When Does Tough Coaching Cross the Line Into Abuse?

Athlete using gymnastics rings

As a sport, gymnastics is uniquely focused on young athletes. Competition can favour the smallest, lightest and most flexible athletes and often gymnasts peak at a young age. Young athletes must train intensively to reach their highest potential during the period of optimal competitiveness.

For generations, the gymnastics community has accepted and supported a coaching philosophy that emphasizes absolute obedience, intimidation, secrecy, and forced continued training beyond one’s capacity or while injured. Recent news coverage of the crimes committed by Dr. Larry Nassar in the United States and the life-long suspension of former Canadian National Team Director Dave Brubaker are attracting widespread attention to the sport’s culture and training methods. With recent reports of the harm caused by these common practices, there is growing recognition amongst athletes that many of these ‘training’ tactics are, in fact, abusive. Many former and current gymnasts are questioning and calling out the treatment they have been subjected to, and many have come to realize that they were abused by coaches and other training staff. Many have suffered serious injuries and emotional trauma that have had long-lasting impact.

Passions often run hot in sport, and coaching styles can vary from person to person. It can be difficult for parents and young athletes to differentiate between tough coaching, bullying, and abuse. At its most basic, abuse is based on a power imbalance – the coach or trainer is a dominating force and the athlete feels powerless to push back or withdraw their consent (if they are even old enough to give it!). Abusive behavior is deliberate, prolonged and repeated – eventually the pattern of abuse can come to be seen as ‘normal.’

Examples of abusive behaviours include:

  • Emotional manipulation; undermining the athlete’s sense of self-worth
  • Public humiliation; encouraging teammates to ostracize an athlete
  • Frequent emotional outbursts and threats
  • Physical aggression or intimidation; property damage
  • Forced physical exertion; pushing an athlete past their mental or physical limits
  • Denying access to water, food, or rest periods
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Encouraging secrecy from parents or guardians

When evaluating a coach or trainer’s actions, one should consider whether similar behavior from a teacher or camp counsellor would be acceptable. Sadly, one of the clearest signs of an abusive coach is the effect they have on an athlete’s mental well-being. Gymnasts who show signs of mental distress such as anxiety, chronic depression, problems sleeping, gastrointestinal complications, or eating disorders may be reacting to abuse.

Although recent media headlines have focused on the stories of athletes competing at elite levels, abusive practices are pervasive throughout all levels of gymnastics, including at the club and provincial levels.

Howie, Sacks & Henry and co-counsel Camp Fiorante Mogerman Matthews are fighting to hold abusers and the organizations that shelter them accountable. If you think that you or a loved one have been abused while training or competing in organized gymnastics, we want to hear from you. Regardless of how much time has passed since the abuse took place, or your level of competition, you may be eligible to participate in a lawsuit. Contact us to learn how we can help.

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