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Developmental analysis of young gymnasts' understanding of sport-related pain



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Pain in sport serves the adaptive functions of signalling impending or actual injury and signalling the achievement of optimum workload to produce a conditioning effect. It is important to be able to distinguish what pain is signalling in order to respond to it effectively. The different functions of pain present a challenge for athletes wanting to improve their skill and conditioning level in the most efficient manner without becoming injured. However, this challenge could prove dangerous to children who have only a partial understanding of the value of pain, or who believe that they must endure great amounts of pain in order to become successful in sport. Previous research with general populations has demonstrated that children have a naive understanding of pain causation and do not understand the value of pain. In addition, previous research demonstrated that social factors such as peer and parental pressure may lead to situations where child athletes suffer preventable injuries because they ignore the warning signals of pain. Because coaches and parents are often responsible for deciding what to do when children present with pain, it is important for these adults to be aware of the cognitive limitations of children regarding the causes and meaning of pain. To date, there is no research which examines what athletes know about sport-related pain. Participants for this research project were 68 gymnasts aged 6 to 13 years. Several questions were asked in this study: (a) can gymnasts of various ages distinguish different types of sport-related pain?; (b) do gymnasts respond differently to different types of sport-related pain?; (c) what reasons do gymnasts give for continuing or discontinuing gymnastics when they have pain?; (d) do gymnasts understand the concept of pain causality?; (e) do gymnasts understand the value of pain?; (0 do gymnasts use pain for secondary gain? These questions were investigated in the context of an interview designed for this study. Two subtests from the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and tests of cognitive developmental level based on Piagetian theory were also administered. The effects of age, gender, level of cognitive development, experience with sport, and experience with pain and injury were examined for their influence on responses to the above questions. Results revealed age differences in the gymnasts' ability to distinguish types of pain such that older gymnasts identified more pain types. However, even the youngest participants were able to discuss more than one type of pain. There were age differences in gymnasts' understanding of pain causality. Contrary to previous research demonstrating children to be unable to identify a physiological cause of pain, 32% of the gymnasts aged 9 to 13 were able to describe the role of the brain and/or nerves in pain causality. Also contrary to previous research with general populations, the gymnasts were able to discuss the value of pain, especially as a signal of hard work and as a warning to stop what they are doing. Forty percent of participants reported using pain (sport-related and/or non sport-related) for secondary gain. Not a single gymnast reported using pain as an excuse for a poor performance. Six of them did, however, report pretending to be in pain to avoid something in the gym that caused them fear. Further demonstrating an appreciation of different types of pain, results showed the gymnasts to respond differently to various pain types. These young athletes demonstrated an awareness of the need to stop their sport in some cases and to continue gymnastics in other cases, depending upon the type of pain. When continuing gymnastics despite pain, participants usually justified their decision by saying that the pain was not harmful to them. When describing why they discontinued gymnastics because of pain, participants often stated that the pain or injury may worsen. Few participants stated a concern for their future functioning. No participant described pressure from coaches, parents or peers to continue gymnastics while experiencing pain. Results are discussed in a variety of contexts: (a) comparison of these results to those of similar research done with general populations of children; (b) implications for training practices, coach and athlete education. and sport policy in general; (c) support for a theory of cognition that encompasses both nativist and constructivist components; and (d) directions for future research.



gymnastics -- pychological aspects, psychology, sports, pain in children, pain measurement



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)







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