Red Flags: 5 signs you may be in the wrong gym

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
  • Gaslighting

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.

Ignoring injuries

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.

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What things have you seen that would lead you to believe a gymnastics club has issues?

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I think this will be an interesting post to read.

A couple things my coworkers and I have talked about having observed other gyms in the area :

- Social media posts of unsafe/scary looking skills being done. Sometimes we are floored at the things gyms use to essentially advertise themselves. If that's what they're willing to post online, you have to wonder what's going on behind the scenes.

- When parents from other gyms come up to us (coaches) at meets and tell us how nice it is that we are so encouraging to our athletes and cheer for them, in a way that says they aren't getting that at their own gym.

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There is a difference between a wrong fit for my gymnast and our family and a gym that is a bad gym.

And sometimes it’s not even the gym but a specific coach.

Too add-parents, gyms that allow crappy parents can wreck a group of kids.

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I have to add having the wrong owner, which sets the tone from the physical environment, the coaches and the overall program. A poor owner lets a bad coach thrive. But I have also been involved where a bad owner stifles a good coach with lack of support and constant tension. Was in a gym where gymnastics was just once piece of their tiny child care empire, and was more concerned with margins and controlling "the brand" than developing even a competent gymnastics program. Which if they were honest with themselves they should have just offered an Xcel program or one that clearly was more recreational in purpose. Yet they insisted they were a high level DP program. Ugh, constant tension and in retrospect unsafe environment.

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a few I've thought of (not all of these have happened, but a few of them):

-favoring specific body types (skinny, 'typical' gymnast body)
-really short practices
- requiring things of some gymnasts and not others
- (this really ticked me off) DD's gym posts "top 3" placement videos, but would not recognize scores, only placements. one of the third place routines was a 9.2 on bars. DD had 9.6 at the same meet, but did not place top 3, and was not recognized for it.
-not letting kids do what they need to for warmups (every kid is different)
- refusing to spot kids on brand new skills
- (again, really pissed me off) leaving the kids alone and not getting them out on the floor for warmup in time (coach A was "looking for" Coach B, caused all the kids to panic, kids ended up doing warmup under the bars, where several kids ran into the bar)
- in line with the one above, not staying with the kids for awards and cheering them on. Countless meets in the past two years where the coaches went to go get lunch and ate in the corner gossiping away from all the girls(there were no more sessions afterward and that was the only session of the day they had to be at)
-forcing DD to compete much harder skills than the entire rest of the team, when DD was VERY insistent that she did not want to compete skills she was not confident in and that she had just learned (the skill was not required for two more levels) (DD's coach at the the time insisted she was just getting out of competing the skill to score better, and that "Anything above an 8.0 is a great score, you'll be fine" *DD is typically a good scorer and works hard to clean up her skills*, did not believe that an 8 is a great score when she was used to scoring higher) (when DD first got the skill she was adamant that she wanted the coaches to work with her on cleaning it up and getting straight arms, as the other kids had not yet got the skill and they were still doing drills to work towards it. Coaches proceeded to never work with her on cleaning it and she went to take a bar class to clean it)
-mocking kids for mental blocks ("it's not that hard, just do it", "what the hell was that", "mental blocks don't exist")
-refusing to tell kids what they need for the next level (never mentioned that a 120 split was required for gold, told the platinums that they would only need the special requirements, and now none of them have B skills, told kids they would not certain elements that are required, etc. etc. )
- "you're not injured I just saw you doing ___"

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There is a difference between a wrong fit for my gymnast and our family and a gym that is a bad gym.

And sometimes it’s not even the gym but a specific coach.

Too add-parents, gyms that allow crappy parents can wreck a group of kids.

The impact of crazy parents, which in the extreme I think is a manifestation of a poorly run gym/bad coach, can't be overstated.

Reading the "crazy gym mom" (which isn't fair, as I've seen some terrible dads too) threads on here really understates how bad it can get. If you take the worst set of stories that people have ever seen, that would be a normal week at my daughter's old gym.

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I feel like no uptraining near season/in season is also kinda bad, you just get bored of doing the same things over and over again.
Also the gym owner and coach should agree on the way to run things.
In my case, the gym owner was also partially involved in our coaching. She repeatedly told the coach not to practice/try a single skill above the current level until season was over, even when our main coach wanted us doing some skills for the next level.

Plus, being open about money and fees. We came from a different country and told them that, and asked them the complete cost. They told us the amount per month, and said this is everything included, including coach fee and leo and other costs. Later after the season ended they asked us to pay extra amount, more than double the monthly that we had been paying just for meets.

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Favoritism -- ignoring gymnasts who are progressing at their own rate for girls whose parents push for privates, 2 a days, homeschool and pay a fortune in "extras"..then those gymnasts get praised for their "talent"..

Not spotting skills and telling kids to just "chuck it" (one of the reasons we left the first gym was that level 8 skills were getting no spot and if you didn't have it yet it was "why not?" )

Everyone injured ALL. THE. TIME.

Threatening kids with demotion if they don't get a skill (If you don't do XYZ you're going to XCEL or back to level such and such).

Comparing one gymnast to another (Why don't you have this skill yet? So and so had it already by your age).

And yes, ALL of these came from the first gym we were at and why we left.

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If you don't do XYZ you're going to XCEL or back to level such and such

If Xcel is a "downgrade" or a threat, that tells you what they think of an entire team of children who expect support and get derision.

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Yelling: Especially at younger gymnasts. Unless it's across the gym and the only way to be heard, yelling at a gymnast shouldn't ever be needed.

Forcing gymnasts to do things they don't feel ready to: This causes injuries. Also can cause mental blocks, bad form, and a host of other things.

One single lead coach controlling all the others: One coach should not be consistently correcting the others, yelling at them, etc

Extremely young coaches for the team: High schoolers should not be coaching DP or XCEL. It isn't right and doesn't always go over well with older gymnasts

Constant injuries: It shows kids are performing unsafe skills, and that they aren't being spotted correctly or when necessary

Animosity within the team: If a team atmosphere isn't being encouraged, or at least fighting isn't being stopped, things are going to be crazy

Yes, these are all things I have experienced. I broke an ankle twice and dislocated multiple joints. The whole experience made my trauma, anxiety, and depression worse.

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If Xcel is a "downgrade" or a threat, that tells you what they think of an entire team of children who expect support and get derision.

That was the attitude of this club. Once you hit optionals the threat to move to XCEL was thrown at the kids daily if they weren't progressing fast enough.

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Lots of good points in this thread! The one thing I want to add as a definite red flag: litigious owners and/or parents. Yes, people sue people all the time. But if a gym is constantly dealing with lawsuits, either the gym has nefarious business practices, or parents have unrealistic expectations. Both sides of the coin are red flag territory.

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Question for the community: Should a gym lock the doors on former students?

A gym that I attended had a "you are dead to us" mentality with respect to former students. This felt like bullying (and a "red flag") to me. However, I understand that gyms are private businesses and need to control entry for security reasons. They are also competing with local businesses and need to maintain some image of exclusivity.

What are you thoughts? If a gym permanently bans a former student (either because they quit or switched gyms), is that a "red flag" or just "business as usual"?

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EDIT for clarity: In a common scenario, the former student is attempting to watch an exhibition or competition that is hosted by the exclusionary gym.

Reply Like

Question for the community: Should a gym lock the doors on former students?

A gym that I attended had a "you are dead to us" mentality with respect to former students. This felt like bullying (and a "red flag") to me. However, I understand that gyms are private businesses and need to control entry for security reasons. They are also competing with local businesses and need to maintain some image of exclusivity.

What are you thoughts? If a gym permanently bans a former student (either because they quit or switched gyms), is that a "red flag" or just "business as usual"?

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EDIT for clarity: In a common scenario, the former student is attempting to watch an exhibition or competition that is hosted by the exclusionary gym.

No way!

When we have a gymnasts leave, the first thing I always say is “the door is open, hope to do you back in the future”.

If they go to another gym I say something like “we do understand, everyone needs to find the best place for their own needs, but if your gymnast ends up not finding what they are looking for, we would love to see then again”.

More often than not, they come back. Most people just feel the grass is greener on the other side. When they check out the grass and decide it’s not so great, they feel safe to come back.

When someone comes back after having gone to another gym, they end up being your most loyal, fantastic clients. In the waiting area they tell other clients how much happier they are here.

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No way!

When we have a gymnasts leave, the first thing I always say is “the door is open, hope to do you back in the future”.

If they go to another gym I say something like “we do understand, everyone needs to find the best place for their own needs, but if your gymnast ends up not finding what they are looking for, we would love to see then again”.

More often than not, they come back. Most people just feel the grass is greener on the other side. When they check out the grass and decide it’s not so great, they feel safe to come back.

When someone comes back after having gone to another gym, they end up being your most loyal, fantastic clients. In the waiting area they tell other clients how much happier they are here.

That's a good attitude. When I was reading the post you quoted I thought they were talking about team -- e.g., if you go to a different team you can't come back to your team.

That's not kind but I could sort of understand it. Gymnastics is progressive and different coaches train in different ways, so you could argue that once someone is accustomed to another style you might not want to coach them.

But talking about not being able to go into the gym to watch a meet? That's next level crazy and would be a HUGE HUGE HUGE red flag.

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EDIT for clarity: In a common scenario, the former student is attempting to watch an exhibition or competition that is hosted by the exclusionary gym.

I agree, that is a pretty awful practice and I don't even understand how they have time to gate-keep the spectators at a competition. Yikes.

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