How to Leave a Toxic Gym Environment: Advice from Industry Experts
I recently had a parent reach out to me asking for advice around a toxic gym/coaching environment. She specifically wanted to know how to select a new gym and what questions to ask to make sure she doesn’t end up in the same situation. I offered her my two cents on the matter, but I wanted to go straight to the source. I asked three gym owners who are in high-quality, humans-first gyms for their suggestions. Here’s what they said:
Visit the Gym
Visiting the gym is a three-part process – visiting undercover, setting up a meeting with the owners/head coach, then trial practice.
1. Visiting Undercover
Visiting a gym undercover allows you to watch the team and the coaches without them feeling the pressure of someone watching. Here are some tips from Eric Van Der Meer* (Owner of San Francisco Gymnastics & Redwood Empire Gymnastics) on things to look out for:
- Tone of voice coach uses with their corrections – teacher voice vs. yelling
- How do coaches respond after a mistake or fail?
- Do the gymnasts get equal attention?
- Do coaches compliment effort or result?
Watch the practice all the way until the end. Pay attention – is there a debrief? What is the overall tone of the conversation? Watching a practice will help you get a good understanding of the overall vibe of the team and the gym environment.
2. Meeting with the Owner/Head Coach
Now that you’ve seen the gym and you’re still interested, the next step is to set up a meeting with the owner(s) and/or the head coach. Use this as an opportunity to ask about their philosophy, approach, and underlying values. Here are a few questions you can ask:
- What are your gym’s core values?
- What type of ongoing training do the coaches receive?
- How do you help athletes who are experiencing blocks?
- How do you feel about conditioning as punishment?
- What is your system for communication with parents/athletes?
- What is your policy on missed days, lessons, extra training, or outside camps?
- What is the policy on spotting athletes?
- How are move-ups decided?
- How do you handle injuries?
- What kind of ongoing training do coaches receive?
- How do you help athletes who are struggling with mental blocks? / Do you offer mental training to your athletes?
In addition to meeting with the gym owner/coaches, CEO Dave Tilley* of Shift Movement Science recommends asking if it’s ok to hang behind after practice and chat with some of the parents and athletes. If given permission, see what they think about the gym and about how things are done. Going straight to the source will help you understand the vibe of the gym and what you can expect.
Consider asking some questions that are important to you as a parent (i.e who do you go to when you’re experiencing issues with a coach?). Asking the hard questions now will help you make the decision to move gyms.
3. Trial practice
At this point, you’ve checked out the gym, spoken with coaches/owner, and decided that this just might be a good fit. I reached out to Owner of Unify Athletics, Vahid Moavenzadeh*, and they said this is a great time to see firsthand how it is working with the coaches, and vice versa. Take this opportunity to feel out the environment, get a sense of team dynamics, ask questions, and show off your skills!
Pay Attention to the Red Flags
Trust your instincts! I always tell the athletes I work with if at any point something doesn’t feel right, take note. Here are a few examples of what may raise a red flag:
- Blanket policies that lack flexibility based on individual needs, i.e gym-wide spotting policy
- Results first – If you notice a lot of talk surrounding a “winning” mentality, make sure they aren’t putting reputation over the health and safety of the athletes.
- SafeSport certification – The gym owners may say that they follow SafeSport protocols. If you want to be sure, go one step further and find out which coaches are SafeSport certified. Eric Van Der Meer* says, “…the downside of asking (the obvious) questions is that you probably get the socially acceptable answers that they know you want to hear. Of course they are gonna say that they are treating their athletes with respect. Of course they are saying that they will follow SafeSport protocol when you ask for it. So those conversations are always a little tricky and you have to be able to fish behind the net for the answers that you are looking for.”
When all is said and done, how your athlete feels when walking into the gym is going to make all the difference. He or she has experienced a toxic gym environment before and will know it when they see it again. You want your new gym to feel right – and that means you feel welcomed, safe, and supported. Don’t settle!
Worried that your athlete might be in an abusive training environment? Click here for a guide that will help you determine whether or not it’s abuse and should be reported.
*Dave Tilley, Owner – Shift Movement Science
*Vahid Moavenzadeh, Owner – Unify Athletics