Reflections from a gymnast

The aim of qualitative research is to acquire culturally specific information, it enables subjective description as to ‘how a person has been constituted in a particular form of life’ (Packer, 2011). Taylor, Bogdan and DeVault (2016) suggest to understand behaviour and values it is essential to understand ‘people from their own frames of reference’. Narratives such as the one below, enable researchers to gain an insight into the lived experiences of individuals within a particular culture. It should be noted this is only one person’s account of the training environment and therefore may not be representative of the elite gymnastics culture, however, this narrative, if considered alongside historical and more recent testimonies adds to the increasing evidence this type of coaching behaviour is far from unusual within the elite gymnastics culture.

Below is an excerpt from a narrative I received from a former British national squad gymnast in conjunction with some interviews I conducted with parents.  Although this is an excerpt it accurately reflects the entirety of the passage. The gymnast, now retired, reflects on her experiences with ‘Coach’ focussing on a three year period when she was aged between 9 and 12. It reveals a culture where fear, intimidation and punishment are the dominant discourses to sporting success.

British Gymnastics are regarded by some to have developed the ‘gold standard’ of child protection and safeguarding policies and have trained welfare officers in most clubs as well as a dedicated Ethics and Welfare team based at their head office at Lilleshall National Sports Centre. British Gymnastics recognise the impact emotional abuse can have on young gymnasts, the opening paragraph of their document Safeguarding Children: Recognising and Responding to Abuse and Poor Practice states:

Abuse can, and does, occur in a wide range of settings, including sport. The psychological effects of abuse can be life-long, especially if the individual has not been able to disclose the abuse or access support. Anyone who has been abused as a young person may find it difficult or impossible to maintain stable, trusting relationships, and may become involved with drugs, and experience mental health problems or self-harm. A child who has been neglected can experience serious impairment in their health and development.

British Gymnastics understanding of the impact emotional abuse can have on children and the policies the governing body have implemented that support good practice are in line with the latest academic research into safe sport.  With such insight into the damage abuse can cause and a system set up to prevent poor practice and maltreatment this raises some questions as to how the gymnast in this narrative found herself in such an environment. To help understand this a number of scenarios (or combination of these) can be considered:

  • The club may support, what British Gymnastics considers to be poor practice, therefore this method of coaching may be seen as the norm and not questioned. Those involved including the parents and gymnasts may deem this style of coaching necessary for success, especially if the gymnast is achieving within this environment.

 

  • Parents/gymnasts do not inform the welfare officer they believe there are safeguarding issues as they do not want to be viewed as  whistleblowers.  As has been described in other Olympic sports, whistleblowers may fear retribution, especially at the elite level where they have so much to lose.

 

  • The governing body are informed of abusive practices yet accept these as a necessary part of sport at the elite level.  With funding from UK Sport dependant on international success the bar is set high for Olympic sports. British Gymnastics as a NGB are ‘subject to pressure from key suppliers’ to produce podium places at major international events with the threat of budgetary cuts looming over them.  This puts immense pressure on NGB’s to ensure success and reports of athlete welfare issues have been prevalent in the UK media over the past year.

 

For anyone who would like more information regarding abuse/poor practice British Gymnastics have a direct link on their homepage. For any safeguarding issues British Gymnastics recommend speaking to the club welfare officer in the first instance, however, regional and national safeguarding officer contacts can be found here.

 

Looking back over my time with Coach is something I find difficult. I know not all my memories are bad but those are the ones that most easily come to mind. If I think back right to the beginning I can remember looking forward to going to training, being excited for what I might learn that day and enjoying spending time with my new gym friends. We had a great group; we supported each other, we felt for each other when things didn’t go well during a training session. Then more and more frequently things were not going well for one or the other of us. But, at this point the good days for me far outweighed the not so good days and I enjoyed being there, I enjoyed working with Coach, in fact I would go as far as to say I loved her.

Some other girls in the group were always getting into trouble with Coach; being sent to sit outside the gym because they weren’t trying hard enough, being withdrawn from competitions or not allowed to attend fun training camps because they hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew if I did everything I was asked, tried my hardest and did things even if I was really scared or didn’t feel adequately prepared for I wouldn’t be the one who was sent out. I became conditioned to obey through fear, not by anything that had happened to me, but how I had observed others treated.

I feared being sent to sit in the dark, left alone in a corridor with no windows and no lights on. For a nine-year-old kid that was the ultimate punishment, yet one that was routinely used for refusing to do a skill that Coach thought you were capable of doing. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me so I tried my hardest not to upset Coach and felt sorry for which ever kid was on Coach’s blacklist at the time, but thankful it wasn’t me.

This approach worked for almost a year, I was in trouble some of the time no matter how hard I tried, it was inevitable it would not be good enough for Coach some of the time, but my worst punishment to date was being shouted out. I desperately wanted to please and did everything I could to gain acknowledgement from Coach. But after a while no matter what I did it just wasn’t good enough, my name was now added to the blacklist. It became a matter of survival, be the one who least upset Coach during a session, praying Coach would take her wrath out on anyone but me. My mum spoke to Coach and told her how I felt, said I was considering quitting, but all that did was infuriate her more and I became the target. Some days I would be ignored, on other days I would be expected to do everything perfectly and any imperfections would result in me being screamed at. Coach looked like she was on the verge on snapping during these frequent episodes, her face would go bright red and the vein in her forehead would pop out – a terrifying experience for a young child. I would be put back up on the bar in floods of tears and made to do the move again and again until it was right. On a number of occasions, I was so upset yet too afraid not to go again I put myself in danger performing moves that were clearly badly setup sometimes resulting in injury. I flew off the bars landing badly so many times I lost count and caused a fracture attempting a sequence on the beam that was so badly set up I should never have gone for the connection. Yet my fear of Coach was greater than my fear of injury.

By the beginning of my third and final year with Coach I had begun to have migraines. These impacted every aspect of my life, I would wake up in the night crying due to the pain.  I was frequently either unable to attend school or was sent home from school as I felt sick and too unwell to be there. Yet I was expected to attend training sessions and if I complained about being unwell I was often told I was being lazy and there was nothing wrong with me. I spent 3 months attempting to train with the most awful headaches and dizziness and all I got in return was verbal abuse for not trying hard enough. Coach believed the headaches were ‘rebound headaches’ and told my mum to stop giving me painkillers for them. I had seen doctors and a specialist about my headaches and no one else had suggested this might be the cause so my mum continued to allow me to have them when I couldn’t cope with the pain, in fact medical opinion was that they were stress related. During one training session my headache became unbearable and I told coach I needed some pain relief, she became incensed and started shouting that she had said I shouldn’t have them and I could go and overdose on them for all she cared. I was devastated, the coach I had loved`had just told me she didn’t care if I died. I broke down in tears and left the gym to find my mum. The effect she had on me that day is one that I have never really come to terms with. I began to loath the sight of Coach, everything she stood for; that day she lost the last ounce of respect I had for her, I would never see her in the same light again.  I told my mum again I wanted to quit, nothing was worth the pain and torment she put me through. Coach told my mum I owed it to her to tell her personally I didn’t want to continue my gymnastics career, I stayed home for a week then agreed to talk to Coach. To this day I am not sure what happened when we met or how I changed my mind but I came back out the meeting with a renewed sense of belief in our partnership and agreed to give it another go.

I feared going into the gym as I had no idea what mood Coach would be in, whether  I was going be used as her proverbial punchbag that session or if her anger was going to be aimed at someone else that day. I longed for the sessions where she ignored me, or I was too injured to participate with the programme, these sessions were my respite in a volatile and unpredictable world. The berating didn’t stop at the end of the session either, if we were given a lift in Coach’s car Coach would sit the child she was most angry with behind her on the back seat and would glare at her during the journey through her rear view mirror whilst giving her the third degree. No reprise was given until the child had apologised for their faults/failures. I learned the meaning of the word ‘livid’ when I was 10 years old as Coach would send me texts after training telling me how livid she was by my attitude and refusal to work hard enough. I felt Coach was there in every part of my life, not let up, just this constant reminder I was not good enough.

Coach made it very clear to all the girls she coached – she was the dream maker and if we wanted to go to the Olympics we could only do it with her. This belief kept me with her for a tortuous 3 years, I wanted it so badly I would put up with everything and anything she threw at me. I believed in her methods, I believed it was worth the pain. Coach made the rewards sound truly amazing and suggested our partnership was the only way for me to achieve my goals. I remember talking with my mum about the Olympics and she was asking me if I truly believed only Coach’s girls would be on that Olympic team, I paused for thought, my mum put forward other gymnasts who would also be senior that Olympic year and asked me if I thought they could make it. It was at that point the reality of my situation hit me. It was only Coach’s talent that would get me to the Olympics, not my own and if I moved to another coach my Olympic dream would be over. In retrospect, I can see how naïve I was to believe this, yet this haunted me throughout my career and I gave up on myself once I left coach, believing my dreams and goals were shattered.

Many thanks to the author of the narrative for allowing it to be published.

 

References

Packer. M. (2011). The science of qualitative research (pp. 7). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor. S., Bogdan, R., & DeVault. M. (2016).  Introduction to qualitative research methods. A guidebook and resource (pp. 7). Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley and Son.

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