I’ve spent the past two weeks wondering whether I should pull my daughter from gymnastics.
I suspect thousands of other parents feel the same way, as the army of former gymnasts and others sexually abused by Larry Nassar marched into a Michigan courtroom and onto our news feeds. How could we hear their stories and not want to grab our children and run?
My crisis of conscience is more intense, more personal: I’m a gymnastics coach.
I only coach recreational gymnastics these days, and I haven’t coached athletes in USA Gymnastics’ Junior Olympic program at a meet since 2010. I am removed from the highest levels of the sport, where an authoritarian culture enabled Nassar to molest children and young women for more than two decades. And yet, I was familiar enough with that culture — and its susceptibility to physical and mental abuse in many forms — to not be surprised by the stories the women told.
When Bela and Martha Karolyi defected to the United States from Romania in 1981, they brought with them Eastern Bloc training techniques designed to push children to their physical and mental limits. Certainly, there were some U.S. coaches who employed these tactics before the Karolyis arrived. But this style of coaching was widely imitated after the Karolyis’ success with Mary Lou Retton in 1984. The Karolyis were influential in the U.S. women’s program for more than three decades, formally running it for about half that time.
But the majority of U.S. gyms do not use these toxic tactics. Many have healthy cultures that empower children. Gymnastics teaches children valuable gross motor skills as preschoolers. Gymnastics teaches children how to set goals, how to overcome fears, how to perform under pressure. As they get older, gymnasts learn how to fall properly. (I fell out of a tree as a kid and probably would have broken an arm if I hadn’t known to pull my arms in toward my body and roll.)
Looking for red flags about a gym’s culture, like these I outline, before a child commits to a competitive team can tip a parent off to potential problems that can be avoided.
1. Will I be allowed to watch my child practice once she joins the competitive team?
Increasingly, parents of competitive gymnasts are forbidden from watching their children practice. These policies are sometimes defensible. I worked at a gym where a mother was attempting to coach her daughter from the gym’s viewing balcony. The gymnast would look at her mother instead of at her coach. Soon, parents were allowed to attend only one practice per month, and they had to sign up in advance. If a parent was divorced, too bad — each family got one night. A problem with banning parents from practices is that one more safety net is gone: There are fewer eyes to spot abuse, or worse, a predator like Nassar.
2. Will my child be required to be home-schooled now or when she reaches a certain competitive level?
Home-schooling is hot at some gyms, with children as young as age 7 taking courses online or studying with private tutors (sometimes employed by the gym) so they can spend more hours training. It’s not necessary, and the extra hours in the gym can fuel overuse injuries. Seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller attended a public high school, as did four-time Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson East. Both gymnasts have said the balance that public school provided was a critical part of their success — there was a clear line between the gym and the rest of the world. Miller remains the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history. If Miller didn’t need to be home-schooled to succeed as a gymnast, neither does your child.
3. Will the coaches weigh my child at practice or at any other time?
Weighing child gymnasts is an outdated tactic that continues to persist at some U.S. gyms. The practice stokes eating disorders and poor body image. Sadly, former U.S. national team members Vanessa Atler and Katelyn Ohashi have publicly reported being weighed multiple times during their practices with coach Valeri Liukin at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, or WOGA, in Texas. Liukin replaced Martha Karolyi as the U.S. national team coordinator after Karolyi’s retirement in 2016.
4. Will my child get a snack break during practice?
Even compulsory-level gymnasts practice for stretches of three, four or five hours. A snack break is imperative to maintain energy levels. Gymnasts need to feel comfortable eating in front of their coach. If they don’t, that is indicative of a toxic gym environment.
5. Will my child be punished with painful conditioning for mistakes made inside the gym?
Conditioning should never be used as punishment — this tactic teaches children to associate exercise with something negative. Healthy gymnastics teaches children to embrace exercise as a critical life skill. I once watched a coach punish a gymnast with a five-minute handstand with her belly pressed to the gym’s wall every time she fell off beam while preparing for an important meet. The gymnast returned to the beam with her arms shaking and weak, and even more likely to fall. These tactics work in the short term but erode the trust between coach and athlete. An athlete who is terrified of her coach is less likely to report problems and even abuse to her coach.
6. How will the coach respond if my child is afraid of a skill or bails on a skill?
For many competitive gymnasts, the sport started off as easy. Kids who are fearless tend to find quick success in the sport. But eventually, a skill will rattle a gymnast. Maybe it’s a dismount off the high bar. Complex backward tumbling passes often bewitch young gymnasts. I have watched a coach punish athletes with endless laps of squat jumps for refusing to throw a backward tumbling pass. In toxic gyms, a gymnast has to make a devil of a choice: Which do I fear more — the skill or the coach?
7. What percentage of my child’s teammates suffer from overuse injuries?
Overuse injuries are rampant in toxic gyms because of repeated pounding on joints. I frequently wonder about the knees of athletes I knew years ago. I remember a group of girls training for the highest compulsory level — all but one of them wore brightly colored rubber bands around their knees. They suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful inflammation common in young athletes.
8. Do my child’s teammates cry frequently at the gym?
Some crying is normal and healthy — these are kids, after all. They have big feelings that they are still learning to manage. But crying can be indicative of a toxic environment if it’s occurring at almost every practice.
9. Do my child’s coaches communicate well with me?
I have worked at healthy gyms where classes are staggered so there is a five- or 10-minute break between classes so coaches can speak with parents. I have also worked in a gym where classes were scheduled back to back to back, effectively eliminating communication between parents and coaches. As a coach, I was discouraged from communicating with parents outside the gym. If we needed to email parents for any reason, we were instructed to copy the head coach. The message was clear: The less communication with parents, the better. Abusers thrive in environments where communication is discouraged.
10. Will my child ever be alone with a coach?
Outside of an emergency, there is no reason for a child to be alone with a coach.
I’ve decided I won’t throw away gymnastics with Nassar. We must reclaim our sport from him and those who enabled him. My daughter will remain in her toddler class, and when she is a bit older, maybe I will have the time to coach competitive kids again. I also know what I must look for.
I want to be part of the force that reclaims our beloved sport.
Grundmeier is a writer, gymnastics coach and mother who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. On Twitter @npaseka.