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Pitfalls of Habitual Taping and the Battlefield Care Approach to the Treatment of Gymnastics Injuries

While taping is seen in many sports it seems to be an epidemic in gymnastics. It is ingrained from generation to generation, seen as slightly cool and an easy “fix” for coaches. I’m not a big fan. If an athlete needs a tape job to get through an important competition then it is fine but not the solution. Here are some of my issues with taping:

1. An athletic tape job is meant to support and stabilize a joint or muscle. Most of the time mobile joints like the ankle or wrist are taped. When something like an ankle is taped all of the sudden it becomes a stable joint. We know from the Joint-by-Joint Approach that both the ankle and the wrist are inherently mobile joints. If the athlete lacks mobility in those places because of the tape, he or she is going to look elsewhere like the knee to replace the mobility. If taped on a consistent basis the athlete is going to start swapping out stable joint for mobile joints. That ankle might feel better all taped up but issues are going to arise elsewhere.

2. Instead of just taping the injury the source of the movement dysfunction needs to be found. Why did the injury happen in the first place? If an athlete is chronically spraining their ankle then the reason why it is happening needs to be found. Look at the injured area and beyond. Many times the location of the injury is not where the movement dysfunction is coming from. Furthermore, taping of the ankle or the wrist might protect the painful site, but the injury could transfer to other areas of the body if we create synthetic stability in an area that isn’t designed to be locked up.

Here’s Coach Mike Boyle’s take: “The zeal of athletic trainers to stabilize the ankle with shoes, tape and braces has led to many athletes playing with ankle joints that function as if they were fused. The reality is that in the sport of basketball (a leading sport for anterior knee pain), serious ankle sprains are less frequent, and patella-femoral pain has reached near epidemic levels. The desire to over stabilize the ankle joint has led to a phenomenon we now call the “high ankle sprain” and to an epidemic of patella tendon issues. The high ankle sprain was virtually unknown 20 years ago and may also be a by-product of over stabilizing the ankle. Interestingly enough, soccer has few ankle or patella-femoral problems, and yet soccer players use a low cut, lightweight shoe on grass. Training with less artificial stability at the ankle joint probably protects the ankle and the knee.”

3. Taping seems to be used as a substitute for quality rehab. Instead of taking a couple Advil, taping up the injury, cutting the tape off after practice then sticking it in the ice tub for months on end spend some time improving the athlete’s functional movement. Make it your goal as an athlete or coach to get that tape off as fast as possible. If it is not a critical point in the season consider NOT taping the injury in the first place and take the time to ingrain sound movement patterns in your athletes to reduce the risk of future injury. Pain is a signal from the body. It behooves us to listen when that signal presents itself and not simply throw a wad of tape over the problem.

Ultimately, the custom of using tape as an incomplete substitute for quality medical care, rehabilitation, and motor learning is emblematic of a larger issue within the sport. Coaches, athletes, and parents (yes...parents!) have adopted a "battlefield medicine" approach to the treatment of injuries because they all have this constant fear that missing any reps in practice will jeopardize what they think to be "their spot" on the Olympic roster. While volume of reps is important, a longer term approach demands proper care of injuries going beyond the haphazard application of tape to drown out the "noise" that is coming from the painful site. At the very least, clubs should form a network of medical professionals (MD's, PTs, DCs, and ATCs) who have the skills to properly apply tape if it is needed.

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