of their lives!

What advice would you give to encourage kids to continue to play sports/stay active?

Find something you love to do and work hard at it. If you don’t love the sports/activities you are doing, try new ones!

Photo Credit: Joy Bauer

Dr. Ellen Casey, physiatrist

Dr. Ellen Casey is a physiatrist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. Her practices focus on the conservative treatment of acute sports medicine injuries and spine disorders. Dr. Casey also has expertise in the female athlete, including the female athlete triad, stress fractures and physical activity during and after pregnancy.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.