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Positive Coaching Alliance Studies Impact of Abusive Coaching

The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) and USA Gymnastics (USAG) recently hosted a panel together. They covered topics such as the impacts of punishment and what crosses the line into abusive coaching. The panel consisted of Pat Fitzgerald, Head Football Coach at Northwestern University, Shelly Goldberg, Senior Director of Mac and iPad Design at Apple Inc., Melissa Kitcher-Rineheart, Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach at University of Denver (2021 Big12 Champions), and Sam Peszek, Olympian Gymanst, Broadcaster, and Founder of Beam Queen Bootcamp (BQBC). 

When Does Coaching Turn Abusive?
 Photo Credit from Instagram: @embrace_your_story
Here are 5 takeways from the panel:
  1. How to spot abusive coaching as a parent. We all want what is best for our children, there is no doubt about that. One of the best ways to spot this is to ask your child the right questions. These types of conversations can definitely be difficult, especially if you are hearing answers you don’t want to hear as a parent. Our non-profit partner, Girls Leadership, has a great article on 27 Ways to Spark Deeper Conversations. By creating a dynamic to have deep conversations with your children, it will be easier to 1) bring up more difficult topics and 2) know your child on a deeper level. 
  2. Selecting the right club or team for your child. This is true for any sport, not just gymnastics. By vetting different gyms and teams and asking the right questions, you as a parent can learn a lot about the culture of the team. Ask questions like “What is the coach going to do if the athlete has a bad/hard day?” and similar. The answers provided by coaches, owners, and even other parents can be telling to how the establishment handles different situations. While tough coaching can be effective and positive, there can sometimes be a thin line between that and abusive coaching. By learning the difference and making sure your gymnast is at a gym that fits her needs and personality, you can expect a better, more fulfilling sporting experience.
  3. Shining a Positive Light on Conditioning; Reframing Punishment As Accountability - In general, conditioning as a punishment has drastically decreased over the last decade. Coaching, like many careers, evolves as time goes on and new information is released, experienced, or encountered. It has been shown that using conditioning as punishment may work immediately, but it will fail in the long-run of the athlete’s career. While conditioning is a major part of many sports, gymnastics included, using it in more postive ways creates stronger, more motivated athletes. By creating goals and expectations of athletes, they can understand the why to what they are doing more clearly and be motivated to continue on and working hard. 
  4. The Role of Coaching in Mental Health. There has been much more talk of mental health recently, especially within the sport of gymnastics (and the sports world in general). There is much less of a stigma around the subject than in previous times. As a coach or parent, it is important to remember that each person feels things differently. If a gymnast is having a rough practice, missing skills she normally lands, or straight up says she needs a break, coaches and parents alike need to recognize that she is doing this to protect herself. Let her take a step back if needed. Encourage a break - whether it be for an hour or for the rest of practice - to recouperate, regerneate, and revive her energy (mentally or physcially). Pushing young gymnasts too hard, too much, too fast is way of taking the fun, excitement, and passion of the sport away from them. Girls Leadership has put together an Emotional First Aid Kit” packing list that can benefit not only young girls, but anyone who may need it. Another way for parents to help with the mental health of their young gymnasts is to ensure that they practice self-love. These are great tools for gymnasts, but also for any person in their daily lives. 
  5. Setting a Positive Culture with Regard to Mental Health. Thankfully, the mental health of athletes is no longer ignored, and is being brought to the forefront of people’s minds, including coaches. The panel talked about the importance of making time and space for mental health early on - not only at the elite levels of the sport. We can prevent burnout of the sport by listening and responding to athlete’s physical and mental needs. We need our gymnasts to understand that it is okay to not be perfect. Making mistakes and learning from them is part of the sport. Sometimes we learn the most through the most challenging days. 


When Does Coaching Turn Abusive?
This panel has given a great deal of information to be thought about and reflected on. It is filled with great advice, questions, and topics to ensure we are giving our gymnasts the support they need and deserve. Whether we are helping with self-affirmations for our young gymnasts or just simply listening to them, we are creating a more powerful, confident, self-assured athlete.

Learn more about the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) here