“This is not fun, this is serious gymnastics”

I often wonder what the outcome would have been had I made different choices in respect to my daughter’s gymnastics career. Many scenarios flit through my mind  –  ranging from sporting achievements to short and long-term health outcomes and all the variables in between. I have been asked on many occasions whether I regret removing my daughter from a coach I considered abusive, considering the performative results her athletes have since achieved. I always reply, my only regret is not moving her sooner. This discourse of achievement runs deep within elite gymnastics; the methods of producing results overlooked for the attainment of International success.

From my daughter’s first ever gymnastics lesson I was informed ‘this is not fun, this is serious gymnastics’ – she was 4 years old. From the first day she was identified as talented it became a job first and foremost, there was no fun, the fun was in the winning, but even that was short lived as there was no time to bask in the glory, the next training session was already mapped out to achieve success at the next level.

The employment benefits package that came with this ‘job’ was not particularly attractive – 1 week holiday a year at a set time, no sick days, no injury days, no time off for social events; you get to quit when the employer says so, not when you choose (I jest not, that conversation actually happened with a coach).

I am sure you are thinking – Yay, sign me up now!

Do I hold these coaches personally responsible for their attitudes toward the professionalisation of children through elite sport? – not wholly. The coaches do not work within a vacuum, and many are simply reproducing the coaching behaviours they have witnessed/experienced and believe are required to produce elite gymnasts. These attitudes are exemplified in the research undertaken by Gervis (2013),

Discussion with the coaches was not fruitful as they did not concede that their behaviour was in any way responsible for the athlete’s anxiety or disordered behaviour. In their view their behaviour is not abusive but rather is a part of the culture of gymnastics. Such behaviour/treatment described by the coaches as the need to ‘crush’ the individual, facilitates, in their opinion, ascendance to the highest levels of competition.

So, why are these attitudes so deeply entrenched?  In their (2017) paper ‘Coming of age: coaches transforming the pixie-style model of coaching in women’s artistic gymnastics’, Kerr et al. explore the origins of the ‘pixie-style’ model of coaching first introduced under a politicised sporting regimen in Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970’s. This change in aesthetics within the sport led the Soviet Union to become the powerhouse of gymnastics (until it’s disbandment in 1991) which other nations sought to emulate. Kerr et al. (2017) describe the coaching style of WAG gymnasts as authoritarian stating, ‘this sport exemplifies coach authority … and that gymnasts are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse’. The authors go on to state:

The problematic practices that coaches have been found to employ include the prescription of extreme diets and weight control, verbal and emotional abuse, overtraining, corporal punishment, and forced training or competition while in pain or injured.

This method has been tried and tested over decades and is often viewed as the only way to produce high level athletes, the cost of this approach is the physical and mental health of young gymnasts, often leaving them ‘poorly equipped for lives after sport’ (Kerr et al, 2017).

From here you might question what is being done to combat these issues within gymnastics, if not the coach who is responsible, then who?

The sporting organisations who maintain memberships must be held accountable for the coaches.

The clubs who employ the coaches must be held accountable.

The coaches themselves must be held accountable.

The parents who hand their children over to the coaches must be held accountable.

All adults who may witness maltreatment of children must be held accountable.

The only ones who are not accountable are the children.

As the parent of a gymnast on the elite pathway, and I would like to think a rational, thoughtful and caring person – how did I end up in a position where my daughter was subjected to maltreatment in the sporting environment? If I am completely honest there was some ego involved, I felt good when my daughter achieved. I was pleased for her that her hard work had come to fruition, but also that the sacrifices we had made as a family were worth the struggle. Coakley (2006) suggests that parents feel accountable for their children’s achievements and failures, and experience guilt if developmental expectations are not met, especially in the highly visible competitive arena of sport. High expectations had been placed upon my daughter by a number of coaches within the high performance programme and I embraced my role in helping her achieve her potential.

It is not easy being the parent of an elite athlete – there is no manual to guide you. You watch and take cues from other parents, the ones who have the successful athletes, as you believe they must have found the right formula. It’s a bit like being a first-time parent, you have no clue what you are doing, and you go day by day, month by month ‘winging’ it, hoping you are doing a good job. You gauge how well you are doing through your child’s achievements, your interactions with fellow parents and your relationship with the coach.

If the coach is happy with your involvement, you must be doing a good job (or so I thought).

For me, it was all about keeping on the right side of the coach. I trusted the coach. I believed the coach when they told me they HAD to win the battles with my strong-willed daughter – that is was imperative to set the precedent early on that the coach was always right. I was uncomfortable with this approach, but I believed it was what made a champion.

The further through the elite stages my daughter went, the more success she acquired, the more I became sucked into the idea that ‘this is what it takes’. I was informed how much my daughter had impressed the national coaches at a training camp when she struggled through 2 days of training with a nasty viral illness, “they knew she was ill, but they were so impressed with her commitment and work ethic for pushing through it”. When the people at the top of the sport are praising your child for training when they are ill or injured, you start to believe it’s OK and conform to the demands of this win all costs culture. Your reality becomes unhinged from that of the outsider, those naysayers who don’t understand what it takes to be successful. And slowly you succumb to this culture that has enveloped your life.

I was afraid to upset the status quo, I didn’t like what I was seeing but all around me the discourses of performance and perfection were being validated –

by other parents,

by my daughter’s coaches,

by gym managers,

by national coaching staff.

The only people who didn’t seem to buy into this narrative were the sports physicians – yet as a parent, I felt pressured to conform with the majority. Listening to the doctor say “no one remembers a junior champion, it’s about staying healthy and in the game long enough to make an impact at senior level” and thinking, that’s all very well for you to say, but you don’t have a coach who is going to get mad if your eleven year old daughter doesn’t have the steroid shot that’s being considered. Her sporting life was all about the here and now, never about considering the long-term impact of short-term solutions.

Tick tock, tick tock – the hands of time spinning out of control. Not enough training hours, not enough time on the equipment, no time to be injured – always pushing forward, terrified of being left behind. This is how coach viewed the situation. ‘You have to be in to win it’, the mantra etched in my mind. Always being reminded how quickly time is ticking away.

I never completely bought into the win at all cost ethos, McMahon and Penney (2014) would suggest I pretended to live by the culturally dominant narrative by ‘playing the part of the athlete parent’. My front stage presence was that of dedicated gym mum, conforming to the ideologies of the culture, putting the coach on a pedestal – yet in private (behind the scenes) I questioned the discourses, refused to make my daughter train when she was unwell (lying to the coach as to why she wasn’t in training), allowing her to eat the foods she enjoyed in moderation, telling my daughter how proud I was of all she achieved regardless of the results. I thought my being a ‘good’ mum away from the craziness of the culture would be enough to protect her. I was wrong.

You cannot undo the feelings of low self-esteem when your child is being told they are not good enough 90% of the time.

You cannot undo the micro trauma constantly inflicted upon your child’s body through overtraining by insisting they take a few days off.

You cannot undo the despair your child feels because they like the food you allow them to eat at home but stress because they are weighed and told they are fat in the gym.

You can’t do half a job.

So, where does the blame lie for perpetuating a culture that allows the legitimised abuse of children? I would have to say, with those in power. While the discourses of performance, perfection and power are reproduced by the coaches at the top level of the sport, these ideologies will continue to filter down throughout the system. Safeguarding ‘tick box’ exercises to meet governmental standards are worthless unless the same principles apply to all coaches and athletes within a sport, at every level.

Holding all those who repeatedly use unethical coaching practices to account is required to show these behaviours will not be tolerated. Re-training, education around the long-term impact of child maltreatment within a sporting context and effective monitoring to ensure compliance, are all required to move forward toward a safer environment for children. While those who rely on performance results for their employment/funding believe emotional abuse is a necessary part of elite sport there will be no culture change.

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