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Why parents may accept abusive coaching

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UGA2016

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There is an interesting blog post around abuse, victim shaming and why parents may not take action when they see issues.

A criticism often cited when athletes/parents reveal abusive coaching methods after retirement is why are they only now talking about this? For those who may not have reached the highest echelons of their sport this revelation is often met with cynicism.

Kerr and Stirling reveal a culture where acceptance of abusive coaching methods is the only way forward for athletes who wish to remain with a particular coach. A coach is often respected for their knowledge and position within the sporting community thus reinforcing the culture of the coaching environment. When bringing concerns regarding coaching behaviour to the attention of the coach/management results in reprisal for the athlete, parents and athletes soon learn to conform. Furthermore, parents learn their ‘athlete parent’ cues from observing more experienced parents and a code of silence around abusive practice is quickly adopted. When it is viewed that the coach holds all the cards parents do not want to endanger progression/selection and may therefore become complicit in their child’s abuse under the guise of protecting the athletes career. It is only once the athlete retires from elite sport the parents/athletes feel they can discuss the issues within the sport.

By not talking about these issues and victim shaming athletes who are strong enough to share their narratives we are sustaining and enabling a legacy of abusive practice toward children. As Rayner, Hoel and Cooper (2002) remind us ‘Each time a bully gets away with their behaviour this must reinforce the notion that such behaviour is acceptable. As such, non-intervention by witnesses can act as an encouragement to the persistence of bullying’.

Link to full piece here https://warriorsinleotards.com/2018/07/16/where-do-we-go-from-here/
 
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profmom

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I'll put on my social scientist hat for a moment I think it is an intriguing paper, but I would not go so far as to generalize from this study. I didn't take the time to find the paper again (it came out in 2012), but it involved in-depth interviews with only sixteen parents, of whom seven were gymnastics parents, and I believe it was done in Great Britain. The authors identify some interesting commonalities, but I don't think it's appropriate to go from this to say that there's a set five-stage socialization process that parents undergo in any elite children's sport.

This article provides a decent literature review of studies published somewhat recently. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5012846/

I do think a good study on gymnastics would be a valuable contribution. If anyone out there wanted to do one, I'd suggest putting together a well designed parent survey with both scaled items and open-ended questions and running it through Qualtrics, promulgating it to TOPS, HOPES, and Future Stars parents if one could persuade USAG to provide a list of registrants' contact info. I would accompany it with a survey to go to coaches who have registered athletes for these events. A different but also valuable project would be to locate and survey current and former athletes who are now, let's say, between the ages of 18-24, who competed at a national level in these programs. If you could get ahold not just of the ones who went on to do college gym, but also the ones who left the sport, I think you could come up with some very valuable insights that would help to shape the future of these programs in some healthier directions.
 

UGA2016

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Thank you for your informed and thoughtful post. Unfortunately many of the studies of this nature are qualitative with interview based data (which is often open to researcher interpretation and may be biased).Indeed, I believe the article mentioned in the OP obtained some it's cohort through word of mouth and attracted participants who had experienced abusive coaching of their children. Much of this research due to it's nature relies on rich and in depth narrative and as such the results are often based on only a handful of subjects from within a particular subculture and therefore may not be fully representative of that subculture.

I believe it would be prudent to combine qualitative and quantitative accounts to reach a wider section of the subculture and gain a more detailed and rounded perspective. A small study was undertaken in the UK to consider how parent's become socialised into the acceptance of pain and injury discourses within elite gymnastics which was interesting to read and in some instances reflected the findings of Kerr and Sterling in that parents look to more experienced parents for behavioural cues and accept early in their child's career that they should not interfere with coaching decisions (around injury). Link to page https://warriorsinleotards.com/2018/02/28/parents-perceptions-of-pain-and-injury/

It is clear that more research is needed to guide policy makers and safeguarding institutions in sport, especially at the elite level. Unfortunately, unless there is a culture change from the top all the policy making in the world won't matter if those in power to chose ignore the guidelines.
 

profmom

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Think what a signal it would send if USAG put out a CFP for research along these lines. Not holding my breath.

The study you linked may be the one I was remembering. I'm a qualitative researcher myself, but I think a snowball sample is particularly inappropriate for identifying respondents/participants to address these kinds of research questions. If I wanted to tackle this question from a strong qualitative or interpretive angle, I'd go with ethnography, not interviews. With the right kind of access, one could learn quite a lot through immersed field research at maybe two or three gyms and a selected set of elite competitions.
 

ldw4mlo

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There are personality types/life circumstances that make certain families more likely to be targets.

It’s not exclusive to gymnastics
 
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coachmolly

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I think this is a really interesting question, but one that has so many variables. What one child/family perceives as abuse might be viewed as completely fine and possibly even beneficial by another which really makes it a little muddy. It's entirely possible that in a training group of 8 kids, you could get 8 very different accounts of their experience and its long term implications. Kid 1 could say they were verbally abused and berated by the coach while kid 2 could say they were mistreated by NOT being given the same "attention" (being screamed at) as Kid 1 who was the favorite- both could be very true perceptions of what was happening for each child but because they don't match, the coach could easily brush them off as competition among athletes or "giving each child what they need to be successful" when approached by parents.
When 1 kid out of a group says they are being abused but the rest do not, it can be labeled as a lack of mental toughness by the coach and quickly brushed off, telling the parent everything if fine and Suzy just needs to toughen up if she wants to be successful. And coaches hold a lot of power, especially at the higher levels when things like elite and college scholarships are thrown into the mix. I was once in a gym where a level 10 was being screamed at relentlessly, some of the younger girls started to stare at the situation and another coach just sort of shrugged and said, "She needs it." But it made me curious, how does the athlete perceive all of this? Is she just told by her parents/coaches that she's difficult/lazy/mentally weak and needs to be screamed at to be successful? Because that can be a pretty damaging way to view yourself as a teenager with lasting implications. What would she say to an outside someone who isn't in control of her gymnastics future? Or maybe she really is just a particularly resilient kid who can let all of this roll off her back. It's so hard to say.

The article on dealing with injuries is scary for me as a coach because I WANT parents to be communicating with me about injuries. I'm not a medical professional, I'm not at doctors appointments with the athlete, I am not a physical therapist, I need all of that information communicated to me. Preferably through an adult and not a 12 year old.
 

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We recently left a gym that was absolutely verbally abusive. DD was there for a year and I kept seeing and hearing things that were big red flags, but we are pretty new to this and there was a culture of "this is the way it is in gymnastics" and "they need to toughen them up". As if we're hardening our children to head off into guerilla warfare instead of doing a kid's sport. I feel like I spent a year collecting pieces of a puzzle that ultimately led to a very ugly picture and I got my daughter out of there, but I know some parents still there would believe I overreacted. I looked into filing a report with USAG and immediately realized I would need to name witnesses- meaning kids who are currently still at that gym. I didn't file a report. I think we put up with things because in the gym world we're told it's normal, and addressing it is so difficult. Since leaving the previous gym I've heard so many awful stories about the place, but I've also heard "her parents want to file a report but they are afraid of the repercussions".
 

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A lot of people value winning over so much. “They say that you need a tough coach to get to the top. You can’t win unless the coach is hard on you. You have to sacrifice to be the best. It makes you tougher...”

One of the best boys teams in our area has an awful coach. He yells at, ignores, pushes boys etc, at meets! What happens at practice??? But parents continue to send their kid to this gym.

It’s really altogether a terrible perspective. Long term goal should be be healthy (including mentally), productive adult. Also people, you can win with a positive supportive coach. Tough does not need to equal mean.
 

John

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I think coaching is paramount to success. For me, that is where the problem begins and ends.

A coach can demand discipline.
Set very high expectations for each athlete.
Demand athletes follow his or her program to the Nth degree.
Condition the athletes intensely and give incredible corrections.
etc.
The last ingredient and the most important is that a coach must truly care about the athletes. A coach must care more for the athlete's individual success more than his/her own reputation. A good coach judges his/her success based on the success of each and every athlete, not just the best athletes. I want a coach that feels success teaching every cartwheel or handstand.
 

profmom

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I think coaching is paramount to success. For me, that is where the problem begins and ends.

A coach can demand discipline.
Set very high expectations for each athlete.
Demand athletes follow his or her program to the Nth degree.
Condition the athletes intensely and give incredible corrections.
etc.
The last ingredient and the most important is that a coach must truly care about the athletes. A coach must care more for the athlete's individual success more than his/her own reputation. A good coach judges his/her success based on the success of each and every athlete, not just the best athletes. I want a coach that feels success teaching every cartwheel or handstand.
I saw exactly that coach in action for two years. He produced very successful athletes and several miserable, fearful children. Careful what you wish for.
 

John

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@profmon Point Well taken. Can you tell me the things you think are wrong with the coach I described and the one you watched? I like your thoughts.

I think I am a parent that makes this level of commitment for my child with the intentions of her learning what it takes to be successful. I do not approve of doing things halfway. I have no expectations of success, she and she alone can determine her success. If she chooses to follow the necessary path to reach her goals I will support her and keep her safe along the way while doing my best to teach the definitions consequences and regrets. I think she is successful and is free to walk away at any time. This morning I watched 40 minutes of practice before work. I did not see many smiles it was hard conditioning, we will have our incremental talk about taking a break tonight.
 

Flippin'A

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A good coach judges his/her success based on the success of each and every athlete, not just the best athletes. I want a coach that feels success teaching every cartwheel or handstand.
While I generally agree with you, I think this statement can get into some shady territory. The most abusive (ish) coach I ever had based his success on the success of his gymnasts and therefore was way too emotionally involved. He would get angry when we fell at meets or didn't perform as he knew we could and honestly it could get scary sometimes. If you asked him he would swear up and down it was because he cared about us so much and wanted all of his athletes to succeed. I'm sure in his head he wasn't even angry/disappointed/frustrated AT us, but rather on our behalf. Still, when you're sixty pounds and your coach kicks a chair because you sat your bars dismount, that's not how it feels. When I was looking for a coach for my daughter I was looking for someone who cared about the kids as people, but didn't seem overly emotionally invested in their gymnastics. If my DD's coach is jumping up and down celebrating and hugging her when she gets her kip, then what happens when she has a major disappointment? Obviously not every highly invested coach is like this, and I'm sure your daughter's coach is wonderful. I've just seem the flip side of this, so I'm a bit jaded.
 

John

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@Flippin'A I do not truly know my Daughter's coach. It is hard to know what is truly motivating any individual in this world. I am only an observer a few times a week, it is a scary situation that gymnastics places our children. Not only is the activity dangerous at times, but we give your children over to coaches we don't truly know. I have an open mind. I try to see the world as it can sometimes be, a scary, unfair, and unforgiving place. Chalkbucket helps me see gymnastics from other's point of view and I like to think that helps me be aware of potential problems before they happen.

And yes judging success by the success of the athlete could get tricky. I was thinking more of acquiring skills and feeling that as a coach you changed the life of a child for the better. The coach you describe is something I would want to run from. I really don't think he was basing his success on the positive influence he made on you but instead it was more about how your actions reflect on him.

Thanks for your point of view.
 

Ali'sMom

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I think coaching is paramount to success. For me, that is where the problem begins and ends.

A coach can demand discipline.
Set very high expectations for each athlete.
Demand athletes follow his or her program to the Nth degree.
Condition the athletes intensely and give incredible corrections.
etc.
The last ingredient and the most important is that a coach must truly care about the athletes. A coach must care more for the athlete's individual success more than his/her own reputation. A good coach judges his/her success based on the success of each and every athlete, not just the best athletes. I want a coach that feels success teaching every cartwheel or handstand.
@profmon Point Well taken. Can you tell me the things you think are wrong with the coach I described and the one you watched? I like your thoughts.
The words that jump out at me are "demand", and "very high expectations". And there would need to be a definition of "success" of each and every athlete.
After extreme mental block on beam (training L7) my DD was finally able to do a cartwheel without 5 minute preparation. The "best" coach in my eyes (and my daughter's) made a huge show of how proud she was of her, and that it was a SUCCESS. The coach who set very high expectations, and demanded her rules to be followed explicitly, made a face (described as "nasty" by DD and other teammates) and then made a big show of turning her back. To her, DD was not "successful". to the other coach, she very much was successful. Unfortunately the tears & anger from seeing that coach very much overshadowed the smile and pride from the other coach.

I'm not saying the coach you are describing would be "bad", but that coach would definitely not work well with a lot of kids.

It's really a fine line.
 
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John

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@Ali'sMom as I typed I thought of the coach who is happy when kids succeed, even at the smallest accomplishment. Like your DD breaking Through her block.

I beleive coaching is a very difficult job. Dealing with child athletes as they grow and become adults seems to be, from the outside, a career for only a very few. Children change so much from 7 to adult. To ask for hard work and discipline while showing affection and keeping respect sounds like being a parent to a multitude of kids that are actually not yours.
 

profmom

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John, a heavy-handed emphasis on compliance and a relentless focus on excellence works well with a handful of young athletes. For most, however, it will produce technical excellence that's entirely driven by the coach. The athletes are complying and doing well because they fear the coach, not because they want the excellence for themselves. Eventually, they will rebel or just fade away, because they aren't owning it.
 

John

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@profmom I see your point. When raising my daughter I feel that I need to teach her how to make wise decisions, for herself, when an adult is not present. This is one of my priority goals as a father teaching her right and wrong and the ability to beleive she can do right from wrong. Being afraid of punishment, from parents, works when they are young but not so much as they mature.

What you are saying is that the girls who do gym for their coach will one day realize they do not love gymnastics or maybe its less dramatic and they just realize they are not doing gymnastics for themselves and retire. I agree with you and it makes me wonder a few things. How much fun in gymnastics really? I had a coach tell me once that gymnastics after a certain point really isn't fun and that the kids that have longevity in the sport are cut from a different fabric than most. He explained it as a trip to the amusement park, The trip is fun for a day or two or a week. Go to the amusement park every day for a year and it is no longer fun. While this is an extreme comparison it did make sense to me. I beleive a gymnast has motivating factors that are not fully understood, I can relate, I have been to the gym to workout at least 5 days a week for 35 years.

Does anyone have thoughts on how to determine the motivation behind their gymnast's desires to continue in gymnastics? Maybe some warning signs that the love is dwindling? How can a coach extract the desire to do what is necessary to be a high-level gymnast without high expectations (for practice) and teaching discipline?
 

chen

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What one child/family perceives as abuse might be viewed as completely fine and possibly even beneficial by another which really makes it a little muddy. It's entirely possible that in a training group of 8 kids, you could get 8 very different accounts of their experience and its long term implications. Kid 1 could say they were verbally abused and berated by the coach while kid 2 could say they were mistreated by NOT being given the same "attention" (being screamed at) as Kid 1 who was the favorite- both could be very true perceptions of what was happening for each child but because they don't match, the coach could easily brush them off as competition among athletes or "giving each child what they need to be successful" when approached by parents.
When 1 kid out of a group says they are being abused but the rest do not, it can be labeled as a lack of mental toughness by the coach and quickly brushed off, telling the parent everything if fine and Suzy just needs to toughen up if she wants to be successful. .
This! Especially if the child is "used" to this "type" of feedback from other adults in their lives, then the perception would be this is normal. For children not used to this type of verbal "motivation"/abuse it can be very confusing.
 
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