The Nassar scandal has opened up the conversion regarding abuse within the gymnastics community. A culture forged on pain, intimidation and unequal power relations has enabled the abuse of young gymnasts for the past 3 decades. The acceptance of a win at acceptable cost attitude coupled with the widespread dismissal of abuse claims by NGB’s has perpetuated a culture of fear and silence within the sport in a number of countries.
I use the term win at acceptable cost rather than win at all cost, as the belief within the culture is that certain coaching practices are required to produce elite level gymnasts and those who hold positions of power within clubs and NGB’s may legitimize these behaviours to meet performance targets.
Jacobs, Smits & Knoppers (2017) highlight the idea of legitimizing poor practice; below they share the thoughts of a gymnastics club director situated in the Netherlands.
“A director suggested there is a hierarchy of what are considered to be acceptable coaching behaviours. ‘We have never had incidences of sexual harassment. Instead we have had situations of total control, intimidation, name calling such as: ‘fat swine’ or ‘pig’ and yelling and embarrassing these kids’. Although these directors voiced their disapproval of such technologies by coaches, they did little to stop them and rarely fired them for such behaviours.”
The idea of a win at acceptable cost ethos is confirmed within the study as there appears to be a line drawn at criminal activity.
“These directors seemed to suggest that sexual and physical abuse was not tolerated, while emotional abuse was constructed as an inevitable part of elite youth sport.”
A discourse of performance is also highlighted throughout the research with one coach suggesting pleasure and enjoyment comes from winning rather than the actions required to initiate the winning performance (training). Intimidation, isolation, body regulation and belittling of athletes alongside working through pain and injury are viewed as the cost to be paid for a gymnast to reach their athletic goals.
A paucity of research has been undertaken to consider the emotional demands of the gymnastics culture on young athletes and their families including work considering the gymnastics culture in Canada, Portugal and the Netherlands. In addition to research investigating the discursive discourses found within the gymnastics culture, media interest in emotionally abusive coaching has become more prominent with a number of media outlets reporting on the issues; a number of newspaper articles have focused on the emotional and physical abuse of young gymnasts. Frustrated parents are taking to social/mainstream media to highlight their issues as NGB’s or agencies charged with investigating abuse are seen to be dragging their heels. A number of high profile clubs/coaches have found themselves in the media spotlight in recent years including Twistars, Legacy Elite, MG Elite and a number of undisclosed gymnastics clubs in the UK.
Each time someone comes forward with their story it makes it a little easier for the next person to disclose. Coverage through mainstream media or social media helps to give a voice to the affected person and also raise awareness of the issues within the culture. To be heard someone must first speak out. It is important for individuals to speak out to effect change. But who should someone speak out to? Most often concerns are raised within the club environment, if no action or changes are forthcoming the individual may take their concerns to a safeguarding representative within the NGB or with an agency such as SafeSport (USA) or the Child Protection in Sport Unit (UK). If the individual feels their report is still being mismanaged they may make their concerns known to outside agencies such as the statutory authorities (if this has not already been undertaken by the club/NGB and the issue is of a safeguarding nature) or to a media outlet.
Unfortunately, speaking out does not always mean those who are able to effect change are listening!
Raising concerns of emotional or physical abuse within the environment can be a complex issue. Coaches/management may frame the situation as one where the parent does not understand the complexities of elite sport, the gymnast is too fragile or emotional or this is simply what it takes to reach the top. Parents may also find themselves labelled as troublemakers, vindictive or malicious and out to destroy the reputation of the club/coach due to personal grievances. There may in fact be multiple motivations for raising the issues – safeguarding concerns, parental grudge, issues with club management etc. however, each case should be considered by the evidence provided not the perceived reasons for reporting.
Gathering evidence may prove difficult if parents are excluded from the training environment and have to rely on information given to them by their child. Corroborating what their child has disclosed may also prove difficult if other witnesses do not view the behaviours as deviant or are afraid to verify them. The more embedded an individual is within the culture, the less likely they will be to recognise abusive practice. It has been established parents take their cues from other parents who have been within the culture for longer – this often leads to normalisation of behaviours such as training on injuries and desensitisation to poor practice resulting in a reluctance to report.
At the elite level parents may have accepted a great deal of poor practice before reaching the point they can no longer be a silent bystander to the abusive nature of the coaching regimen. Rather than rock the boat with a formal complaint parents of gymnasts at this level may simply remove their child from the abusive environment and find a club they prefer. Some parents may not recognise the pattern of abuse until after their children have retired from the sport. Parents may be reluctant to report abusive practices as they fear they may be viewed as complicit in the abuse for having allowed their child to train within such an environment for an extended period. Clubs may place the responsibility of safeguarding back on the parent as the primary care giver and relinquish all responsibility for any abuse that occurred. This is echoed in the words of a club director from the Netherlands –
“I tell them [parents] that there is only one person responsible for your daughter and that is you. Make sure that when you allow your child to work with a coach, that you trust that coach 100% including his values and norms; you have to be completely sure [of the coach] because you have the primary responsibility for that child.” Jacobs et al. (2017).
Once a report has been filed an authority figure must hear, accept and act on the information before any action can be taken. Within hierarchical organisations such as sporting bodies where medals mean funding/sponsorship/national pride, complaints against top performing coaches may fall on deaf ears. Parents may fear reprisal for reporting abusive behaviours – this may include the gymnast/parent being ostracised, the gymnast being demoted to a lower training group or being asked to leave the club, the gymnast being removed from the national team or not selected for international assignments. These issues are similar to retaliation concerns due to whistleblowing complaints in organisations where employees fear demotion/termination of employment/negative references.
Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. As a society we can value and uphold the discourse of performance without jeopardising the safety and welfare of our children. Through research NGB’s are becoming more aware of the long term impact emotional abuse can have on youth athletes and are beginning to put safeguards in place to combat these types of adverse coaching methods. The conversation surrounding physical, emotional and sexual abuse is the most fervent it has been due to social media and the Me Too movement. We still have a long way to go, bad habits die hard and established cultures are notoriously difficult to change, however, steps are being taken in the right direction and together we can effect change.
Jacobs, F., Smits, F., & Knoppers, A. (2017). “‘You don’t realize what you see!’: the institutional context of emotional abuse in elite youth sport.” Sport in Society, 20 (1), 126-143. Doi 10.1080/17430437.2015.1124567