Parents perceptions of pain and injury

Part of my research has considered how parents become socialised into the gymnastics culture. One such paper looked at parents perceptions of their daughters’ pain and injury experiences. Parents of elite level British gymnasts participated in interviews to help gain some insight into how they came to accept pain and injury as part of their daughters’ gymnastics careers.

Participants discussed their experiences at eight different clubs, names have been changed as have any identifying features.

The discourse analysis undertaken was forged through a Foucauldian lens.

All parents described how their children were identified as talented within a few months of starting gymnastics.  As with previous research the parents in this study willingly sacrificed family commitments and relationships in order to meet the demands of training and competition (Weiss & Hayashi, 1995).  Once their daughter was in a competitive programme each parent conveyed how the demands of the sport quickly overtook their family life; Angela explained the need to negotiate the rest of the family around the training schedule, stating after a while you realise actually how much time you are giving up with the rest of the family for the one child.  Anne felt her life had become:

Driven by gym … I wasn’t prepared for the amount of time it did take me away from Naomi … that was really impactful on me as a parent … we were minus one as a family a lot of times. 

These findings are in contrast to Cote (1999) who reported a gradual shift of parental attention and resources throughout the investment and specialising years, whereas the present study found an almost immediate impact on family life.  This unequal distribution of resources may be to the detriment of non-athletic siblings (Anderson & Anderson, 2000) with parents becoming internally divided as they attempt to juggle the roles of ‘family mum’ and ‘gym mum’ (Foucault, 1983). Despite the financial and logistical demands placed upon their families all the parents described being committed to their child’s gymnastics endeavour’s.

Parental Socialisation

A number of parents described feeling unsure about certain practices but lacked the confidence to question them as they [the coaches] know best; I don’t know anything … I am not a gym coach. These feelings of uncertainty were often compounded as some parents expressed they felt unable to ask for information regarding their daughter’s development, Sarah indicated, you’re two fully grown adults, myself and my husband, who are paying through the nose for your child to be coached and yet you’re both terrified of asking the coach, how’s it going?.  This lack of parental agency suggests coaches are viewed as possessing specialist knowledge and are therefore experts in their field, indeed, it has been noted the most effective method to improve child outcomes is to follow expert guidance (Lee, 2014).

As their daughters became more involved with gymnastics parents described becoming desensitised to certain practices, Sarah discussed feeling sorry for the ‘newbie’ stating they don’t understand, look how soft they are. They don’t understand you’ve got to toughen up a bit if you want to be a gymnast or a gym mum.  Over time parents learned to accept their position within the subculture and which behaviours were acceptable, the message was very strong to everybody, don’t complain about being tired, don’t complain about being ill, don’t complain about being injured.  Learning to accept and internalise the dominate discourse is part of the socialisation process, Kerr and Stirling (2012) found the parents in their study observed the practices of their children and other parents and adjusted their behaviour accordingly.  Sarah noted I subsequently realised you end up with a culture where it’s not acceptable to be in pain, or certainly not to complain about it, Foucauldian theory suggests historical discourses lead to regimes of ‘truth’ where certain practices are formed and identities are fashioned (Markula & Pringle, 2006), the identity of ‘gym mum’ was shaped through the discourses of elite gymnastics with parents becoming objectified under the regime of coaching truth.

Acquiescence of pain and injury

Each parent acknowledged pain and injury were synonymous with their child’s involvement in gymnastics.  Angela illustrated she accepted the risk of injury early on,

It is gonna happen.  When they are standing on a bit of wood 1.25 meters high they are at one point gonna fall off and they are possibly gonna hurt themselves. So I was very matter of fact about it.

Parent’s first experiences of pain through their daughters’ gymnastics participation came at different points within the socialisation process.  For some the reality of accepting pain as part of the process came early within their daughter’s careers, Anne described the ‘rips’ on her daughter’s hands as something I’ve never really found that easy to look at and ignore. The method adopted toward rip management was also questioned, seeing some very deep rips on the wrists and thinking Naomi wants to put surgical spirit on this and this doesn’t seem right by me”. However, Anne acquiesced admitting she was “learning on the jobdespite not being convinced it was appropriate and having to trust in how Naomi talked to others and found out what they do.  Parents may feel unable to challenge certain coaching practices and strategies as the transference of power has shifted toward the coach; trust in the coach’s knowledge and gradual relinquishing of parental control have been identified as early indicators of socialisation into the elite sports subculture (Kerr & Stirling, 2012).

Having to trust in the coach’s methods was also something Mary initially found difficult, she expressed concern about her daughter being forcibly stretched,

It made me feel quite uncomfortable.  But then all the other parents were talking about it who’s kids were a bit older … saying, it’s normal … and I just thought, oh ok then. They were saying no pain no gain.

Looking to more experienced parents to ‘help interpret unfamiliar coaching practices’ was documented by Clarke and Harwood (2014, p. 532) as a way to help parents understand the processes involved.

For others first pain experiences came through injury, Jennifer discussed her daughter’s heel pain stating Emily had severe Severs [heel pain] when she was nine … it did used to really hurt her, she used to cry a lot.  She explained the pain was managed through the use of freeze sprays and non-prescription pain relief stating they take a lot more medication than a normal child would … she was expected to compete through it and she wanted to do it.  When athlete aspirations are higher than those of their parents, parents may undertake a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude (Dorsch, Smith & McDonough, 2009), in this case advocating playing hurt and the use of drugs to minimise pain.

However, not all gymnasts were expected to work through injury initially, two parents described their first pain through injury encounters as positive with sympathetic coaching practices.  Ava however said,

I know it sounds awful but especially if it is only a pain issue and it’s not something that’s going to have a long term effect on them by training or competing on it then yeah, you let them do it if it’s what they want to do and you have the medical go ahead.

This acceptance of playing in pain providing there is no increase in the likelihood of injury has been previously documented within professional rugby, implying a culture that supports an increased acceptance to playing in pain yet a reduced tolerance to playing whist injured (Malcolm & Sheard, 2002). However, Toffler, Knapp and Lardon (2005) caution against the encouragement of children’s pseudo-autonomy with regard to playing hurt as this may curtail parental instinct to protect their child.

Coach-parent relationship

A number of parents described a coach-parent relationship where you were basically being told that the coaches were the experts on everything”.  Jennifer reflected as a parent you have to do as you are told, so you go more with what the coach tells you to do rather than maybe what you’d feel yourself”.  This attitude became apparent throughout the interviews with numerous parents describing accounts where they felt they had little say over their daughters wellbeing.  Anne recounts,

[the coach] told me basically through her body language that she was the one in charge, it’s her way and er, she didn’t want to talk to me about Naomi’s medical issues.

Much of the literature that discusses the parent-coach relationship focuses on the negative aspects of parental involvement (Horn, 1977; Scantling & Lackey, 2005), however, Brustad (2011) alerts us that parents must be empowered to discuss concerns to prevent child welfare issues; this is echoed by Brackenridge (1988) who asserts parental involvement is a buffer against abusive practice.

Each parent discussed the need for their daughter toreport in everyday and do her training regardless of pain or injury as they have other muscles that they can work … it’s just what we get told and we just go along with itBut we understand, well I do, I understand that as well. Anne recalls feeling reluctant to allow her daughter to train with a back injury but conceded and felt compelled to leave the facility rather than stay to ensure her daughter was safe as,

I had been well trained, well honed to not watching my child, being told that’s not the thing to do, and basically not to be involved.

Sarah concurred,

As parents we were all sort of walking on egg shells the whole time trying not to make things worse, all the time thinking that we were doing things in the interests of our children … for what they wanted.

The expectation to attend every session could be seen as a form of surveillance, a way in which the coach can ensure compliance to their programme.  The panoptic gaze can be felt rather than seen compelling parents to self-regulate, becoming what Foucault described as ‘docile bodies’ to fit in with institutional norms (Foucault, 1991, p 136).  Anne and Sarah both internalised the coaches’ gaze engaging in self-surveillance and self-regulation to avoid admonishment, rendering their bodies docile and malleable to the technologies of domination.

Blame and reprisal

Blame for not conforming to the coaches’ wishes was expressed as both a fear and an action by many parents, Jennifer explained so they suggest something and then if you don’t do it, then if things go wrong you’re obviously going to be to blame. The hierarchical position of coaches and managers leads parents to assume their practices are ‘truths’ as these members of the sportsnet are backed by institutional forces such as the sports governing body and coaching qualifications, legitimising their power (Johns & Johns, 2000).  Anne spoke about being ignored and dismissed by her daughter’s coaches and believed they resented her for upholding medical advice stating  it was their way of blaming me … it was all about them… they didn’t believe Naomi had the injury she said she had.  Nixon (1992, p. 133) suggests that within the sportsnet, individuals with authority and power may ‘disregard or exploit athletes in pursuit of their own self interest’, however Anne’s refusal to acquiesce to the actions of the coach illustrates that power is relational and can change over time (Foucault, 1998).

Reprisal was also a key theme throughout the interviews as Sarah explained you very slowly learn to accept an awful lot … you don’t want to rock the boat … children were punished all the time in subtle and not so subtle ways”.  Ava also described her fear of rocking the boat regarding pain and injury management stating,

I knew if I’d, if I’d got involved she would have taken it out on my kid … [my daughter] stopped telling me things … because it was causing problems in the gym when I spoke to the coach about [it].

These findings are congruent with previous research which documents both athletes and their parents tolerate unwelcome behaviour in the elite sports environment through fear of reprisal (Stirling & Kerr, 2009; Kerr & Stirling, 2012).

When Jennifer’s daughter knocked out her front teeth and was advised to rest for a few weeks to allow them to re-attach, she conceded allowing her to return to training a few days later.  When asked what she thought might have happened if she had not conformed she said,

I’d have got shouted at … I don’t know. I don’t know what the consequences would have been but … I think you soon learn as a gym parent that when someone tells you what to do you have to do it and conform.

Therefore, parents may regulate their behaviour to conform to the institutional directives as the threat of reprisal arouses fear.

Medical input

Relationships with medical practitioners were open and trusting, all parents agreed they valued the input of sports medicine professionals.  A number of gymnasts received National Lottery funding enabling sports medicine support through the English Institute of Sport.  Parents were often expected to make decisions regarding medical treatment for their children, Jennifer explained if it helps your daughter’s sport and it’s what my child would want for themselves then it happens but expressed she often worries whether she has made the right decisions.  Kotarba (1983) suggests athletes base decisions regarding playing through pain and injury on a number of variables including ‘severity of the injury, age, and the location of the problem in the athletic career continuum’, this may be true also for parents of elite gymnasts.  A number of parents highlighted that the importance of the event alongside the severity of the injury was taken into consideration when deciding whether their daughter should compete or not.  One parent described putting her trust in the medical team at a major international event after agreeing to her daughter having an anaesthetic injected to minimise pain to compete,

You know the physio’s and doctors do have your child’s best interests at heart so they are not going to deliberately want to do something that would harm them … I do trust the doctors at British Gymnastics.

This was echoed repeatedly by parents, in fact Anne felt reassured she had direct access to specialist sports medics and wholeheartedly trusted their judgement.  Anne valued the doctor’s opinion that you have got to let each injury heal properly before going back into training and build back up slowly, however, when she upheld this advice after her daughter sustained a head injury she described feeling as though the coach saw her as an interference really rather than someone who could help the process. Safai (2003) suggests overconformity to the sports ethic is a simplistic interpretation of the culture of risk, although this culture is dominant it is not necessarily absolute and proposed there may in fact be a culture of precaution. The finding that parents support medical opinion refutes the claim by Nixon (1992) that athletes are coerced into competing through conspirational alliances within the sportsnet, with a degree of freedom afforded to athletes and parents through support from medical practitioners.   The promotion of sensible risk appears to be dominant once specialised sports medical opinion has been sought.  Nevertheless, the coaches position within the sportsnet appears to reflect the culture of risk and overconformity to the sports ethic through their desire to improve the chance of success, often reinforcing the ideologies of a no pain, no gain culture.

Foucault suggests power is intricately woven into the heart of society and targets the very essence of the self – the body, where the mechanisms of power ‘invest it, mark it, torture it [and] force it to carry out tasks’ (Foucault, 1977, p 25).   These mechanisms of power are used to create docile athletes that monitor, guard and discipline themselves (Eskes, Carlisle-Duncan & Miller, 1998), the findings of the current study suggest parents of elite gymnasts may also be forged into obedient bodies through similar means. The narratives explored suggest that parents may accept the practices of playing through pain and injury through the internalisation of social norms and subsequent formation of discursive power. Roderick, Waddington and Parker (2000) remind us that it is important to recognise that pain and injury discourses are constructed through the sporting milieu and to comprehend the role significant others play in interpreting pain and injury experiences.  As parents play a significant role in modelling their child’s sporting experiences (Cote, 1999; Fredericks & Eccles, 2004) it is essential they are able to recognise the need to intervene and have the tools to do so effectively when their child’s health and welfare may be challenged.  Markula and Pringle (2006) suggest many practices sustain historical ideologies as a result of continued unquestioned acceptance rather than any accountable truth; whilst parents acquiesce to the subcultures ideologies of playing hurt and relinquishing power these practices will go unchallenged and become cyclical.

Parental perceptions of their child’s pain and injury experiences in elite women’s artistic gymnastics

 

Abstract

Numerous studies have considered the socialisation process athletes undertake in regard to pain and injury acceptance, however, there is little research to consider the role parents may play within this process for youth elite athletes.  Not only do parents socialise their children into sport, they too are subject to the discourses of the subculture. The aim of the study was to investigate the socialisation process of parents into the elite women’s artistic gymnastics culture and to consider any concomitant effect it may have had on their child’s pain and injury experiences. Six parents shared their experiences through semi-structured interviews which were critically analysed through a Foucauldian framework.  Interpretation of the findings suggests parents are socialised into the gymnastics subculture and learn to accept that pain and injury are synonymous with sports participation.  Participants revealed unequal power relations leave parents unable to effectively advocate on their child’s behalf impacting on the child’s pain and injury experience.

 

Keywords: Youth, parents, sport, injuries, Foucault.

Introduction

It is widely accepted that youth sport is developmentally and socially advantageous (Weiss & Raedeke, 2004; Fredericks & Eccles, 2006) with parents often being the main socialising agents for sports participation in the formative years (Cote, 1999).   Dukes and Coakley (2002) found that parents introduce their children to sport to enhance their self-confidence, academic achievement and social interactions; youth sport is often structured and highly organised producing an environment where children have the opportunity to achieve and obtain standing with their peers.

Parental support is essential for the development of youth athletes (Cote, 1999), at the elite level parents are deeply invested in their child’s sporting endeavours providing extraordinary financial, emotional and logistical support (Hellstedt, 2005; Bloom, 1985; Cote, 1999). Given the substantial commitment made in the pursuit of sporting achievement some authors have questioned whether parents have their children’s best interests at heart or whether they are living vicariously to realise their own dreams (Horn, 1977; Tofler, Knapp & Lardon, 2005).  It can be seen, however, that parents become socialised into their child’s sporting subculture and undertake cognitions and relational changes as active participants within youth sports settings (Holt, Tamminen, Black, Mandigo & Fox, 2009); individuals become socialised into their environments through dynamic processes over time whereby they adopt the values and accept the norms and behaviours observed (Parke & Buriel, 2006).  In the highly challenging and competitive arena of youth sport parents may find they succumb to the sports normative values, accepting deviant behaviour as the norm in elite sport (Kerr & Stirling, 2012).

The notion of positive deviance, regarded as an unquestioned acceptance of societal norms and values can be considered in relation to the sports ethic, a concept proposed by Hughes and Coakley (1991) to describe an athlete’s unqualified acceptance of and unquestioned commitment to the belief system of their sport.  The sports ethic emphasises that athletes should make sacrifices for their sport, accept risk unconditionally, play through pain and demonstrate a win at all costs attitude.  Athletes who adhere to these values are recognised as ‘real’ athletes and gain respect and admiration (Messner, 2002), creating an environment where the price for success requires the athlete to sacrifice their body in the pursuit of sporting triumph (Theberge, 2003). In a similar vein, Nixon (1993) proposed the idea of ‘sportsnets’ as social networks within the sports subculture which operate to influence decisions made by athletes (Nixon, 1992).  Nixon (1992) suggests the interpersonal relationships between significant others within the sportsnet such as coaches, officials, managers, and peers contribute to the athletes understanding of their role and place within the sports subculture; through acceptance of the sports ideologies athletes learn to rationalise pain and normalise playing hurt.  The sports ethic and sportsnet theories convey the notion that the acceptance of pain and injury are synonymous with sport participation and athletic identity, with Nixon (1993) calling this discursive practice the ‘culture of risk’.

Young, White and McTeer (1994) considered the culture of risk and its relationship with masculinity and men’s health in violent sport.  Discourses within the male sports culture validate men’s masculinity through the routine acceptance and glorification of playing through pain and injury (Nixon, 1993; Theberge, 2008; Young, White & McTeer, 1994). Indeed, the notion of ‘ultramasculinity’ is heralded when male athletes play on despite apparent injury, whereas the threat of stigmatisation hangs over those who succumb to the pressure of pain, threatening both their athletic and masculine identity (Young, White & McTeer, 1994). In a similar study, Roderick (2006) noted professional football players avoided highlighting injury due to the fear of being ‘benched’, exposing the power relations within the sportsnet.  Female athletes have been found to respond to pain and injury discourses and accept overconformity to the sports ethic in a similar way to their male counterparts (Charlesworth & Young, 2004; Cooky & McDonald, 2005; Pike & Maguire, 2003), however, Sabo (2004) concluded female athletes more openly discussed their pain experiences with their peers.  Malcolm (2006), describes a ‘collision of norms’ as female athletes challenge the traditional masculine hegemonic attitudes of society through their willingness to accept pain and injury in the pursuit of performance goals and to maintain their athletic identity (Young & White, 1995; Pike & Maguire, 2003; Pike 2004).  For both male and female athletes socialisation into the darker side of sport is a learned experience with young athletes becoming enmeshed in the subculture through normalising practices, both accepting and fulfilling the ideologies of playing hurt (Roderick, 1998).

Conformity to the sport ethic and acceptance of the culture of risk are internalised over time, with athletes regarding pain as something that must be ignored to fulfil societies goals (Roderick, 1998).  Malcolm (2006) considered the socialisation process of female youth softball players and concluded the girls were indoctrinated to accept pain to avoid social stigmatisation.  Many entered the sporting arena unaware of the demands of the sports ethic, initially rejecting the cultural ideology of accepting pain; coaching strategies to indoctrinate the traditional ball player attitude to pain consisted of downplaying or ignoring complaints, joking about pain, redirecting attention, leading by example and praising girls who perceived pain as positive.  Ryan (1995) conducted research into the lived experiences of female gymnasts and figure skaters highlighting environments of abuse and intense training leading to over-use injuries and the expectation to train and compete whilst in pain or carrying injuries.  With particular interest to this paper, the author suggests parents may become so absorbed in the deviant nature of the elite sport subculture they are unable to advocate on their daughters’ behalf whilst fully supporting coaching decisions.

There is limited research involving first-hand accounts of the everyday lived experiences of parents in the elite sports domain, therefore it’s difficult to understand how the cultural norms of elite sport influence parental behaviour and the associated affect on the child athlete. There is a plethora of information regarding both parents’ involvement in sport and athletes’ experiences of pain and injury, however, to the authors knowledge no previous studies have investigated parental perceptions of their child’s pain and injury experiences within the elite sports domain. The purpose of this study was to explore the socialisation process of parents of female artistic gymnasts into the elite sports subculture with particular focus on pain and injury discourses.

 

Methods

Participants

Participants included 5 parents of elite gymnasts, the researcher also provided an auto-ethnographic account based on the interview questions.  All the participants were mothers, one parent had two children who competed at the elite level and she talked about her experience’s with both of her daughter’s.  Participants were selected as they had children who competed within the British Gymnastics Women’s Artistic programme at a national level.  Five of the children had been members of the Great Britain squad, with four competing at international events at the highest level.  Participants discussed their experiences at eight different clubs, based in the United Kingdom.

Procedures

Following ethical approval from the universities board, participants were recruited by word of mouth.  Purposive sampling was undertaken to ensure participants met the criteria of a daughter competing at the elite level within Great Britain, all respondents were known to the researcher. It was hoped participants would feel more at ease and share their thoughts knowing the researcher personally, Taylor & Bogdan (1984) suggest highlighting mutual experience as a way to gain a respondent’s trust.  Initially potential participants were contacted via email and sent a copy of the information sheet outlining the study.  Interviews were undertaken at a location of the participant’s choice with consent forms explained, read and signed before the interview took place. Participants were given the opportunity to ask any questions regarding the study and confidentiality was explained and agreed with pseudonyms given and any demographic identifying information withheld.

Data collection and analysis

Individual parental interviews followed a semi-structured pattern to enable some direction and continuity between respondent’s whist allowing some latitude and freedom to express their individual views (Hesse-Biber, 2016).  Interviews lasted between 11 and 140 minutes (M=82.5), each were audio recorded and later transcribed.  Inductive analysis was undertaken to identify key themes, patterns and relationships, themes that recurred throughout the interviews were labelled as higher order themes.  The discourse analysis undertaken was forged through a Foucauldian lens.  Transcripts were provided to participants for member checking to ensure their responses were a true reflection of their experiences.

Results and discussion

All parents described how their children were identified as talented within a few months of starting gymnastics.  As with previous research the parents in this study willingly sacrificed family commitments and relationships in order to meet the demands of training and competition (Weiss & Hayashi, 1995).  Once their daughter was in a competitive programme each parent conveyed how the demands of the sport quickly overtook their family life; Angela explained the need to negotiate the rest of the family around the training schedule, stating “after a while you realise actually how much time you are giving up with the rest of the family for the one child” (AppCp27).  Anne felt her life had become:

Driven by gym … I wasn’t prepared for the amount of time it did take me away from Naomi … that was really impactful on me as a parent … we were minus one as a family a lot of times. (AppCp62).

These findings are in contrast to Cote (1999) who reported a gradual shift of parental attention and resources throughout the investment and specialising years, whereas the present study found an almost immediate impact on family life.  This unequal distribution of resources may be to the detriment of non-athletic siblings (Anderson & Anderson, 2000) with parents becoming internally divided as they attempt to juggle the roles of ‘family mum’ and ‘gym mum’ (Foucault, 1983). Despite the financial and logistical demands placed upon their families all the parents described being committed to their child’s gymnastics endeavour’s.

Parental Socialisation

A number of parents described feeling unsure about certain practices but lacked the confidence to question them as “they [the coaches] know best; I don’t know anything … I am not a gym coach” (AppCp52). These feelings of uncertainty were often compounded as some parents expressed they felt unable to ask for information regarding their daughter’s development, Sarah indicated, “you’re two fully grown adults who are paying through the nose for your child to be coached and yet you’re both terrified of asking the coach, how’s it going?” (AppCp95).  This lack of parental agency suggests coaches are viewed as possessing specialist knowledge and are therefore experts in their field, indeed, it has been noted the most effective method to improve child outcomes is to follow expert guidance (Lee, 2014).

As their daughters became more involved with gymnastics parents described becoming desensitised to certain practices, Sarah discussed feeling sorry for the ‘newbie’ stating “they don’t understand, look how soft they are. They don’t understand you’ve got to toughen up a bit if you want to be a gymnast or a gym mum” (AppCp101).  Over time parents learned to accept their position within the subculture and which behaviours were acceptable, “the message was very strong to everybody, don’t complain about being tired, don’t complain about being ill, don’t complain about being injured” (AppCp106).  Learning to accept and internalise the dominate discourse is part of the socialisation process, Kerr and Stirling (2012) found the parents in their study observed the practices of their children and other parents and adjusted their behaviour accordingly.  Sarah noted “I subsequently realised you end up with a culture where it’s not acceptable to be in pain, or certainly not to complain about it” (AppxCp98), Foucauldian theory suggests historical discourses lead to regimes of ‘truth’ where certain practices are formed and identities are fashioned (Markula & Pringle, 2006), the identity of ‘gym mum’ was shaped through the discourses of elite gymnastics with parents becoming objectified under the regime of coaching truth.

Acquiescence of pain and injury

Each parent acknowledged pain and injury were synonymous with their child’s involvement in gymnastics.  Angela illustrated she accepted the risk of injury early on,

It is gonna happen.  When they are standing on a bit of wood 1.25 meters high they are at one point gonna fall off and they are possibly gonna hurt themselves. So I was very matter of fact about it. (AppCp28).

Parent’s first experiences of pain through their daughters’ gymnastics participation came at different points within the socialisation process.  For some the reality of accepting pain as part of the process came early within their daughter’s careers, Anne described the ‘rips’ on her daughter’s hands as something “I’ve never really found that easy to look at and ignore” (AppCp71). The method adopted toward rip management was also questioned, “seeing some very deep rips on the wrists and thinking Naomi wants to put surgical spirit on this and this doesn’t seem right by me” (AppCp70). However, Anne acquiesced admitting she was “learning on the job” (AppCp71) despite not being convinced it was appropriate and having to trust in “how Naomi talked to others and found out what they do” (AppCp71).  Parents may feel unable to challenge certain coaching practices and strategies as the transference of power has shifted toward the coach; trust in the coach’s knowledge and gradual relinquishing of parental control have been identified as early indicators of socialisation into the elite sports subculture (Kerr & Stirling, 2012).

Having to trust in the coach’s methods was also something Mary initially found difficult, she expressed concern about her daughter being forcibly stretched,

It made me feel quite uncomfortable.  But then all the other parents were talking about it who’s kids were a bit older … saying, it’s normal … and I just thought, oh ok then. They were saying no pain no gain. (AppCp48).

Looking to more experienced parents to ‘help interpret unfamiliar coaching practices’ was documented by Clarke and Harwood (2014, p. 532) as a way to help parents understand the processes involved.

For others first pain experiences came through injury, Jennifer discussed her daughter’s heel pain stating “Emily had severe Severs [heel pain] when she was nine … it did used to really hurt her, she used to cry a lot” (AppCp84).  She explained the pain was managed through the use of freeze sprays and non-prescription pain relief stating “they take a lot more medication than a normal child would … she was expected to compete through it and she wanted to do it” (AppCp84).  When athlete aspirations are higher than those of their parents, parents may undertake a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude (Dorsch, Smith & McDonough, 2009), in this case advocating playing hurt and the use of drugs to minimise pain.

However, not all gymnasts were expected to work through injury initially, two parents described their first pain through injury encounters as positive with sympathetic coaching practices.  Ava however said,

I know it sounds awful but especially if it is only a pain issue and it’s not something that’s going to have a long term effect on them by training or competing on it then yeah, you let them do it if it’s what they want to do and you have the medical go ahead. (AppCp39).

This acceptance of playing in pain providing there is no increase in the likelihood of injury has been previously documented within professional rugby, implying a culture that supports an increased acceptance to playing in pain yet a reduced tolerance to playing whist injured (Malcolm & Sheard, 2002). However, Toffler, Knapp and Lardon (2005) caution against the encouragement of children’s pseudo-autonomy with regard to playing hurt as this may curtail parental instinct to protect their child.

Coach-parent relationship

A number of parents described a coach-parent relationship where “you were basically being told that the coaches were the experts on everything” (AppxCp107).  Jennifer reflected “as a parent you have to do as you are told, so you go more with what the coach tells you to do rather than maybe what you’d feel yourself” (AppCp86).  This attitude became apparent throughout the interviews with numerous parents describing accounts where they felt they had little say over their daughters wellbeing.  Anne recounts,

[the coach] told me basically through her body language that she was the one in charge, it’s her way and er, she didn’t want to talk to me about Naomi’s medical issues. (AppCp64).

Much of the literature that discusses the parent-coach relationship focuses on the negative aspects of parental involvement (Horn, 1977; Scantling & Lackey, 2005), however, Brustad (2011) alerts us that parents must be empowered to discuss concerns to prevent child welfare issues; this is echoed by Brackenridge (1988) who asserts parental involvement is a buffer against abusive practice.

Each parent discussed the need for their daughter to “report in everyday and do her training” (AppCp66) regardless of pain or injury as “they have other muscles that they can work … it’s just what we get told and we just go along with it.” (AppCp29). Anne recalls feeling reluctant to allow her daughter to train with a back injury but conceded and felt compelled to leave the facility rather than stay to ensure her daughter was safe as,

I had been well trained, well honed to not watching my child, being told that’s not the thing to do, and basically not to be involved. (AppxCp81).

Sarah concurred,

As parents we were all sort of walking on egg shells the whole time trying not to make things worse, all the time thinking that we were doing things in the interests of our children … for what they wanted. (AppCp105).

The expectation to attend every session could be seen as a form of surveillance, a way in which the coach can ensure compliance to their programme.  The panoptic gaze can be felt rather than seen compelling parents to self-regulate, becoming what Foucault described as ‘docile bodies’ to fit in with institutional norms (Foucault, 1991, p 136). Anne and Sarah both internalised the coaches’ gaze engaging in self-surveillance and self-regulation to avoid admonishment, rendering their bodies docile and malleable to the technologies of domination.

Blame and reprisal

Blame for not conforming to the coaches wishes was expressed as both a fear and an action by many parents, Jennifer explained “so they suggest something and then if you don’t do it, then if things go wrong you’re obviously going to be to blame” (AppCp85). The hierarchical position of coaches and managers leads parents to assume their practices are ‘truths’ as these members of the sportsnet are backed by institutional forces such as the sports governing body and coaching qualifications, legitimising their power (Johns & Johns, 2000).  Anne spoke about being ignored and dismissed by her daughter’s coaches and believed they resented her for upholding medical advice stating  “it was their way of blaming me … it was all about them… they didn’t believe Naomi had the injury she said she had“ (AppCp67).  Nixon (1992, p. 133) suggests that within the sportsnet, individuals with authority and power may ‘disregard or exploit athletes in pursuit of their own self interest’, however Anne’s refusal to acquiesce to the actions of the coach illustrates that power is relational and can change over time (Foucault, 1998).

Reprisal was also a key theme throughout the interviews as Sarah explained “you very slowly learn to accept an awful lot … you don’t want to rock the boat … children were punished all the time in subtle and not so subtle ways” (AppCp105).  Ava also described her fear of rocking the boat regarding pain and injury management stating,

I knew if I’d, if I’d got involved she would have taken it out on my kid … [my daughter] stopped telling me things … because it was causing problems in the gym when I spoke to the coach about [it]. (AppCp38).

These findings are congruent with previous research which documents both athletes and their parents tolerate unwelcome behaviour in the elite sports environment through fear of reprisal (Stirling & Kerr, 2009; Kerr & Stirling, 2012).

When Jennifer’s daughter knocked out two of her teeth and was advised to rest for a few weeks to allow them to re-attach, she conceded allowing her to return to training a few days later.  When asked what she thought might have happened if she had not conformed she said,

I’d have got shouted at … I don’t know. I don’t know what the consequences would have been but … I think you soon learn as a gym parent that when someone tells you what to do you have to do it and conform. (AppCp86).

Therefore, parents may regulate their behaviour to conform to the institutional directives as the threat of reprisal arouses fear.

Medical input

Relationships with medical practitioners were open and trusting, all parents agreed they valued the input of sports medicine professionals.  A number of gymnasts received National Lottery funding enabling sports medicine support through the English Institute of Sport.  Parents were often expected to make decisions regarding medical treatment for their children, Jennifer explained “if it helps your daughter’s sport and it’s what my child would want for themselves then it happens” (AppCp87) but expressed she often worries whether she has made the right decisions.  Kotarba (1983) suggests athletes base decisions regarding playing through pain and injury on a number of variables including ‘severity of the injury, age, and the location of the problem in the athletic career continuum’, this may be true also for parents of elite gymnasts.  A number of parents highlighted that the importance of the event alongside the severity of the injury was taken into consideration when deciding whether their daughter should compete or not.  One parent described putting her trust in the medical team at a major international event after agreeing to her daughter having an anaesthetic injected to minimise pain to compete,

You know the physio’s and doctors do have your child’s best interests at heart so they are not going to deliberately want to do something that would harm them … I do trust the doctors at British Gymnastics. (AppCp88).

This was echoed repeatedly by parents, in fact Anne felt reassured she had direct access to specialist sports medics and wholeheartedly trusted their judgement.  Anne valued the doctor’s opinion that “you have got to let each injury heal properly before going back into training and build back up slowly” (AppCp76), however, when she upheld this advice after a head injury she described feeling as though the coach saw her “as an interference really rather than someone who could help the process” (AppCp62). Safai (2003) suggests overconformity to the sports ethic is a simplistic interpretation of the culture of risk, although this culture is dominant it is not necessarily absolute and proposed there may in fact be a culture of precaution. The finding that parents support medical opinion refutes the claim by Nixon (1992) that athletes are coerced into competing through conspirational alliances within the sportsnet, with a degree of freedom afforded to athletes and parents through support from medical practitioners.   The promotion of sensible risk appears to be dominant once specialised sports medical opinion has been sought.  Nevertheless, the coaches position within the sportsnet appears to reflect the culture of risk and overconformity to the sports ethic through their desire to improve the chance of success, often reinforcing the ideologies of a no pain, no gain culture.

Foucault suggests power is intricately woven into the heart of society and targets the very essence of the self – the body, where the mechanisms of power ‘invest it, mark it, torture it [and] force it to carry out tasks’ (Foucault, 1977, p 25).   These mechanisms of power are used to create docile athletes that monitor, guard and discipline themselves (Eskes, Carlisle-Duncan & Miller, 1998), the findings of the current study suggest parents of elite gymnasts may also be forged into obedient bodies through similar means. The narratives explored suggest that parents may accept the practices of playing through pain and injury through the internalisation of social norms and subsequent formation of discursive power. Roderick, Waddington and Parker (2000) remind us that it is important to recognise that pain and injury discourses are constructed through the sporting milieu and to comprehend the role significant others play in interpreting pain and injury experiences.  As parents play a significant role in modelling their child’s sporting experiences (Cote, 1999; Fredericks & Eccles, 2004) it is essential they are able to recognise the need to intervene and have the tools to do so effectively when their child’s health and welfare may be challenged.  Markula and Pringle (2006) suggest many practices sustain historical ideologies as a result of continued unquestioned acceptance rather than any accountable truth; whilst parents acquiesce to the subcultures ideologies of playing hurt and relinquishing power these practices will go unchallenged and become cyclical.

The findings from this study could be used to highlight the difficulties parents of gymnasts on the elite pathway may face in protecting their children from health-compromising behaviours within the sports setting. Limitations of the research include the small sample size, singular sport and gender of parents.  It is clear there is far more to be learned regarding the effect of the socialisation process on the passive role parents undertake due to their subordinate position within the coach-parent dyad, further research could consider father’s positions and the inclusion of parents from other elite sports.

 

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