Gymnastics is an aesthetic sport, defined as “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty”.
This can be problematic as our appreciation for body diversity within the sport of gymnastics is not quite where it should be, but things have improved.
For example, we can recognize that powerful gymnasts like Shawn Johnson and Simone Biles have a different body type than that of Nastia Liukin or Svetlana Khorkina. All four of these gymnasts are highly decorated, incredible athletes that have different strengths. For instance, Nastia would openly admit that vault was difficult for her yet Shawn and Simone are absolutely amazing on that event. A lot of that has to do with their body types and power to weight ratio. On the contrary, Nastia was famous for her ballet-like lines and artistry that are just not inherent to other bodies types.
From my perspective as a women’s JO/NCAA gymnastics judge, artistry deductions are not overlooked for those who have a more ballet-like style. Artistry deductions encompass expression, relation of choreography to music, dynamics, etc. are not limited to a certain body type. Sure, we’ve heard stories of judges who prefer a “certain” look over another, but this is unethical and today’s judging criteria does not favor one body type or another. The problem lies in the fact that gymnastics is and will always be a subjective sport, so there’s no sure way to prevent this kind of bias from occurring aside from proper judge training, coaching, etc.
All bodies are different and that is normal. Trying to make your body (or your gymnast’s) what it is not will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental toil, and the very likely chance to develop a serious eating disorder.
Sadly, many young girls and gymnasts feel like if they do not meet this “thin, lithe” standard of the “gymnast body”, then they are not going to “make it.”
And, so many “nutritionists” and “trainers” I see that are working with these elite level athletes only care about a “look” versus health which is so much more than weight or a body fat percentage. I don’t care if your 16-year-old gymnast has a six-pack and 10% body fat; if they’ve not started their period due to lack of energy availability (calories!), their bones are suffering and this is NOT NORMAL. More on this as we get into things…
Let’s explore the following topics that all play into the gymnast’s body, and hopefully this information will help you (and your gymnast) understand more about their body composition and how to work with versus against it.
Genetic Height Potential– The genetics of the parents partially (60-80%) determines how tall a child will be when they reach their adult height. This is a simple equation that is commonly found in calculator form online, linked here. Gymnasts often have “delayed growth” or “stunted height” due to inadequate energy availability (not eating enough to cover demands of training, living, etc) and intense training (stress on the body). These are considered “environmental effects”. This “stunting” is not normal, nor should it be celebrated just because people sometimes favor “shorter” gymnasts. It’s unfortunate that some coaches will complain in front of their athletes about having to adjust the uneven bars to multiple settings because of the “tall girls”. Too bad, adjust the bars.
Weight vs Body Composition– The scale tells us how much force exists between the object that’s being weighed (a body) and the planet Earth. This can be measured in pounds or kilograms, but does not delineate bone mass, water, muscle, intestinal contents, etc. You may say “well of course, you should be measuring body composition and not weight” which is a *better* measure but not perfect. The most accurate measures of body composition likely come from the DEXA scan in combination with other measures, and this equipment is not easily accessible as usually only found within universities or medical offices. Those scales at the gym with the metal plates or hand-held BIA gadget (bioelectrical impedance) has such a huge margin of error that it is not worth using as it can easily mislead an athlete. Gymnasts should not be weighed by their coaches because the coach is not equipped to counsel the athlete about their weight nor the steps that need to be taken to address nutrition issues. I always ask parents and athletes, “what are you going to do with this information?” regarding weight as very rarely does focusing or weight or a body fat percentage provide positive outcomes for the young, aesthetic sport athlete.
Also, just adding more exercise to achieve an optimal body composition is not necessarily the answer. It’s risky to put an athlete in a place where they’re depending on exercise to maintain an optimal body composition because things happen. The athlete may get injured, sick, retire from the sport, and will then have to adjust their eating patterns if they were appropriate for fueling the sport. If they weren’t appropriately fueling for sport (i.e., trying to eat as little as possible), their weight will likely shoot up to a place where they are uncomfortable if something happens and they cannot continue training as the previous level. Body change post-sport retirement is normal, but massive swings in weight could likely be avoided with proper fueling from the start. I teach athletes to “fuel for the work required” which makes it easy to peel back added snacks when they are injured, on break, or on vacation and don’t need all this extra “energy” to cover exercise expenditures.
Frequent weighing can quickly become a mind-game and perpetuate disordered eating patterns. In my opinion, the young gymnast should only be weighed if visiting their physician or dietitian as those professionals are equipped to track growth. Nutritionists (non-licensed, non-board certified) and trainers are NOT equipped to measure and monitor your child’s growth; and children under 18 are exactly that…CHILDREN. Parents or coaches should not be weighing their athletes. I’ve counseled MANY athletes where their parents or coaches are trying to micromanage their weight and let me tell you it ALWAYS backfires.
Dealing with “Body Talk”- A Zero Tolerance Policy. Body shaming or telling an athlete they are “fat” in effort to motivate them may work in the short term but will then likely lead to crazed disordered eating behaviors and set them up for a lifetime of struggle. Little girls are vulnerable and will do what they are told, especially if told they will win. I was told by my coach to just “eat fruit” for dinner to lose some weight, so I did…after 4-hour practices in the grueling heat of the summer and then I wondered why my ankles and achilles tendons weren’t healing. I sought help from my parents and enlisted them to help me with the eating disorder struggle but that was a BAD idea. Telling them to hide the peanut butter jar that I was binging on because I was starving my body and HUNGRY was a bad idea. It led to all sorts of confusion and conflict. When they’d see me sneaking peanut butter from the jar (because I was starving), they’d get upset because I had asked them to help me stop and yet they didn’t understand what was causing the underlying behaviors. Food and body talk with your parents or spouse never ends well. All parties are usually well meaning, but you are too close to be involved. Just like it would be crushing if my husband told me as “shouldn’t be eating that”, we shouldn’t be telling our gymnasts or children the same kinds of things. This is where a trusted third party like a trained pediatric/adolescent registered dietitian nutritionist and/or therapist comes in to help mediate these conversations. Also, as a parent it is SUPER important to watch what you say about your own body in front of your children.
When to Seek Help– If your athlete has not started their period by 16, they could be experiencing delayed puberty and may need to see an endocrinologist to rule out issues aside from RED-S. RED-S stands for “relative energy deficit in sport” which essentially means they are under fueling/overtraining and the body does not have enough fuel to perform normal reproductive functions which is a bad sign. Whenever athletes would get referred to the pediatric endocrinology clinic I worked with, I always saw the patients in tandem with the physician as a nutrition assessment is key in helping the physician diagnose the issue (which was often related to inadequate nutrition and not a true disease or hormone disorder). Appropriate reproductive development is heavily linked to healthy bone mineralization. If you observe your athlete “body checking” in the mirror all the time or making comments about being “fat”, etc, you should seek help for them in the form of both a therapist and dietitian. These comments may seem innocent but could very likely be related to a lot deeper struggles and the beginnings of eating disorder behaviors that you as a parent or coach aware of. For the athlete who is struggling with some excess weight, some visits with a registered dietitian nutritionist would also be incredibly helpful as there could be other issues at play that are causing them to overeat (lack of proper nutrition education, emotional issues driving them to cope with food, etc). This is a touchier subject to broach, so I implore you to seek advice before bringing up these issues with your athlete(s).
I hope you found this article helpful! I’ve only scratched the surface but be on the lookout for a FREE webinar for parents/coaches that goes more in depth on all of these topics! Shoot me a message here if you have questions and be sure to follow along on instagram @Christina.Anderson.RDN for more great gymnastics nutrition content.