How do we stop abuse in our sport?
Just over two years ago, I wrote a letter to gymnastics coaches. Amidst recent events (such as the Maggie Haney suspension), I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the complexities of stopping abuse in our sport.
It was my second month coaching competitive the first time I ever threw a kid out of the gym. It was for not performing her kips in a row correctly. I was subbing for another coach at the time, and she had told me to be strict with her. The child didn’t even look to be that bothered – she just took off her grips and walked silently out the door of the gym to go and sit in the lobby.
I think back to this day often. Why did I really throw the kid out of the gym? Was it because I needed to? I might have thought so at the time. The real answer, though, is that I threw her out of the gym because I had seen numerous other competitive coaches do this. At a new club, I was seeking validation – to be respected, to be seen as “tough enough” to have “successful” athletes. I was already coming in with less gymnastics experience than most of the other coaches, being both younger and having coached for far fewer years than any other coach at this gym.
I tell you this story not to give my own personal philosophy on coaching (though I do have one and throwing kids out the gym is NOT part of it), but to illustrate an example of a cultural change that has made abuse so hard to eradicate from our sport.
Career coaches stick around for 40+ years, with little change to their behavior over time. They hold power in their clubs, and younger coaches are left in a predicament – either conform or get out. The small-world nature of gymnastics enables abusive environments to thrive. I personally know of coaches (and parents for that matter, but we’ll get to that later) who have been blacklisted, demoted, or fired for speaking up for protecting kids or fellow employees. Just as athletes are told they are replaceable, at some gyms, coaches are told this as well.
As for the parents, here lies an interesting issue. Over the years, I’ve dealt with numerous “crazy gym parents” – those who want progress updates after every practice, who demand their kids be put in higher levels, and who watch every single four-hour practice, five days a week. This type of behavior often makes coaches want to retreat, and it makes it difficult to want to let the parents in.
I have personally had parents question my conditioning program or drills for specific skills, and I’ve had them tell me that I was not pushing their child hard enough. Due to this behavior, I know of one gym that limits viewing to a few times per month because parents would watch every day and it would stress their kids out to the point that the girls no longer wanted to come to the gym.
There are usually only a few parents like this at every gym. However, from an owner’s or coach’s perspective, this behavior reduces the credibility of all parents, and makes it so that parental complaints are not taken seriously. Do I think this is right? Absolutely not! But it is important to note that this is a contributing factor as to why abuse is still very prevalent in the sport.
I also find that a good majority of gym owners are reluctant to investigate and report for claims of abuse (if it is not directly related to them), in fear of losing kids and having their gym shown in a negative light and/or have to shut down. Between the Larry Nassar situation, abuse allegations of multiple coaches, and the possible decertification of USA Gymnastics, there is very much fear of the future for gym owners.
Do I think this is right? HECK NO. Again, though, it is a reality of the situation. In the capitalistic society that is North America, money talks. When financial and/or job security is at risk, people do undesirable things.
So how do we stop abuse in gymnastics when it is ingrained in the sport from the ground up in so many ways? I am not entirely sure, but I do have a few ideas that could potentially expedite the process.
The first is that there needs to be greater accountability from federations. Even at the provincial or state level, I think governing bodies need to keep coaches accountable. For example, things like yelling at kids at a competition, aggressively escorting them off of the floor, or belittling them in front of other athletes is often tolerated, and it should NOT be. The only way to stop this type of behavior is to have legitimate consequences, like a one-year ban from all competitions for the violation of an updated and very specific code of conduct. Enforcement at higher levels will have greater effect for more immediate changes, as there will be a trickle-down effect in clubs if owners and coaches see that this behavior is not tolerated.
When we talk about abuse at the club level, it is much harder to control, especially if the head coach or owner is at the helm of the abuse. I think the first step here starts with parents communicating with their children about what kind of conduct is and is not appropriate or acceptable from a coach. On one end, it is fair for a coach to make a child sit out for a bit if they are doing something unsafe in the gym. It is not okay, however, for a coach to yell at, body shame, or engage in other similar behaviors to “punish” a child.
It’s also important that children must feel safe coming to YOU as the parent when they feel uneasy or uncomfortable in the gym, so it is important for parents to not dismiss concerns children bring to them about the behavior of a coach. Parents also know their children better than anyone – some kids keep to themselves, while others complain a lot and even exaggerate the circumstances in a situation. Parents need to look for specific cues in their own children that might indicate when there is something bad or out of the ordinary going on. Knowing your child and keeping an open dialogue is a crucial first step in recognizing and reporting abuse.
Though having an open dialogue with your child is important, I do acknowledge that abusers can often be very manipulative and craft a convincing argument that puts blame on the athlete. Furthermore, they can often make the athlete feel like the abuse is their own fault. This manipulation makes it so that it is almost impossible to completely eradicate abuse. I reiterate that figuring out when your child is upset and discussing with them what they should be treated like is key to discovering potential abusers earlier, and to take this a step further, noting a coach or other adult who might get overly defensive when a child indicates something is wrong.
Unfortunately, I think that because money does talk, there is a certain responsibility that lies on the parent to pull their child out of problematic situations. If you notice that your child is often berated or screamed at, it is important to bring up the issue in a meeting with the head coach and their personal coach, and if the issues continues or worsens, to pull your child out of that gym.
I understand this is difficult, especially if your child is at a higher level and there are no other gyms around. However, I do think that if enough people pulled out in situations like these, the gym would be forced to make changes in order to retain kids. At the end of the day, it is also important to recognize that this is a sport, and that no amount of abuse is worth qualifying to nationals, getting an NCAA scholarship, or going to the Olympics.
The goal of this article is not to put blame on the parents, and the only people at fault for the abuse of a child are the abusers and the people who facilitate that abuse. However, given the realities of the current situation in the sport, parents do need to take responsibility in making sure their children are safe and healthy, especially as gymnasts are often young when involved in gymnasts and often do not have the ability to stand up for themselves. It’s important that all children have an educated and supportive parent on their team.
As for my fellow coaches, I think that our role in this matter is to be critical of our own behavior, questioning our training program, its application, and our behaviors at the gym. Do we need to yell at an athlete because they’ve bent their arms in their cast handstands which you’ve already corrected once? Do we need to throw a kid out of the gym because their effort isn’t 100% that day?
It is also important to think critically about why you coach. Do you coach to have national champions? If that’s your goal, this probably isn’t the career for you. I personally coach because I love teaching athletes skills they will be able to use for the rest of their lives. I like to help them gain confidence and the ability to persevere when things get tough, and I enjoy sharing the love I have for gymnastics.
The suggestions I make in this article will not stop abuse in our sport, and I think it will take a while for real cultural change to come into effect, which is the only way we will be able to prevent abuse on a wide scale. But it is important that coaches do our part to help develop a positive atmosphere at every level in our gyms, even if it goes against what our superiors expect and demand, because at the end of the day, this is the way we as individuals can start making an impact on taking this culture down.
For now, we must be critical of our behavior, take ownership of our actions, and speak up when we see something wrong, because this is the only way the next generation will grow up in a different version of the sport that we did.