Pain , injury and the culture of risk

Deviance can be described as a behaviour diverging from socially accepted values, within wider society deviance is often used to describe behaviour that is negative such as a rejection of cultural goals.

Within sport, some behaviours are considered negatively deviant, such as illicit drug use or disregarding the rules of the sport but many would be described as ‘positive deviance’; a concept proposed by Hughes and Coakley (1991) to describe an over conformity to societal norms. Blackshaw & Crabbe (2004) suggest that rather than a rejection of norms, positive deviance can be viewed as excessive compliance to both goals and means. Central to this is the ethos of the ‘sports ethic’, a term coined by Hughes and Coakley (1991) to depict what it means to be an athlete. The authors describe a state where an athlete pushes themselves to the limit, makes sacrifices for the game, accepts risk unconditionally and exhibits a win at all costs attitude.  In a similar vein Nixon (1992) defines the ‘sportsnet’ as a society within the sports culture where values and beliefs may differ from those of the dominant society primarily through positive deviance. The concept of playing through pain is engendered in both these theories through cultural messages and ‘conspiratorial alliances’  with the ideology these sacrifices are what it takes to be a successful athlete.

Sociological debate has critically examined the role sport plays on health; for over a century good health has been advocated as a key benefit of sport however, this ethos has come under scrutiny from both a physiological and sociological perspective.  Nixon (1992) focused on the risk-pain-injury paradox, highlighting the risk taking culture of sport and rationalisation of playing through pain, an ideal supported by gymnastics coaches and instilled in athletes at an early age.  The very nature of the sport requires young bodies to be exceptionally well conditioned and flexible, attributes that are gained through repeated hard work and pain. Young girls entering the gymnastics arena are unaware of the demands of the sport yet quickly comply to the normative values established by the sports ethic thus shaping their habitus.

Bogdan & Biklen (2007) suggest we can only begin to understand behaviour once the meaning has been interpreted and the process of it’s formation has been examined. It can be seen that the meanings within the gymnastics sub-culture differ from those of the wider society, considered through a sociological lens we can begin to understand why gymnasts conform to the sports ethic. With primary social bonds being forged with non-familial significant others, people outside the sportsnet begin to have less influence on the development of structural constraints.  As the athlete/coach figuration strengthens overconformity is unconditionally accepted often resulting in a ‘code of silence’ as to what goes on in the training hall.

Risk is inherent within gymnastics as young girls strive to learn new skills, each with its own set of rules and potential for harm.  Young (1993) proposed that risk taking is an inherent aspect of male professional sports with an increased likelihood of injury; gymnastics, an amateur sport where girls can contend for world/Olympic glory before they even reach adulthood follows a similar ethos.  In sport men willingly accept risk taking and display injuries like badges of honour conforming to the hegemonic attitude society bestows upon them, however, young female gymnasts are also indoctrinated to accept that playing with pain is an appropriate behaviour. In contrast to male athletes, female gymnasts do not initially hide their pain and may cry during workouts (Barker-Ruchti, 2008), as the sports ethic becomes more internalised over time pain is often regarded as something that must be ignored to fulfil societies goals (Roderick, 1998).  Studies have shown female athletes are as likely as their male counterparts to accept a culture of risk and normalise pain to gain social acceptance and avoid rejection (Young & White, 1995; Theberge, 1997).  Gymnasts who show full commitment to the sports ethic may find it difficult to differentiate between overuse aches and pains and the beginning of more serious injury.  Within the sportsnet the gymnast must convey their passion for the sport through their performance in both the training hall and competition arena demonstrating a tough mental attitude, the ability to play through pain and the desire to conquer fear, those who conform to the subcultures ideals are heralded as good role models for others to follow.  In contrast, coaches may use stigmatisation to eradicate behaviours that do not conform to the sports ethic, often using derogatory terms to elicit the ‘correct’ response.

The concept of positive deviance and the sports ethic can be viewed through the eyes of a parent in the narrative below.  It is often not only the gymnast who is indoctrinated into accepting the values of the gymnastics culture but the parents also.  The concept of parents relinquishing control of their child to the coach has been visited in these posts previously, however, it can be seen, especially in pre-elite level before gymnasts have access to English Institute of Sport practitioners that compliance to the sports ethic can be detrimental to an athlete’s health and career.

I’m not sure how many parents of elite competitive or squad gymnasts recognise this scenario, but even today – many years after my children have retired from gymnastics – the memories of sitting in the gym car park waiting nervously to collect them after training still haunt me. Because towards the end of their careers seeing the manner in which they walked out towards you became a method for me to measure the level of their body’s ‘brokenness’ through injury at any one time.

One day I need to write down the actual events of the mismanagement of my children’s injuries by their coaches but I’m starting with the culture of gymnastics clubs which engender how pain, injury and illness of one’s child is dealt with. For example, there’s the unwritten rule that once you are accepted into a club’s elite or squad system – that training always comes first. I say unwritten because I never signed anything, no coach ever sat down with me and said those actual words to me – it was just fostered and it was enough for you to pick up your cues from the other parents, the gymnasts and particularly the more experienced parents and older gymnasts.

You’d hear the anecdotes of ‘Francis’ competing just weeks after surgery; ‘Sorcha’ competing with a fracture in her hand; ‘Camilla’ feeling so ill but not wanting to let the team down competing then coming off the floor to vomit into a bucket the coach had ready for her! There would sometimes even be written accounts posted of the tales for all to see and ‘admire’ the resilience of the gymnasts the clubs were breeding! The stories were treated as legendary exploits of seasoned competitors embedded into the great history of the club – only these weren’t Olympic athletes, they were young children who happened to be in sport.

If there’s one thing I think could engender change, it would be urging clubs (and schools) to change the narrative on this. Competing on an injury or through illness should NOT be seen as a ‘badge of honour’. So too it would help if the NGB were more open and transparent on national squad injuries causing withdrawal from training & competition. Whilst privacy and confidentiality may be an issue to consider, there are so many elite gymnasts who have, just like that, disappeared – forever or for a time – following injury and BG ignore their absence; I’m convinced there are lessons to be learned for younger aspiring gymnasts and their parents on how injury should be managed in these stories. The main one being that sometimes one needs to take as much time as one needs, and find the right supportive medical expert and not rush back to training.  Only recently – as individual social media platforms mean little can be hidden – are BG being more open about this issue.

Also how recognisable is it to gym parents out there, that you keep your child off school due to sickness or off PE lessons due to a niggling injury or worse due to fatigue & tiredness – in order to ‘’save’ their energy levels or buy them some recovery time – YET go on to send them into training that same day and week?! You too, Gym Mum?!!! What was I thinking? To this day I can’t give you a straight answer that would make any sense to any one other than has been through it with their own child.

Then there’s the issue of who you turn to when injury strikes, certainly at club level. Too often, the advice and treatment of one’s GP, physio or doctor was dismissed and we were urged to take our children to the club or coach’s ‘own’ medical expert. This would invariably turn out to be someone who was a friend of the coach having worked ‘with’ them for years; who ‘knew’ the sport; ‘knew’ one couldn’t stop training; ‘knew’ that a major competition was looming and could tailor treatment accordingly to nurse the gymnast through the crisis! Effectively, as a parent one felt one’s child was the property of the coach/club and seen primarily as a gymnast – and not merely a child who happened to do elite sport.

Finally, when one’s child was ill or worse, injured, trying to negotiate ‘downtime’ from training or request a reduction in hours was one of the hardest things to accomplish! The complete loss of power and authority one had as a parent in these situations is still staggering to me. It was rarely agreed to; and when it was, it was done with such bad grace that both gymnast and parents were made to feel uncomfortable, with questions being asked about the level of their commitment to their gymnastics career.

Guttmann (1988) discusses the irony of sport destroying the body rather than enhancing it, gymnastics is a sport that puts undue pressure on the underdeveloped skeletal system resulting in fatigue and chronic damage.  Encouraging children to play through pain creates an ethical dilemma, having such expectations from athletes who do not fully understand the consequences suggests a form of deviance in itself.

Many thanks to the parent who has given their permission for their narrative to be shared.  It is only through narratives of lived experience we can begin to form a picture of a particular culture and those within it.  Through storied excerpts the challenges individuals immersed in a particular culture may face can begin to be understood through sociological and psychosocial concepts.  It is only through understanding, one can begin to initiate change.

  • Names have been changed to protect the identity of the contributor.

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