Simone Biles had been on top of the world long before she landed in Tokyo this summer. Not only were gold medals lining her resume, but many already considered Biles to be the preeminent gymnast of all time. No less than four of the sport’s maneuvers are named for the American phenomenon.
Going into the Summer Games, it would be easy to say from an outside perspective that everything Biles sacrificed and worked toward was worth it. After all, overcoming physical and mental demands is considered part of the territory for any athlete, let alone a world-class competitor.
But when “things didn’t go as planned,” as Biles describes her summertime experience, she opened a window into a part of the sports world not often discussed.
Stories of shocking betrayals of trust between coaches and athletes and their families have made headlines for years, most notably from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked Penn State and, more recently, news of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abusing athletes, including Biles, for years.
Yet the mental anguish many athletes feel is just as real as a form of abuse as the physical horrors. Biles, for her part, hinted at outside pressures convincing her to try to compete in Tokyo when her body and mind advised against it. When Biles found the inner strength to trust her instincts and bypass much of the grandest of all gymnastics meets, she became a role model in what is now revealing itself to be a new test for athletes’ rights.
“You are more than your medal,” Biles told the audience at Connect Sports 2021 in Tampa, Fla. “Your feelings matter.”
Legendary coaches like Bobby Knight, among many others, achieved great win-loss records while repeatedly and publicly demeaning players. It’s a stereotype for football coaches, in particular, to act as demagogues via yelling and screaming, withholding water and forcing teams to practice in severe heat to “toughen” them up.
Now, through the voices of Biles and others, the conversation may be turning toward finding a different, more positive, way to elicit elite performances. In October, the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League suspended a full slate of games to address a growing number of players describing verbal abuse. The league’s commissioner was dismissed, as were team executives.
“It is expected that you have to be really hard on someone to get high performance but that’s not necessarily true,” says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group CHILD USA. “That’s how a lot of coaches have gotten away with some really cruel behavior.”
Change appears in the offing, but not in time for the victims. The NWSL is back to playing games yet the damage can’t be repaired overnight. Biles joins the likes of Michael Phelps and others to publicly speak out promoting mental health. Their voices add a microphone to the groundwork being laid by several organizations dedicated to protecting athletes before they become future horror stories.
CHILD USA and the National Council of Youth Sports are among those educating associations, educational institutions, national governing bodies and parents about signs of danger. Research projects like white papers and new sets of best practices are being prepared, tackling both physical and mental abuse. Decades of mistreatment must be overcome, but there is a path forward.
“You have to think about change from a holistic perspective,” says NCYS Executive Director Wayne Moss. “There’s change at the individual level; there’s change that takes place at an organizational level; there’s change that happens at a community level; and then there’s change that also happens at a policy level. You have to pull all of those levers together at different times, but you have to pull all of those levers to ensure that there’s systemic change across the board.”
He adds, “There’s not a magic bullet.”
Hamilton stresses the importance of parents engaging with coaches and league organizers. “It’s not enough to drop off their kids; they need to be asking questions.”
In a USA Today op-ed piece, Hamilton laid out five fundamental aspects of youth sports that need specific monitoring:
- Background checks
- Codes of conduct
- Regular training of coaches, trainers, parents, etc., regarding sexual abuse
- Policies restricting adults from being alone with children
- Education on reporting abuse to authorities
Perpetrators tend to “groom parents,” as Hamilton describes it, to put their minds at ease so they can be one-on-one with the athletes.
“The real risk for children is when they are alone,” says Hamilton, noting Sandusky would stay in the same dorms with the children he violated during camps he held at Penn State. “There should always be two adults and no closed doors.”
The unmasking of coaches gone bad in court cases and news reports will make it harder for abuse to go unnoticed or not reported. Just as with other institutions, including churches and schools, abuse won’t be fully erased, but Hamilton is optimistic.
“We’ve turned a corner,” she says. “At this point, it’s going to be very hard to engage in those behaviors and nobody ever learns about it.”
Power of Positivity
Despite the ongoing discussions regarding trauma associated with sports, Hamilton and Moss remain champions of youth athletics.
Moss uses his experiences with his son as a case study. Moss thoroughly enjoyed watching his son compete and excel in wrestling and lacrosse at Greater Atlanta Christian School. Moreover, Moss knows that his son is a better person because of the lessons he learned on the mat and on the field.
“We all, and parents in particular, need to think of sports as a youth development tool that really provides young people with the opportunity to develop in a variety of ways,” he says.
Yes, scholarships will be won by many youngsters. Some will turn out to be Olympians like Biles. The question is how they will get there and at what price. Biles told the Connect audience that she felt more like a medal than a person for years heading to the Tokyo Games.
As youth step onto the arena of their choice, they can’t help but imagine golden moments. Hamilton says it’s up to the adults to help them find their way there in a healthy environment.
“That’s a dream for a lot [of kids] and we should want to support them, but not at the expense of their mental or physical health,” says Hamilton.
Photo Credit: Christie's Photographic Solutions