Balancing Act | 2022 Worlds

Balancing Act | 2022 Worlds

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“I took a day or two. You need a day or two to kind of be angry and be pissed off and then you can turn it around. I think you need to give yourself that time to grieve a little bit and to have those emotions because they’re okay, they’re valid, they’re completely valid. But then you take that time and turn it around.” – Team USA Technical Lead Chellsie Memmel’s passion for the program resonates in her new role, just as it did during her days as an athlete. She also shared perspective of how she would turn the page after disappointment.  See more from Chellsie on our YouTube Channel!

Balancing Act – Can we successfully balance winning while supporting athlete wellness? Inside Gymnastics examines several key factors as the U.S. Women prepare to take the floor for Team Finals Tuesday night in Liverpool.

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT, and Christy Sandmaier

Hard vs. unforgiving. Strict vs. mean. Driven vs. unrelenting. Expectations vs. demands. Humans vs. machines.

It’s not a fine line. It is actually very, very clear.

The climate of sports – and not just gymnastics – is changing with the tides. The public outcry for prioritization of athlete health and wellness above and beyond achievement is here to stay. We hope.

At the 2020 Olympics, seven-time Olympic medalist and 25-time World Championship medalist Simone Biles brought mental health to the forefront of the sport. And by now, everyone knows the story. The world was in disbelief when Biles seemed to lose her place in the air in rotation one of team finals on vault, and ultimately pulled out of the competition altogether.

“I didn’t quit… my mind and body are simply not in sync,” Biles would explain.

As we tried to process what had happened, with the media dissecting her every move along the way, reaction was split. In the gymnastics world, fans were largely in her corner, supporting her. But the comment sections on posts from outlets like Sports Illustrated to People showed the nasty side of armchair quarterbacks who criticized her withdrawal. Biles had the last word, both on the competition floor where she captured bronze on beam on the final day, and through the message she delivered on the importance of mental and physical health.

“I hope it sends [the message] that I did this for me and nobody else because I really wanted to compete one more time at the Olympic Games,” Biles said shortly after. “To do something that I’ve done forever and just not be able to do it because of everything I’ve gone through is really crazy, because I love this sport so much. It’s hard, I’m sorry. And I don’t think people understand the magnitude of what I go through.”

Even after decades of abuse was brought to light by some of the biggest names in the sport, it still took a major setback from the greatest of all time in the sport to bring about a global wakeup call regarding the importance of gymnast mental health. It’s a call that was in fact made long ago, but very few were listening.

Recent years have seen numerous athletes coming forward with wrenching stories of physical, mental and emotional abuse by coaches and the leadership regimes who enabled the very culture. Larrissa Miller, who competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics for Australia, bravely took to social media in August to share her own story of harrowing abuse and her strong will to be there for any athlete who needs someone to listen.

“I’m sharing this in the hope that people don’t have to unlearn the way I am having to. And I hope someone can learn something from this,” Miller said.

Historically, programs that employed a strict environment of leadership certainly created performance excellence, but sometimes at an insurmountable cost to athletes’ mental and physical well-being. Likewise, countries that dominated the medal podium were also often born of a culture within a country of obedience and diminished choice such as the former Soviet Union or Romania, or led by coaches who believed nothing but total compliance could result in gold medals. Athletes were many times seen as commodities and without the freedom to make decisions about their own training and their own career goals.

Slowly, from the gold medal game to the club levels, we’re seeing a new culture of athlete empowerment emerge. Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and of course, the United States among others, are all working hard towards rebuilding trust and creating a culture where athlete wellness (including physical, mental and emotional support) is the prime focus. National Governing Body (NGB) leadership and more coaches are starting to recognize that a better balance has to be achieved in order for athletes to achieve success on the competition floor and remain physically and mentally healthy both on and off the floor.

It’s a start that can’t happen fast enough.

“Pressure is a privilege; it means we’re operating at our highest levels.” -1992 Olympic Team Bronze Medalist, Betty Okino

The keys to total success for high caliber athletes are so complexly layered they’re almost impossible to achieve. However, it’s no secret that placing equal importance on physical and mental health and allowing athletes choices in their own career are essential to operating at the highest level.

Yes, there’s a staunch dichotomy between complete freedom without structure and expectation. To succeed in gymnastics, there has to be tangible, step-by-step goals that the athlete, coach, and the NGB agree upon to allow the athletes every opportunity to achieve their goals – whatever they may be. There also has to be space to make mistakes and not feel as though the “one strike and you’re out” mentality is the only way to be successful.

For example, U.S. developmental camps are a way to observe markers showing progress toward the bigger picture. If an athlete’s mid-way markers are met, the pressure and stress to achieve the end goal should be relieved at some level. Camp should be a chance to be proud of and show progress – not to fear being ridiculed or failing.

And yes, at some point in time, pressure absolutely needs to be placed on performance, but the performance needs to be separated from an athlete’s worth as a person.

Pressure can encourage greater success by allowing athletes to push and realize their greater potential. When excessive pressure is placed on athletes for repetitions and consistency, and winning every time they compete, it tows the line of purposeful intention. To push someone to the limit mentally, can be more detrimental in the process than formative. They may bring home medals, but may be left for the rest of their lives questioning if anything less than perfect is okay.

Athletes and their coaches have to be able to set solid expectations together and have accountability. The motivation, however, should not be out of fear and psychological manipulation, but of achievement and progress. When the power differential between coach and the athlete is such that pressure to win or be perfect is out of a fear of punishment or disappointment by the coach, it’s a recipe for disaster. Likewise, when the ego and reputation of the coach gets in the way of what’s best for the athlete’s wellness and their long- term development, success will never be sustainable.

Together with the physical skills, supporting the ebbs and flows of an athlete’s mental health is finally being recognized as not only a piece of the puzzle but an undeniable necessity. Sport science has proven that stress can actually positively affect performance, but too much can do the opposite. It can affect training success, state of mind, self-doubt, fear, skill progression and ultimately, longevity.

So, the elephant in the room has emerged: can you be good and nice?

Alicia Sacramone Quinn, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist and 10-time World medalist is the new strategic lead for the U.S. women’s program. In a press conference in June, she stated the reasoning behind many of her intentions to apply for the position.

“When I was competing, it was very fear- driven,” she said. “I don’t want to be leading from a position of fear. If I can inspire them to respect the program, respect their coaches, their training – everywhere – that will help them be motivated.”

USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung reiterated at the U.S. Championships in Tampa in August that her focus is  squarely on transparency, integrity, and accountability as she works to continue to usher in a new era. The process of weaving together athlete wellness with the pursuit of gold medals will no doubt be difficult for a program that for so long focused on medals and money over athlete well-being. It’s a process that will take time to produce sustainable results but one Leung feels is absolutely possible.

“That’s the million-dollar question in terms of ‘can we still be competitive and also compete nicely and still train nicely at the same time?’” Leung said. “And my view is yes, that we are able to do that.”

“When I was a gymnast,” Leung added, “I looked forward to going into the gym, I trained that much harder. I was much more productive in the gym as well and I believe the other athletes feel that way as well, and we are hearing that is the case, too. Ultimately, we one hundred percent believe that you can balance both being competitively excellent as well as have a positive environment to be successful.”

In Liverpool, the U.S. women have every opportunity to stand on the podium and win their sixth consecutive World Championship team gold. In training, they looked relaxed, but all business. And while it was hard to gage their thoughts on the lead up to the competition and how they were feeling (only very brief comments were made in the Mixed Zone before the team was ushered through), Jordan ChilesShilese Jones, and Lexi Zeiss, the alternate here, all made references to being here for each other as teammates and having fun to create a positive experience as the most important thing.

With Biles on hiatus from competition, and 2020 Olympic All-Around Champion Sunisa Lee presumably getting ready to start her second season at Auburn (she’s said she’s still taking the Elite comeback decision day by day), the conversation by some earlier in the year was whether the U.S. was in the position to even place on the podium at Worlds after a dominant performance by the Brazilian team at the Pan American Championships topped the U.S. team by almost two points. Notably, Team USA didn’t send their highest scoring team to Rio. Missing were Jones, Chiles, Jade Carey and Leanne Wong who are all here, and 2022 National All-Around Champion Konnor McClain, who is currently sidelined with a back injury. Skye Blakely, who did compete in Rio, looked stronger and more focused than ever yesterday in training, and it goes without question that together, this team is definitely looking make a statement here and take the top step of the podium.

Leadership itself is also finding its balance as a new page is turned. In March, USA Gymnastics announced a tri-leadership team would head the women’s program as opposed to the singular “athlete coordinator” position which had been in place since 1999. In addition to Quinn, Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 World All-Around Champion who staged an incredible comeback to the sport at age 32 and competed in the 2021 U.S. Championships, was named the technical lead. The two were teammates on the 2008 team which captured silver in Beijing. Dan Baker, the Elite Women’s Development Coordinator since 2018, transitioned to developmental lead.

Leung said the change from having one high performance coordinator to a tri-leadership system for the women was not prompted by a specific catalyst, rather, the conversations to make a change had been happening for some time.

“This is a big change in terms of what we’ve had in the past. We thought that it was better to have three people being involved versus a single individual,” Leung said. “We will continue to evaluate it and we will continue to have discussions with the high performance team in terms of they do see and where perhaps we can tweak things a little bit. But ultimately, we thought this was a better structure to have in place.”

The process of weaving together athlete wellness with the pursuit of gold medals will no doubt continue to be difficult for a program that for so long focused on medals and money over athlete well-being. It’s a process that will take time and patience to produce sustainable results but one Leung feels is absolutely possible.

“That’s the million dollar question in terms of ‘can we still be competitive and also compete nicely and still train nicely at the same time?’” Leung said. “And my view is yes, that we are able to do that. When I was a gymnast, when I looked forward to going into the gym, I trained that much harder. I was much more productive in the gym as well and I believe the other athletes feel that way as well, and we are hearing that is the case, too. Ultimately, we one hundred percent believe that you can balance both being competitively excellent as well as have a positive environment to be successful.”

Moving forward, Quinn, Memmel and Baker know all eyes will be on them and as Memmel told the media in June,  “walking the walk” is more important than ever. “A lot of it, I feel is going to be under the microscope, there will be a lot of scrutiny – I know that going into it,” Memmel said. “I weighed all of the factors. I want to be there for the athletes.”

Memmel is also aware that there will be an adjustment period for the athletes, coaches and for herself based on her recent involvement as an athlete, and as a Brevet-level judge. “I’d like to just be relatable. Hopefully the athletes will be comfortable and can relate to me and just respect that I’ve done a lot in my career. I want to be there to support and be there to guide and have that respect. But respect it earned. That is something that you have to prove. You have to walk the walk. When you put an expectation out there you have to follow through. I’ve been around for a while and I know the coaches but it’s in a different role, there’s going to be an adjustment but I’m looking forward to that part of it.”

At the end of the day, Quinn, who is also well-aware of the pressure and scrutiny she’ll face in her position, says she’s committed to putting the best, healthiest team on the floor every time and will be ready to answer and take responsibility if things don’t go well or as planned.

“Our goal is to put out the healthiest, most ready – physically, mentally, emotionally capable athletes in that moment. Making sure that the athletes and coaches have everything they need in order to be successful to get to that point – once they’re on the competition floor, you never know what’s going to happen. I’ll take the heat if it was a poor choice in lineup, yeah, that’s okay, but maybe I wanted to give an athlete a chance who was great in training and deserved it. I’m all about who’s competing and physically looking their best – I’m not going to put someone in jeopardy to hurt themselves – their well-being is most important.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the October issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine and has been updated.

For More: 

The Layer of Fear

Building Trust Through Transparency

Photo Credit: FIG

For more on the 2022 World Championships:

Quotes – 2022 World Championships!

Ready to Rock in Liverpool!

Best of Both Worlds – Chiles, Carey & Wong Prove You Can Do It All!

Alice Kinsella Is Having Her Best Year Of Her Career – And She’s Not Done Yet! 

October 2022 Issue Preview 

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