How to empower your child to overcome a gymnastic injury
As I am writing this, I can see my 6-year-old tumbling across the living room floor. From this, I realised that it is inevitable that a gymnast including my own is going to get injured at some point due to the nature of the sport. As a parent, this can be a very difficult time. The emotional pain that we feel seeing our children in pain is enormous and we would do anything to relieve their pain both physically and emotionally.
For a young gymnast, getting injured may feel like it is the end of the world for them. They spend most of their free time doing something that they love and with like-minded people who share the same passion. Then suddenly, they go from having no down-time to having a lot of time on their hands. Instead of being at the gym, they are stuck at home on the sofa with an injured back, ankle or wrist and can’t even tumble across the living room floor.
I have many parents asking me what things can they do for their child to help them through this difficult time. Below are some of the questions parents have asked me. I have tried to answer them as comprehensive as possible.
Should I allow visits from other gymnasts?
This is a common dilemma for a lot of parents, and many ask me if it is a good idea to have other gymnasts around speaking about what they are doing and what has been happening in competitions.
Many gymnasts spend most of their time with other gymnasts out of school and this becomes their network. I like to see it as the ‘gymnast bubble’ A fit gymnast lives, breathes and eats in this bubble and it’s their way of life. When they get injured, they are on the outside of the bubble looking in. This can be a scary place for a gymnast, so it is important to allow friends to pop over to let them know they are still part of that community. However, it is important to monitor how your child is feeling about the visits and conversations in case they were struggling with not being involved. Conversations should be uplifting, effortless and engaging, involve topics than gymnastics and of course lots of giggling and laughter.
When injured, it is important for your gymnast to have a strong support network. This includes you, gym friends, school friends and anyone else who come into contact with your child regularly.
Should we be setting goals?
Most gymnasts understand the importance of setting effective goals in order to get the most out of practice sessions and the season, but many gymnasts fail to set effective goals during their rehabilitation period. Effective goal setting can dramatically increase the recovery time when combined with an excellent rehabilitation plan. However, gymnasts fall into 2 categories when it comes to goal setting: task-oriented and ego-oriented. It is important that you understand which category your child falls into so that you can decide if the goals set are to be effective.
Task-oriented people naturally set goals that relate to their own level of performance. They will automatically break down their ultimate goal (Returning to the gym full-time) into smaller manageable goals. i.e. Setting a schedule to do the exercises given to them, planning how they are going to keep up their level of fitness and evaluating their successes on how their level of mobility and strength is improving week-on week. This will in turn increase their level of confidence and sense of achievement knowing that they have worked hard and kept with the rehabilitation plan.
Ego-oriented people are more likely to approach their recovery more competitively, they will compare how they are doing on how long it has taken other gymnasts to recover from similar injuries. For example: they may push themselves in treatment sessions especially if there are others in there who are also injured. Their motivation is to achieve their goal before the others. This is not a problem if they have someone around to ensure that they don’t do too much which could out them back for 2-3 weeks, but it is important that task-oriented goals are set to help the gymnast keep on track. Without these types of goals, the individual could start feeling demotivated if others are recovering quicker.
Do imagery techniques help?
Imagery is one of the most powerful tools that your child can use and can contribute to a speedy recovery in a variety of ways. There are several rehabilitation techniques that can help with the recovery plan and reduce the loss of skill acquisition.
A simple healing imagery programme can reduce the healing time and help maintain confidence during the recovery period. Gymnasts can visualise their recovery period right up to achieving their ultimate goal. A skilled professional can also incorporate guided imagery to help with pain management.
Skill imagery ideally needs to be introduced at the beginning of the rehabilitation period. Gymnasts can be encouraged to watch videos of other gymnasts completing the moves that they normally carry out in the gym and then carry out a mental imagery exercise to help retain the neural pathways for that move in the brain. The best way to explain what a neural pathway is, is by comparing it with the paths you see on a country walk during the summer. When you go across country fields, you will see a few paths. Some with be well trodden on, some will be evident, but you can see that they have not been walked on as much and there may be some that have become overgrown. Using the combination of watching the videos and the mental imagery, you can keep the pathways imprinted in their mind helping to maintain the skills learnt in the gym.
Does Mindfulness work?
Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can have a huge effect on the gymnast’s recovery and well-being. It can also help with concentration and focus for all people and is something that can be learnt and incorporated into someone’s daily life easily and effectively.
Mindfulness is allowing your mind to be fully in the present. You are aware of everything around you and provides you the opportunity to spend time away from the stresses that you may be going through. It can involve focusing your breathing and being aware of feelings and thoughts without passing judgment. Many like to carry out mindfulness formally by sitting with your eyes but it doesn’t have to be. Anything can be done mindfully e.g. eating, going out on a walk or washing the pots. Start with 5 minutes a day and increase the timing when you feel ready. This is something you can do together and then discuss what you noticed afterwards.
How do we deal with the negative thoughts?
Thought management is essential to keep your gymnast on track to a speedy recovery. Using mindfulness to calm your thoughts and then challenging those thoughts can keep them, and you become focused, positive and calm during this difficult time. These thoughts are a coping mechanism that come from the fight and flight phenomenon. When our mind predicts danger, we start making plans to fight, flight or freeze. These negative thoughts however are no longer needed in this current age, so we need to challenge them and change the story.
I see thoughts as being ‘hot’ (negative) and ‘cool’(positive). How many of us have started with one hot thought (I’ve forgotten my gymnast’s lunch box) and before we know it, we have thought about all the other times we forgotten things and we work ourselves up to be thinking we are the such a bad parent and feel rubbish. Maybe an exaggeration but I am sure you get what I am saying. By taking a minute to practice mindfulness to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, we can then cool down the ‘hot’ thoughts with a ‘cool’ thought i.e. "That’s fine, I can nip to the local shop and grab something, it may not be as healthy but its only for one day".
Teaching this technique to your child can help them manage their thoughts better. Start by doing it together as you may be able to help with the cool thoughts initially then gradually allow them to think of thoughts themselves to calm them down and see the situation in a positive perspective.
This technique takes time to master, so it needs lots of practice but you will see it gets easier.
When should we consider seeing a sport psychologist?
In most cases, a gymnast who is motivated to work with their coach and rehabilitation team and are seeing progress in their recovery will deal effectively without any external sport psychology support. However, if your child has feelings of stress or anxiety in returning to the gym or have a fear of getting injured again, has a significant reduction in confidence or the strategies being adopted by the club’s team don’t seem to be working or your little gymnast seems to be struggling mentally with the injury, it may be worth consulting a sport psychologist. What we can do is prepare your gymnast to be mentally prepared to return to the sport. If possible, this intervention should be sought before the gymnast is ready to return to full practice so that the techniques can complement the rehabilitation back into the gym.
Many gymnasts find that an injury helped them to become a better athlete, both physically and mentally. They learn how to dig deep to find the motivation to keep going when times get tough and find their inner strength, Injuries can also provide the opportunity to work on other aspects of their training/fitness that they may not have had the time to concentrate on before. For example, an ankle injury may prevent someone from working on the lower part of their body but there is a lot to be done regarding upper strength and your flexibility or their mental toughness.
This is Part 1 of 3 blogs on injuries in gymnastics. Part 2 for concentrate on ‘the anxiety of re-injury’ and concluding on ‘what to do if you have to retire through injury’. In the meantime, it you would like to find out more about how we can help you overcoming a sport-related injury, contact us by clicking the button below
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