The New Age of social media is causing a new wave of seriously injured gymnasts
Many dancers and gymnasts use social media to practice skills at home, but sometimes this dedication to their sport can be dangerous.
Gymnasts and dancers endure the bulk of injuries in the sports world due to instability in their joints caused by excessive overstretching. The forceful impact of landing skills such as leaps and handsprings can also be dangerous. But have injuries become much more common in much younger gymnasts because of social media? Teenage prodigies of dance, cheerleading, and gymnastics post photos and videos of themselves online demonstrating unthinkably difficult tricks, splits, turns, and flips. These posts are viewed incessantly by young, aspiring gymnasts who often end up attempting the skills on their own at home in hopes of bettering their technique. Instead of improvement, these gymnasts will most likely see long lasting damage done to their bodies.
If you search #Flexible on Instagram, you’ll find over 2 million posts of young women manipulating their bodies in almost frightening ways to achieve their version of perfection, grace, and beauty. Among these posts are photos of girls stretching for a more hyperextended split and pre-teens training for a backflip on a 4 inch piece of wood. These types of posts on social media generate thousands of likes and views, many of which are coming from other young girls to participate in gymnastics and dance.
The viewers of these posts see them as a source of “fitspiration” for themselves to improve on their own skill level, but not everyone is so optimistic about this new source of online motivation. Dance physiotherapist Lisa Howell expressed her concern on an Australian ABC News segment for young dancers that copy the skills they see online. Howell urged dancers not to copy pictures and videos shared online after seeing a spike in hip and back injuries and dancers aged 11 to 14. “ Now we’re seeing a labral tears (tear in hip joint) and issues in their back in 11 and 12-year-olds which is very disconcerting because while they’re doing these moves to make themselves better dancers, they’re often actually ruling themselves out of a professional career because they’re getting injured so young.”
Teenagers in dance also agree with Howells opinion. 18-year-old Aaron Matheson and 17-year-old Charlotte Connors who were interviewed alongside Howell revealed that they had gotten injured because of attempting skills they saw online. Aaron first injured himself when he attempted to do a “scorpion” by forcing his legs and back into this painful position. “ I just kept trying every day I got home after dancing and eventually I finally got it, but I also felt my back twinge when I did it and I just had to collapsed to the ground and wait until the pain went away.” Aaron is now being treated for a stress fracture. Charlotte also suffered a very painful injury while copying new dance skills from a YouTube video; “The carpet was underneath me and slipped underneath me and I dislocated my coccyx, my tailbone.” Both teens have since expressed their regret for turning to social media for dance lessons. “ Those pictures on Instagram, they physically make a me ill because I know that’s not what your body should be able to do.” Aaron said.
Injuries are more likely to occur when gymnasts and dancers practice on their own, under the influence of social media because they aren’t being supervised by a professional coach or instructor. The work of a coach is vital to an athletes success. The majority of successful athletes work closely with a coach to improve form and technique to prevent injuries. Many of these dance/gymnastics skills shown on social media are extreme flexibility skills that take many years of intense training to do safely. But many young gymnasts and dancers attempt the skills anyway without adequate training because they want to emulate the impossibly flexible contortionists on Instagram. In general, an athletes main focus is improving their skill level and pushing themselves past their limits. Gymnasts and dancers are no different. And doing this has never been easier because of thousands of online tutorials and posts. Unfortunately, practicing preventative exercises is not usually on the agenda for most athletes. Especially teenaged ones.
In Charlotte’s case, lack of proper equipment led to her injuries. Most self taught gymnasts and dancers utilize a crowded bedroom for a practice space. This can lead to additional injuries for many girls. Sometimes girls even take things further and post extreme videos of themselves flipping into swimming pools or in the aisles of Target. The amount of things that can go wrong in one of the situations seems endless. I don’t know about you, but gymnastics tumbling on concrete seems like a death wish to me. Another popular trend in the online dance and gymnastics community is the “gymnastics on a slip and slide challenge”. The name of the challenge is pretty self-explanatory; gymnasts attemp tumbling skills on a water covered slip and slide. These challenges are posted with good intentions, but maybe it’s time to stop pushing the boundaries of an already dangerous sport.
On the other hand, people who are too old to start gymnastics or simply can’t afford it can use these online resources to their advantage. It used to be that if you wanted to be a gymnast or dancer, your parents had to be financially stable enough to put you in lessons. Not many people did gymnastics outside of the gym. Well, because they didn’t know how. With the new surge of social media tutorials, anyone can learn how to do a backflip or the splits without the steep tuition costs. A Bangor Daily News article describes the motivational story of self taught gymnast, Patrick Hapworth. Hapworth originally started out as a high school wrestler, but was entranced by the flips of gymnasts. His fascination got the better of him and he turned to YouTube to learn how to do these difficult skills. “ I’ll watch YouTube and then look at different things and see different tricks that pop out and I’ll go to the gym. I’ll try to see if I can do it.” He said in his interview. “ When I do flips I don’t think about anything. It’s just muscle memory.” Evidently, Hapworth would’ve never been able to take part in this new hobby if tutorials weren’t available online. Social media can be an amazing thing for young men and women to share their talents online and build a community based on those interests. This community can build people up and help them discover something that they’re passionate about.
The spectrum of different skills you could learn online is very large. From flexibility skills, to flips, to turns, to handstands. Are any of these things safe to work on at home? The short answer is yes, but some things shouldn’t be an attempted without an experienced instructor. One of these things would be flexibility skills (much like the one that injured Aaron). Flexibility skills are some of the most damaging tricks if they are attempted alone without sufficient training. The risk of pulling muscles, causing stress fractures, or other injuries caused by hyper-mobile joints is far too high. So in regards to what is “safe” to practice at home, extreme overstretching is out. But if someone wants to practice their pirouettes and flips on a trampoline in a safe, spacious setting, they should go for it. At their own risk, of course.
Howell, Lisa. Is Over-Stretching Bad?
The Ballet Blog, 2015.
Bennet, Kevin. Self-taught gymnast finds inspiration in You Tube videos. Bangor Daily News, 2016.
Whyte, Sarah. Dancers injured copying over stretching exercises from social media.
ABC News, 2015.