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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gymnastics and the Size Factor

Having gymnastics in the international spotlight, being viewed by millions who haven't experienced the sport on a personal level, inevitably brings up certain age-old discussions. One of those issues is gymnast size.

I definitely noticed that this year's women's team is one of the tallest ever. Raisman, Ross, and Wieber are all listed at 5'2", Maroney stands 5'3", statuesque by gymnastics standards. Gabby Douglas at 4'11" is petite, but certainly not abnormally tiny. I recall when gymnasts Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Kerri Strug were at their peak in the early nineties, and all were something like 4'6" to 4'8". Now THAT's tiny.

My sister always joked that I was so short because each time I hit the vault it hammered me shorter. Gymnastics can't actually stunt your growth, but there's lots of speculation that it could indirectly contribute to athletes' short stature. One suggestion is that the gymnasts are exercising so much that puberty is delayed, and therefore growth spurts are delayed too. Dominique Moceanu has a fascinating new memoir, Off Balance, in which she states her belief that she finally had a growth spurt only when she escaped the restrictive diet imposed by Bela and Marta Karolyi. (One hopes that we are past the age of restrictive diets in child athletes, but with the Karolyis and other old-school coaches in the mix, who knows?)

At any rate, I find that most people now believe that you MUST be small to be a gymnast. Some parents ask if they should bother putting their tall child in gymnastics. Some athletes claim they used to be gymnasts but had to switch sports because they got too tall.

Here's the truth:

  • You don't have to be short to be a gymnast. 
  • Gymnastics doesn't stunt your growth. 
  • Tall gymnasts can be just as good as short gymnasts. 
  • Short stature doesn't necessarily give you a natural propensity for gymnastics.
There are definitely sports that attract the tallest athletes. Basketball. Volleyball. Longer legs certainly have an advantage when you're competing in hurdles. If I could swim as fast as Missy Franklin, she'd still beat me to the wall because she's a foot taller than I am (I think that makes mathematical sense, right?) 

There ARE a few reasons why most gymnasts tend to be short, but they're not as obvious as what draws tall people to tall-person-sports. 
  • Gymnasts have to be extremely strong, fast, and agile. So do lots of other athletes. But no matter how athletic you are, if you're a child who is a foot shorter and twenty pounds lighter than your peers, it's very difficult to keep up in team sports. Basketball and soccer are popular for kids, but are extremely intimidating when your opponents, and even your teammates, are so much bigger than you are. Therefore these little-bitty, naturally athletic kids search out individual sports where they don't have to directly encounter or compete against big people. 
  • Sports equipment doesn't offer advantages to small people. I remember playing softball. I could barely grip that giant ball with my stumpy little fingers, so it was really hard to throw. But guess what. They won't let you throw a nice tiny baseball instead. Meanwhile, a 4" wide balance beam is not terribly intimidating when you can stand on it with your feet side-by-side.
  • The tiniest kids are often used as the example. So if a coach wants to demonstrate the proper body position for a skill--say, a cast handstand--they're often going to grab the littlest kid and stick them on the bar and physically manipulate them, like a rag doll with wire limbs, into the correct position for the other gymnasts to see..."See where her shoulders are? See her hollow body position?" Now she has a better feel for the proper position and an extra turn at trying it.
  • Of course every gymnast is going to be spotted, and that's an important aspect of gymnastics training. But as mentioned above, when you're smaller, it's definitely easier for the coach. So the smaller kids often just have a better feeling for where they're supposed to be in the air and what position their body is supposed to be in. Which is not to say coaches can't spot big kids--but when you spot a tiny kid on a back tuck, you can shove them high into the air, relative to their height. When you spot a big kid on a back tuck, you're lifting more weight and they are not going to go as high, relative to their height. You spot a tiny kid on a back handspring, you can literally hold their legs together with one hand. A teenager learning a backhandspring, sometimes you just have to shove and hope you don't get kicked in the head. (Worth noting: now we use lots of tools such as spotting belts, bungee belts, and trampolines to help spot. It's a great equalizer, and a reason why tall people can be good gymnasts too.)
  • Once gymnasts get to a high level, being taller can be a disadvantage when you're trying to fit a complex tumbling pass across the diagonal of the 40' x 40' floor without going out of bounds. So taller folks sometimes have to get a bit more creative when working within the confines of standard-size equipment. 
  • And then of course it may be true that tiny kids are just naturally quick and strong and flexible because it's easier to be in control of a tiny body--unencumbered by the gangly awkwardness of arms and legs held hostage by the cruel growth spurts of childhood. That's how we see you abnormally tall folks, anyway. 

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