In light of recent press coverage, reading through comments about children’s negative experiences in gymnastics has been heart breaking and has made me reflect. I have proudly coached for many years and while I don’t consider myself the perfect coach, I have always tried to prioritise the children, their well-being and their enjoyment. The thought that some children entering a gym can leave feeling bullied, body shamed, belittled and punished makes me sick to my stomach.
I have worked with and recommended children to go to be coached by ‘tough’ coaches. As a recreational coach I believed that this was the next step towards a greater skill level and dedication. Did I do the right thing? Did I have my eyes open enough? I think so, but on reflection I have witnessed stern body language. I felt at the time that the coach ‘meant business’ and was very particular in considering the gymnasts I sent to their settings. In hindsight, was this adult technique suitable for use on a child, without explanation? Was that belittling and cruel? I don’t now have the chance to go back and speak to that child in that exact moment to find out; I now wish I did.
Being honest I was nervous like the children to ‘rock the boat’. Will I make myself unpopular with these coaches that I have respect for? However could these practices have changed if the coaches were challenged and given the chance to adapt and realise that they can get the same results without this approach? Do they deserve to be dragged through enquiries when they haven’t been ‘in my eyes’ abusive, just misguided. After all, their coaching practice was learnt from those that coached them. Some of which were ‘tough’ in their approach but did inspire them to become the coaches they are now.
My own experience as a gymnast was never anything but positive; I have no negative memories except battles with skills. There were discussions about my body and how it had changed over time but I don’t remember these having a negative impact on how I felt about myself.
Should I now be stepping forward, gaining some courage and speaking to fellow coaches? I would never normally give advice unless it was asked for, but this mentality cannot continue. With all that has emerged, coaches must change. Including me. We must be better trained in the psychology and pedagogy of the child. We must be more transparent when we spot something we don’t like and more receptive to feedback.
However we must not jump in and ruin people’s livelihoods and reputations because with hindsight they could have done things differently (considering they are willing to grow in their approach to coaching and they have not been abusive). I truly believe that most of the coaches out there do it for the children. I am aware that sometimes the competitiveness of the sport overrules the child’s best interest and this MUST stop.
Lockdown has been a challenging time, but it has been a moment to reflect. I have missed coaching, more than I ever thought possible. With the news that we can return to training comes an apprehension. What will the new normal be like? Will we dig down to the depths of our characters to realise, adapt and move forward with courage? Enabling us deliver the best possible gymnastics experience for children. YES is the answer because we love the sport, we have dedicated years to it and those that don’t it’s time for them to be removed from this privileged role. Fingers crossed there will be nowhere for them to hide anymore.