The Darker Side of Competitive Sports
At this point in time, most people have heard of the of the recent conviction of former USAG team physician, Larry Nassar, on hundreds of counts of sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. The level of abuse that was endured by hundreds of athletes over the course of decades is appalling, and terrifying. The case has raised major concerns in gymnastics clubs, collegiate sports organizations, and school sports throughout the country. How did Nasser’s abusive behavior go on for so long completely undetected? What other types of abuse are our young athletes enduring to achieve their dreams? What can be done to stop athlete abuse in the future?
Why is Abusive Behavior Often Overlooked in Competitive Sports?
In the world of competitive sports, it’s not uncommon for verbal, mental, and even physical abuse to go on overlooked or unrecognized, and in some cases, ignored. Why is this? I imagine it has something to do with the “win at all costs” mentality of competitive sports. I imagine it has to do with the mindset that whiners don’t want to win badly enough or aren’t team players. Here are a few other reasons I believe abuse in competitive sports is often overlooked.
- “Coaches are supposed to be tough”: Often when an athlete complains about a coach being unfair or mistreating them, they are met with the response that, “coaches are supposed to be tough”. The problem is, there is a glaring difference between tough and abusive and sometimes parents, coaches, and gymnasts all need to be educated on where those lines are.
- “I didn’t want to ruin my chances of winning”: At all levels of competitive sports, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to win. Many athletes are afraid that if they come forward with allegations of abuse of any kind, their athletic career will be negatively impacted.
- “I thought everyone went through this”: A lot of athletes who believe they are experiencing abuse in one way or another don’t speak up because they believe that it’s part of the process. They see or hear about their teammates enduring similar treatment, so they figure everyone must go through it.
At the highest levels of competitive sports, the pressure to be tough, obedient, and perfect, is immense. Athletes want to please their parents, their coaches, their teammates. They want to be selected for national training and team opportunities. This high performance, high pressure environment offers the perfect environment for abuse to go on undetected or overlooked. It is critical for adults at all levels are talking to child athletes to let them know the difference between tough coaching and abuse. Child athletes also need to be repeatedly reminded that it is okay to speak up when something seems off - just because teammates are experiencing similar treatment, doesn't necessarily mean that treatment is okay.