A former elite gymnast recently announced the reasons for their retirement citing the normalisation of mental, emotional and physical abuse. This is not something new to sport or even gymnastics yet is often the elephant in the room. A social media post relating to the retirement announcement referred to the alleged abuse as an ‘open secret’, something people know is happening but choose to ignore. The ‘Me Too’ campaign appears to have paved the way for athletes in elite sport to talk about the different forms of abuse they have suffered ranging from sexual abuse, through to racial and emotional abuse. Dominique Moceanu raised concerns over a decade ago about the physical and mental abuse she said she suffered at the hands of Martha and Bela Karolyi yet was ostracised for speaking out, with athletes who were coached alongside her defending the Karolyi’s saying they had not witnessed the behaviours she described. Now a number of elite gymnasts have slammed the culture at the U.S. National Training Camps run by Martha Karolyi stating the environment ‘fostered a culture of fear’. Unfortunately this pattern of victim shaming continues today with coaches and parents speaking out in defence of alleged abusive coaching, however, one must remember, one person’s [perceived] positive experience does not negate another’s negative experience. It is often only on reflection the abuse is realised as such and challenged.
Something to ponder is why do parents accept abusive coaching practices? Kerr and Stirling consider this in their paper , ‘Parents’ reflections of their child’s experiences of emotionally abusive coaching practices’ (2012). The authors interviewed 16 parents of former elite athletes (retired within the past 6 years) who no longer had any involvement in their child’s former sport. Sports included were artistic gymnastics (n = 7), figure skating (n = 1), ice hockey (n = 2), rhythmic gymnastics (n = 3), swimming (n= 5) and trampolining (n = 1).
Through interviews the authors identified 5 phases of parental socialisation into the elite sports culture.
- Talent Identification Phase
Parents were eager to support their child in a sport he/she loved and were often willing to comply with the extra demands of the sport on the elite pathway.
2. Relinquishing of Control Phase
Parents found quite early on that they were expected to take a step back in their child’s sports development and allow the coach to take the lead.
We left them [the kids] in the coaches’ hands. We were not there monitoring every stroke that they ever took . . . They would go off with the coaches for training or competition . . . I trusted the coach and I believed in the coach and the program I put my child in. (Swim parent).
The policy there is that the parents are not supposed to distract the athletes therefore no parents are allowed [in the gym] when they are training so we were completely out of the loop. (Rhythmic gymnast parent).
Some parents were concerned about the shift in control from parent to coach whilst another parent on reflection admitted they ‘let the coach run the show and [they] shouldn’t have’.
3. Growing Concern Phase
Within 2 years the demands placed upon the child and the family increased with little time for socialisation outside the sport. However, parents and children willingly forgo the activities to concentrate on the advancement of their athletic careers.
When she got to a certain level there was a bigger commitment. They had so many practices a week and they had to travel . . . Her whole adolescence was hockey and sometimes I was concerned about what she was missing, like prom. (Hockey parent).
During this phase some parents reported their child experiencing some unhappiness during training.
She had a very rough time learning this aerial skill on the [balance] beam. She was very afraid of it. Perhaps the coach was patient at the beginning but at some point she [the coach] became frustrated as well and started yelling at my daughter to do the trick. She said she was being silly for being afraid. My daughter stood on the beam for half an hour crying, not even trying the skill, but the coach would not let her come off that beam. It was horrible. (Artistic gymnast parent).
The parent of a figure skater recalled an athlete being sworn at and made to repeat the exercise over and over again to the point she vomited. Many parents were able to address their concerns with the coaching staff during this phase but were often informed the coaching style was to enhance mental toughness. Two strategies were used to abate parental concern, the first was to suggest to parents that perhaps they/their children were not cut out for elite sport, the second was to explain their child would only succeed in the sport with said coach.
A further strategy used to assert control was to ridicule the athlete for their parents’ involvement:
The coach was on her case about something and I spoke to the coach and I said,’You know I don’t know what you’re going to get out of the girls when you yell at them like that.’ And well, she just backlashed. My daughter came home from practice the next day and said ‘Mom please don’t talk to the coach again. She tore a strip off me.’ (Rhythmic gymnast parent).
As parents became more socialised into the elite sport culture they acknowledged raising their concerns was futile and looked to more experienced parents to guage how to respond.
We were new to this world of elite gymnastics. When we saw that other parents who had been around longer than us weren’t concerned about how the girls were being trained, we assumed this was just the way it was. (Artistic gymnast parent).
The parents talk with each other. How to act and how a parent should behave. We talk about it [coach’s behaviour] and the message is automatic—The parents should not interfere with the coaching. That’s the view. (Swim parent).
4. Acceptance/acquiescence phase
This phase relates to the athlete competing at the highest level in their sport. At this point in their children’s careers parents had either come to accept the abusive practices as the norm or believed all was ok with their child, many had come to terms with the fact abuse goes hand in hand with success and had been conditioned not to interfere with coaching decisions.
We thought it was best to keep our mouths shut at this point. The Olympics were approaching and our daughter had a very good chance of making the team.We were very worried that if we were seen as complainers or if we got the coach mad at us, it might hurt her chances. (Artistic gymnast parent).
I thought that this was how all coaches at the elite level were—in all sports—and that this is what it took to make a champion . . . maybe I was just trying to make myself feel better, but I remember believing this. (Artistic gymnast parent).
My wife and I believed the coach when he told us that our daughter needed him if she wanted to make it to the Olympics.We didn’t know any better—neither one of us had been in sport at this level. (Artistic gymnast parent).
Other parents considered their children to be mature enough to make decisions regarding their own athletic careers.
I have always respected the idea that the athlete makes her own decisions and she chose to stay with the coach. (Rhythmic gymnast parent).
We didn’t like the aggressiveness of the coach but we thought our son was mature enough to take the good, the bad, and the ugly. He chose the coach and he still thought he was the best coach. (Figure skating parent).
Other parents believed they had to accept the coach’s methods but found ways to help their children cope with the abuse they encountered.
I would give her a lot of motivational talks about how you need to make the best of what you have. It’s important to have fun and don’t focus on what the coach is saying—focus on your goals. (Hockey parent).
There was a point when he first started, he was afraid of his coach and I had to send him to a sport psychologist to help him learn how to deal with his coach. He learned how to stand up to his coach when he was screamed at or whatever and the sessions helped him deal with all his [coach’s] craziness. My son said that it was helping him, but why would we have to do that as parents? Why did we think that we can’t change the coach—he [my son] just needs to learn to cope with it? (Figure skating parent).
For some parents the realisation their children had been unhappy with coach/athlete relationship came only after retirement, whereas others accepted the coach was the expert in their field and respected their decisions.
I did struggle. I made sure that we discussed everything, but he [my son] got smart enough to know that if mom knows this is happening she won’t let me be coached by this guy so I’m not going to tell her . . . Stories came out after. He told me more once he finished. (Figure skating parent).
You have to respect that the coach is the expert on the training and everything that happens in the pool. The coach never interfered in our home life and we did not interfere with his role. (Swim parent).
5. Guilt Phase
Although parents described their children’s careers as successful the post retirement period allowed parents and athletes to retrospectively review the coaching culture. Now removed from the environment parents considered the coaching behaviours to be emotionally abusive rather than problematic or disturbing. The authors note that during this stage of the interview a number of parents became distressed describing feelings of guilt and remorse in respect of their failure to protect their children.
I don’t know what I was thinking . . . I was upset about the way he [the coach] dealt with her on several occasions but I didn’t call it abusive then. Now when I look back, how could I have called it anything else? If any other adult had spoken to her that way, I would have called it abuse. I don’t know what happened to me? (Artistic gymnast parent).
Other parents considered their part in the abuse as complicit as they did not know how best to address the coaching behaviours.
I always wanted to do what was best for my child – doesn’t every parent? So when my daughter pleaded with me not to talk to her coach about his manipulative behaviour—that by talking to him might interfere with her chances to make the team, what was I supposed to do? Making the team was always her dream and I wanted to help her get there. Now, looking back, I wish I had said something. My role as a parent was to protect my kid and I didn’t do my job. It would have been different if it had been a one-time incident but this went on for years. She shouldn’t have had to go through that. How do I forgive myself for that? (Artistic gymnast parent).
It was tough to see it [abuse] happening, but I thought I was supporting her. Once your kid starts winning championships it’s easy to forget that she may be being damaged along the way. (Swim parent).
My daughter is out of sport now and she struggles a lot with her self-esteem. Imagine a young person making the Olympic team and still not feeling good about herself? I blame myself for this . . . I sat back and let her coach criticize her on a personal level for years . . . no wonder she feels lousy about herself. I’m not sure how I’ll come to terms with the fact that I allowed this to happen at all, let alone for it to go for years [parent crying]. (Artistic gymnast parent).
A criticism often cited when athletes/parents reveal abusive coaching methods after retirement is why are they only now talking about this? For those who may not have reached the highest echelons of their sport this revelation is often met with cynicism.
Kerr and Stirling reveal a culture where acceptance of abusive coaching methods is the only way forward for athletes who wish to remain with a particular coach. A coach is often respected for their knowledge and position within the sporting community thus reinforcing the culture of the coaching environment. When bringing concerns regarding coaching behaviour to the attention of the coach/management results in reprisal for the athlete, parents and athletes soon learn to conform. Furthermore, parents learn their ‘athlete parent’ cues from observing more experienced parents and a code of silence around abusive practice is quickly adopted. When it is viewed that the coach holds all the cards parents do not want to endanger progression/selection and may therefore become complicit in their child’s abuse under the guise of protecting the athletes career. It is only once the athlete retires from elite sport the parents/athletes feel they can discuss the issues within the sport.
By not talking about these issues and victim shaming athletes who are strong enough to share their narratives we are sustaining and enabling a legacy of abusive practice toward children. As Rayner, Hoel and Cooper (2002) remind us ‘Each time a bully gets away with their behaviour this must reinforce the notion that such behaviour is acceptable. As such, non-intervention by witnesses can act as an encouragement to the persistence of bullying’.