Updated: Apr 10
I always thought I had my eyes open when my daughter was training at her elite gym. So when we, her parents, told her we we’re pulling her out of this gym she had been training at for 8+ years, taking with her all the hopes of one day becoming elite and making the National team, we all cried. We were leaving because I knew she couldn’t train the way they trained and out of what I considered respect for her coaches and their way of training. She had torn her ACL and damaged two meniscus at the age of 13. Eight (8) months post major surgery, she was walking around limping because she would train until she had to ice her knee. The responsibility of patching her up always fell on her and us, and I just couldn't watch her break anymore.
We were taking our daughter out because SHE didn’t fit THEIR training program and I wasn’t about to ask them to train her differently. Not because I didn’t want to because believe me if I thought I could, we would have. That place had become a 2nd home to all of us. But I considered it disrespectful to ask someone to be something they weren’t. Especially since they didn’t believe in changing because they don’t believe in training any other way. We left because we thought we had our eyes open.
It wasn’t until my daughter’s journey through major depressive disorder and self harm did I realize that while I maybe had my eyes open, I also had a lot of inexcusable excuses that dismissed what my eyes saw. To this day, I know there are parents who make these same excuses. And here in lies the heartbreaking truth that if we truly want to change the abusive culture of the elite gymnastics world, parents are going to have to do more than just have their eyes open. We’re going to have to ask for change or walk away and everyone seems to fearful to do this even at the costs of their children’s emotional health. And they will follow these excuses with the very prominent…
“It’s not my kid”
“My kid knows how to handle or ignore it”
“He’s hard on her because he cares so much”
I should know. I used the same ones.
If you think I am asking for rainbows and butterflies then I’ll be the first to say, I take discipline, athletic training and competitiveness very seriously. As a former professional dancer, I know it takes high expectations, yelling, extra practice, pushing through fatigue, getting up after every fall, harsh days, facing down fear and disappointment everyday, and tough love to create the above and beyond. I can overlook the insane amount of hours, crazy drills and sacrifices. But this can all be done without the shaming and emotional and sometimes even physical abusiveness I’ve seen over the 8+ years my daughter trained with a few of these very elite athletes who are now coming forward to talk about not only their sexual assaults but how the environment they trained in made it a breeding ground for abusers.
What kind of emotional abuse? Daily shaming and lots of it. If they fall, they're shamed. It's not bad enough they feel frustrated and completely disappointed in themselves for missing a skill or even getting hurt. They also need to be shamed for disappointing, frustrating and sometimes scaring their coach for falling. When their tiny kid bodies turn into an adolescent teenager (and even before then), they're fat shamed daily. If you struggle with a new skill or any skill it’s because your fat, lazy, weak and weak-minded, you don’t “want it bad enough” or maybe just all those combined. They’ll say they will no longer receive high bar scores because they're too big. They’ll tell the team to eat soup with a fork over the holidays. And then they'll tell the parents all these things and guess what, you'll believe them.
When my daughter didn’t understand what they were asking for, she was yelled at and shamed, and would never ask for help because that would only shower on more. If something hurt, she was shamed and told she was lazy. I heard this one a lot. My daughter went to school then trained for 6+ hours then went home to finish homework 5-6 days a week. Yup. Definitely lazy. And last there was always the dreaded injury.
Not just if but WHEN they’re injured, they’re ignored. They get shamed if they don’t come and train even if, like my girl, they just had major surgery. But they’ll be yelled at if you as a parent step in to let them know how much they can do (doctors and sport therapists recommendations aside) so your child will push through the pain often doing what they shouldn’t just to be seen. Or even just to be yelled at and shamed because then at least they still exist. And all the while we tell them, it’s because you’re special they shame you, it's because your so talented they train you so hard, otherwise they would just ignore you. At some point, it became our children's responsibility to manage the student/teacher relationship.
As parents of these happy, shame loving, desperate to please, talented young athletes we tell and coach them how to avoid getting yelled at and try to share their burden of shame as a gift of attention. But despite however they learn to "manage" they will never conquer shame because even at their best, they're not perfect. I would remind my daughter how much value can be learned from failures (if they should even be called that) while all along her coaches shamed her into never making any. When she finally got a taste of it what it was like to compete with ferocity and fun with our other club, she told me she always used to compete fearful of ever making mistakes. Those ugly gifts we learn and improve the most from!
From the outside, people wonder why the hell any parent would tolerate this treatment. But as any other parent who has been there, your blinders get thicker with time too. Its not just the medals or winning. It’s not that simple. But just like they’ve trained your kid to believe, as a parent you believe this torturous environment is the way to make an elite athlete. Going anywhere else means your kids’ talent will go down the drain. Or maybe the coaches are connected to that inner circle (who we also know trained this same way) and will blackball your athlete from succeeding somewhere else because they left…I’ve heard it done so let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen.
So, when parents tell themselves it’s because the coaches care, they really only care about their gymnastics. But it’s just gymnastics! This isn’t who they are as little people but very quickly it does become who they think they are. And these kids not only don’t know how to communicate when things go wrong, or they don’t understand, or their hurt or scared, but they don’t know how to cope with life’s difficulties because they were shamed whenever they encountered one. So they shut up and shut down. And they don’t know who they are or how they fit into this great big world if they aren’t a gymnast. They’re missing out on sharing with the world the gifts that the gymnastics world and being athlete did give them:
* Courageous will and determination
* Fierceness in the face of fear
* The power to conquer both mind and body
The fact that so many if not most of these kids must be repaired into functioning adults instead of celebrating and embracing these many faceted gifts, is a shame to society, the gymnastics world, and the athletic community. And us parents who think they have their eyes open to the gift of an opportunity, have their eyes closed to the imprisonment of their child’s isolation and shame.
Make your voice heard.
Find out who your US Representative is by clicking here. Contact the to urge The House to pass S.534 - Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act
As it stands now, the bill was introduce by Senator Dianne Feinstein in March of 2017 and passed on 11/14/2017 where it has since stalled.