coaching, everyday gymnast, Gymnastics, parents, SafeSport, USAG

Investigating Coaches

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.

Gymnastics, USAG, USAIGC

2018 USAIGC World Championships

Part 2

While publishing this post, “the United States Olympic Committee has filed a complaint…against USA Gymnastics, seeking to revoke USAG’s recognition as a member National Governing Body of the USOC.” This action is long overdue, and will be the topic of my next blog post.

The 2018 USAIGC World Championships meet, held in Orlando, Florida in June of this year was a culmination of our six-month-long inaugural competitive season under the umbrella of USAIGC. As a gymnast and coach, I have been at USA Gymnastics’ (USAG) State Championships, Regional Championships, Westerns Championships, and National Championships. The differences in the World Championships and the rest of these meets highlights differences in the two programs. The USAIGC World Championships is an expression of the USAIGC program as a whole – it’s an accurate and refreshing expression of what IGC claims to be and what competitive gymnastics ought to be.

To begin, in reading the “About” page on USAIGC’s website, one gets a sense that the organization is in it for the development of children into well-adjusted adults, not just star athletes.

Our Competitive Program provides an environment that fosters and nurtures the attributes of a sound mind, sound body leading to successful, healthy and well-rounded gymnasts. Our Competitive Program is built on long-term skill development with the intentional slowing down of our gymnasts’ learning curve providing them the necessary time to develop and perfect gymnastic skills in a safe, logical, progressive manner within our recommended training hours per level. Over-training is the number one reason gymnasts leave our sport. Our Competitive Program provides our Gymnasts with ample time for school responsibilities, family activities and an outside life with friends. Life is about experiences and the USAIGC/IAIGC provides a positive well-balanced Competitive Experience for ALL of its USAIGC & IAIGC Gymnasts.

Contrast this with USAG’s website, also taken from its “About” page, which is trying to right the wrongs of its distant and recent past by playing “catch-up” with its corruptive atmosphere:

USA Gymnastics is committed to creating a culture that empowers and supports our athletes. The organization has and will continue to take specific and concrete steps to promote athlete safety and prevent future abuse by vigorously enforcing the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy, which requires mandatory reporting; defines six types of misconduct; sets standards to prohibit grooming behavior and prevent inappropriate interaction; and establishes greater accountability. Other efforts taken to strengthen that commitment include establishing a dedicated, toll-free number (833-844-SAFE), the safe sport email address (safesport@usagym.org), and online reporting to simplify the process for reporting; building a safe sport department that is developing a comprehensive education plan for members; and adopting bylaw amendments to provide the basis for further developing our safe sport programs and governance. The Athlete Assistance Fund, established by the National Gymnastics Foundation, provides financial resources for counseling services for any current or former gymnast who was a member of USA Gymnastics and suffered sexual abuse within the sport of gymnastics.

It is obvious that the two organizations vary greatly in their focus and mission. USAIGC is clearly proactive in its attention to promoting a positive and safe atmosphere in each of their member gyms with the decisions they make and the values they present. Their clear intent is to put children first, and to give them the best possible life through their involvement in USAIGC’s program. USAG, on the other hand, is unquestionably reactive in its approach to explaining who they are. They focus their attention on making up for the wrongs they have committed, and giving members resources to turn to in the case of past and future abuse. In no way does their webpage provide a prospective member the feeling of security and confidence that USAIGC’s page does.

Being a part of USAIGC for over a year, I have found that the organization lives up to its promises. When Paul Spadaro took over in 2001, a background check on every member club’s employee and volunteer over the age of 18 was mandatory. This was groundbreaking in gymnastics at the time. In contrast, for USAG, background checks were only mandatory for those coaches and judges on the floor at competitions, leaving open many gaps in knowledge about many coaches and volunteers (which is what Larry Nassar was) within a club’s walls. USAG has since updated their policies, however, only as a result of the backlash of the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.

As a new member club in 2017, we hosted a Rules and Policies clinic for all clubs and judges interested in being a part of USAIGC. Judges are required to be recertified every two years. The recertification is free, and it is held by USAIGC’s Technical Director, Mary Bakke-Spadaro. This recertification ensures that the judges are keeping up with rule changes, that they are scoring correctly, and are applying the rules the way in which they were intended.

As such, Paul and Mary are extremely accessible, and they are willing to answer emails or calls immediately. I have even received a response from Mary on a technical question while she was on vacation! Contrast this with USAG’s past CEO, Steve Penny, who allegedly tabled complaints regarding Larry Nassar, and is now formally indicted and charged with removing and/or destroying documents related to Nassar’s investigation.

Paul and Mary Spadaro walk the walk when it comes to USAIGC. They believe in what their program stands for, and they back it up in every move they make in the program; their program makes sense, and they know it does. What’s more, they believe that gymnastics is more than the ability to flip and twist; there are important life lessons inherent in the sport, that we have the responsibility as youth coaches, to be teaching the kids we coach.

USAG, on the other hand, produces many rules that they fail to enforce. Their competitive structure is one that is rife with abuse, and the main focus of competition is not on learning valuable life lessons, but on winning medals and team trophies.

The USAIGC World Championships meet welcomed gymnasts from all over the United States and other parts of the world. Gyms heralded from Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Next year, Germany will be joining us. At the meet gymnasts swapped t-shirts with kids from other parts of the world, something that they will forever remember. This emphasis on camaraderie versus competition was evident among the relationships that the gymnasts forged with one another at the gymnast parties, as well as on the competition floor. Coaches extended helping hands to one another, and we truly got along very well with our competitors. The competition was friendly; we were all in it for the same reasons – the kids.

Why does this difference between USAG and USAIGC matter? Whereas USAG breeds an expectation of uniformity among its member clubs where beginning mandatory levels of competition require that all gymnasts perform the same routines and skills, USAIGC highlights the independence of its member clubs, which is inherent in its optional-only program. Each rule that USAIGC has intelligently tweaked reminds us that this is a kid’s sport, and we are in it to help develop and protect children. In it, kids learn about winning and losing with dignity and grace. Kids aspire to improve their skills, and they are rewarded for it. They learn to push themselves for themselves, and not for anyone else, or out of fear of their coach or governing body. These differences remind us that gymnastics is not just something that wins us medals and team trophies; it teaches us how to confront obstacles, make goals, and work hard to strive for them.

Ultimately, it is refreshing to be a part of a program in which the season culminates with a meet where the emphasis is on the benefits of the kids. I am proud to be a member of a competitive gymnastics organization that continues to strengthen the lives of its athletes. I am also proud not to be a part of a program that is just trying to not ruin the lives of any more of its athletes.

Gymnastics, Junior Olympic, USAG, USAIGC

Win Medals? Part I

3DDF96DC-DB68-41D2-903D-E349D4EA419DThe above is a snapshot of USA Gymnastics’ mission statement in their Women’s Program Rules and Policies through the end of 2017. For many years, the first two words of their mission statement were “Win Medals.”

Five years ago when my husband, Marc, and I opened our gymnastics club in Tucson, AZ, we were not planning on competing immediately. We wanted to attract recreational kids and teach them sound progressions, and bring them up to compete, eventually, when they were ready. But even though we weren’t planning on competing yet, we found it a necessary component of our business to be a member of the governing body for gymnastics clubs in this country.

The only option we had in Arizona was USA Gymnastics. I hesitated to be a part of it, as from my experience, it was difficult for my philosophy and coaching style to thrive within USAG’s parameters. There was another association, available in other parts of the country, that sounded like it fit my philosophy better, but it did not exist in Arizona.

Even though it was USAG’s top priority, our goal was not to “win medals.” Our philosophy was, and it continues to be, to provide kids of all levels of ability sound gymnastics instruction and all the positive life lessons that participation in a great sport like gymnastics can provide. I had a positive gymnastics career. I had positive club coaches, and I had a positive experience in college gymnastics. I wanted to pass that on to as many kids as possible.

We teach sound progressions and technique in our gym. Some kids take longer to understand and apply these techniques and progressions, so their gymnastics is not perfect. And as coaches, we believe that it is okay and perfectly acceptable to have children who are imperfect. A child is learning. A child should not be expected to be perfect. Perfection is a topic inherent in gymnastics training, especially when dealing with elite athletes. I’ll reference this topic in future posts.

On the surface, and in reading USAG’s past and current Rules and Policies, it would seem like our sport’s National Governing Body provides logical and reasonable parameters for entry-level gymnasts in its Jr. Olympic Program:

A. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, fairness to all athletes and competitive balance, the mobility system within the Jr. Olympic Program should be followed in the manner that it was intended:

  1. Before moving up a level, every athlete should show proficiency at her current level.

  2. Once a high level of proficiency is achieved at the athlete’s current level, she should strive to move up to the next level, as long as it is done safely.

  3. For athletes to repeat a level with the intent to gain an advantage over other competitors or teams IS NOT in the spirit of the Jr. Olympic Program or youth sports in general.

(2013-2020 USAG Women’s Program Rules and Policies, Chapter 8)

What happens if the “mobility system within the Jr. Olympic Program” is NOT “followed in the manner that it was intended”? My competition experience has proven that this is more often the case than not.

In Parts II-IV, I will call attention to USAG’s negligence in enforcing their own rules and policies, how they look the other way when gymnasts and entire teams outscore others by competing perfect routines at the beginning levels of competition, and how this contradicts their supposed adherence to good sportsmanship and the spirit of youth sports. I will demonstrate how the organization is detrimental to the “unknown gymnast,” the young gymnast who is not destined to be an elite athlete, the gymnast who goes to the gym three or four days a week because she loves the sport, loves her teammates, and wants to learn more. These are the little girls who aren’t highlighted in the newspaper or the best-selling books, who don’t have a voice, and who are affected everyday by the policies that USAG makes up and then chooses to ignore.

In the mean time, please feel free to read my “Gymnastics Manifesto,” prompted by our club’s recent experiences in USAG’s Jr. Olympic Compulsory Program.