The Case Against Sticking The Landing
6:02 PM EDT on August 2, 2021
“Gymnastics 101,” the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and gymnastics commentator Tim Daggett says during nearly every NBC gymnastics broadcast. “Stick the landing.” Catchphrases are catchphrases, but what’s most notable about this one is that it never explains Gymnastics 102, much less the 500-level gymnastics seminars taught by Simone Biles. But in terms of sticking the landing, it’s best to start at the start.
Sticking the landing means much more rhetorically than it does in the most basic practical sense. Most hops on landings will only add up to .1-.3 in deductions, depending on size and direction of the step, unless a gymnast lands in a truly egregious fashion. And landings, good or bad, tend to be overemphasized in media coverage of the sport because they’re easily legible—even someone who only watches gymnastics every four years can tell the difference between a cold stick and a step. In this sense, a stuck landing really is Gymnastics 101, not because it’s the most fundamental or basic element in the sport—the handstand is the most important skill, since nearly every element passes through the handstand—but because it’s the most accessible. It’s entry-level for the viewer, not for the gymnast.
For the gymnast, however, the “stuck landing” is perhaps the most perilous part of a performance. Again, it is not hard to see why this would be: Dropping from a great height, with force, speed and rotation and then coming to a complete stop without blowing your ACL is hardly a basic maneuver. Daggett himself knows this all too well. At the 1987 worlds in Rotterdam, he suffered a devastating leg injury after he landed awkwardly on vault. “He demolished his leg,” says Hardy Fink, the former president of the men’s technical committee and former head of FIG (International Gymnastics Federation) Academy Program. “It was like a cannon shot going off.”
(Do not play the video below unless you would like to see what was just described.)
The injury that Daggett sustained was a compound fracture that broke his left tibia and fibula. Although he attempted a comeback and competed for a spot on the 1988 U.S. men’s Olympic team less than a year later, he ultimately wasn’t successful.
You don’t have to go all the way back to 1987 for examples of landings that have gone horribly awry. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, one of the most memorable and memorably horrifying images was of French gymnast Samir Ait Said injuring his leg on a vault landing. I remember watching it live, absentmindedly eating a sandwich, not noticing anything terribly amiss with the vault or the landing until Said fell and rolled over, grasping his thigh, holding his left leg aloft, to reveal the lower half of his leg dangling. I was in no mood to finish lunch. (I’m pleased to report that Said has not only recovered, but returned to gymnastics, if not to vaulting. Just over a year later, I interviewed him in Montreal at the world championships where he was competing as a rings specialist. He was the 2019 world bronze medalist on rings. He competed in today’s rings final and placed fourth, just outside of the medals. His leg was fine, but this time he was dealing with a bicep injury. He’s planning to push onto Paris 2024.)
All of which is to say that this is a dangerous sport. Dismounts, particularly from high bars and uneven bars, are not any safer than they look. There have been some truly terrible injuries over the years, particularly on vault, which has played a role in several spinal cord injuries. People have died doing this. The rigorous training that gymnasts undergo for years is supposed to account for that omnipresent threat, and mitigate the risk that a bad landing will result in something far more devastating than a bad score. Most landings, even bad ones, don’t look like Daggett’s and Said’s, and freak occurrences have led to acute injuries in every skill. It’s just what the sport is.
Over the course of a gymnastics career, a gymnast will absorb hundreds or perhaps thousands of landings in competition. The impacts of these landings as they reverberate through the body can lead to all kinds of injuries, both acute and chronic. In practice, gymnasts can land on soft surfaces that help dissipate forces. But in competition, they’re landing on much less forgiving mats that, while they may look plush to the viewer at home, feel more or less like concrete when dropped onto with speed and rotation. The best thing a gymnast can do is train proper landing technique, over and over, in hope of best dissipating the forces.
The attempt to do that is what an un-stuck landing is, more or less. A step back—or a few—can be a way to manage the risk. One of the truisms of gymnastics is that it’s better to over-rotate than to underdo it. When Simone Biles first performed the Yurchenko double pike in competition back in May, I was relieved to see that she overdid it; the last thing you’d want to see on a vault so supremely dangerous is an undercooked attempt. The damage to ankles and knees could be devastating on such an attempt, even for someone as talented and physically strong as Biles, who still only has one ACL per knee. (In Tokyo, Biles demonstrated incredible strength and coordination when she managed to put her vault, which had gone horribly awry due to a case of the twisties, in the women’s team finals to her feet without injury. Anyone else would’ve blown out at least one knee.) That attempt to land in that sweet spot and bring every force to zero in one go carries with it some truly wild risks. There are so many components that go into landing safely, from strength building, to landing position, to equipment. Gymnastics 101 it most certainly is not.
The concept of “sticking” has been with the sport since its earliest days. “You go back to the early part of the [twentieth] century, in the teens and 1920s, there were points given for [the] approach to the apparatus. There are points given for the [departure and landing],” Fink told me. But while landing has always mattered, a proper landing once looked much different than it does today. Fink noted that in the 1950s and ’60s, gymnasts like Boris Shakhlin, the 1960 Olympic all-around champion, and Billy Weiler, landed pitched forward almost at 90 degrees with very minimal knee bend. “[They would] basically take up all the forces with their back...The stupidity that was in terms of physiology and mechanics.”
But the skills that Shakhlin, Weiler, and their peers were doing were less extreme than the elements being done today. They could perhaps get away with poor landing positions because they weren’t dismounting the high bar with a double twisting double layout, which is currently the default dismount for most men today on high bar. (On the other hand, they were dropping down to far less forgiving surfaces, but more on that later.)
Women’s gymnastics was in a similar Jurassic phase. This clip from the 1936 Berlin Olympics shows female gymnasts vaulting in the team event—the women weren’t able to officially earn individual medals until 1952, which is part of a bigger story—landing in very different ways than they currently do. The most popular landing position seemed to be one with straight posture and a knee bend. It’s somewhat similar to 1968 Olympic all-around champion Vera Caslvaska’s landing on her gold medal winning vault.
She lands almost upright, feet together, with a minimal knee bend. Compare her landing position to that of Nelli Kim not 10 years later, while performing a vault orders of magnitude more difficult than what Caslavska did. Kim earned a Perfect 10 on this vault, making her the second woman in Olympic history to do so. She did this in 1976, at the same Olympics in which Nadia Comaneci pulled off her record-breaking feat.
Her chest is lower than Caslvaska’s and her knees bend a bit more, but her feet are glued together, just as her gymnastics predecessors were.
That landing remains a consistent feature in women’s gymnastics, and is even mandated in the rulebook. According to the women’s Code of Points, the women incur a deduction, albeit a small one, for landing with their feet apart. And while they’re not supposed to land fully upright like the women of the ’30s and Caslavska did, the forward pitch indicated in the figure is not significant.
“One of the problems with the legs-together landing is that the base is very small laterally, and that reduces stability,” Fink wrote in an email. “It can also painfully [cause] the bumpy processes on the medial side of the distal tibia called the medial malleolus to knock together.”
According to Dr. Dave Tilley, a former collegiate gymnast turned coach, the way the women are prescribed to land is not in keeping with current best practices when it comes to ACL tears; they are landing, he told me, in a way that puts the brunt of the force onto the knee joint. Tilley called for more gymnasts to use a more “hip dominant” landing style, meaning that the athlete is squatting to parallel or nearly that point while hinging forward, driving her hips back so that the glutes and hamstrings can better distribute the landing action. (Tilley also hosts the Shift Show podcast.)
Fink, while noting that landing forces are significantly higher than take-off forces—roughly 8x body weight vs. 15xBW—also pointed out that the internal forces can be even higher. “Internal joint forces can be much, much higher—at the tolerance limits of the biological structure—than the external forces measured with something like a force platform,” he said.
“Squatting to 90 degrees is the best way to recruit your hamstrings and your glutes, and co-contract your quad together to stabilize,” Tilley said. “We think [this] can protect against some of those forces that would slide the shin forward and maybe tear the ACL or cause other damage.”
This is true not just for the catastrophic landings cited earlier but also for landings that appear fine at the time. “The thought is that over time, the non-ideal landing types might further stress the growth plates, joints, and cartilage of the gymnasts,” Tilley added in an email. (The matter of stress on growth plates also has to do with hyper-early specialization in women’s gymnastics. Perhaps we should be rethinking more than just landing position!)
As it happens, the men have moved closer to this landing approach over the last several years. They tend to stick with feet at least shoulder width apart, if not more, and hinging forward. Here’s Japanese great, Kohei Uchimura, sticking his double twisting double layout off of the high bar, landing exactly as Tilley described. (The dismount is worth your attention, but the whole routine is absolutely wild.)
After he stuck the dismount, Uchimura did bring his heels together as he saluted the judge. This is prescribed in the rules, perhaps as a nod to the notion of landing with one’s feet together. It’s kind of silly, but Uchimura knows better than not to do it. He knows this because he’s been deducted in the past on what appeared to be perfect landings precisely because he didn’t bring his heels together at the end. It’s kind of silly but it seems like a very small price to pay to be able to land in a safer position.
When you watch men’s floor exercise, landing positions similar to Uchimura’s, if generally less extreme, are abundant. That is: feet often shoulder width apart; significant hip hinge; heels snuck together at the end. This is notable for our purposes here because it is notably not what you see when you watch the women land, even though this position might benefit them more than it does the men due to their increased susceptibility to ACL tears. “Females typically have a wider hip bone structure and so they’re already kind of predisposed to have that knee cave in,” said Tilley. “If you land with your feet within your hip footprint ... not in line with your hips, you can’t use the outside of your hips, like your glutes and some of your external rotators to help stabilize against the knees caving in.”
FIG has an image of what non-deductible landing postures look like. While some clearly unsafe landing positions are subject to deduction—your head and shoulders definitely shouldn’t be at knee level—the range of permissible landing positions seems a bit narrow. Even though some of these feature some knee bend and some hip hinge, Tilley believes not nearly enough of either.
“The biggest thing is that squatting to at least 90 degrees or parallel needs to be allowed to decelerate the body and allow for force dissipation,” Tilley wrote in an email about this particular image.
I don’t know why the landing position that Tilley described isn’t the norm for the women, but I am happy to speculate. This landing is less aesthetically pleasing, and women’s gymnastics was borne out of dance and has a fraught relationship with that past. There’s also the fact that women’s gymnastics has been slow to adopt safety-related best practices in general. Or perhaps it’s as simple as that this is what the rules dictate. At some point, it doesn’t matter. “People do what’s rewarded,” Fink says. “Simple as that.”
The difference between the ways that female gymnasts were once permitted to land and how they land today is most evident on the floor routine. Up until 2008, the women were allowed to take a controlled step backwards into a lunge upon landing their passes without any penalty. Perhaps this was a vestige from the days when women’s gymnastics was more dance than sport, but that lunge certainly helped contemporary gymnasts integrate increasingly challenging acrobatics into the choreography. But it had other benefits as well. “If they don’t have to worry about sticking the landing and [can] take a step back, as many did then, of course that’s safer,” Fink said. That step back extended the time and distance in which a gymnast had to apply forces in order to bring all forms of momentum—horizontal, angular, vertical—to zero. “If someone lands and doesn’t have to stick and can take a step back, they’re applying forces over a longer period,” Fink said. That one step probably saved innumerable ACL’s.
But the “controlled lunge” approach, despite being safer in some instances, had problems in practice, especially when it came to judging. “Controlled” was yet another point of subjectivity, and sometimes some very uncontrolled lunges weren’t properly deducted. And, of course, there were some gymnasts who could stick their passes cold and didn’t need that extra step. “If two gymnasts do the identical trick, say a full twisting double [back], and one sticks it and one has to take a step back, what’s the better technical performance?” Fink asked. Clearly the gymnast who had stuck it cold had better command of the skill, was better prepared to land, and was strong enough to apply forces to bring all forms of momentum to zero.
When the rule changed to remove the lunge from floor exercise landings, I was among those who were pleased, at least at first. I felt that “less” shouldn’t be expected of the women than from the men, who had no other option but to stick their passes cold lest they get deducted. I never considered that the lunge was potentially safer. But when the women switched over to “sticks” on floor exercise, the women’s technical committee didn’t change the rules to accommodate a safer landing position.
A floor routine usually has four passes, and thus four opportunities to incur landing deductions, and so the gymnasts and their coaches have searched for ways to get around that. (Men, too, have engaged in similar shenanigans; Fink said that he once coached a guy to do a floor routine without any landings whatsoever.) Many have started adding jumps out of their passes. The sissone, a split jump taking off from two feet but landing to just one, can help mask an out of control landing the way the lunge once did. I asked Fink if these jumps, which I personally can’t stand, could potentially be a safer way to dissipate the forces, and was surprised to learn that he felt that this practice was potentially more injurious, not less. (Not to mention that with how closely the judges have been scrutinizing the dance elements of late, a gymnast could lose more on a poorly executed jump after their pass than if they just took the L and incurred a .3 deduction for a large step on landing.)
“There’s a sudden takeoff from a hard landing,” he said, “so you’ve got different kinds of extensions and different kinds of muscle contractions.” Another danger point in tumbling is when gymnasts connect bounding skills, say a back layout with two-and-a-half twists into a front layout somersault. If a gymnast lands the first skill in the wrong position—perhaps a bit too forward because of an over rotation, or worse, a bit under—and then tries to punch into the next skill, they might fall or have to tuck to make it all the way around. They might very well get hurt in the attempt. While there’s a difference between punching for a flip and punching for a leap, it’s clear that this approach is only mitigating the risk for landing deductions, and not for injury. There have also been several instances when a gymnast punched for a leap after a pass and launched themselves unexpectedly several feet into the air, almost to the height of their somersaults.
Though everyone seemed to get a kick out of this, and while all of the gymnasts in question landed without incident, the out of control nature of those janky bounce-and-jump moments certainly doesn’t make injury less likely. Again, it’s a dangerous sport. Again, it could be made less so.
Landing safety isn’t simply about what the gymnast does in the air; it’s about what they hit on the ground. Back when Shakhlin and Weiler were competing, mats were not particularly cushiony. When I interviewed Abie Grossfeld, who competed for the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s, he spoke of competing on what was essentially a carpet rolled out over concrete. While this had a ring of “When I was a kid, we used to walk 10 miles to the school in snow” to it, the point was valid on its merits. That era’s gymnasts really were landing on pretty unforgiving surfaces and had to be perfectly trained so as not to injure themselves. They had to be, as Fink repeatedly mentioned in our conversation, supremely prepared for landing.
Today’s gymnasts have much better safety aids at their disposal, both in training and in competition. About a decade after Daggett’s disastrous vault, FIG added 10 centimeters of matting to the vault landing area, and also to high bar. That’s as generous as the sport’s bosses have been ever since.
“The 18-centimeter mats, and then you can stick another 10-centimeter mat on top of that,” Fink said. “I’m not sure if they’re ever going to go any further than that.” The issue, here, is that gymnasts have and will keep pushing the limits, regardless of what surface they’re dropping down to. This is more or less the essential problem in women’s gymnastics, especially—the athletes are getting better much faster than the sport’s stodgy rules can or will recognize. (Using much thicker or softer surfaces is also not really safer if the goal is to stick. “If you use a resi, it’s safer for repeated performance of skills,” Fink said, referring to a soft, squishy ubiquitous training aid that gymnasts use to learn new skills and reduce impact. “But if it’s a stuck landing every time, it’s not necessarily safer because it caves in. It needs a different kind of adaptation of the muscles.” Among other things, the risk of trying to stick a landing on a resi is eversion, or a violent turning out of the ankle. “Is it safer for stuck landings?” Fink asked, rhetorically. “No.” The gymnasts really can’t win.)
The thickness of the mats isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to safe landings; old mats must be swapped out for new ones fairly often, certainly more often than what is currently practiced. “Most mats won’t sustain 1000 landings without degrading significantly,” Fink said. Careful attention needs to be paid to the mats under the rings given that every single gymnast lands in basically the same spot, as opposed to an event like vault where gymnasts might land in many different spots depending on power and amplitude. “You can’t have the same mat for the entire week of the Olympics, plus the training days.”
While changing mats out frequently might be feasible at major competitions, it’s not something that most gyms, especially smaller ones, can do; mats, like all gymnastics equipment, are really expensive. “It’s definitely not the low hanging fruit,” Tilley said of changing up mats early and often. Ultimately, keeping gymnasts safe still comes back to allowing proper landing form and enforcing that standard via strict judging and applying deductions ruthlessly to unsafe, unprepared landings.
“The whole landing thing always comes down to we cannot permit under-rotated twists, under-rotated saltos,” Fink said. This isn’t simply a matter of properly rewarding the gymnast who has mastered the skill and ensuring proper rankings and results. Fink pointed out that the difference between a good landing and bad, unprepared one can be as much as six times body weight for the latter (as measured by a force platform.) You can see the problem.
How a gymnast prepares for landing makes a huge difference, too. This is another thing that Biles, in particular, usually excels at. I know that at these Olympics, Biles has had to withdraw due to a terrifying and dangerous case of the twisties, but this doesn’t erase the past eight years of gymnastics; she has routinely shown mastery when it comes to fully rotating her flips and preparing for landing . Biles is usually done rotating and twisting her skills well before her feet hit the ground. Sometimes she even appears to kick out before landing. This is a flex, but it’s also a way to start reducing momentum before landing.
“I think that eliminating stuck landings as an expectation will be a non-starter,” Fink wrote the first time I reached out to him about this topic in an email whose subject line was “Against sticking the landing.” Despite that provocative subject line, I don’t really want to see them go away, either. There’s an unparalleled thrill to watching a gymnast soar through the air and then, in a split second, bring all that speed and rotation to a complete stop. It’s the ultimate display of bodily mastery, and that’s what everyone is here for.
But this past week, with Biles’s withdrawal from the Olympics that she was supposed to dominate, has laid bare not just how dangerous this sport can be but also the myriad of things that can go wrong when a gymnast takes off down the runway and hurtles herself towards the vault. Every time a gymnast lands safely is a victory. Coaches, judges, and officials have to do everything in their power to ensure that those victories, regardless of stuck landing, abound.