Shifting the Toxic Culture of Youth Sports | Live Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Shifting the Toxic Culture of Youth Sports


Hi everyone.  I’m Coach Rebecca Smith with Complete Performance Coaching.  I am here for my weekly live Q&A.  Today our topic is going to be a little bit somber.  I deal a lot with gymnastics and figure skating, those are my two areas of specialty around fear and anxiety, and something that I come up against a lot is this issue of toxic culture – toxic coaching, toxic parenting, toxic teams that suck the joy out of sport and make kids anxious an unhealthy.

Today I’m going to talk about what you can do as the parent or as the coach to start shifting this, to start turning the battleship around.  It is starting to move, but there’s so far to go before I’m going to feel like my kid can go to any sport in any place in the US and be treated like a human.

I know my local gym is amazing and she’s going to be safe there, but I don’t know that for every kid out there.

I’m going to be answering a question about a gymnast who had a tough time and then talk about what you can do to help me shift the culture.  Here is the question this week from a gymnastics mom.  She said,


Q: At our meet last weekend, my daughter, a level eight gymnast, was having a rough meet.  We had been off for two family weddings the week before, but my daughter felt ready.  Her event warmups were good, but she fell on bars and beam.  Her coach then turned to her and said, “Suck it up.  No one expected anything good from you at this meet.”  My daughter then lost it emotionally and her coach made her scratch.  My daughter no longer wants to go to the gym.  Help.  What do I do?


That breaks my heart.  At the same time I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ve heard that eight times this week that that’s the way that the coach talked to the kid at the meet.”  I have been that coach, which is horribly embarrassing.  That culture of toxic negativity runs so deep that, even as a gymnast, as a former coach, I am still having to look at these things and go, “Oh my gosh, that’s not normal.”



The owner of Shift Movement Science, Dave Tilley, wrote this fabulous e-book on the culture of gymnastics.  Click the link above if you’re interested in learning more about that.  I’m going to give you some of the things he described in one of his articles:


Questionable Practices in Gymnastics:

  • Coaches pushing gymnasts down during flexibility to the point of excessive pain or injury
  • Coaches or parents unnecessarily yelling at athletes for not completing a skill or failing in competition
  • People pushing their gymnast through injury or parents coaching from the stands
  • Coaches, assigning ridiculous workouts that require high skill numbers or use conditioning as punishment
  • Incredibly challenging strength or cardiovascular exercise being implemented without scientific rationale or expert coaching opinion
  • Medical providers clearing a gymnast for training without full rehabilitation communication with coaches or an understanding of gymnastics demands


Normal or Toxic?

When I read that list, I was thinking, from my perspective, that’s all normal in gymnastics.  Even I have pushed kids down in splits.  I remember when I was a little girl, I was probably no more than eight years old, and I was being pushed down in the splits so hard that I started sobbing.  That was the last day I was at that gym, I think it was on the pre-team.  It wasn’t even a very high competitive level, but we were little girls being pushed down to the point of excruciating pain and tears.

Cut to me 20 years later, pushing kids down in their splits because that’s just the way it is.  That’s just what you do.  If the kid’s not flexible, you push them.  That’s what was done to me sometimes in a nice way, sometimes in a mean way, that’s just the way it was.  We got yelled at, so I yelled.  I was the mean beam coach and I was yelling.


Cost of Ignorance

I was young and inexperienced, and the only experience I had was the way that I was coached.  I had been to several gyms and it was pretty much the same.  I’d have coaches that I adored at some places and coaches that I despised at others.  The ones who gave the conditioning punishment and the ones who made us sit in her super splits for 10 minutes were usually on the despise list, but was just the way it was.


Reality Check

So, while reading this list, I’m realizing this is not ok behavior!  Even now that I’m in the trenches with these kids and I still am thinking, “This is not okay!”

Dave Tilley He goes on with the following:


Reasons Why Kids Are Getting Injured and Quitting:

  • Questionable methods for motivating gymnasts
  • Inappropriate flexibility techniques
  • Suboptimal strength and cardio programs
  • Insanely high skill repetition requirements
  • Lack of attention to athlete recovery
  • Training methods that are applied without a sound basis of coaching rationale or scientific evidence.

*There was no scientific evidence when I was coaching.  This is what my coaches did to me, so this is what I do to these kids.  That’s just the way it goes.

  • Lack of collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to gymnastics training
  • Fear-based training
  • Comparison with other athletes
  • Yelling
  • Unrealistic training expectations

This all boils down to emotional and physical abuse, which is not okay.  Why is this even a question? Why is it even a question that these behaviors are not okay?  Especially with kids, these eight, nine, 10, 11, 12-year-old kids who are being scarred emotionally, who are afraid of talking to their coach, terrified of saying, “No, I don’t feel comfortable to do that.”  They just do it.  They would rather break their neck then get yelled at or kicked off the team, which would sacrifice their dreams.


Make It Stop

This has got to stop.  I’m owning my mistakes.  I’m sure many of you listening have made mistakes as well and are probably feeling a little sheepish going, “Yeah, well that’s just the way it is.”  Well, that’s the way it was and it shouldn’t be that way anymore.


What You Can Do

There was my experience, and now today I work all day, every day with 12-year-old girls who are terrified of their coaches.  Here’s what you can do as parents.  To the mom who is in this situation where your heart is breaking for your girl, you’re seeing this happen and you don’t know what to do, here are some steps you can take.


1. Listen

Listen to your child and tell her, “No, that was not ok.”  You hear her feelings.  You hear that she was falling apart and she was not okay, and that’s not okay.  Team up with her, you grab your link arms and go, we’re going to deal with this. This is not all right.


2. Expose It

Next, you talk about it.  This is the reason the last two live sessions I’ve done have been on bullying. The mom’s bullying and the kids bullying, now we’re kind of talking about the coaches bullying.  In this situation, you must speak to the coach and let them know this behavior will not be tolerated. Nobody told me you can’t push my kid in their splits.  That’s not all right.  I didn’t even know it was not okay.  It was just the way it was done.

If somebody would have walked up to me, a hotshot, 19-year-old coach and said, “Actually, based on this research, that’s not all right.  That’s not acceptable for kids.  Here’s a better way,” I would have listened.  I think I might’ve had a big ego about it, but I think I would have been said, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to.  I was just doing it the way it has always been done.”


3. Get & Share Information

Now, this is not to say that parents need to be researching, but why not?  If your coach is doing something questionable, figure out how it should be done and then get the information to them.  Go to that coach and you say, “You know, this is not a way that’s acceptable to speak to my child at a competition,” if that means your kid is off the team, I would be shopping around for another gym.

Then, after you’ve explained to your daughter, “This is the type of behavior that is not acceptable and I always want you to tell me if anything like this happens,” let them know you will support them.  Bless my mother.  She picked me up from the gym and would go, “You bleeding?  You bruised?  Okay, well I guess we’ll have to send you back then, ” and she thought it was hilarious.  That that’s not the type of support I needed when I was in tears because I was doing conditioning for an hour because I couldn’t make my back handspring on the beam.  She would actually say, “Well, we’ll just have to send you back.  Not enough blood today,” and she thought it was funny.  Not funny.

So that’s the big answer here.  Expose it.  Don’t tolerate it.  Stand up against it.


5. Communication

For more subtle ways of fixing the culture within your team, don’t be part of the background anger. That background anger builds and creates a negative vibe.  This means instead of yelling at the refs or coaching from the sideline, yelling at your kid from the bleachers, gossiping, talking about the coaches behind their back, you start being an open and honest communicator.  Communication is the absolute answer to this.  That’s it.  Communication.  Humans to humans.  These coaches are humans, they’re not evil… I hope.  Some people are, but most of them are not evil.  They’re human and they are just doing what they were taught.


See Eye-to-Eye

If you get on their level and you make eye contact with them, I do this with my three-year-old.  I can either say, “Stop doing that, stop doing that, stop doing that,” and she won’t, or I go, “Come here, let’s talk.”  I get on her level and I get eye-to-eye and I ask her, “What do you need?  What are you looking for?  What can I do for you?”  Half the time just melts and needs a hug, which obviously is not going to be how the coach works.  But this is how humans work.  If you’re yelling and pushing and gossiping and being negative then you’re not going to make any change.

However, if you are getting on the level with them and going, “Coach, I think we have the same goals.  We both want my daughter to be successful.  We both want this team to be great.  Here’s what I’m seeing and here’s what’s not working, and here are some thoughts I have on that.  What do you think?”  Just see what happens.  Get eye-to-eye, human to human, heart to heart, and let them know this is the type of culture in this sport that needs to change and you want to be part of the change.


Coach’s Responsibility

Now, here is the coach’s responsibility for anyone who’s a coach out there listening.  There’s a difference between being tough and having high expectations, expecting excellence, and being mean which degrades the spirit of the athlete, degrades your results, and degrades your success.  There is about 10 percent of kids who are lazy and don’t want to work and ride on talent, and 10 percent is generous here, that need that kick in the butt, that need to be told, “Get off your butt and go do a better one.”  Those kids thrive when they’re being pushed, but nobody thrives in a mean environment.  Nobody.

On top of that, 90 percent of kids are going to shut down if you tell them to get off their lazy butt when really they’re scared, they’re upset, they want to impress you, and they don’t know what to do.  They feel like they’re being chased by a tiger because they’re terrified of their coach, of failing, or of letting somebody down,  Or, they adore their coach and they so badly don’t want to fail.


Reacting When Disappointed

Here’s an example of a way to handle that situation.  I did this as a coach once.  I’ve told you in one of my live videos that a girl botched her tumbling pass at this travel meet.  We traveled a long way to watch her do it and then she didn’t even flip.  The other coach and I said, “You are such a disappointment.”

Oh, those words… the fact that those came out of my mouth is still so hard.  That was a big lesson for me because that was not okay.  Her mom went to the owner and said that was not okay, he said it wasn’t ok, I said it wasn’t ok, and I never did that again.


Remain Calm

Here’s how I would do that again.  This time, instead of your disappointment, or like this coach, “Nobody expects you to do well,” pull it together instead.  If I could go in there and do it, I would say, “Hey, take a walk.  I can see that you’re upset.  You just fell in bars and beam.  I wanted you to be able to do the routines like you did in practice.  Take a walk and come back in a minute.  We have a few minutes before we go to floor.”

When she comes back to floor, remind her, “Hey, you have a responsibility to cheer on your teammates.  Let’s focus on them.  Try to finish this meet up as well as you can.  We’ll talk more when we get back to the gym.”


Acknowledge Consequences

When you get to the gym, talk about the consequences.  Say to her, “You were gone the week before. This is a consequence of those choices.  There are tough choices in life.  Family weddings, they’re not really optional.  You had to go, you missed practice, and it showed, and that is a bummer.  Here’s what we can do.  Why don’t you come in an hour early, get done some conditioning and work a few routines on those events?  We’re going to get back in action.  Don’t worry, you have two weeks until the next meet.”


Tough, Not Mean

That is not you saying, “It’s fine.  Take time off.  I don’t care.  Fall if you want.”  That’s not what we’re looking for here.  You want to be tough because the coach’s job is to push the kid out of their comfort zone.  You say, “Yeah, that’s a consequence that happens when you make a choice like that. I know it wasn’t your choice to make.  I’m bummed for you.  We’re going to do our best to pull it together for the meet and we’re going to put it in a little extra effort on the side.  Then we’re going to get back in action and then we move forward.”


Hindsight is 20/20

If I could go back to that girl who I yelled at at that meet, I would look at her and say, “Oh shoot, okay.  Well, tumbling didn’t happen today.  Let’s get back to work when we get back to the gym.”  Easier said than done.

It is easier said than done because when we’re frustrated, we have all this ego on the line, and we’ve traveled and done all this training, and it didn’t work the way we wanted it to.  It doesn’t matter. These are humans we’re dealing with, with hearts and souls.  They are not little robot performers who have to be perfect.  These are lessons that we’re learning as coaches – the kids are learning and we just keep moving.  We do the best we can.


Open Up a Dialogue

When you get back in the gym you get tough again.  That’s the difference between when some kid goes up to you, coach, and says, “My ankle hurts,” and you say, “Oh, your ankle always hurts when we do this skill.  Go do it anyway.”  Instead, you open a dialogue with the child and their parent and say, “Hey, she’s been talking about her ankle hurting.  Why don’t you see about getting an appointment to get it checked out and then we’ll discuss from there.”


Get a Professional Opinion

Once you have a professional opinion that says, “You know what, she’s safe to tumble,” then you, the coach, can go, “I know that this skill is bugging you.  Let’s back it up a couple steps.  It seems like you’re hesitating.  Your confidence is low.  Why don’t you tumble on soft landing today and then we’ll get back to it tomorrow.  If it’s still bugging you, then make sure to wrap it and we’ll be in touch with the doctor.”

You know that’s the answer, not just, “You’re lying.  Go do it,” which is what way too many coaches would do in that situation.  That’s the goal.  The coaches should be tough.  They should have high expectations for their athletes.  Coaches should push you out of your comfort zone, and they should stress your mind and your body, but not beyond what recovery can allow.  Parents, it’s then your job to give them the recovery time.  Don’t talk about gymnastics in the car, don’t talk about skating in the car, let them recover emotionally and physically.  Let them recover because that’s the only way that that the stress will make them stronger.


Separate the Behavior from the Athlete

When you’re building muscle, you stress your muscles, and then they recover stronger.  He’s stressed your athlete and then they have to recover, but you don’t stress the emotional and the heart of the athlete by saying, “You are a disappointment.  You are no good.  You are a waste of space.” Instead, you go, “That behavior was not ideal.  What can we do to avoid that in the future?”  Very different vibe.  Critique the behavior and not the athlete


Be an Advocate

There’s a big task for us to do here, but parents, if your athlete is being abused emotionally, mentally, physically by their coach and any of those ways I mentioned or others even beyond, it’s your job to expose it.  We have to.  Instead of saying, “Well, I don’t want my kid to lose her dream because she got kicked out of this gym.”  Well, that’s a  tough decision that you get in with your kid.  Ask, “What are we going to do together?  Here’s what I want for you.  Safety, health, happiness, success.  How do we do that?  Is it going to be in a new environment or is it going to be able to be here?  If it’s going to be here, I’m going to stand up and I’m going to advocate for you because I love you.  I believe in you and this is not okay.”

I would love any feedback that you have – ways that you stood up to your coaches, ways that you’ve stood up to gym owners or coaches of other teams at competition’s, anytime that there is this abuse going on, expose it, expose it, expose it.  That’s our job.  It’s your job, my job, and it’s the kids’ job. We can’t let this keep going on

It’s always a pleasure to be here with you and I will see you again soon.  Thanks for joining me.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.