Athletes are being groomed at younger and younger ages. Many factors play into this, and as the level of competition rises, parents want to help their children excel while also preventing injuries. Many sports place progressively increasing demands on the changing and growing bodies of young athletes. Regular Pilates practice is one way to reduce injuries, increase body awareness and enhance coordination.
This case study explores my professional experience training a young Olympic hopeful.
Brooke is an 8-year-old, 4-foot-tall, advanced competitive gymnast who has her eye on the Olympics. This very talented young athlete and her parents chose Pilates to supplement her rigorous training schedule. Her father’s research led him to recognize the value of classical Pilates, and he chose my studio, Premier Pilates and Yoga in Warren, New Jersey. My background includes training and certification by Romana Kryzanowska, and I have experience teaching Pilates to dancers and young athletes.
Problems and Goals
Brooke’s goals included learning to engage her powerhouse to improve her gymnastics skills; building core strength; learning how to isolate movements; enhancing her balance; and increasing flexibility in her back. Initially, Brooke sped through movements and relied on momentum rather than strength to perform many of the exercises. Despite being exceptionally strong, she was hyperflexible and relied on this rather than proper muscle control to achieve difficult positions. Brooke was prone to hyperextending her joints, flaring her ribs and arching her back. Her ankles, back and shoulder girdle were all under too much strain and needed to be strengthened.
There were two primary challenges in the course of designing a program. First, she was too small to perform many of the traditional exercises on the Pilates equipment. Second, I needed to make my cuing more age-appropriate and keep the class fun to retain her attention and focus.
We began by focusing on the six key principles of Pilates: breath, flow, precision, concentration, centering and control. Proper implementation was the key.
The footwork series on the reformer is a terrific option for strengthening the ankle, but this was not safe for Brooke because of her age and size. Instead, I had her learn the same principles of working through the lower extremities by holding onto the back of the ladder barrel and slowly relevéing up and down, initiating the roll-down from her metatarsals through the arches of her feet to her heels. On the way up she wrapped her thighs and rolled up, reversing the movement.
We did 10 repetitions in the Pilates stance and then 10 more with feet in parallel. I encouraged her to engage her powerhouse prior to doing the foot exercises. She learned to keep her weight over the center of her feet to enhance balance and prevent inversion or eversion. As Brooke got stronger, she performed this exercise without holding onto the barrel. This move helped strengthen her ankles, calf muscles and Achilles tendons.
The rowing series on the reformer generally enhances the shoulder girdle musculature, works on upper-body alignment, strengthens the low back and upper back, and engages the core. All these outcomes were necessary in order to address Brooke’s forward-rounding shoulders. Again, I had to modify the movement and taught it on the mat with 1-pound balls. I also modified pull straps 1 and 2. I placed the long box on the mat instead of the reformer, and the 1-pound weights (instead of straps) provided resistance. I ensured that Brooke’s neck stayed in proper alignment as she engaged her core and upper-back muscles to lift her torso off the box. For modified pull straps 2, she lifted her arms in a “T” position—shoulder height, neck in line with the spine. She slid her shoulders down her back with palms facing down as she adducted her arms toward her hips. Both exercises were performed slowly and precisely.
Instead of using arm springs, we worked with resistance bands. I tied the bands to the tower units and adjusted the length to create just the right level of resistance. Then, while lying on her back, Brooke performed arm circles, reaches and triceps exercises. As we did these movements, I cued her to engage her shoulders back and down. She had to concentrate to make sure her shoulders were in the right position and not rounding forward.
One of her favorite exercises in this series was snow angels. During this prone move she held onto the resistance bands in each hand while reaching her arms to the sides. She kept her shoulders down and returned her arms to her sides while maintaining resistance. When she was ready to progress, she lifted her head and shoulders off the mat.
It was not easy to make our sessions both challenging and fun for an 8-year-old. I did, however, come up with ways to add fun. For example, during rolling like a ball Brooke threw me a ball as she rounded up, and I threw it back to her as she rolled down. This element challenged her even more since she had to hold her balance longer and engage the core to throw the ball accurately. Over time I changed my position so that every time she rolled up I was in a new spot.
Unique Challenges and Big Rewards
Working with young athletes introduces a unique set of challenges, from modifying the routine to account for the clients’ smaller size to changing the verbal cuing to make it more accessible. At the same time, the rewards are profound. In no time at all, I noticed positive changes in Brooke. Her shoulders became more even and she stopped flaring her ribs, which in turn improved her posture and balance. In the 6 months since she began her regular Pilates practice, she has had no major injuries requiring her to miss competitions or cut back on training.
Brooke is by far the youngest of the many dancers and athletes with whom I’ve worked. Her level of commitment to gymnastics and to Pilates is impressive and leads me to believe she will continue excelling in her sport until she reaches the caliber of an Olympic athlete!