WAG Recognizing Emotional Abuse In Gymnastics (and in life)

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Jan 29, 2019
When we think of athletics, whether that means representing a school’s teams or representing a sports club not affiliated with school, we envision a community and an environment that makes children and teens feel safe, happy, and teaches them valuable life lessons that they will continue to utilize throughout their life. Sports have so much good to offer, including an outlet for pent-up stress and emotions as well as building connections with others, increasing confidence, and so much more.
Unfortunately, this is not always the reality for everyone. Studies have shown that approximately 60-75% of youth athletes experience some form of emotional abuse, ranging from mild harassment to severe maltreatment from their coaches.
As a competitive gymnast, I have experienced and witnessed a lot of emotional abuse so far. I started my competitive career at the age of eight, and from that time until I was around twelve, I had the same coach. After my first year on the competitive team, I started noticing that a few of my teammates, including myself, were being treated differently than the rest. Other girls would get constructive feedback with positive commentary that was beneficial, while we received solely negative and unhelpful corrections. This change in behavior progressed into singling us out, yelling at us, and humiliating us, along with much more. It got so bad that the rest of the team began to notice the favoritism as well.
By the time I was at the end of my third year of competing, I had figured out that something wasn’t quite right. I was crying almost every day before and after practice and I was so scared to go to practice that I would get nauseous and often end up missing. I started talking to my parents about my concerns with the coach, but at first they didn’t really understand what was happening and why this behavior was wrong. Neither did I.
Around the time of my fourth year, I began seeing someone from Peak Performance in hopes of overcoming a mental block on a skill. Through these sessions, conversations that had me detailing specific incidents with my coach led to my parents and I learning that the behavior that was occurring in the gym was classified as abuse. I have since left that gym, and after a rough three years of jumping between gyms, I found a much healthier environment with a coach who cares about us as athletes and as human beings.
Before explaining emotional abuse and signs of being emotionally abused, I wanted to talk about the lifelong impacts of being emotionally abused at a young age. Emotional trauma can leave lasting effects on the brain, such as increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This is because certain types of emotional abuse, such as verbal abuse, directly affect the areas of the brain that are associated with depression, dissociation, and anxiety. Children who were emotionally abused may also have a hard time building strong relationships and may develop trust issues as a result.
Emotional abuse, as defined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, is “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incidents that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or of value only in meeting another’s need.” According to the APSAC, emotionally abusive behaviors include but are not limited to isolating, exploiting, belittling, humiliating, and scapegoating. In specific relation to sports, Ashley Stirling and Gretchen Kerr wrote an article in 2008 defining emotional abuse as “a pattern of deliberate non-contact behaviors by a person within a critical relationship role that has the potential to be harmful. Acts of emotional abuse include physical behaviors, verbal behaviors, and acts of denying attention and support.”
Emotional abuse can be very difficult to recognize, as there is a fine line between tough coaching and abuse. Parents, athletes, teachers, and coaches often don’t notice abuse for a long time, if ever. The coach may say things like “I’m just helping you become better” or “I just want what’s best for you” as some form of false justification. In all athletics, the athletes and parents are usually taught that the coach knows what is best, so if the coach is saying this, they must be right. This norm is why abuse goes unnoticed so often.
Knowing the behavioral traits of abusers and signs of emotional abuse can be beneficial for athletes and parents of athletes so they can prevent these situations from happening. The abuser mentality includes moral justification, backhanded apologies, gaslighting, and manipulative behavior. Abusive coaches might use controlling phrases such as “I know what is best for you,” or “I got you this far,” and “stop crying and grow up!”. Essentially, the coach wants to gain total control over the athlete(s).
An athlete-centered philosophy that is built around a healthy environment and fun experience is a great way for coaches and athletic directors to minimize putting athletes in abusive situations. By providing praise or recognition for improvement or effort, you are helping to create a healthy training environment and decreasing likelihood of abuse. Other things coaches can do include strict bullying/hazing policy amongst the team, focusing less on winning and more on an enjoyable experience, and not using guilt or shame as motivation.
If you think you or a teammate is being abused in any way, whether emotional or any form of abuse, report it to USATF SafeSport. The USATF managing director of communications, Susan Hazzard, states that “If any athlete, parent, or bystander makes a report with USATF, then USATF will follow through and investigate in a consistent manner.” A healthy step for athletes who have been emotionally abused is to consult a sports psychologist to work through the effects of the abuse.
Will we ever be able to end abuse athletics? No. It's just not possible. But we can carry this knowledge forward and spread awareness through our communities. By doing this, we can save many athletes from the trauma of an abusive coach.
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