Last year I shared some thoughts following the news of sexual abuse in the gymnastics community by a renowned medical professional who’d held a position within USAG, the sport’s governing body in the United States. Much more has come to light over the past year.
I knew this man as Larry — friend, advocate, and one of few friendly faces in a sea of authority figures. I was happy to see him at training camps and competitions, and he was the doctor who rushed in to help after I busted my knee at the USA National Championships when I was 16. And, it turns out, the sexual abuser of countless teammates, fellow athletes in gymnastics and other sports, and even wider beyond.
For whatever reason I didn’t get on the “special treatment” list — my heart hurts immensely for all who did. My friends and fellow women: Your bravery and courage in speaking up and sharing your pain and stories is a gift to the world, helping to change it for the better. I salute you, I thank you, and I love you.
I’ve puzzled and mulled over the environment that allowed the cycles of so much abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) to happen and continue. While there may be some factors particular to gymnastics, I’m not sure it’s actually that unique.
I see adults (coaches, administrators, and even parents) focused on shiny objects. I see blind trust in “experts”. I see lack of oversight and broken systems not providing the checks and balances they espoused. And perhaps most dangerous, I see young children consistently taught to quit trusting themselves, to quit listening to themselves and their inner wisdom, to listen to (and not question) external authorities, and to judge their worth by external validation, over and over and over again. (From my experience as a kid, when you’re told enough times to quit thinking, to just do it, that YOU have the problem and need to get it together, it becomes hard to see otherwise. And then speaking up? It becomes nearly impossible.)
While lack of oversight and broken systems are important factors requiring attention, I’m going to focus here on what children are being taught (or not), and things we can do as adults. (And adults focused on shiny objects and blind trust in “experts” tie in).
I look back at the coaches and other gymnastics staff I worked with over the years, and it’s interesting to consider them through adult eyes. The ones who yelled the most, the ones I was with when I began to dread practices, the ones who worked at the gyms where the “happy” external facades of ribbons, trophies, and posters with motivational sayings couldn’t quite hide the cultures steeped in fear and “do it because I said so” mentalities? I bet they didn’t like themselves very much (or at all). I would guess they were in their own pain, suffering greatly, and not sure how to trust themselves (and then stuffing down their pain until it would leak/explode out sideways). (And this doesn’t make their choices and actions okay, nor does it condone any sort of abuse. However, it can help us to better understand how it happened and what we can do to help.)
No wonder they weren’t teaching us to trust ourselves, to listen to ourselves, to speak up or value ourselves. They didn’t know how to themselves. And because they didn’t feel good, they looked outside of themselves to validate their own existence. But here’s the thing: no one can make anyone else happy or sustainably stay in the “feel good” sweet spot in life — because it’s an inside job. There aren’t enough trophies and awards to win, kids to yell at on a bad day, or worse. It’ll never be enough because outside things have an inherent emptiness. If we want to feel good, happy, enough — it’s an inside job.
A few additional thoughts to consider as we continue our work to create environments where our kids can safely and healthfully thrive (especially in athletics in the context of this post, though applicable wherever our kids are, from academics to extracurriculars to home).
These first three are for all of us adults, from coaches to parents and everything in between:
1. We need to deal with our own pain, whatever it may be (and we all experience struggles and hard times in life). If we don’t, it will hurt those around us, especially our children. If something in your life hurts, take it as an opportunity to learn something. Get help. Talk to someone. Write about it. Whatever you need to do — address it. Hurt people hurt people, and hurting other people just increases your own pile of pain. Don’t add to it; deal with it.
2. Take care of yourself. Seriously. Figure out what daily self-care looks like for YOU. This isn’t about soft music and bubble baths (unless that’s your thing). Rather, this is about the day-to-day basics so you can show up and not feel like crap. Because when you feel like crap, it’s hard to show up for yourself, let alone anyone else around you. What foods and drink actually serve you (we’re not talking about artificial highs here)? How about sleep, exercise, time with other people (or not)? What works for you? There is no “perfect” or one-size-fits-all way to take care of yourself. This is about trying and finding out what helps you to show up with a clear head so you’re wasting less energy in trying to get to a solid baseline, because you’re starting out much closer to your solid (and healthy) baseline. In addition, taking care of ourselves helps us more clearly see what is going on in our children’s lives, potentially seeing when things are amiss sooner than later. And when we take care of ourselves and listen to ourselves, it models for our kids the importance of doing the same.
3. Watch your words. Thoughtless phrases (and I’m going to be so bold as to call them cop outs) like “don’t cry” or “do it because I said so” can have a huge impact when used repeatedly, as they imply that whatever the child is doing or feeling is wrong/bad/not okay, which can become “I am wrong/bad/not okay” (and that road leads nowhere good). Now, I get that sometimes we’re at the end of our wits and have explained why 10 times already today (and a 100 times over the past week), and yet our children continue to mess around and/or not listen when it’s actually important. The point here is to try and make an effort. We’re not going for perfect — we’re going for copping out less. Because copping out is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, teaching our kids to quit listening and “just do it”. And when they get in the rut of “just do it,” it’s easier and easier to cease listening to important nudges within themselves.
4. It’s okay to be that “annoying” parent who questions the coach or other authority figure when something feels off. If you get a closed door or you’re told to “just trust me — look at my track record”? Red flag.
5. Talk to your kids about feelings and emotions. Talk to your kids about times you’ve felt uncomfortable. Make the time and share. If you want to up the odds your kid will share if/when something doesn’t feel right? Practice creating the space of regular sharing. You’ll never catch everything, though you’ll greatly up the odds of catching more, especially when it matters.
For parents and coaches:
6. You are on the same team of supporting your child (along with all of the children). Show up. Work together. (And if you can’t make it work, if it doesn’t feel good? Cut ties.) Know that each of you is human and will sometimes make a mistake — be open to feedback, and hold each other accountable about the smaller things (rather than waiting until something small becomes something big). And keep your eyes on the true goal: a happy, healthy, resilient child who is growing, learning, and comfortable in his/her own skin. That is the ultimate win.
We can do better for our children. We must do better for our children. And it starts with ourselves.