Especially after everything that has happened, and is still happening within USAG, with coaches coming under scrutiny for child abuse – emotional and physical – and with the seemingly unending Covid-19 crisis, I find myself more than ever examining why it is that I coach, and what I want my gymnasts to get out of being under my tutelage.
I want to help them develop a strong sense of self-worth. I want them to be confident in their minds and in their abilities.
I want to help them develop a high self-esteem. I want them to know that their goals are possible.
I want to help them develop their individual character. I want them to be comfortable with who they are and to know that each of them matters, regardless of what anyone else says about them.
I want to help them develop a sense of control over their lives. I want them to be confident to know that they can make goals, set a path, and reach their goals.
I want to help them develop the belief that life is full of possibilities. I want them to believe that anything is possible with productive action.
I want to help them develop a belief that they are more than just gymnasts. I want them to know that I am a trusted advisor for life, not just for life in the gym.
I want to help them develop a love for gymnastics. I want them to look back on their days in the gym and believe that it was worth the time, the hard work, and dedication that they put in.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start. In order to do all of these important above things, I must be present with my coaching, and do everything I can to be consistent in trying to develop these goals in my gymnasts. I must draw on my experiences, remember what it was to be a gymnast, and apply what I have learned through that and my years as a coach. But more than that, I must continue to study and apply what I learn to help develop my gymnasts even further. I enjoy reading and applying what I read to daily practices and Success Saturday. I will continue to do so, and will also develop training tools for gymnasts, coaches, and parents to use to help them apply what I have learned to gymnastics training.
I will be building off the Gym Rats book series by creating a series of workbooks and workshops for gymnasts to learn and reinforce more of the valuable life lessons that gymnastics has to offer.
I was in the dining room reading Madison’s notebook entry between bites of cottage cheese.
Dear Rat (AKA Morgan),
Tomorrow starts the last week of school! WOOT WOOT – No more school! And I can’t WAIT to start going the optional days. I’m so glad Coach Deb invited us to come in extra. Do you know who else gets to come in on the optional days? I hope we get to work out with the girls in the next level up – and what if we worked out with the girls in even higher levels? That would be awesome!
I can’t believe that DAKOTA is coming to The Gym Club in 1 WEEK to try out! If she’s anything like us GYM RATS, she’s really going to like it here! I hope everyone is nice to her. Did you hear Amber tell Leslie the other day at practice that Tina’s back handspring is ugly? I think Tina heard her, too. Geez. Give her a break. Tina just got it! And she’s still in Devos! That wasn’t cool. I wish there was something we could do to get back at Amber for saying that. Okay, I have to cut it short cuz I need to study for my last social studies test tomorrow!
CU2morrow! –Gym (AKA Madison)
“Morgan, get back to your homework! It’s 8:30!” my mom hollered from the kitchen. I don’t know how Mom knew that I was reading the notebook, but she did. I was supposed to be studying for my last math test before the end of the school year.
“Okay! I was just taking a quick break!” I didn’t have time to write back to Gym since I also had to start studying for my spelling test. I brought my empty dish to the kitchen. “I’m so tired of school! I can’t wait till it’s over,” I complained.
“Four days left. You can hang by your toes for that long,” Mom answered. “Let me know when you’re ready for me to go over your spelling words with you.”
“All right,” I sighed and sauntered back to my math book. We had practice until 7 o’clock on Mondays, so I had just a little time to do all of my homework and finish studying for tomorrow’s school day. It was already 8:30, and my eyelids were getting heavy…
“Morgan, wake up,” my mom lightly touched my shoulder. “Get ready for bed. I’ll quiz you on your spelling words tomorrow while you’re eating breakfast.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Okay,” I said as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I could see the light to my older sister Allison’s room under her door. She just got home from gym – she just finished competing in her first season as an upper-level optional and was getting ready for the next level. No doubt she was doing her homework. How can she stay up so late? I wondered. I got ready for bed and before I knew it, the sun was shining through my window.
USAIGC‘s “About” page states, “Training Times were created. The USAIGC believes a child must NOT give up their childhood for any sport.”
There are many reasons why the USAIGC limits training hours for gymnasts in each competitive level. One important reason is that they believe that children should remain children. Just as the USAIGC says, “a child must not give up their childhood for any sport.” There should be time for other things: school, friends, family, music, other sports. Do we really need to pigeonhole a child to one sport when she’s seven? Six? Five?
Another important reason why the USAIGC limits training time is to level the competitive playing field. Every gym must limit skill training hours to a certain number per week, depending on each competitive level. This is important in competition in a sport where some coaches require anywhere from five to 30 hours of training per week. Under USAG, there are no limits on training hours; some teams in the same level compete against one another with their training hours varying by more than double the time. This does not lead to fair competition. Arguably, the child training more hours will have the competitive advantage… until she cannot train anymore, which leads us to perhaps the most important reason to limit training hours.
The USAIGC limits training hours to naturally slow the skill-building process so that the toll our sport takes on the growing body is kept at bay. According to Dr. Tommy John, “What we’re looking at is an across-the-board, all-sport, injury epidemic, with kids today finding themselves needing medical intervention at younger and younger ages when surgery and rehab shouldn’t be words in their vocabulary—because times have changed.” Keeping training hours lower naturally helps major injuries from occurring and allows time for important injury prevention exercises.
The USAIGC’s intelligent and responsible training rules help keep children safe and well-balanced throughout a childhood in gymnastics. Participating in gymnastics doesn’t have to require a gymnast to give up everything for the opportunity to be competitive. Rather, by limiting training hours, gymnasts have time to be kids, play fair, and keep their bodies intact so that they can enjoy their sport longer.
USAIGC’s “About” page states that “An Optional Only ‘College Bound’ Competitive Program was put into place,” paired with “Our highest Competitive Level uses NCAA Competitive (Premier) Rules.”
Contrary to popular belief in the gymnastics world, if a gymnast is not a USAG level 10, college gymnastics is off the table. What’s more, USAIGC has actually created their program around the NCAA rules, mirroring the NCAA rules in their highest level of competition.
College coaches would be very happy to see that a gymnast, following the same rules that she would follow in college, is successful at this USAIGC level. College coaches recruit in many ways. One very important way is by watching videos of prospective gymnasts. If they like what they see, and the gymnast fits their program, then the gymnast will be recruited.
Many gymnasts, parents, and coaches are stuck in a rut believing that there is a perfect formula to develop a collegiate athlete. One of the greatest detriments is believing that if a gymnast isn’t a successful level 10 by the time she’s in 8th or 9th grade, then there is no chance for her to compete in college. It is true that the very top schools in the NCAA recruit and sign kids early. However, there are many more schools out there that wait until 10th and 11th grades to recruit and make offers as late as 11th and 12th grade. Like so many other things in life, there is more than one way to get to where you are going.
The USAIGC’s basing its highest level of competition on NCAA rules grooms athletes to peak at the right time in high school in order to develop their skill level, maintain a healthy and injury-free body, and also leave room for improvement over the next four to six years that the gymnast has left in the sport.
When it comes to college athletics, gymnasts must think outside the box. If a gymnast wants to compete gymnastics in college, she must look for a college that reflects her skill level and love of the sport. The competitive structure from which she comes is not at issue; her skill level, health, and passion for the sport are what will drive the process.
Life lesson #2 – there is more than one road to lead to where you are going!
After two postponements, it has taken months for USA Gymnastics to hold a hearing on the abuse allegations against elite gymnastics coach Maggie Haney. After the first day of the hearing, USAG has now suspended Haney from having direct contact with minors. (Note: Riley McCusker, Haney’s current Olympic hopeful, is 18 years old – not a minor.) In addition to having no contact with minor gymnasts, Haney is not allowed to coach at any upcoming US training camps or meets until everything surrounding the complaints is resolved.
After two years of investigating former Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert, Geddert’s home and Twistars gym have been searched. Geddert and his gym are directly connected with Larry Nassar and the systemic culture of sexual, physical, and mental abuse in gymnastics.
Almost six months after SafeSport took over the investigation into complaints about gymnastics coach Anna Li, victims have finally heard from investigators. This comes over two years after allegations were made to USAG regarding Li’s coaching tactics.
SafeSport is receiving many more complaints than they can keep up with. There is currently a backlog of 1200 cases! Yes, it is important to report any abuse. However, parents and gymnasts should not wait at a gym until SafeSport has cleared up the matter.
My point is this: If a gymnast experiences abuse by a coach, and her parents know about it, her parents should pull her out of the situation. Too many times, parents want to think they are helping their daughters by leaving them in a questionable coaching situation because “it’s their daughter’s dream” or because a certain coach has a reputation for college scholarships, or “she needs to learn how to toughen up.”
If your daughter is already in an established gym, and as a parent, you are not sure if abuse is happening, then this is when parents need to take matters into their own hands. Do your research. Watch some practices. Are children crying on a regular basis? Are children being berated daily? Is the focus on winning at all costs? If a gym’s focus seems to be different than what they say their mission is, then the coaches and owners should be questioned. Start a conversation with your daughter.
If you are switching to a new gym, parents must do their research when selecting a gym. Interview the owners. Interview the coaches. Ask for a week trial for team. Ask about their philosophy. How do they view children? Do they believe that they are shaping human lives? Or are the children a means to the medal stand?
What happens when athletes are afraid to tell their parents about abuse they’ve sustained by coaches, for fear of retaliation? This is all too common in gymnastics, and probably most sports. If your daughter actually tells a parent that she is afraid that her coach will retaliate, then that is a red flag. A parent must ask for a meeting and speak with the coach. Of course, this may just be a perception in the eyes of the gymnast in terms of her coach, an authority figure. She might believe that her coach is scarier than she really is. Speaking as a coach and gym owner, many gymnasts have a fear of authority. It is the job of parents to ensure that this is just the gymnast’s perception and not a rational fear. If the coach turns out to be safe and have the gymnast’s best interest at heart, then the parent must explain that to her daughter and reinforce the fact that the coach is approachable and safe.
If your daughter does not believe a situation is right for her, and is describing abuse, however, then parents must listen and be willing and able to make the decision to take the child out of a harmful environment.
So as for investigating coaches, parents must do it. We will make the decision about what environment is best for our daughters. We will not wait for SafeSport, law enforcement, or USAG to act. We will take matters into our own hands and ensure that our daughters are in a safe environment. Only then will the culture begin to change and we will get our great sport back.
With a new year comes the opportunity to try new things, be more daring, more adventurous, and more attuned.
I don’t believe we need a new year to turn a new leaf; we have a new day every 24 hours to start something new. But there is something about a new year that gives us pause, and grants us a reason to begin anew.
In gymnastics, the new year just so happens to mark the beginning of the competition season for many young gymnasts. This is a perfect time for gymnasts, coaches, and parents alike to examine their goals and be sure that they are all on track for the upcoming year.
A gymnast should ask herself what her goals are for the season. She should take an objective look at where she is at this point in time, and then ask herself what she is doing each day to help her reach her goals. The most important part of this is to be realistic about where she is and where she wants to go.
At this point in the season, coaches have many hopes and goals for their gymnasts. Just the same as their gymnasts, coaches should take inventory of where their gymnasts are at this point in the season. Most gyms have a critique meet to check in with a judge to see where their team is. This is a perfect time to establish a baseline for the season for each gymnast. Some gymnasts may surprise their coaches and be farther ahead or behind, be a stronger competitor, or even a more nervous one. All these things are considerations that must come into play when establishing training packets, lesson plans, and goals for the rest of the season.
Parents should take an objective look at where their gymnast is. They must remember that gymnastics is their daughter’s sport, and ensure that they are doing what they can to be their daughter’s biggest fan. Being a major part of a gymnast’s support system is to not to add to your gymnast’s stress, but to help to mitigate it. Parents should ask themselves what one thing they can do each day to help their daughter be more positive and objective about her gymnastics.
The new year is a perfect time to reconnect with reality, take inventory, and reconsider goals for the upcoming year. We should take a minute to check in with ourselves and make sure that we are on the right track.
The fifth Gym Rats book, Glide Kip, is coming out on November 22nd!
Morgan and Madison are still best friends and still Gym Rats. This time, read as they go through the trials and tribulations of getting their kips! Their arch rivals, Amber and Leslie, are at it again, trying to sabotage the Gym Rats’ every move. After the story, keep reading for coach tips, drills, and more!
You will be able to order on Amazon.com and Apple Books.
As a coach, I can get stuck in a rut. To avoid this in the gym, I make training packets that rotate throughout the year. I break the year into phases: off-season, pre-season, season, post-season; and then I break the phases into phases. The kids have variety, the coaches have variety. But what happens when I get stuck in a rut in my actual day-to-day coaching?
I was not getting through to one of my gymnasts, and I needed to know why and how to change the situation. I called a meeting with parents and gymnast. The solution that came out of the meeting was our agreement on a blank slate. We decided to erase our frustrations with one another, and start anew. We came up with a plan to tackle the gymnast’s fears and build her confidence. I am looking forward to this new coach-gymnast relationship.
The possibility of starting anew could never have taken place if parents, coach, and gymnast hadn’t been willing to come together and talk about the uncomfortable.
Sometimes it is important that I hear that I am not doing everything just right. As a gymnastics coach, I spend the hours in the gym giving correction after correction, focusing on the mistakes and errors others are making. What about when I need to change something? Who is there to tell me, the leader, that I need to do something different? This is where introspection and the willingness to listen come into play.
I want to teach my gymnasts to face their problems, admit their errors, take responsibility for and learn from them, do their best to correct them, and improve. If that is what I expect of my gymnasts, then I had better be prepared to do those exact things in my own life as their leader. As a coach, I need to examine how I’m coaching and find what it is that I could do better. And if I don’t know what I need to change, then I need to take the initiative to figure it out, and be willing to take criticism.
It is not easy to talk about mistakes. However, just like I tell my kids, on the hardest days, you have the opportunity to learn the most.
There have been a couple of key developments in the past week in the USA Gymnastics (USAG) saga. In the first, the US Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection report their findings after a year-and-a-half investigation. In the second, an article describing athlete mistreatment in a high-ranking USAG gym, demonstrates just how slowly the needle is moving in the the direction of reform in the gymnastics community.
US Senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal released their “Senate Olympics Investigation” report on July 30, 2019. It details the negligence on the part of USAG, the USOC, MSU and the FBI to act in cases involving sexual abuse of gymnasts by Dr. Larry Nassar. The evidence is not new. Sadly, the findings are not surprising. Those of you following the despicable story in the news (Indianapolis Star) and through other investigative reports (Deborah Daniels, Ropes & Gray) already know the narrative. (If you have not read any of these stories or reports, you must get out of the dark and educate yourself as a gymnastics parent!)
Everything laid out in the articles and reports linked above was either illegal or against some rule or code. The “thou shalt nots” were in place. The lack of action is what was missing — not more laws.
Larry Nassar was a master manipulator. He spent decades grooming children and their families and coaches to trust him; he fooled everybody. Unfortunately, his was an evil that exceeded anyone and everyone’s worst nightmares. With hindsight being what it is, parents are now on the lookout for improper sexual conduct. More education, rules and reporting capabilities are in place to identify probable misconduct. Unfortunately, this is only part of the abuse tied to the Larry Nassar scandal.
People in the gymnastics community talk about the horrible sexual abuse scandal, but the action stops there. Larry Nassar is behind bars. Now it’s time to tackle the actual source of the problem — and it wasn’t Nassar.
Physical and emotional abuse in gymnastics is rampant and overlooked. This part of the story has not changed, and this is the integral part of the gymnastics culture that allowed Larry Nassar to be so successful at his insidious behavior.
Many gymnasts are taught, in order to be great, and in order to reach their goals, they must put up with mistreatment and abuse. You need discipline, they’re told. It’s a sacrifice, is the mantra. Do what your coach says, and your dreams will come true. Lose weight and you will get a scholarship. You’re having an off day? You are lazy. You came in to the gym overweight? Start running. You’re injured? You’re just trying to get out of practice. You’re scared after a hard fall? You are weak. You fell in a meet? Silence — coaches ignore you.
Imagine being an adolescent girl and you hear comments like these on a daily basis. You begin to believe that everything is your fault: that you are undisciplined, you’re fat, lazy, weak, and a bad gymnast. Your self-esteem suffers. You continue to listen to and believe your coach, striving, unsuccessfully, to be in her good graces.
Parents do not want their daughters fed a constant diet of oppressive and belittling comments. We don’t want her striving to meet impossible expectations. We don’t want the bar to be constantly changing for her, and we certainly don’t want her to feel so poorly about herself that her only refuge is the feigned kindness of a pathological serial child molester (as in the case of Larry Nassar). If you’re anything like me, you want your daughter to be strong, independent, and confident, and to recognize when she is being mistreated.
Parents, you have a right to ensure that your daughter is treated with respect in the gym. Many coaches claim that they want to teach their gymnasts “life lessons.” You should be sure that you know which life lessons those are, and if they are actually being taught. It is said that hindsight is 20/20. But what about the current situation? Listen to what your daughter is actually saying about practice. How is she being treated? Is she coming home crying every night? Are you barred from watching practice? Is she in constant pain, yet is afraid to tell her coach? Do you even feel uncomfortable talking to her coach about your concerns? If your answers are “yes,” then you need to think about whether your daughter’s current gym situation is what is in her best interest.
Martha Karolyi had submitted written testimony to the Senate’s investigation. Two things are suspect: 1. it was not included in the report — I had to search for it on my own, and 2. she acts completely innocent, as though she had absolutely no say in what went on at USAG: “Although a portion of my ranch was used for national team camps, this portion was exclusively leased by USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics set all policies for the camp that were outside of the gym and was responsible for running the camp.” She attempts to wash her hands of everything: nothing to see here; she had purview within four walls of the gym, nothing more. There are plenty of reports detailing how this was not the case.
Karolyi continues to say that she did not know how to recognize sexual abuse when it was happening, and that more education would have helped her to see it. Perhaps this education would have made her see that her abusive coaching tactics and the fear she instilled in her athletes and their coaches contributed to Nassar’s grooming opportunities.
In her statement, she also recommends “USA Gymnastics-assigned chaperones” for gymnasts at national training camps and competitions. I believe it was her sign on the gym door that stated, “No parents allowed.” Would she all of a sudden allow “outsiders” in to watch training sessions? It was her policy that parents were unable to stay in the same hotel as their daughters at competitions. Would she now all of a sudden be okay with the “distraction”?
Parents need to be parents: be advocates for your children’s well-being, and call coaches out on their abusive and questionable methods. You can no longer continue to grant coaches immunity when using abusive — physical or emotional — tactics with your kids. What are these methods accomplishing? What is your silence accomplishing? Do you stand by, no questions asked, when coaches tell you that crying every night is a necessary part of becoming a good gymnast? What keeps you from standing up, being confident, and protecting your kids?
Then ask yourself: Do you want every meet fee, every gym membership, every clinic tuition payment to support the same organization that not only fostered the environment for Larry Nassar to thrive, but actively worked to cover up his egregious actions? What life lessons are you teaching your daughter with your passive resignation when it comes to her health and well-being?
One argument is that parents don’t want to “stifle their kids’ dreams,” that it is a difficult decision to take one’s child out of a sport she loves, because it’s her dream. Would you rather her be abused instead? To learn to passively accept abuse? To actually sacrifice everything in order to win? It is noted in the Senate report that parents feared “retaliation from coaches” (p. 15). That is not acceptable. Some of you have accepted the status quo for far too long; you must tell your daughter’s coaches when their behavior is not acceptable, and in doing so, be willing to remove her from the gym if it does not change. You must insist on coaches who believe in parental rights, and you must insist that you do not give your rights up.
USAG is weathering this storm, and they are continually supported by top clubs and gym owners despite their long string of poor decisions. Your tacit adherence to questionable coaching practices provides USAG the sanction it needs to thrive. You must ask yourself why you continue to directly support and fund the organization that has been in the business of abusing children for decades. Read the reports: your silence is contributing to the problem.
We don’t need Congress to pass more laws. Parents need to wake up and realize that coaches do not always know what is best. Thinking that your daughter will be stronger for putting up with her coaches’ techniques may be in error. The truth is, only a few can withstand years of emotional and physical abuse and come out on top — that’s why there are so few who make it to the Olympics and elite gymnastics in general. I’m writing this to support the Everyday Gymnast, the regular kid who is not destined for Olympic stardom, but who loves gymnastics and spends her free time in the gym. These are the children who eventually break from the pressure, from the inside out. The problem is, many parents don’t realize it or do anything about it until it’s too late, after too much of the damage has already been done.
All this is bolstered by the recent article about Anna Li, the latest member appointed to the USAG athlete’s council, USAG’s most recent poor decision. She resigned yesterday because she is being investigated by SafeSport for abusing her gymnasts.