So, I’m standing here, minding my own, when suddenly everyone starts bashing my profession. Gymnasts, decades past their career in the sport, start tweeting narratives defining how their coaches were abusive mentally, verbally, or sometimes physically. When we have recently been through scandals of criminal sexual abuse in the headlines, gyms shutting their doors from Covid 19, and binges of horrible mismanagement from our governing body, can there be any better time to kick the down dog?
I stand one hundred percent with the gymnasts affected by bad coaching and systemic abuse. I have always been on the side of the children and always will be. But, I have to defend my sport, if nothing else, than because it is a sport of grace and beauty, a sport that churns out resilience and strength. It is a sport that somehow has given me every good and positive thing in my life.
These reports are to be believed and taken into consideration, to be sure. But we should first be asking, what is the outcome they are seeking by venting these horror stories now? Yes, there are problems, but what should we do about it?
Problem 1: Things are different now than they were even 5 years ago. It would be difficult to travel back and assign punishment to people for not wearing seat-belts in the 1970’s when not wearing them was pretty standard then. We are being asked to reach back and condemn coaches for what was allowed then, even though it was pretty standard. I don’t mean to belittle the situation; abusive and negative coaching is never Okay. But we are a constantly evolving sport, as everything should be. We change things to make them better, after all that’s what necessitates change. I would never at any time in history say it’s acceptable to berate a child under the guise of developing them, but in the past the judgement wasn’t so obvious.
As a young athlete I trained in gyms where I heard coaches yell and threaten us with physical punishment like laps or sit ups. I never thought a thing about it being detrimental in the long term. It was just the way it was. I received those punishments as well and don’t feel it broke me. I was even given the nickname “Space Head” from a coach for about a year because I never knew the workout plan or where I supposed to be at a given time. Though I hated the name I don’t think it damaged me, though I do know it hasn’t changed the fact that I still have time management issues as an adult. I guess somethings cannot be trained out.
Problem 2: It worked. Does threatening an athlete and making them beg for your approval work? Yes. If you treat a child like a product to be manufactured and have no emotional connection to them, yes, it will work. We will get great gymnasts, but we will have damaged and broken adults once they retire from the sport. If that is acceptable then the whole immoral process justifies itself. Years ago our governing body put out the directive that they wanted medals and worldwide dominance. They turned a blind eye to negative coaching because it provided the result they wanted, and the process was never a concern to be examined. Now we are all dealing with the repercussions of that determination. And that is not right.
Problem 3: Coaches are human. Coaches want validation. In training an athlete to win, it places that coach in higher regard as a person capable of training champions at all costs. The system played on human values and fueled the behavior. There are some coaches now, who look back and realize the error of their ways. Many have changed their method to be more positive and focused on the child’s attainment of their own goals and success. These coaches, with their improved coaching, are still overwhelmingly successful and for that they should be applauded. Is it harder to develop a successful athlete in this fashion? Yes. Yes, it is, but the outcome pays in dividends rather than all at once and short term. So, is it better? Yes. Yes, it is.
Problem 4: Coaches did not act alone but they are getting the brunt of the blame. There is no way that the parent of an athlete was not aware of the stern and abusive practices of these coaches. I know many of the coaches under fire right now, and I know many who aren’t under fire and should be, but in all of the cases these coaches have reputations that precede them. I am not talking of the local gymnastics center that has class gymnasts coming in once a week. Though there may be some dicey individuals teaching classes in some gyms. For the most part, these programs are bent on delivering good service and care of the children in their training. If they weren’t, they would go out of business. But in elite or high-level program, the athlete is usually leaving a local gym and coming to train with a coach whose reputation assures the parent that their child will be a “winner”. Parents often relocate their families to attend these medal mills and I have a hard time believing that they are unaware of what they are moving for. However, it is much easier for a former gymnast to tweet shade on their old coach than it is to face their own mothers and fathers and ask, “why did you let that happen to me?”
However, parents are human too. Unfortunately, the insecure training they received as parents (read as “none”) leaves them seeking validation for a job well done. The way they get that particular accolade is to produce a “winner”. Often, at all costs.
Where do I stand?
Hard training can produce good athletes. The stoic philosopher Seneca once said “No prize fighter can ever go into the strife if he has not been beaten black and blue. One who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who has, as often as he falls, risen again with a greater defiance than ever” and I agree. When our kids train hard, they sometimes fall. They sometimes get extra work to enforce a new technique, or they may have repercussions for failed attempts. This is not abuse, it’s coaching. They learn This is the technique I need to use for that particular skill. They learn I will push myself to get this skill to satisfy the coach but more importantly satisfy myself. They know that they are strong and resilient once they have met pain/fear and become unafraid to face it again. Through life this lesson provides a young person who is willing to work to receive and is willing to stand up for themselves when others may cower. They become strong of body, spirit, and mind because they know that nothing will stand between them and their goal. Isn’t that a worthy outcome?
The issue then becomes the delicate dance the coach must do to develop that sense. Pushing enough to lead the child to their goal but not enough to break the spirit. They must know and love their athletes and respect them enough to want the absolute best for them, even if sometimes that means assigning a rope climb. A coach must be willing to sit and talk with the gymnast to learn their goals and dreams and be willing to devise a plan to help them get there. They must be willing to help define the goals to allow the gymnast the possibility of success. I have had young gymnasts share their dreams of Olympic glory and I have helped to redirect them to something we both agree upon as attainable. Not that Olympic glory is not a worthwhile dream, but placing it is an ideal and seeing it as a dream; allows us to see more clearly the reality of possible achievement. That is the coaches’ job.
Are there real concerns about the state of gymnastics? Unfortunately, yes. USAG, our governing body, has taken on a crusade to rid the sport of bad actors. Their method of banning coaches without hope of rehabilitation is like placing a scarlet letter A for Abuser on the chests of anyone ever reported to them, for any cause. The are open to reprimand coaches for complaints of unsatisfactory choices in gym lobby vending machines, unkempt gym spaces, raising voices, or assigning “tough” strength conditioning. Is that abuse? Is it a crime against children? No, it is a reason to choose a different gym. But coaches are investigated for these crimes. During the investigation coaches are prohibited from coaching. This is ruining the careers of both bad coaches and some good that have been caught in a net cast too wide. Their witch hunt mentality could bring about change, but I am not sure it will be the change we need. I think it’s evidence of an organization trying too hard to appear as getting their house in order.
Education is what our sport needs. There are successful coaches and programs that have developed champions using positive methods. They need to be noted for their practices and emulated by new coaches coming up. Coaches found in violation need to be offered training and options to procure counseling to ensure that they can still have a chance to do what they do, only to do it better. We need to also have avenues of education for parents to help them have realistic goals for their children. Help them to identify real abuse and what to do about it. And lastly, we need to empower gymnasts to identify and report any concerning behavior to their parents or a third and objective party. All of this can only help, and it would not be hard to do.
Nothing is to be gained by punishment of coaches without hope of retribution. We have to realize that a broken system was built and maintained by our governing body many years ago, and that realization must include knowing that the current body is making efforts (though not carried out well yet) to realign their goals with more positive processes.
Should we quiet the calls of gymnasts who proclaim their histories of abuse and maltreatment? Absolutely not! In fact, we need them to identify any weak spots in the system and to define what is no longer acceptable. Nonetheless, I feel that riding the bandwagon to destruction of the sport in general is not the way to fix the ills of gymnastics. Identifying bad actors and programs and giving them the opportunity to repair should be the goal. If they cannot improve then they need to be voted off the island. These kids “whistle blowing, for lack of better words, allows us an opportunity to be better but, best of all, it allows the former gymnasts who need support to take the first step on the journey to recovery.