I was surfing through some gymnastics sites and ran across a site in which people were discussing bridging in preschoolers.Â It has been such a controversial issue for a long time, and it is a never ending debate among coaches.
Â So, I thought I would post my response to the issue here as well as on that site.Â It’s important that we are all aware of safety issues regarding the children with whom we work.Â Preschoolers have specific safety issues that need to be addressed.
Â Following is my response post:
This is a long standing issue…with alot of explanation.
The current industry standard for bridging recommends that children do not start bridging until age 5. The industry standard USED to be based on the concept of “developmentally correct” in which the child was allowed to do a bridge if they could place themselves into the bridge position on their own. This, however, is no longer the standard. The standards can be found in the old USAG KAT book, and it remains the standard within the Preschool Fundamentals and HOT courses.
Here’s a little background on the issue..
About the same time that FIG upped the international competition age, our sport started really looking at the various ways we could increase the longevity of athletes within our sport. Among the things we started addressing in a serious manner, for example, was how we could decrease the incidence of eating disorders within our sport. Serious consideration was given to what our standards should be and how we should handle athletes to avoid such things.
Another thing that we looked at as a sport was how we could decrease the incidence of injury to keep the athletes healthier. Long term injuries caused by overuse, strain and micro-trauma were some of the injuries addressed. The focus became trying to avoid long term injuries as much as possible so that athletes would be able to go on in life without living with injury post-sport career for the rest of their lives.
That is when the standards changed. We wanted to decrease long term injuries for the overall health of the kids within our sport and we wanted to increase the time an athlete could participate in the sport as well as the athlete’s health post-career.
Spinal injury caused by overstressing the back was one of the areas addressed. While the “developmentally correct” standard was in place, many of us who teach the courses for USAG were consistently asked for clarification. So, in response to the request for clarification, USAG went to various sports physicians, pediatricians as well as other sport science people to get a consensus on what the best approach to training young children should be.
In regards to bridging, they came back with the consensus that age 5 was the earliest a child should begin bridging.
There are several reasons for it, but the main concern is a condition called Spondylolysis which is the pars fracturing within the spine, usually around the 5th lumbar vertebra. Left untreated, it can become a condition called Spondylolisthesis which causes chronic back problems for the rest of the athlete’s life.
Spondylolysis can be caused by impact injury as well as overstress injury. In football players, it can be caused by impact to the back. In ice skaters, it can be caused by falling on their backsides on the ice. In gymnastics, the way it is usually caused is by overstressing the spine in the abnormal positions we use within our sport.
Preschoolers’ anatomical build, ie. physical size and proportions make bridging difficult since their heads are often too big for their arms to lift off the floor.
Strength is also an issue. A child who is not strong enough to lift themselves into a bridge will often have poor positioning, sometimes even attempting bridge with their head on the floor, stressing the neck in particular.
Lack of flexibility within the shoulders is a huge part of it as well. If the shoulders are not flexible enough for a proper bridge position, the stress is placed on the lower back in the upside down U formation. Any beginning gymnast, no matter what their age, should begin their bridge with feet elevated at least 8 inches. This forces the stretch into the shoulders where it belongs while decreasing the stress on the lower back, making the bridge position a non-symmetrical elongated U, pushing the stretch through the chest and shoulders.
What children under age 5 CAN do are tabletops (crab position), abdominal sags and seal stretches, SUPPORTED bridge work over barrels and on panel mats (hands on floor, laying on panel mat) as long as the entire length of the back is supported. They can do strengthening drills as well, to prepare for bridge work.
As a coach, I want to do whatever I can to avoid any injury in any of the children under my care. Bridging is no different, and spinal damage is something I don’t care to mess with if I can avoid it. I do not allow children to bridge in my gym AT ALL until age 5, and even the beginning gymnasts start with elevated feet.
A sidenote to that is ..when I visit gyms, I can tell alot about the level of coaching education they have on staff simply by watching the types of drills they use with their kids. I also caution any parent who is moving to another city about the things to watch for in a gym. If I don’t know a gym to recommend in the area to which they are moving, I send them out with a list of certifications to look for, a list of questions to ask, and I tell them to watch to see if the gym bridges preschoolers…that will tell you alot about that gym in a hurry.