Abusive coaching must stop to prevent long term emotional and physical injury

Lily Warnica

“Lily, all you’re good for is talking! I don’t know why I even try with you. Just stay away from the other girls because all you do is bring them down and waste not only their time but mine. They would be so much farther ahead without you here.”

These words ran through my head nearly every day when I stepped into practice and saw the coach who berated me this way. His consistent ridiculing made me want to do better, but at the same time, I dreaded having him as a coach during practice. He acted like I was just a nuisance to him, not worthy of his time or attention.

When a coach uses their words to bring down their gymnast, it has the potential to impact more than just their gymnastics career. It could also negatively alter how they perceive themselves in and out of the sport. While it’s sometimes necessary to get on a gymnast, it should be done in a way that’s not attacking their character or blaming them for things they have no control over, such as physical abilities or the success of other gymnasts. A coach crosses the line when they’re no longer using constructive criticism to help their gymnast progress. When the words used towards the gymnast affect how the athlete feels as an individual, it can be considered abuse. No athlete should be scared of their coach and what that coach is going to say to them. When a coach is degrading their athlete out of frustration and anger, it is not to help the athlete or motivate them to rise and do better. A coach’s emotional response rather than a constructive response can be very damaging.

The other team coach that I worked with made me feel valued. When I needed her, she was always there. At every practice she made sure I had the tools I needed to succeed. If I had a question about something, she would immediately answer in depth, instead of ignoring me. When I was having an off day, she would make sure to talk to me and try to help me in any way that she could. She was really in tune with people’s emotions and was quickly able to tell if something was wrong. There was a day where a girl in my group had made some comments and jokes about my physical appearance which put me in a funk during practice. My coach quickly noticed that something was wrong with me and found out what that girl had said from another one of my teammates. I remember her pulling me aside during our floor practice and talking to me.

“Lily, I heard what somebody in the gym said about your weight, and I need you to know that what she said is not even close to the truth. You are perfect just the way you are, and I don’t want you to let those words get to you. Don’t let her words change how you view yourself. I don’t know what she was thinking saying those things. If she says anything like that again, please let me know because I will not tolerate that kind of talk on my team. I have your back.”

That conversation solidified the fact that she would always be there for me and that I was a respected member of the team. Her words were used to build me up instead of tearing me down. She made sure to accommodate me and my abilities so that I could thrive in the sport. Even though she could be strict and demanding, I knew the intensity came from her desire for me to be my best. I knew she wanted me to succeed.

For twelve years, I competed in gymnastics under many different coaches with various coaching techniques. During that time, I found the type of coaching that gave me the best results and the type of coaching that would take me to a breaking point. I knew, as a gymnast, I needed a coach that would push me and give me tough love; however, when a coach takes that tough love and continuously crosses the line into abusive language that disparages character, it can cause emotional damage that leaves a mark on a person for the rest of their lives.

As an athlete, I want to know that my coach cares about me. I have found that a good coach can easily demonstrate that they value their athlete.

However, some coaches seem to value the sport more over the individual.

Ellie Deighan recalled a time where she re-injured her ankle at gymnastics and all the coaches except one refused to believe that she had hurt herself.

“I kept hurting my ankle, and my coaches would never believe me. They would call me dramatic and tell me to keep going even though it was purple and the size of a baseball bulging out of my foot because it was so swollen. Eventually, it got to the point where I was competing, and the judges had to tell me to stop as you could hear my ankle crunching,” Deighan said.

This should never happen. It’s the coach’s job to make sure their gymnast is safe, not the judges at a competition. As a coach, it’s always better to air on the safe side of things. It’s necessary to be overly cautious when someone tells you that something hurts or if something doesn’t look right. Brushing off an injury like this is unacceptable as there was visual evidence of a problem. It’s basic first aid knowledge to know that bruising and swelling indicate the need for precaution and further evaluation before continuing activity. It’s especially important in a high risk sport like gymnastics to treat an injury quickly. By allowing an injured gymnast to continue performing, a coach is not only risking further damage to the first injury, they’re also putting the gymnast at risk for catastrophic injury. It’s challenging enough for a healthy gymnast to perform high level skills, it can be extremely dangerous to allow them to perform these same skills when they’re incapacitated. By ignoring Deighan’s injury and forcing her to continue, the coaches were putting her at far more risk, and they ultimately stepped over the line of intense coaching into abusive coaching. It may start out as a simple ankle sprain, but it could lead to a severe back or neck injury. If a coach truly values their athletes and cares about them, they would never ignore an injury or tell them to get over it. A competent coach never puts the sport before their athlete’s wellbeing.

Coaches should take the necessary precautions to protect their gymnasts from any current or future harm. These precautions are important because, depending on how the coaches react, the gymnast will move forward or take a needed step back, both physically and mentally. Asking the gymnast questions to understand the situation better is just one step when a gymnast is injured. In this situation, the coach should’ve immediately gotten a bucket of ice and cold water to put the ankle in while figuring out what to do from there. By doubting an injury and not taking it seriously, a coach can make an injury worse, one that could eventually lead to irreversible problems. From the first time that Deighan hurt her ankle by tripping over her own feet, her coaches should’ve given her some time to let it heal. However, because they didn’t, she ended up eventually tearing three ligaments. Her coaches should’ve taken the proper steps to get her help and not cause anymore harm to the ankle. By making her continue practicing on it, she damaged her left ankle to the point where it’s still bigger than her right ankle. It also still causes her pain sometimes to walk on it and she still can’t run due to the lasting effects of the injury more than a year later. If the coaches had taken the time to assess the damage and treat Deighan’s ankle accordingly, she could’ve had a minor injury that was fixed in a couple of weeks. Instead she has an everlasting injury that hindered not only her gymnastics career but also her personal life with every little misstep.

Coaching isn’t an easy job, and it’s not for everyone especially in a sport like gymnastics. Not only does a coach need common sense, but also a vast array of knowledge on numerous topics: ranging from psychology to physics. Gymnastics is already hard enough, and from my experience, a gymnast doesn’t need the extra complications of not fully trusting a coach. This lack of trust keeps the athlete from reaching their full potential and could have a negative impact beyond their gymnastics career. It’s critical for a coach to have their gymnast’s physical and emotional safety as one of their top priorities.

Pushing a gymnast beyond their mental, emotional, or physical limitations may create short term progress, but will never produce positive long term results. Gymnastics can only be one of the most rewarding and exhilarating sports when a gymnast is led by a qualified, knowledgeable, and caring coach.

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