Skip to main content

Takeaways From Panel with USA Gymnastics — What Counts As Abusive Coaching

Stretching for Beginner Gymnasts : Beginning Gymnastics

Positive Coaching Alliance & USA Gymnastics hosted a discussion about the impacts of punishment, such as conditioning, and what crosses the line into abusive coaching. Joining this discussion were high-level competitive coaches and Olympians including Pat Fitzgerald, Head Football Coach, Northwestern University; Shelly Goldberg, Senior Director of Mac and iPad Product Design, Apple, Inc.; Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, Head Women's Gymnastics Coach, University of Denver; Sam Peszek, Olympian Gymnast, Broadcaster, Founder of Beam Queen Bootcamp, and moderated by PCA's National Partnerships & Marketing Manager, Marti Reed. The panelists made up a variety of perspectives, including a college football coach, former Olympian and youth camp leader, gymnastics coach, and a former college gymnast. In this panel, there were 5 main takeaways.

1) How To Spot Abusive Coaching As A Parent

One of the best ways to keep your child safe from abusive coaching techniques as a parent, according to Melissa Rinehart, is to ask the right questions. Parents can ask 'Is my child happy?' or 'Does my child want to go to practice?'

Recognizing abusive coaching also starts with having that conversation with your child, and learning if there are abusive patterns from the coach. This can help draw the line between simply tough coaching and abusive coaching.

2) Selecting the Right Club or Team for Your Child

Selecting the right club is a critical component for all parents to ensure that their child has the best sports experience. Additionally, asking the right questions is a great way to steer clear of abusive coaches and cultures. As both Shelly Goldberg and Melissa Rinehart shared, you cannot be afraid to ask the hard, specific questions, such as, 'What is the coach going to do if your athlete has a hard/bad day?' or 'How does the coach/club hold your child accountable?' The coach's or the organization's answers can be very telling and can help illustrate the difference between tough (yes, tough and positive can go together!) coaching, and abusive coaching.

3) Shining a Positive Light on Conditioning; Reframing Punishment As Accountability

As Northwestern Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated, the role of conditioning in punishment has drastically decreased in the last decade. However, as a coach, there is a way to shift the mindset about punishment and accountability. It often starts by making goals and expectations incredibly clear from the beginning and making sure your athletes know why they are doing something. As Melissa Rinehart explained, "If you condition with fear, it works immediately, but doesn’t work in the long run. If your athletes know they can trust you, they are more willing to work with you." If the conditioning or punishment is tied to a goal, it is super beneficial and sets a better environment for working on certain skills/goals.

Here is another blog we shared in the past providing alternatives to using conditioning as punishment. To better understand the standards to consider when conditioning, check out this Safe Sport Policy provided by USA Gymnastics.

4) The Role of Abusive Coaching in Mental Health

It is not surprising that the topic of mental health came up, given the recent news of Simone Biles in the Olympics and the negative impact abusive coaching will have on athletes. Obviously, this speaks to a broader discussion about mental health in sports and why it’s okay for superstar athletes to take a step back or admit they need help. The role a coach plays with regard to an athlete's mental health is critical as some coaches, (especially in the past), have not recognized the importance of mental health. As panelist and former Olympian Sam Peszek explained, "If you’re drowning, it doesn’t matter if you’re drowning in 10 feet of water, or in 100 feet of water – you’re still drowning. Mental health is a little ambiguous and everyone feels different things." As coaches, it is your job to not ignore the mental health of your athletes and to start having conversations and build trust with your athletes or child early on so they can talk about mental health challenges they might be facing.

5) Setting a Positive Culture with Regard to Mental Health

It's clear that the mental health of athletes has long been ignored or downplayed, but thankfully, it is coming to the forefront with widely known athletes speaking about it publicly. As Peszek explains, work in the mental health space needs to start early on. The work in mental health needs to be incorporated into the culture from the very beginning, not only at the elite levels of the sport. This will help make it clear to athletes that their mental health matters, and it will help athletes remember that mistakes are okay – sometimes you learn the most through challenging moments.

Finally, all panelists agreed that coaches need to remind athletes that they are not only coaching, but also working to build life skills! This sort of communication improves culture, performance, and helps draw the line between tough and abusive coaching.