Maybe your once happy gymnast is coming out of practice every day in tears, or you’re starting to see or hear things at the gym that don’t seem right. How do you know when it’s just a rough couple of practices or something much more serious?
Not allowing parents to watch practice
According to USAG’s Safe Sport policy, “Member Clubs must permit parents and guardians access to practice and training sessions. Access may include sitting areas, in person viewing options, closed-circuit broadcast (including audio) or similar methods of viewing.” Any gym that prohibits parents from watching practice and does not provide a broadcast viewing option is in violation of USAG rules and should be reported to Safe Sport.
Some gyms don’t have a written policy forbidding parents from watching practice, but still find ways to strongly discourage it, like only providing one day a month for parents to attend, or publicly embarrassing a gymnast if their parents come to watch. While no coach wants a parent distracting their gymnast by trying to talk to them, wave them down, or coach from the sidelines, it’s cause for concern if the gym tries to prevent parents from simply observing practice.
Verbal and emotional abuse
It should go without saying that any type of verbal or emotional abuse is reason to immediately leave a gym, but sometimes kids and parents get confused by what’s just “tough coaching” and what crosses the line into abuse.
The USAG Safe Sport policy defines the following behaviors as emotional misconduct:
- Pattern of verbal abuse such as name calling, yelling, and repeated personal attacks that start with, “You are.”
- Statements that attack gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or body weight
- Striking walls or throwing objects to create an atmosphere of fear
- Isolation from teammates, social circle, or family
- Secrets that are encouraged
The following behaviors are defined by the USAG Safe Sport policy as emotional misconduct that includes elements of physical misconduct:
- Restricting basic needs such as water, food, bathroom breaks and sleep
- Restricting down time that allows the athlete to manage mental health and stress
- Restricting medical care and/or failure to follow medical orders
- Exercise and conditioning that serves no legitimate training purpose
- Exercise and conditioning conducted for the sole purpose to humiliate the athlete
Any of these behaviors should immediately be reported to Safe Sport and are reasons to leave a gym if the coaches and gym owners don’t take your concerns seriously. Verbal and emotional abuse breaks kids down, it doesn’t “toughen them up”, and can lead to years of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. If the coaches operate through fear and intimidation, it’s not the place for your child, no matter how many team trophies or banners the gym wins.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of any competitive sport, and coaches should understand the protocols to follow when they occur in the gym. Anyone who has taken basic First Aid knows to R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation) a minor sports injury when it happens and then assess the injury before the athlete returns to practice. Staples like ice packs, tape, and band-aids should be available to injured athletes, while a more serious injury should be cause to contact either a parent or medical care depending on the severity. Expecting an athlete to “shake it off” and continue training through an injury can exacerbate it and possibly cause long-term damage.
When a gymnast is recovering from an injury, coaches should respect the healing process, adhere to the treatment plan, and recognize it will take time to regain skills. Any coach trying to rush an athlete through the recovery process to get them back into competition faster is risking the gymnast’s health, and possibly their future in the sport.
Unable to deal with mental blocks
Mental blocks aren’t fun for anyone, least of all the athlete struggling with one. When a gymnast develops a mental block they need support, understanding, and patience, but some coaches take the opposite approach and get frustrated, demean the gymnast, or refuse to let them off the apparatus until they attempt the skill. Some parents have reported that their child was sent to the locker room or asked to leave practice when struggling with a mental block on a skill. Becoming angry with a gymnast dealing with a mental block never helps.
Instead, there are a variety of techniques coaches can use to try and help an athlete through a mental block, including:
- Acknowledging that mental blocks are real and helping the gymnast communicate about the issue
- Moving back to basics and drills that lead up to the skill
- Minimizing any emotion around the blocked skill
- Providing windows of opportunity for the gymnast to work on the skill, but moving on if the gymnast is unable to attempt it during that time period
Good coaches have a variety of tools to help a gymnast address and overcome mental blocks, but a gym that can’t deal with such a common occurrence in the sport isn’t a healthy place to be.
An unsupportive team environment
Gymnastics is demanding mentally and physically and having close teammate bonds can be crucial to getting through tough practices, but coaches who consistently favor a small group of athletes, or pit gymnasts against each other can undermine or even destroy those bonds. Good coaches encourage their athletes to support each other and find ways to incorporate team building into daily practice. The gym should also be a safe space where bullying isn’t tolerated. While coaches can’t see everything or be expected to monitor gymnasts’ social media, the coaches should take it seriously if a gymnast or parent approaches them about bullying from teammates.
In the best type of gym environment, you’ll see kids who are genuinely thrilled when a teammate has gotten a new skill or conquered a fear because the coaches have established a strong sense of comradery and team spirit. However, if your child’s coaches encourage them to see their teammates as the competition, ignore instances of bullying, blatantly play favorites, or generally create a negative environment, it’s time to move on.
If you are seeing any of these red flags, schedule some time to speak with the gym owner or head coaches, but be prepared to leave if its clear things aren’t going to change. No potential athletic glory is worth your child’s well-being.
Jen Kula is a Massachusetts based writer, and mom to two gymnasts. She has published one novel, has worked for several magazines and websites including; MetroSports Boston magazine, Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoors Magazine, and Babyzone.com, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.