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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Fixing What's Broken: Elite Development and USA Gymnastics

I was thinking yesterday morning the USA has looked great during podium training in Tokyo; almost TOO great. Unfortunately my gut instinct was correct. First Anna Li went down with a lower abdominal injury, then Allie Raisman with an ankle then Alicia Sacramone with a potentially torn Achilles.   Fortunately, Allie appears to have escaped serious injury and should make the final lineup.  With these injuries, ASac and Anna join a growing list of US elites on the injury sideline for the most important competition since the 2008 Games. 

Rebecca Bross – dislocated knee

Chellsie Memmel – torn bicep tendon

Mackenzie Caquatto – double ankle sprain

Anna Li – abdominal strain

Alicia Sacramone – ankle injury (specific diagnosis not known as of this writing)

Everyone is quick to blame this carnage on The Code and Martha Karolyi.   While these may be contributing factors, a few other ideas come to my mind…

First, it looked like Team USA was peaking earlier this week and you want to peak in competition not in podium training.  I saw routines that would win a gold medal in competition.   Problem is each athlete has only so many gold medal efforts in them.   I’ve seen it time and time again in different sports. The decline of the peak can be a harsh fall down.   It’s the reason why I’d rather leave a little in the gas tank for my athletes as hitting an absolute physical and mental peak on competition day is a delicate mix of art and science.   USA Gymnastics needs to take a few lessons from non-skill based sports and refine its season planning.

Second, did we not take enough hard landings going into worlds?  Yes, I really did just say that.   Landing skill is just that…a skill.  Like any skill, it requires practice for be maintained and improved.  Pit landings do not encourage good landing skills and can promote sloppiness, even at the higher levels.  True, practicing landings is a delicate balance between “too much” and “not enough”, but it speaks volumes that injuries have gotten no better, and have perhaps gotten worse, despite decades of technology to improve training surfaces.   There are no pits at world championships and every single landing is onto a hard surface.   We need to train and prepare our athlete to deal with this fact of life.  If landings are deemed to physically risky in practice, perhaps it is a sign for coaches to revisit their manner of conditioning their athletes, which leads me to…

Third, gymnastics strength and conditioning is from the stone ages.  While the skill level has greatly changed over the last 20 years, strength and conditioning has not.   I see the same exercises placed on the white board today at the end of practice that I saw as a gymnast 25 years ago.   Everyone closely scrutinizes every single little hand position in the L-6 floor routine, but the same people tolerate slop when it comes to conditioning exercises.  The sport needs to look outside itself and embrace best practices in the fields of conditioning and rehabilitation in the same manner that other sports and federations have already done.    

With national team coordinator Martha Karolyi retiring after the 2008-2012 quad it’s a realistic time to make some major changes in all of these areas to keep our gymnasts healthy and move the sport forward.

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