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Why Is Gymnastics More Difficult After Puberty?

By Michelle Matte

For many young people, the onset of puberty can be brutal, marked by awkward physical changes that are embarrassing and inconvenient. For gymnasts and other young athletes, puberty brings with it changes in height, weight distribution and center of gravity that can impact your body image, throw you off balance and interfere with your performance.

Your Ever-Changing Body

From birth through adolescence, your body continues to grow and develop, and developmental changes can influence how your body performs and adapts to training, explains sports coach Brian Mac. From the age of 2 until you reach puberty, you grow at a rate of about 2.5 inches per year, and boys and girls share similar physical characteristics. But at around age 11 for girls and age 13 for boys, you undergo a pubertal growth spurt that lasts for about two years. Hormonal changes bring about the development of sex organs, increased muscle mass for boys and increased fat mass for girls.

Training Can Be Draining

The high volume and intensity of training required to compete at elite levels is one factor that makes gymnastics more difficult after puberty. As young gymnasts vie for a spot on the world stage, increased training loads can influence growth, development and the incidence of injury. A longitudinal three-year study of young female gymnasts aged 10 to 13, published in "Pediatric Exercise Science," compared the impact of training volume on two groups. The high-volume group trained for 30 hours per week and the moderate-volume group trained for 15 hours per week. After three years, subjects in the high-volume group were smaller and stronger, and able to perform skills at higher velocities than the moderate-training group. During the study, 15 of the moderate-volume group began their periods, but none of the high volume group reached menarche.

Performance Pressure Cooker

Gymnasts are under immense pressure from parents, peers and coaches to maintain a lithe body image while continually striving to improve performance, and the stress increases as the sport becomes more competitive. For many young gymnasts, eating disorders and excessive training can lead to delayed puberty and menstrual disorders, according to a 2007 Italian study published in "Pediatric Exercise Science." Another study of adolescent dancers and gymnasts published in the "Journal of Dance Medicine and Science" found pressures to please parents and a drive for perfectionism were negative stressors for gymnasts.

Inevitable Injuries

The same study found that increased training volumes coupled with stress led to a high incidence of injuries in adolescent gymnasts that were more severe and took longer to heal than the dance group. Injuries to the hip, ankle, foot spine and wrist were highly prevalent. The researchers concluded that a combination of physical and psychological factors come into play in this age group, and that attention should be paid to stress and perfectionism as factors that lead to injury.

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