In response to my last article, one reader raised some interesting questions. In essence, he asked if the sport of gymnastics poses certain dangers and detrimental aspects that other sports do not. For example, he asked does [gymnastics] put an inordinate amount of pressure to “fit” a certain body image? I’m thinking mostly of girls here, and the widespread image one sees in the elites and on the cover of gymnastics magazines of skinny…girls. I will attempt to answer his questions and a few others in a series of posts titled “Developmental or Detrimental? A Defense of Women’s Gymnastics”

Part I: Over-emphasis on Body Image

Because of the nature of gymnastics, it is essential for the athletes (men & women) to wear tight-fitting clothing. The athlete’s safety is put in danger when wearing loose clothing. A t-shirt can fall over the head of a gymnast while in mid-air, causing the athlete to lose spacial awareness and possibly injure themselves. Loose clothes (even shorts) have the potential to wrap themselves around the bar or bunch up when swinging and cause injury as well. This type of dress also represents a challenge for a coach who is spotting a gymnast. The coach’s hands can get caught in the loose garments and harm both athlete and coach.

Also, in order to appreciate the form, virtuosity of skill, and flexibility of the athletes, leotards (or something similar) are essential. One simply cannot see the grace and excellence of the sport in the same way if an athlete is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. For example, one could not appreciate the flexibility and beautiful body line of Chellsie Memmel’s signature scale on the Balance Beam (shown below) if she were wearing sweats.

However, because of this, a unique challenge presents itself. There is an emphasis on body image in women’s gymnastics that is not present in sports like softball or basketball. One cannot hope to hide any body fat when wearing a leotard. And in order to compete, or even practice, the athletes must allow others to see them in such attire. Added to this is the fact that gymnastics is easier if you are smaller. If you have an extra 40 pounds on your frame, tumbling and flipping will be more difficult due to the extra weight. Therefore, those who excel in this sport tend to be the smaller, more lean athletes. For these reasons some coaches encourage their athletes to lose weight and place too much emphasis on being the right body type for the sport. This was the case for Svetlana Khorkina from Russia, who was told to quit gymnastics when she was a little girl because her body was not the right type for gymnastics. They knew she would be taller than the average female gymnast and discouraged her from continuing. Svetlana did not listen and went on to become the most successful gymnast ever to come out of Russia with 3 All Around World Championship titles, 3 All Around European Titles, 2 Olympic Bars titles, to name a few.

Khorkina, however, is a rare case. Very few make it all the way to the top of elite sports. Only six women make an Olympic team every four years. It would thus be wise for parents to be aware of these factors when enrolling their daughter in a gymnastics program. Rather than encourage their children to strive for Olympic glory, perhaps laboring towards an NCAA (or NAIA) gymnastics scholarship would be a more worthy (and realistic) goal. Unlike elite gymnastics, the collegiate gymnastics scene features women with curves and larger figures. More emphasis is placed on team building, education, & life lessons than on body image. Not only is an athlete statistically more likely to make it to the collegiate level but the gymnasts get an education to boot.

So yes, there is more emphasis in gymnastics on the body but this need not be the final word. With proper parental attention, good coaching, and realistic goals, the sport of women’s gymnastics can be developmental without being detrimental.

Part II: Is gymnastics more dangerous than other sports?

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