After tackling a few joint and anatomy based topics, I wanted to reach for something a little more functional this week. In Physical Therapy (and in life) functional activities are really where the gold is. All the exercises, stretches, myofascial techniques, and joint stability in the world have little effect if you can’t apply them to functional activities. Each person has a unique set of functional movements that they need to perform to go about their every day life. For a mother it may be a squat to pick up her child, for a construction worker it may be lifting something overhead on the job site, for many gymnastics coaches it is spotting .
In this post, I want to talk about a few functional positions/movements that gymnastics coaches are constantly using while spotting, and outline some tips how be as safe as possible. The three I will discuss and outline are squatting, kneeling, and varying heights. Here’s a little more on each,
- Squatting: Coaches must constantly move in and out of a squat position. If a coach is not using proper squat form when spotting, it can possibly lead to variety of lower back, hip, and knee injuries. By practicing proper squat form a coach can disperse the workload through the strong muscles of the legs equally and reduce one area from being overworked.
- Kneeling: Many coaches that teach recreational classes, lower level competitive athletes, and even higher level athletes spot in a kneeling position. Due to having to kneel so much, many coaches develop knee or ankle problems. I will show a position I’m sure everyone has done, explain why it may lead to injury, and explain ideas to think about while kneeling.
- Varying Heights In Standing: Due to the nature of the sport, coaches are constantly at higher and lower levels when spotting. The height is based on the skill, athlete safety, gymnast’s progression/ability, and event. Choosing the right height for spotting is essential for your safety as a coach. For floor it is relatively constant. However spotting beam, vault, and especially bars is where it is so important. I will discuss how the wrong height can possibly predispose you for an injury should something go wrong during the skill.
Proper squatting form is very important to reduce the amount of stress on one area, and in most people the lower back gets the workload. Think about if you do these techniques when you spot, or if you see another coach in your gym who may have these problems. I found this graphic online that had a funny way of outlining the mechanics of squatting,
- Make sure you are close enough to the athlete to not reach out. This increases distance, lengthens muscles, and increases the workload as I touched upon two weeks ago in another post.
- Make sure you are using a full body motion to spot. Rather than just use your arms, try to let your (stronger) lower body and legs do the work.
- Always engage the core and think about “bracing” your abs through a squat when spotting. An easy way to check what it feels like is to place your hand on your stomach then cough. When the abdominal muscles tighten for a cough it increases transverse abdomens (deep stomach muscle). Try to engage like this whenever you squat to help protect your lower back.
- Make sure to assume an “athletic stance” when spotting that has the feet hip distance apart, lower spine neutral, knees slightly bent, and shoulders pulled back
- When lowering into squat: Avoid letting your knees go past your toes while keep your knees facing forward/slightly out, Think about sticking your butt out a bit as if you were sitting in a chair
- When raising from a squat: Use the entire leg chain of muscles to dominate the movement, this will help to reduce the workload of your arms and back. Press your body weight through your heels using your glutes, and avoid extending the lower back drastically
Here are some examples to apply the notes above. I included frame by frames of spotting a beam back tuck and low uneven bar drill, without good squatting mechanics and with good squatting mechanics.
It is hard to practice this all the time due to the nature of spotting, but if you can think about it actively you will develop techniques naturally. Overtime your body will subconsciously assume this position based on muscle memory and your brain adapting to have it on autopilot. It may be your key to possibly preventing a progressive lower back or shoulder injury during your coaching time
Kneeling: I know for a fact that many people have coached in this position for more than 10 minutes (personally guilty). It is usually followed by the coach crawling themselves off the ground because the front of their ankles and knees are in agony.
This position causes a huge amount of stress on the front of the knee because of the angle of the knee joint. The normal comfortable range of motion for the knee joint is 0 degrees (knee kicked out straight) to about 130/140 degrees of bending. As you can see when the coach sits back on her heels her knee angle is drastically more, approximately in the 160/165 degree area. This large amount of bend while sitting back is what causes excessive pulling on the knee joint and contributes to possible pain/ laxity.
This position also causes a huge amount of stress on the ankle joint because the weight of the coach’s body is sitting on their ankles. The normal comfortable range in the ankle joint to point down is about 50 – 55 degrees (foot flat to 50 degrees pointing down). As you can see in the picture the coaches foot angle is close to 90 degrees when she sits back. Gymnast’s and coaches typically have excessive “toe point” which is plantar flexion of the ankle, but this excessive ankle can possibly cause pain, laxity, and stiffness. The more you sit on your ankles like this, the more stretching of ligaments and muscles you have. This can contribute to laxity and place you more at risk you may be for an injury like “turning” your ankle for a sprain accidentally.
This position can also cause “rounding” of the lower back and increase a lot of pressure on the spine. If you are a coach who has to set up shop kneeling for a rotation, try some of these recommendations.,
- Try to be in this high kneeling position that has the hips open with the core/glutes engaged, knees bent to 80 – 90 degrees, the ankles close to netural up on your toes, and your spine in a neutral position (neither arched or rounded). Obviously it’s hard to remember all the time, but any time spent not in the first position will reduce stress.
- If you will be in one spot, take the time to place something under your knees like a 4″ mat, or a “catnastic” type may for extra foam cushion. On the spring floor it is typically softer, but many times coaches are kneeling on harder surfaces or old matting.
- Try to change kneeling position from time to time during rotation. Examples include half kneeling on right and left, high kneeling as described, and a slight side lunge position using the other leg to offload the knee . Varying the positions will reduce the amount of stress in one position and possibly let you get up from the floor without cringing 20 minutes later.
Varying Heights in Standing
This is another biomechanical problem that I see many coaches doing which can create the possibility of injury. When spotting events, make sure you take the time to build mats up to the proper height to spot. Likewise, if the athlete is shorter (like preschool/recreational class gymnasts) make sure you squat to spot them rather than bend over constantly. I know on the fly with time and equipment restraints it gets tough. For many skills, being ground level allows you to spot and appropriately accept the athletes weight where needed. However, when athletes are learning new skills or progressing through phases to reduce spotting assistance it is key to find the right height. I will explain some event by event examples.
Vault: For many recreational and basic vaults being on the floor level is just fine. However, once you find yourself coaching gymnasts through the higher levels I would suggest trying to be at least hip level vault to be able to catch someone should something go wrong. If you are shorter and find yourself lower than this, you will most likely be reaching out over the table. This reduces the ability you have to control the athlete and increases the strain on your arms/shoulders/lower back. Along with this, you may possibly be setting you up for excessive strain if you choose to hand spot the higher level vaults like tsuks and yurchenkos. It becomes even more important to be at proper height so you can control the athletes momentum.
Bars: Out of the four events, bars is the most crucial to be at the right height. Starting from basic skills, if you are constantly reaching overhead or out too far, the same situation arises as noted on vault. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, using a seatbelt anchored around the bar upright can help with this. As you begin to spot higher level skills not being at the proper height can put you at risk for potential progressive and traumatic injuries.
By constantly reaching up high while supporting weight (athlete), some rotator cuff and arm tendons can get pinched under the outside of your collar bone. When this happens over and over the tendons may become inflamed and create what is know as “impingement”. This is a very frustrating to deal with because it is hard for a coach to simple stop spotting to rest it. The best way to avoid pain is to not constantly be reaching overhead when you don’t need to, and avoid excess stress. Positioning yourself at about hip height will allow you to use your legs more than you arms and share the workload. Below are some references for impingement and some examples.
The second way bars can get risky with improper height is more related to traumatic “one event” injuries. If you are at a height that puts you about shoulder with the bar, it may be a concern. This mostly seen with giants/baby giants and transitional releases like overshoots and straddle backs. If you are shoulder height and the athlete peels or needs a spot, when you grab them they may take you for a ride. This may cause you to get the bar in your chest or armpit before you can let go, and then you get a quick yank on your arm. This amount of distraction force can lead to injuries from small strains/sprains all the way to really bad stuff like dislocation of the shoulder or rotator cuff tears. I have seen on of these happen and it was scary for everyone involved. I would suggest that if you are hand spotting giants to build mats up to be close to hip height. Then put the athlete in handstand if they need it, squat under the bar to reach the wrist, then use your legs to free hand to work together to put the athlete back in handstand. If they are safe enough to perform the giant, you can spot from the ground and anticipate their landing to assist them should they not make it over.
For hand spotting transitional releases, be at least hip height with the low bar so that you can properly grab near athlete’s center of mass for better control, safely assist an athlete if something goes wrong, and not put yourself in an unsafe position for your shoulder. Also, by being this high you may be able to assist in slowing an athlete down if they miss a hand and travel over the low bar. At a lower height, the athlete may escape your grasp and end up in a very dangerous position as they fall.
This technique is mot applicable for if the athlete needs a hand spot for assistance due to it being new or inconsistent. If the athlete is at the point where they are only needing your for safety, I would recommend standing close to the low bar, almost under it. That way, if something happens on either side of the bar you can quickly squat under and try to assist the athlete.
Beam: Spotting beam has a lot of similar characteristics from vault and bars. For athletes that can perform their skills safely, it is usually fine to stand lower than the high beam and be there for safety. However, if the athlete needs more assistance or is not confident, constantly reaching up may provoke the same Impingement condition noted above. Also, if you are far below the height of the athlete when they need to be spotted heavy, it is important to build the height up. They may miss hand/foot and something happens, they may get hurt before you can help them. They may also land on you in a worse scenario, which is never fun.
Floor: Floor is most obviously the most difficult to be at the right height for. Many tumbling skills and connected skills are above the height of complete spotting. You have to just make sure you have a lot of numbers on other training surfaces so you are prepared and can handle the proper mechanics when the skill is happening. I will say that when it comes to the lower level skills, being at the right height by squatting/kneeling is definitely important. If you are constantly bending over to spot children you are going to quickly feel it in your lower back. Practice safe squatting and kneeling while changing position frequently, and it may possible help ease your pain/stiffness.
So with all of this being said, let me note that as a coach myself I know it is hard to have this always on the front of your brain. Sometimes difficult situations come up, equipment availability is difficult, spotting abilities are different, and there times when things just happen. I am very aware of this and as I said in an earlier post, its the nature of the beast. However, if you can think about these concepts 90% of the time, you are going to be significantly better off. I would recommend trying to incorporate these techniques into your daily spotting grind and also helping colleagues with problems they may have. Also, I know that many coaches have different techniques and there is no one right way to spot. These are just recommendations and ways I have helped others/myself push off problems with excessive spotting. For now, I hope this is helpful and maybe shed some light on some ways to help during spotting. Until next week, best of luck.
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