This is the story of a Social Worker mother, and her gymnast daughter through the perils of Draconian coaching. My daughter is now 12 years old and has been a competitive gymnast for 6 years. Gymnastics is an intense sport by all accounts. It involves 4-6 hour practices daily and travel on most weekends in the fall and spring months. Gymnasts’ coaches serve as coaches, mentors, parents, and family for these athletes. The history of gymnastics and coaching is one demanding the best by breaking down the athlete and using physical and mental stress to “build up” mental toughness. This does not work.
My daughter started at a gym two years ago with a coach who promised to be positive and supportive. What she promised and what she provided were very different. Trouble began about 6 months into our time at this gym. My daughter suddenly was unable to perform skills on the balance beam that she had been able to perform for at least a year or more. Then she began to lose other skills. The coach stated that this was normal and that most gymnasts experienced this sometime in their career. The first indication that this might not be the case was when our daughter went to camp at a nearby college and was able to perform her previously “lost” skills. Upon return to her home gym the skills disappeared again. The situation began to worsen and she lost skills to the point she was at 5 years prior.
December of that year we went to the first meet of the year in Pennsylvania. Disaster struck. In hindsight the social worker in me should have recognized the signs of poor coaching. I looked on in horror as my daughter asked her coach for assistance only to be shrugged away. Then my daughter baulked at a skill. The coach began to yell at my daughter threatening to “scratch” her if she didn’t just go do it. Of course, my daughter baulked again. The coach screamed at my daughter and insisted she scratch. When my daughter went to scratch on floor she became confused walking onto the floor then off again. The coach yelled stating my daughter had embarrassed her. At this point, my then eleven-year-old sat down and hid her head trying not to cry. The coach came to her side and began yelling at her to stand up and support her team. When my daughter burst into tears the coach turned away in disgust. The assistant coach went to my daughter’s side and my daughter stated she didn’t think the coach wanted her there. When the head coach heard this she forcefully pulled my daughter up by the arm and tossed her gear into her chest and dragged her off the floor to me. This should have been a sign. The therapist in me new this was not effective coaching. Yet, for some reason, I bowed to the coach’s authority. My daughter went on to finish the meet with little assistance from her coach. The coach then threatened to kick her out of the gym if this ever occurred again.
Fast-forward a few weeks: In practice, the coach began ignoring my daughter. She told her to try a new skill on the bars and did not spot her or provide a crash mat. My daughter fell. She broke her back. They did not call 911. They yelled at her to stop crying, get up, and try again. Four and a half months later my daughter came out of her back brace that prevented her from jumping, bending, skipping, etc. and went back into the gym. The coach insisted my daughter wasn’t trying hard enough and that she had never seen fear so bad. We moved my daughter and her sister to a new gym.
Other gymnasts and parents reported to me that during our time at that gym, this coach had been yelling at my daughter through her skills. Screaming that she wasn’t trying hard enough. When she tried and failed or fell she was given punishment. The coach would demean her, telling her she was worthless and wouldn’t amount to anything. This was all in a very misguided attempt to motivate my child to be a better athlete.
We left that gym this past July without knowing where we would go. We found a gym with a completely different philosophy. They believe in positive supportive coaching. They recognize the effort and what went well while providing instruction to correct mistakes. They sometimes change the explanation to visual instruction instead of verbal, recognizing that not all athletes learn the same way. My daughter began training at this gym in September. She has gained the majority of her skills back. She is working on gaining new skills. She is smiling again. My younger daughter is also thriving. Their scores at meets have increased dramatically.
This change in coaching has highlighted what we were losing not just in the gym but at home. My child had previously become highly emotional and angry. She had started to argue easily with others in the home. She was shutting down refusing to talk about how she felt. Today we are still working through some of this but she now gets in the car full of information following most of her practices and the tears we saw previously are gone. She spends time with her siblings and friends again. She is still recovering from her experience at the previous gym. We are continuing to see improvement.
From a social worker’s perspective, the fact that draconian coaching doesn’t work in the long run seems obvious. Yet, so many coaches and parents still ascribe to it. Yelling at an athlete to promote positive participation and help them work through fear is counter to everything we know about human behavior. Just as in parenting, yelling may startle someone into action but in the long run it does not create trust and consistent performance. Fear is rarely overcome by promoting a fear response. Yelling only increases fear. Fear must be faced through a process of trust and understanding. Coaches who take the time to communicate with the athlete about their fear and them help them to visualize a different outcome have longer-term success. Those coaches who yell and demean their athletes are more likely to get an immediate response because the athlete fears retribution. Coaching from the perspective that it is the coach’s job to motivate and teach the athlete in order to achieve their highest potential creates the most successful and psychologically healthy athlete.
Athletics are big business but they are also a large part of our culture and contribute to the development of our children. In order to have thriving businesses in sports, healthy cultural influence through sport, and positive self-esteem building developmental experiences for our children, coaches must understand that research supports positive supportive coaching. We as social workers in the field must begin to help coaches achieve positive supportive coaching. We must help athletes, parents, and coaches understand that mental toughness isn’t denying the existence of emotion but to experience the emotion and work through it and with it, use it to achieve excellence.
In my work with athletes, coaches, and parents, I often hear, “that’s how I was coached.” To that I ask, “and how did that make you feel?” The answer is often never good enough. My next question is often, “Did feeling not good enough make you want to work harder?” The answer is often, “no, it eventually made me quit.” Wow. Isn’t that a profound statement? I believe as social workers in sport we have a responsibility to effect the entire system around an athlete if we can. This is the reason I choose to work with athletes, parents, and coaches. I aim to change the experience for all participants to one that embodies the true purpose of sport: passion and joy in the pursuit of excellence, community connection, and fitness.