Did overtraining lose the United States the team gold? Part I
Posted September 9, 2008on:
Since the Olympics ended, there has been some grumbling in the gymnastics community — and in the New York Times — about the possibility that U.S. gymnasts were overtrained by national-team coaches. There are obviously two questions here: 1) Were these gymnasts overtrained? and 2) If so, is overtraining responsible for our second-place finish?
Was the U.S. team overtrained?
Let’s try to answer the first question first. There is certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing in this direction, but we have no direct evidence. I think it is slightly irresponsible (if understandable) of people like Paul Ziert to state the case of overtraining as fact, given that we don’t have access to the training sessions for confirmation, and such a charge hasn’t been leveled at Marta Karolyi by any of her (current) athletes. There are two main pieces of evidence that have been used in recent opinion pieces on this issue: first, that the American gymnasts looked tired and unenthusiastic during team finals; and second, that the number of injuries in the days leading up to the Olympics was too high. In his International Gymnast op-ed, Ziert claimed that the team looked overtrained:
[On floor] Shawn has yet to show the joy that made her not only a champion but a crowd favorite. Of course, her difficulty will impress most, but the fact that she can be overtrained and still hit routines is what impresses me, although I don’t think it’s smart or fair. What was painful was to watch Alicia Sacramone’s routine. Everything about her performance indicated overtraining. When both mind and/or body are tired, they don’t work well together. Why else would she go out of the area on her 2½ twist punch front full both at podium training and here in the qualifying. I contend that with both the injuries and overtraining, she ran harder and hurdled bigger to make sure she made the pass.
Then he continues, with reference to mistakes made on bars and vault:
I believe that these types of mistakes cry out with overtraining. When the mind and body are not in sync because one or both are exhausted, this is what can happen.
Susan Yoculan, director of Georgia’s amazing gymnasts program until 2008, said similar things in her blog commentary for the New York Times (though she ultimately attributed the loss to the difference in overall A-scores, which I’ll get back to):
Shawn in last up and once again the U.S. goes out of bounds. It is shocking that Shawn, too, is distracted. She looks great but there is definitely a spark missing.
Honestly, though, I don’t think we are at a point where we can say that a demonstration of distraction or lack of enthusiasm is a clear sign of overtraining. That’s a really hard case to make.
On the other hand, as this New York Times article points out, underperformance is a symptom of overtraining. (Note that the article isn’t specifically about gymnastics.) I think that the better argument is the one based on injury.
Even before these Olympics, I thought that Shawn Johnson’s coaches had it right. Four hours of practice a day, public school. Not only does she not risk overtraining, but she has a normal life and does not discount academics entirely in favor of athletics. The way she has described it, her time in the gym is more intense, with no real breaks to speak of. On the other hand, she was the only member of the team without a major injury to speak of from somewhere in her career.
The best argument Ziert makes that the women’s team was overtrained is based on the high prevalence of injuries. Sam Peszek’s sprained ankle, Chellsie Memmel’s break. (Recall that Alicia Sacramone was also injured earlier this year.) It’s possible, as Marta Karolyi suggested in this Time article that we might have performed better with Memmel on beam. Who knows? I think more important, however, is the fact that this article purports to be about overtraining but is really about whether the Code of Points pushes gymnasts to compete harder skills. If that’s the case, it’s not really relevant to this debate, because all gymnasts from all countries are competing with the same Code.
Overall, I think the main problem with the overtraining argument is that we don’t have proof. There’s some circumstantial evidence, and there’s Karolyis’ history (we know there’s a definite tradition of overtraining there). Definitely we had some errors that seemed uncharacteristic, and we seemed to lack charisma that we had at Worlds in 2007. Still, before we blame this whole thing on overtraining, we should think about other possible explanations — see the next post.
Pictures: Alicia Sacramone, the emotional face of the U.S. team
Next up: Is overtraining responsible for the loss to the Chinese?