For far to long the only abuse to be taken seriously in sport has been sexual abuse. That is the abuse the media focus on, that seems to be the only abuse people consider crosses the line. This post is not to diminish the devastating effects sexual abuse can have on it’s victims, rather it’s to talk about the abuse that is often considered part of the play book – emotional abuse. In a recent Q&A session Gretchen Kerr, vice-dean of academic affairs at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education talks about her role as a volunteer athlete welfare officer with Gymnastics Canada and her views regarding emotional abuse. As a psychologist Kerr’s field of expertise is the emotional abuse of athletes which she is using to advocate policy change and influence coach education.
The Nassar case has brought to light a culture that advocates winning at all costs and has thrown former Twistars head coach John Geddert directly into the spotlight for his role in enabling Nassar to groom young gymnasts from his club. The duo undertook a ‘good cop, bad cop’ relationship with Nassar being the shoulder to cry on when things became too tough in the gym. With the levels of alleged abuse both physical and emotional from Geddert recently published through media outlets, you have to question why it has taken the biggest sport sex abuse scandal in the US to garner media attention about abusive coaching. According to Kerr this is because emotional abuse is considered a necessary part of the coaching paradigm; how many athletes and coaches live by the mantra ‘no pain, no gain’?
There is a fine line between pushing an athlete to be their best and maltreatment. That line is crossed when the athlete performs through fear and intimidation rather than their desire to achieve. In their paper Stirling and Kerr (2008) report that emotional abuse takes the form of physical behaviours, verbal behaviours and the denial of attention and support – bullying, berating, humiliating, degrading and intimidating/threatening are all forms of emotional abuse. Despite research showing emotional abuse can have a long term detrimental effect on an athletes mental wellbeing it is often considered a valid method to mentally toughen up young athletes. Kerr opposes this view and believes this type of coaching hinders excellence rather than facilitate it and suggests ‘until there is a shift in assumptions and beliefs about how to best develop athletes and their talents, athletes will remain at risk of harm and human rights violations.’
The Balance Beam situation reminds us what many of us unfortunately know ‘Geddert is not the only Geddert in the coaching world’. But when governing bodies brush aside abuse claims because they don’t fit in with their medal winning, world domination plans it sets a precedent that it’s this form of coaching that produces champions and it becomes systemic within the sport. Research has been undertaken in many countries which exposes the level of abusive coaching within gymnastics (and other elite sports) yet nothing appears to be happening to challenge these coaching behaviours … until now. It has taken some very brave women to speak out about Nassar’s sexual abuse and the culture that enabled him to thrive which has paved the way for others to come forward and talk about their experiences. With former elite gymnasts such as Ohashi and Wofford speaking out about the treatment they endured during their teenage years hopefully the younger generation and their parents will be more equipped to deal with abusive coaching practices and regard this as unacceptable. It is refreshing to see coaches such as Kim Zmeskal breaking the mould and nurturing her gymnasts to success rather than following the regimen she was brought up in as a gymnast under the Karolyi’s tutelage. I look forward to a time where this is the norm and we are producing happy, healthy and successful gymnasts.
Unfortunately, until a culture change is supported within the highest echelons of the sport there will always be Geddert’s out there.