Any time you stand up for something, you risk finding yourself in the middle of controversy. When I hit “send” on my “Time’s Up” piece back in February, I knew I was opening myself up to misunderstanding, disdain and/or severe criticism. I hit “send” with the vow that I would advocate for a cultural change within our national training regime regardless of how much resistance I encountered. Since then I have been applauded by many who thank me for speaking up.
I have also been criticized for openly discussing the culture of fear and abuse that was prevalent at the “Ranch.” To those people I say, “You have your opinion and we can agree to disagree.” However, I have also been accused of “hating elite gymnastics and all elite coaches.” And to those people… please know, I have never said that, it is simply not true. I “hate” the system we all (elite, club and college coaches alike) either embraced, turned a blind eye to or didn’t try hard enough to change.
For decades, I consistently complained to the President and Vice President of USA Gymnastics about the mental and verbal abuse that was a consistent tone at The Ranch… but nothing changed. In fact, I was told there was no need for change because “we win.” So why didn’t I go to the U.S. Olympic Committee? I honestly have no idea except to say, “I never thought to do that.” But I should have.
After I wrote my initial “Time’s Up” piece, someone commented that I was as guilty as the people I was calling out because I never did anything about it. Whomever you were… I hear you, I didn’t do enough. While striving to develop our own athletes from the inside out, I should have done more to address concerns at the elite level. So yes, I am a part of allowing this culture that I vehemently disagreed with to thrive for decades.
This is a sport ready to move on and establish a new bright future, yet so many athletes are still fractured and still processing what happened to them. I believe that moving forward in a positive and healthy manner includes addressing our past, acknowledging the choices we made—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and formulating a strategy for how to move forward to ensure healthier environments for our athletes and coaches.
In the sport of gymnastics, we have strategically formulated a system of training athletes to compete at the highest level in the world and consistently win. We have done a tremendous job in implementing developmental training systems not only for our athletes, but our coaches as well, to achieve consistent success.
But it’s simply not enough.
There are questions that still need to be fleshed out.
How do we define success?
Are we winning at any cost?
How do we improve the culture of sport in our country?
And perhaps the most important question of all…
What is the goal?
* Is the goal of Athletics to win? YES
* Is the goal of Athletics to develop a system of training coaches along with the athletes on how to win? YES
* Is the goal of Athletics to develop an evergreen system of Champions each new year and each new Olympic cycle? YES
* Is the goal of Athletics to develop champions in Life as well as on the competition floor? YES
This last bullet isn’t one to just be checked off a list. It is unequivocally THE most important goal… to develop champions in life … otherwise Athletics becomes only about playing games for bragging rights.
How do we make sure we’re keeping our intentions on track?
We all (coaches and parents alike) need to make sure we are focusing on the human component of how we get to the end result. We can’t take short cuts. We can’t coach through dictatorship instead of education and motivation. We can’t look past the overall health and well-being of our athletes because the shiny bright object of winning blinds us from the laborious process of coaching the person who is the athlete… smart, talented, passionate, resilient, determined young humans.
We have developed a system that produces medals, and our system appears to be more successfully structured than any other system in the world. It’s now time we all band together and commit to improving the culture in which we train our athletes that focuses as much on their development as strong individual young adults as it does their gymnastic skills. It is now time we pay as much attention to their mental and emotional growth as their physical stamina.
Taking time to truly care for the comprehensive health and welfare of our youth can be daunting and at times exhausting. But at the same time, it’s extremely rewarding. Mental health and performance are connected. In our sport of artistic gymnastics improving culture will result in performances that shine even brighter! We like to talk about the importance of the journey and not just the destination and this is where we can apply new intention. It’s an exciting time to participate in sport. The heightened awareness that has been ushered in this past year should make us all better at how we coach and teach.
To all of you coaches, developmental and elite, who embrace and enjoy the process of developing champions in life… it shows… your athletes are as joyful on the competition floor as they are tough competitors. For those who feel I’m way out of line, please take some time to talk and listen to some former and current elite athletes. Even the ones who say they weren’t affected negatively by their experience on the national team most will add that they succeeded in spite of the environment. Developing a champion in life means helping athletes grow in self-confidence and character. It also means supporting the development of a critical mind that can successfully communicate with coaches, trainers, staff, and parents alike; basically, we should help young athletes find their voice.
Athletics is one of the greatest classrooms in which to teach and learn life lessons. The important part of the sport, like anything in life, is the process. To think that we would have to sacrifice the system that has proven successful for a new culture is inaccurate and archaic. It’s time we show the rest of the world that you can win by coaching from the inside out, by coaching and caring for the person that is the athlete. Our athletes deserve to be honored as the amazing whole people that they are and the culture we cultivate should help them shine even when they aren’t wearing a leotard.
Photo has been modified, Original Photo by Christy Linder