When parents begin the search for sports activities for their children, one of the biggest questions we have is, “Will my child be safe?” We parents are not only concerned about the possible injuries that could be sustained on the sports field though. We, also, fear emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of coaches, trainers, or sports physicians. Especially in light of the recent conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar, who committed horrific abuses as a USA Gymnastics doctor, parents are searching for extra assurances that their child safety will be kept in mind while enjoying extracurricular activities.
Though the news was shocking to many, Natalie Egan of Jump! Gymnastics was saddened, but not surprised. Natalie has been involved with gymnastics since she was a young girl and later became a coach of high-level gymnasts. She has witnessed the toxic culture of competitive gymnastics first hand. Natalie founded Jump! Gymnastics in Austin, TX to escape that unhealthy environment and create a healthy, positive experience for young gymnasts. I spoke with her to hear her thoughts about the recently revealed scandals surrounding gymnastics.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard the accusations against Larry Nassar?
A: When all this stuff came out in the news with Larry Nassar sexually abusing the gymnasts for so long, it wasn’t surprising to me. Not because I knew that Larry was doing these things, but because I know the culture that is competitive gymnastics. There’s so much emotional abuse, in the sense of how the athletes are treated and how they’re yelled at. Then, also, physical abuse in the expectation to push through pain. When you really back up and look at it, of course there’s sexual abuse too. If there’s physical abuse and emotional abuse, what comes with all that?
Q: Would you say emotional and physical abuse are common in gymnastics?
A: These stories are common in the industry. This is a common way that competitive gymnasts are treated from the age of 12, 13, 14, 15 years old. They’re intimidated. The kid has to be more scared of you, as the coach, than they are of the gymnastic skill they’re scared to do. Gymnastics is scary. They’re standing on a balance beam trying to figure out how to jump backwards onto their hands on the 4 inch width of the beam. It’s really scary! But when that coach yells at you, you ask, “What will the punishment be if I don’t do it?” Then, you can make yourself do it. You’re like, “I don’t want my whole team to have to run for an hour because I’m too scared to do it.” The fear of the coach and what they may do, aids them in overcoming the fear of the gymnastic skill. That’s why there is the culture of emotional abuse. Sometimes it’s also a power trip for the coaches to be able to control other people or boss people around. It's as if having that amount of control drives them.
Q: How does your gym motivate gymnasts?
A: You know, I took everything from the gym I grew up in because I learned my skill there. Most importantly, I felt safe and supported there. Basically, all the kids have skill charts. They take them home with them, and when they learn a new skill, they get to put a sticker on their chart. It’s as simple as that. They have a chart in front of them, and they know if they finish the entire chart, they get to move up to the next level. We’re recreational and not competitive. As far as overcoming fears, we try to do something called skill deconstruction. When I coached high-level competitive kids I did the same thing on a higher-level because child safety mattered greatly to me.
For example, you have to do a cartwheel on a high balance beam. That’s scary. You’re probably not going to just get up on a high beam and do a cartwheel. You’re going to work your way up to it. We would start by doing a cartwheel on the floor. Once they could do a cartwheel on the floor, we would put a line down and they learned to do a cartwheel on a line. After they could do a cartwheel on that line, we go to the low beam. Once they can do a cartwheel on the low beam, then we move to the high beam and we spot them. Finally, when they’re ready to try it on their own, they can try it on their own.
It's a Process
It’s kind of the long game. You break things down into small enough pieces, that they can just try each piece. Whenever they get that piece of the puzzle, they can move and try the next piece. There’s never an overwhelming fear that’s just put in front of them without the preparation behind it. When I coached competitive gymnastics, this worked great there, too. They just chipped away at it. It took them longer to get skills this way and there’s a much faster road. We could say, “Hey, you can do it on a line on the floor, you can do it on the high beam. Go! Get over your fear.” However, those things don’t seem to have longevity anyway. They’ll get up and do it but then you’re constantly having to spend extra time motivating the gymnast to do it. Versus just deconstructing it, taking it slow, building a bigger foundation. Then, it’s fun for them. They’re excited about the progress. It’s a totally different feeling of intrinsic motivation. You did it! You worked yourself up and you did that skill! It’s more motivating and more character building in the long run.
Q: What is your advice for parents?
A: This toxic atmosphere isn’t just in gymnastics. Gymnastics is coming into the spotlight, but this happens in academics, swimming, dance, theater, and lots of other things. When you go into a gymnastics center and you see all the little 4 year olds doing gymnastics, it is so cute. However, your next step needs to be to go watch the highest level that that gym has. If the gym won't let you watch the highest level athletes they have, whether it be swimming or soccer, then find somewhere else to go. Make sure that you are allowed to watch workouts and not only that, but encouraged to watch them, too.
Another piece of advice would be to keep an outsider’s perspective. If people are telling you things feel weird, you have to listen to them. Sometimes we get too involved and we can’t see what’s going on. When your child has been dedicating 40 hours a week to gymnastics and you are spending thousands of dollars a month for the training, it can be really hard to pull your kid out. Your kid would be so upset with you. It might seem like they will never forgive you for pulling them away from something they have been working on for 8 years. This is why it’s so important to keep an outsider’s perspective from the very beginning, so you don’t get in too deep.
Q: How should we talk to our kids about child safety?
A: Talk to your kids about child safety, sexual abuse, and inappropriate touch before it’s an issue. I really liked what my coach said when I was really young. If an adult accidentally hits you, that person is going to be extremely apologetic because they hurt you physically. They’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh! I am so sorry!’ They will let your parents know, too. If you get touched inappropriately, in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that adult should have the same reaction. ‘Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. I did not mean to touch you there. Are you okay?’ Then, they should go to the parent and say, “Hey! I was spotting Susie and she slipped, and I touched her and I’m really embarrassed.” Our kids need to know that if someone does something inappropriate, that person should apologize the same as if they accidentally stepped on your toe. Even though its sometimes uncomfortable to have these discussions, it’s important to talk about it anyway.
We just made an inappropriate touch policy at our gym. We told all of our staff, if they ever accidentally touch a gymnast inappropriately, they need to apologize and inform the parents. So I encourage parents to proactively ask different youth organizations to create a similar policy, because they are currently uncommon.
Thank you so much to Natalie Egan for taking the time to talk with me about emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in gymnastics, and what parents can do to help protect their children. If you want to learn more about Natalie’s experience with abuse in gymnastics, read her article on the Jump! Gymnastics website. Furthermore, if your child is interested in gymnastics, check out Jump! Gymnastics camps and classes on Kwaddle for a positive and enriching gymnastics experience.