Does gymnastics stunt your growth? It must… right?
You might actually be surprised by the answer.
Sports like gymnastics, tennis, swimming, ballet, and figure skating, require athletes to specialize at a really young age. That means little kids are doing rigorous training to reach elite and international competitive levels.
Parents often ask questions like:
- Does excessive training affect my child’s development?
- Does gymnastics stunt your growth?
- Can swimming make you taller?
- What are the consequences of this type of training in children and adolescents?
- Is early specialization really necessary for success?
- How can we help young athletes on a path toward optimal health and development?
I’ll break down what the research says about the effects of training on developing athletes. Then, I’ll give you some tips on what you can do to help your child thrive in sport and life.
Pros and cons of early specialization
Joseph Baker (2003) examined whether early specialization is actually necessary for success. He compared athletes who did lots of sports to those who chose one sport early in their career.
Have you heard of the 10-year rule or the 10,000 hour theory? Basically, the more time you spend doing something, the better you get. Makes sense, right? Experts say that it takes a major investment of time and deliberate effort to reach expert status.
One study shows that early specialization can limit overall motor development. It also decreases the likelihood of participating in other physical activities. This is why gymnasts aren’t usually great at endurance sports, and why swimmers roll their ankles when they play basketball.
But, a soccer player who also does gymnastics will have better endurance for her floor routine, and stronger knees and ankles for landing her vault. In sports where mental and physical skills translate well (like swimming and water polo or gymnastics and ballet), cross-training is very useful.
As a general rule, Baker recommends waiting until an athlete reaches adolescence to begin to specialize.
Here’s the Problem
If a gymnast or figure skater waits until she’s twelve to commit fully to her sport, she is already at least five years late to the party.
Yes, she might be a more well-rounded athlete, but she has little to no chance of competing in college or at the elite level. Studies suggest that when working with a pre-pubescent child, coaches should be kind, cheerful, and encouraging. Parents should allow children to sample a variety of sports, finally beginning to specialize around age 12 or 13. Keep in mind – some sports have an earlier age of peak performance, so this type of recommendation could prevent a young athlete from reaching elite status. There is no “right or wrong” choice here – it’s up to each individual family to decide.
Now the Question of Stunted Growth
There is so much controversy around this topic. Some experts believe that intensive training at a young age delays puberty and stunts growth.
A 2007 study by Erlandson and associates tracked the growth and maturation of adolescent female gymnasts, swimmers, and tennis players into adulthood. They took annual measurements for three years and did a follow-up ten years later.
The study found that intensive training in each of the three sports did not change the tempo of maturation or physical growth. Gymnasts had smaller stature than swimmers or tennis players (not surprisingly), but swimmers were in the taller 50th percentile despite similarly rigorous training hours.
92% of the athletes studied reached menarche before retirement from their sport, which suggests that training was not causing a delay in menarche.
At this point, there is no proven cause and effect relationship between training and growth.
Research suggests that the trends of “short gymnasts” and “tall swimmers” are based on something entirely different…
If gymnastics doesn’t stunt growth, then why are gymnasts so short?
I’ll put it to you this way. What’s something most short gymnasts have in common?
Consider these two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Intense training keeps gymnasts small and delays puberty.
Scenario 2: “Early bloomers” and taller kids have a harder time in gymnastics, so they drop out or move on to other sports, like swimming, where they will be more successful.
Young female athletes are often selected to high-level teams in terms of skill, size, and physique. If an athlete doesn’t fit the mold, they may not be encouraged to pursue high-level training in a particular sport. This selection is often done at the subconscious level. Coaches don’t realize they are giving preference to those whose bodies are better suited to the sport. Parents don’t realize that they are guiding their children to sports that they will be more “naturally” good at.
Does this mean that tall girls can’t do gymnastics or short guys can’t swim? No! But Michael Phelps has a distinct advantage at 6’4” with size 14 feet. The guy basically has flippers for feet!
At age 13, I was 5 feet tall. A perfectly average height, but I towered over my tiny gymnast peers. For years, people recommended I try volleyball or basketball, maybe do ballet, but I LOVED gymnastics! I didn’t care that I was “too tall.” By 14, I had officially outgrown my sport. The coaches constantly had to raise the bars and the vault to accommodate my massive 5’2” frame. By 15 I grew another 5”, became a total headcase on the balance beam (that’s a whole other issue), and my gymnastics career was over.
Being tall in gymnastics is like swimming upstream. It’s possible, but it’s not easy.
The smaller size of gymnasts happens long before intense training begins.
It happens when a below-average-height parent has a below-average-height child, who gets an advantage over his/her average-height peers in gymnastics class.
In gymnastics, the smaller you are, the easier it is to move your body around. The bigger you are, the more strength is required to do the same skills.
Malina (1999) said, “female gymnasts, as a group, show the growth and maturation characteristics of short, normal, slow-maturing children with short parents.”
Think of it in terms of Darwin.
In elite sports, it’s the survival of the smallest (gymnastics) or the tallest (swimming) or the richest (sports associated with high cost). Saying gymnastics makes athletes small is like saying golf makes people rich. Although I’m sure someone can argue that they made millions playing golf, that’s not the norm.
Bottom line: athletes choose and are chosen for sports based on having a genetic advantage toward a physique that will increase their chances of being successful in that sport.
How does training affect the body?
Other questions people ask about include: Does weight-bearing impact affect long-term bone density? How does intensive training affect the heart and lungs? Studies show that development may actually be enhanced by strenuous activity in adolescent athletes (Rowland, 1993). Regular training in childhood and adolescence is associated with increased bone mineral content and mass, especially in weight-bearing activities (i.e., running, soccer, gymnastics).
An article by 10.1359/jbmr.19126.96.36.1990/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bass and associates (1998) goes deeper into the benefits of pre-pubertal sport participation on bone density in adulthood. This study measured the bone density of active pre-pubertal gymnasts compared with a control group and retired elite gymnasts. They discovered that the pre-pubertal years are an opportune time for weight-bearing exercise to improve bone density.
Results indicated that exercise before puberty could reduce fracture risk after menopause. Kannus and associates (1995) did a study on bone density in squash and tennis players who began playing before puberty. These players had 11-24% higher bone mass in their playing arm than their non-playing arm, a significant amount more than players who began the sport after puberty.
Risks of intensive training before puberty
A potential risk to physical development in young athletes is overuse injury.
Lower back stress-related pain is significantly more common in adolescent athletes than adults (Micheli & Wood, 1995). When strong ligaments pull on growing bones, it can result in growth plate fractures. Repeated stress on growing bones is linked to stress fractures in the ankle, knee, or elbow. Osgood-Schlatters and Sever’s Disease, both common in adolescent gymnasts, are caused by strong tendons with weak attachments to growing bones in the knee and the heel. According to 10.2165/00007256-200030050-00001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Naughton (2000), half of the overuse injuries diagnosed in adolescents were preventable.
Experts recommend that athletes on an elite track work closely with sports medicine specialists to create a dynamic and individual plan for staying healthy and continuing normative development while training.
How can you improve your child’s chances of healthy development?
A great support squad will strengthen the athlete’s body, mind, and spirit as they navigate the ups and downs of youth sport.
Sport psychology professionals and parents can help young athletes on a path toward optimal health and development. I help parents manage expectations for kids who are heading down an elite track. We can encourage appropriate types of support from coaches based on the age of the athlete–this is critical when considering sports that require an early specialization. You can help prevent overuse injury during periods of rapid growth and development by staying aware of increased susceptibility to micro-traumatic injuries.
The previously mentioned research shows that specific intense training does not stunt growth or cause athletes to experience delayed sexual maturation. Instead, it’s the sport-specific selection process that can create a uniform stature in elite sports.
We can help athletes as they go through bodily changes during puberty that may make sport participation more difficult for them. It is also important to notice that an athlete’s motivation to end sport participation could have to do with physical factors as well as psychological ones.
Don’t assume that your small, late-blooming athlete is experiencing the detrimental consequences of over-training. First, you might want to consider that he or she would be of below-average size regardless of rigorous training. Their body size and sexual maturity rate may have actually contributed to their success and longevity in their sport.