EDITORIAL: The Toxic Environment of USA Gymnastics
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
As a former competitive gymnast of nine years, I received my fair share of being yelled at by my coaches and never feeling good enough; after all, what athlete hasn’t? I will never forget the time where I was struggling with the uneven bars and unable to execute an advanced release move. I had been practicing the skill for two hours already, but I still couldn’t execute it correctly. My coach eventually got so frustrated to the point where he said, “You’re becoming uncoachable.” As a twelve year-old athlete who had such high expectations for herself and wanted to please her coaches almost as much as she wanted to please herself, those were some extremely tough words to hear. Although this was one of the only times I encountered this type of language, hundreds of gymnasts have heard the same thing or worse from their coaches repeatedly and without means of justification.
Under the leadership of former national team coordinator Marta Karolyi and other powerful authority figures, USA Gymnastics has fostered a hostile training environment that normalizes the emotional abuse of athletes, leading to both past and present gymnasts having everlasting mental trauma from years worth of being broken down mentally. With the recently released Netflix documentary Athlete A exposing the reality of USA Gymnastics and the decades of abusive behavior and negligence towards former athletes who spoke up and reported their experiences, it made me realize how twisted the organization has become, and how their directives have tainted the sport and the experiences of numerous gymnasts.
Don’t get me wrong, gymnastics is an extremely difficult sport that takes both physical and mental strength, and requires tough coaching. However, over the years, the lines between tough coaching and emotional abuse has become blurred, contributing to the hostile environment of USA Gymnastics. Even with all the SafeSport regulations designed to keep gymnasts safe, it’s very easy for coaches and gymnasts to deny any type of foul play because emotional abuse can be so subjective. However, more gymnasts are becoming educated on this topic and realizing their experiences may have been more than just harsh coaching, and that they are actually emotional abuse victims.
Up until recently, the power and reputation of the organization was given higher priority than the safety and well-being of their athletes. USA Gymnastics designed and was supported by policies favoring the organization instead of the gymnasts, having many regulations preventing or discouraging gymnasts from speaking up and reporting any incidents. They focused on success and fame rather than the coveted gymnasts who gave USA Gymnastics such a seemingly esteemed reputation. And although many gymnasts were aware of their unfair treatment, the majority decided to stay silent because their dreams seemed greater than the consequences for speaking up. Driven by fear of backlash from the organizations or their coaches, many chose not to report anything as to not inhibit their dreams they had worked so long to achieve.
For years, USA Gymnastics allowed for the abuse of so many gymnasts by repeatedly enabling coaches who manipulated gymnasts and parents alike. Coaches kept their gymnasts submissive and quiet through fear and intimidation, while manipulating them to think all top gymnasts were publicly body shamed and training through serious injuries -- and I know many gymnasts who truly believed that’s what it took to become one of the best. They started this type of coaching while we were young and naive, so that by the time we were old enough to realize what was really happening, we would think that their coaching style was considered “normal.” Coaches purposely took advantage of the fact that we were young kids who would believe anything, and didn’t yet know the difference between right and wrong and who we could trust. Parents were also often kept in the dark, and not knowing the true extent of what was happening at practice. When I was a gymnast, parents would only be allowed to stay and watch practice on rare occasions, because they were considered a “distraction.” Looking back, I see this was merely a tactic for my coaches not to feel guilty about yelling at us necessarily, because no one would be there to stop them.
Although I was only at that gym for a year, there was a clear division between the favorites and everyone else, and the treatment some gymnasts received was clearly unfair. For example, if an “unfavored” gymnast made a minor mistake, their consequence would often be multiple rope climbs or either severe conditioning while a favorite would get supportive corrections. There would also be times where some kids would be screamed at for repeatedly executing a skill incorrectly, but a gymnast in the same training group having similar problems would be told to move on and try a different skill.
Many former gymnasts at this gym quit because the environment of the gym was seriously affecting their mental health, such as having daily panic attacks before practice or dreading having a coach so much they would throw up. In fact, certain coaches from this gym are currently undergoing an alleged abuse investigation and have been interimly suspended by USA Gymnastics, meaning they are not allowed to be in contact with any gymnasts or coaches as of now. For many of my former teammates, this investigation is a huge sigh of relief, and more than 40 people have reported their experiences.
I was lucky enough to quit because I realized gymnastics wasn’t a passion anymore, not because of any coaching I received or any particular experience I went through. Unfortunately, due to the unsafe environment USA Gymnastics provided, many gyms such as mine believed what they were doing to gymnasts was okay, leading to many of my friends having the sport ruined for them and being left with mental trauma taking years to overcome.
Ava Shaw is a high school writer from Orange County, CA. She loves writing about educational and social related issues, and her work appears in The Incandescent Review. In her free time, she enjoys watching Criminal Minds and going to the beach. Follow her Instagram @ava__shaw.