‘What about the parents?’
I hear this so often when athletes come forward with abuse narratives and this is a valid question. What about the parents? Why have they allowed these abhorrent acts to happen to their children? Are they so invested in an Olympic medal that they ignore the abuse? Why don’t they remove their child or quit the sport?
These are all relevant questions but none are as simplistic to answer as they may seem. None of the parents I have interviewed over the years set out to put gymnastics before their child’s wellbeing, it was a slow, almost invisible process that crept up on them throughout their daughters’ careers. Like the boiling frog fable … it happens so subtly that you don’t even realise the effects until it’s too late.
I found it astonishing that so many of the interviews I did around pain and injury incorporated accounts of abusive practice. Almost all the parents I interviewed spoke of unequal power dynamics in the parent – coach relationship, with many fearing reprisal if they made a stand and voiced their opinions. Each parent accepted their role was one of ‘support staff’ within the team and accepted the coach was the expert and they had no right to question coaching decisions. The hierarchy was evident – the coach was at the top of the pyramid and the parents were at the bottom. One parent informed me ‘I think with the coach, as a parent you have to do as you are told. 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. So you go really with more with what the coach tells you to do rather than maybe what you’d feel yourself.’ Another parent described being ‘scared to death’ of the coaches saying ‘it was particularly the female of the club, the bloke wasn’t too bad, but the female, it was like I walked in and like she would look at you as if to say, you are a parent, I own this gym and what do you want, why are you talking to me? That’s how I used to feel’.
If coaches are fostering relationships with parents where they are expected to be silent bystanders in their daughters’ gymnastics careers there will always be the propensity for abusive practices. One parent described an incident where the coach saw her watching a session and he instructed her daughter to sit in the middle of the floor with him staring up at the parent until she removed herself from the viewing area, another parent stated ‘as a club they were terribly, terribly arrogant, there was very much a them and us. You also heard awful horror stories of the way some children were treated and so there was a fear, you know adults afraid to say, or just to ask a question about their child. Not even a probing one, it wasn’t even a challenging one it was, we were afraid to ask, how’s she doing?’
These types of behaviours were implemented toward the beginning of the child’s gymnastics journey. Parents watched how more experienced parents behaved and adopted similar practices to conform to the social rules of the gymnastics culture. Parental behaviours were moulded early on in their daughter’s career – take a step back and do not intervene.
Below is an excerpt from one of the interviews where a parent discusses the environment of a club her children participated at in their formative years and her reflections on her management of the situations at the time.
The head coach at that club used to, I mean she’s just an obnoxious creature all round, but she just used to say things, like she wanted her parents to be muppets. It was communicated indirectly but it was made clear that you put up and shut up, that you should accept whatever and you got used to doing that, it creeps up on you bit by bit. It’s not how your kids are treated when they are little, but it so happens that one of mine was treated horribly when he was still in pre-school. He was a bit scared, well he was scared to do something and um the coach was screaming at him and made him cry, unsurprisingly, and he was then thrown out of the gym. Instead of me thinking what an insane coach, everybody let’s pack our bags and walk out of here, I also had an older girl in the gym who was of a much higher level … as don’t forget, by this time we had been conditioned, very well conditioned, and if I did something to offend the coach in relation to my son I was wrecking things for my older daughter if you see what I mean. Also opening the door to her being in trouble and it being taken out on her as well, which absolutely happened all the time. Anyway, so I managed to calm my son down, and I said, you know you have got to be a little bit braver and you mustn’t cry in front of them. I managed to um, and I say this as if it were a good thing, I managed to encourage him, why don’t you go back in and give it another go, and so he walked back in to give it another go and this awful woman screamed at him to get out for daring to walk back in. Then I was so upset, I made it clear that obviously this isn’t working in this group and we need to move him to a recreational group or something like that, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to the coach for six weeks because I couldn’t trust what I was going to say. I knew that with what I might say I was worried would impact negatively on my other child who desperately, desperately wanted to stay there even though with hindsight it was a terrible terrible place to be.
Because again the children were always being punished if you ever did intercede on their behalf, things always got worse for them. Why we tolerated that, I don’t know, but as I said you get into this … because like I alluded to earlier they are doing many many hours from when they are very young, so they are not going to parties because it’s not acceptable, they have to go to every training session, they don’t get to go to parties, they miss out on a lot, they don’t go on play dates so they certainly don’t socialise with very many children at school. So their only friends are the children in the gym, and that very quickly becomes the only environment they know and the thought of being taken away from that is quite awful, it so happens it was quite a nice group of girls.
I think it becomes such a part of your life that it’s difficult to perceive of a life outside of it, and once your child has put so much into it and you’re sort of heading on a path to some goal whatever that might be, and I am not talking about, well for some children that might genuinely be the Olympics I don’t know, but it could be a national squad or college scholarship, who knows, what ever perceived goal there is, because of the intensity of what goes in to it, you know they could be training … one of my daughter’s eight-year-old friends was training nineteen hours a week, so you have eight-year-olds training nineteen, twenty hours a week, when you are putting that much into it and have put that much into it for years it just becomes part of who and what you are and what you do.
It does become difficult to think of life outside of that, for the girls in particular they said, certainly at this last club that their friends really were there for them, because they suffered so much together, I think that was part of it as well, that really bonded them. I don’t know, maybe they were lucky, so they certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have left. So these girls, who are very much in the throws of it, that is who they are, and it becomes difficult for you to perceive of a life outside. So leaving the environment especially when you have got used to, because when your children are training those sorts of hours and doing that sort of thing, you know, people that don’t do that sort of thing are often incredulous. And you become quite used to sneering or laughing at these outsiders that don’t understand, and laughing at them, and it becomes that you are not part of that environment somehow and can no longer see the wood for the trees. So you very slowly learn to accept an awful lot, and because you don’t want to rock the boat, particularly at this club it was so obvious, children were punished all the time in subtle and not so subtle ways. 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 and doing the best thing for our kids, for what they wanted. It’s only with an enormous dose of hindsight that you sort of see things for what they are, because my children suffered abuse over about four years there and it was only when things got very very bad that it became very very obvious that it had to come to an end and I had to finish it all. It was only after that, that I could actually see what had been happening with some level of normal perspective, and even now it’s very hard, I still doubt myself now and my judgements now because I don’t know with which perspective I am seeing things. Is it the old one or is it a new one? Do I actually know how to make a decent judgement anymore?
I appreciate the parent allowing me to share their story. They are no longer a silent bystander and hope other parents can learn from their experiences and help protect their children from abusive behaviours.