“I think USAG has yet to fully acknowledge the depths of the problem. We won’t stop until they do.”

Q&A with Athlete A producer Jennifer Sey

By Christy Sandmaier

A special conversation – How to Change Coaching Culture in Gymnastics – took place virtually on September 30 exploring the challenges and complexity of what it takes to create lasting change in an abusive coaching culture. Featured speakers included Maggie Nichols, Dominique Dawes; as well as former U.S. gymnast and Athlete A producer Jennifer Sey and co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.

The panel’s conversation and discussion focused on the path forward to change an abusive culture, signs of abusive coaching, finding success without negative coaching, how to create a sense of agency amongst athletes and tools and resources for safe sport coaching.

Dominique Dawes, three-time Olympian and member of the 1996 gold-medal winning Magnificent 7 and Co -Chair of President’s Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition was the first of the panelists to be interviewed, strongly advocating for overall health and wellness of children. She spoke at length about her own experiences and the impact of negative coaching or a negative environment on athletes, stating “Gymnastics is not an unhealthy sport – it’s a lot of unhealthy people in the sport.” Her focus in her own gym is to create and allow children a positive experience and that a coach’s goal should be to: “Motivate with love and not with fear.”

Maggie Nichols, 2015 world team gold-medalist and two-time NCAA Champion at the University of Oklahoma, is optimistic about change in the sport as long as the athletes continue to speak up and are heard by the adults around them. “I’m hopeful seeing all these athletes, not only gymnasts, coming forward and speaking up about all they’ve been through… I think it’s allowing us to take a step in the right direction.” Nichols cited positive coaching experiences within her own club Twin City Twisters, and at OU, but noted USA Gymnastics national team training camps as having a negative impact on her both physically and mentally each time she travelled there. 

Sey and the team involved in Athlete A vow to keep the conversation going.

A second virtual session will take place October 21 at 5:00 p.m. PDT / 8:00 p.m. EDT that aims to educate and empower parents to be the best champion for their child athlete. The conversation will navigate recognizing and identifying athlete’s true needs, the facts and myths of how hard to “push” children for success, and teaching them to be their own advocate. 

Featured speakers include Gina and John Nichols, parents of Maggie Nichols; Gretchen Kerr, Professor of Athlete Maltreatment, Vice Dean of Programs within the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto; Marti Reed, Trainer and National Partnerships & Marketing Manager at the Positive Coaching Alliance; together with Sey, Cohen and Shenk.

 Topics will include:

  • How parents can get involved to support children in highly competitive sports
  • How to create a sense of agency amongst athletes and their parents
  • Myth v. Fact about exercise science and child development
  • How we can learn from other sports 
  • Resources to empower parents to be their child’s best advocate

Inside Gymnastics spoke with Sey following the first session about the feedback she received and her unrelenting resolve to educate coaches, parents, athletes and NGBs about preventing the abusive culture in order to create sustainable change within the sport.

Tell us about the feedback you have received so far from the first session.

I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback. We are thrilled the film and the subsequent conversations being prompted are having an impact. The first step to changing the negative culture is acknowledging that it is real. The next is to have these conversations about what needs to happen to change it. We’re especially pleased that coaches are tuning in to participate in these conversations. They will be the difference makers.

The balance of the conversation felt right on – the right mix of both Dominique and Maggie speaking their truth about their experiences but also looking ahead and being hopeful. Was that your goal going into the evening?

Yes that was our goal. To reveal the long-term impacts of negative coaching. And to provide an alternative, as both Dominique and Maggie did.

How did you go about planning the discussion questions?

I planned the questions based on my own knowledge about the impacts of negative and cruel coaching. I’ve dealt with the impacts for much of my adult life and want something better for kids who love the sport. I also wanted to dive into how these impacts have shaped both Dominique and Maggie’s approach to coaching now – as adults. They want to give kids a different experience than they had. One that builds self-esteem as youth sports are intended to do. They are basing their approach on both the negative and positive coaching they received. They both know and have felt the difference. We need to hear from people like them who have a clear vision for the positivity and esteem building that sports can and should provide. As well as the ways in which positive coaching can actually produce a strong sense of achievement in kids. These women succeeded in gymnastics despite the negative coaching not because of it. And they both said as much. 

Bonni and Jon provide such an objective view of what they have observed in the sport and I wanted to get that perspective drawn out. For those of us who have grown up in the sport it’s too easy to just accept that this type of coaching is normal and necessary. It’s so common it is almost invisible and that is how it’s been able to be chalked up by coaches and leadership as “tough coaching” rather than abuse. It’s really important to step outside the bubble of elite gymnastics to truly envision a path forward and Bonni and Jon are really good at providing that perspective. I tried to balance the questions around the impacts of abusive coaching with defining the thought process and methods to achieve a positive coaching environment going forward.  

There seemed to be a sense throughout the conversation of inspiring hope not just in gymnastics and sports, but in life (helping women and children in particular, find their voices). Did you expect that?

I hoped for that! In order for kids to grow up and feel a sense of agency and the power of their own voices, they need to be raised to do so. I watched a documentary recently called The Heart of the Game about a high school basketball team in Seattle. The coach always told the kids after every game “You should be so proud of yourselves.” If they lost it was because they played hard and never gave up. If they won it was also because they played hard and never gave up. He didn’t say “I’m proud of you.” He said “You should be proud of yourselves.” It’s an important distinction. And it made me sad, frankly, that no one ever said that to me. I never had a sense of pride. I only had the sense that I was weak and a natural born loser and utterly dependent on my coaches to draw any sort of winning performance out of me. I felt I was worthless without them because that is what they reinforced. This Seattle coach gives the kids agency in their performance by saying they should be proud of themselves. It takes the emphasis off of him and his role in their success. It gives them the ownership of their own achievements. This is exactly what sports should do developmentally for kids. It is unfortunate that the culture in gymnastics (broadly) doesn’t do this at present though there are some great coaches who want to change that. We can and must re-shape it.

What were the three biggest takeaways from the discussion for you?

  • Abusive coaching has long-term devastating impacts that are dealt with by the athlete well into adulthood. This style of coaching creates a loss of self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, depression and other adverse psychological impacts that can take years to recover from.
  • To create a positive coaching environment we need to treat the athlete like a person, a human being, not a commodity.
  • Abusive coaching is not necessary to create winners. We lose more kids than we gain winners by adopting this approach. And at the end of the day what does winning mean really if the athletes graduate from the sport with a sense of worthlessness?

What are the next steps as far as your role in athlete advocacy related to Athlete A? Where do you go from here? 

For me personally I want to continue to agitate and advocate for change. I want more athletes to come forward to tell their stories, and to speak about the negative impacts after leaving the sport. We can’t change it if we don’t fully acknowledge what is happening. I think USAG has yet to fully acknowledge the depths of the problem. We won’t stop until they do.

For more information, see https://athletea-parents.splashthat.com/

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Photos courtesy of Jennifer Sey, Athlete A and Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics