Reflections on critical events help us better understand past behaviours and can be cathartic for the writer. I have used reflective pieces within my research to help identify common themes and experiences shared by those involved in gymnastics at the elite level. One such theme was that of ‘disempowerment’ where parents felt marginalised and unable to speak with the coach about issues they had through fear of retribution most often toward their children.
I have permission to share the following narrative describing a parents thoughts and feelings regarding an injury their daughter sustained (names have been changed). These feelings of disempowerment were described frequently within the narratives of the parents involved in my studies.
A deepening sense of dread wells in the pit of my stomach as I reach for the phone. My finger lingers above the accept call button as I consider the conversation I am about to have with Coach. I already know I am going to defend Sienna to the hilt. No-one can blame her. Surely? It was entirely my fault. How was she to know I had taken her handguards home the night before? She alwaysleaves them at the gym. I’d realised they were in the boot of the car an hour after I had dropped her to training; it was too late by that point to return and drop them off, it would take another hour to make it back across town and bars was the first piece of apparatus. Bring Bring. Bring Bring. The phone goads me, pulsating with every ring. Coach’s name glares out at me illuminated on the screen, demanding to be answered. I take a deep breath, my pulse quickening as I swipe to answer the call.
Hello”, a little voice whimpers through the phone at me. I am confused, I was expecting Coach. “Mummy … [sob]”, I can barely make out what Sienna is saying amid the crying, “sent me out [sob] … told me not to come back [sob] … “ Crap, Coach is really angry about the missed bars session. I knew it would happen, I had been anticipating it all morning, contemplating which sadistic sanction would be imposed upon my poor daughter. The little voice sobbing down the phone continues, “she said [sob] … she said you have to come and get me.” And there it was, the punishment, my punishment for not returning with the handguards as soon as I had realised my error. I had sent a text message earlier that morning explaining the oversight but had [thankfully] received no reply. And then came the bombshell, “and I have hurt my ankle.” My jaw clenches as I try to process what has been said, I feel my face begin to flush, the rage building from within. “Oh no honey, what happened?” I try to sound calm, to show her it’s all ok but I am aching from the deepest depth of my soul, my gut writhing for allowing her to be in this position. This is my fault. Only my fault. “Coach was shouting at me [sob] to do my aerial series on beam but I was scared … I tried to do it mummy but I fell off and hurt my ankle.” “Does it feel ok now?” I ask, dreading the answer I half expect to hear; she may only be eleven but she knows not to make a fuss over ‘just’ pain. She has been conditioned to accept that within gymnastics you are going to experience pain a lot of the time, it comes with the ‘job’. Despite her tender age she can differentiate between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’. For her to tell me she is hurt can only mean she has sustained an injury not just a knock. “No I can’t walk, it hurts too much … Coach is really angry with me, she threw an ice pack at me and told me if it’s not broken not to come back.”
My drive back to the gym is a blur, fragmented thoughts fill the silence of the journey. I push aside those that plead with my subconscious to consider Coach’s view point, to try to understand why she feels it important to behave the way she does. I embrace the feelings of guilt and animosity; I need to hold onto the anger. Who is my anger aimed at? Coach or myself? The psychological self-flagellation hurts, this is not who I want to be, this is not who I am. The feelings of remorse and forgiveness creep their way back into the forefront of my mind. I am not strong enough; I am losing this fight.
By the time I reach the gym the anger has been replaced with trepidation. I know what will happen, I have been here too many times before. Coach greets me with a smile, “I just don’t know what to with your little minx!” I nervously ask where she is. “Oh, she’s helping the little ones with their range and conditioning. She’s really good, looks like I did something right!” Coach replies with a chuckle. I want to scream at her, I want to cause her the pain she has caused Sienna. How can she be so calm, so dismissive about what has happened today? No apology, no remorse, no concern. Coach has moved on, that was yesterdays news. Sienna comes out of the gym, walking gingerly on her heel. She smiles at me and greets me with a hug. “How you doing hunny?” I ask, not daring to mention the injury in front of Coach, taking my lead from Sienna. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I had thought, maybe she was more upset than hurt. “I am ok, it hurts a little but not too much.” That twist in my stomach again, the internal conflict raging inside me. I am so relieved she seems to be ok, yet wary of the backlash to come as my daughter obviously has neither the ‘tenacity nor hardiness to make it at the elite level’. How many times have I heard that? How many times has Sienna been told she’s not injured, she is just lazy and choosing not to do something? How often have I heard she is wasting her talent. I realise I am actually a little disappointed she’s ok and dispel the thought quickly, that’s not how a good mother should think! I am brought back from my reverie as I realise Coach is talking to me. “Did you bring her handguards? … Ah good, well you can go to the hospital to get her foot checked after she has done her bars session.” I watch helplessly as my daughter heads back into the gym clutching her handguards and hobbling on her injured foot.
I am once again feeling like the bad mother that I obviously am as the doctor asks if Sienna has had any pain relief, and offers her some Ibuprofen when I reply she hasn’t. He suggests the fact she can weight bare and hasn’t needed pain relief is a good sign but they will take an X-Ray of her ankle as a precautionary measure. “Do you think it’s broken mummy?” she asks. I look at her and realise this isn’t the innocence of a child wondering if they will get a cast for friends to sign, this is a deeply troubled athlete who is concerned their coach may not have them back. I often forget she is still a child and unable to process the complex cues and connotations of the adult world. I knew as soon as I saw Coach today that her threat of making Sienna leave was in the heat of the moment, but Sienna has held onto that thought all day. “How would you feel if it was broken?” I put the question out there, floating in front of Sienna to clutch onto and give me some indication of how she feels. “I don’t know, Coach would have to believe I was actually hurt and would let me come back, but then I couldn’t train properly and would fall more behind.” I think carefully about how to construct my next question. Sienna is a member of the junior national team and I have been told many times she has amazing potential to go all the way. She has everything you need to make it big in the sport. Our family has sacrificed more than just time and money for Sienna to get where she is, we have sacrificed relationships. My other children barely get to see me and all our expendable income and a little more goes on Sienna’s sport. “You could always try another gym” I suggest hesitantly. I don’t want her lasting memories of gymnastics being the ones forged with Coach over the past year. I want her to experience the fun and enjoyment the sport can bring, to be more in control of her own career wherever that may lead. To succeed without the daily fear and humiliation that comes with training with Coach. Yes, Coach is technically amazing and has transformed Sienna’s gymnastics, made her the athlete she is today, but at what cost? But I already know the answer before I even ask the question. “I can only achieve with Coach, if I want to go to the Olympics I have to stay, I have to be strong. There is no point in going anywhere else I might as well quit!” Perhaps that is the lesser of the two evils. But how do you force your child to quit a sport they have put so much into, given up so much for? I don’t know the answer, I don’t know what is right. Before I can beat myself up anymore the doctor returns. “Well, it looks like you have broken a bone in your ankle. It’s your lucky day though, you get to choose a colour for your cast” he says with a smile. Sienna’s eyes brighten, not in response to the choice between pink, purple or blue, but because she has won this round. She is injured and Coach was wrong and would have to take her back!