In the last few years, information about sexual abuse on the US Olympic Gymnastic’s Team came out to the world. Listening to the reports, hearing these stories, their experiences teach us about sexual abuse and predatory adults. Their story gives information on how to protect our children and what people who have experienced this type of trauma feel. Their courage to uncover these crimes promotes healing by showing others they are not alone. But questions remain. Can we prevent this from happening again?

The Problem With Gymnastics

Years ago, I lived in Houston and heard about the Karolyi’s program. Their abusive practices were well known in my community and I was not a gymnast or even an athlete. I assumed their position as coaches had been limited due to the reported extreme emotional abuse and encouragement of anorexia in their program. This made me hopeful for girls in all sports. It was the 1990s. I was so uninformed. Apparently, they became the premier coaches in 2000, with what sounds like ultimate authority on the US Olympics Program.

For those of you who don’t know, the specifics, great articles abound to give them. As I would just be quoting them anyway, here is a link to one of the most comprehensive articles I’ve read. Please read it as it gives a great summary on what happened to so many aspiring Olympians and it also allows you to see the major points I want to make. The procedures and the program made it almost inevitable for abuse to occur.

Spotting The Issues: Procedures Limited Parent Involvement

Limited Parental Roles

First, the policies and procedures of the USA Gymnastics limited parental roles. Coaches identified children early and then, if the child wanted to advance, gave the parents strict instructions to obey. The Karolyis and US Gymnastics gave few choices to the parents about coaches, training facilities, and schedules. Children did not have contact with their parents during some of the most intense training. At meets, coaches limited contact between parents and children, and when they did have contact, coaches monitored and commented on it.

When the people who are most interested in the longterm happiness and health of a child are marginalized, children are hurt. Families provide attention, focus, and knowledge needed to identify the subtleties of grooming and emotional abuse in their child. This vital role of the family can’t be taken over by others. And if a child sees their parent as under the authority of someone else, helpless to assist them, or worse, too distant to be contacted or trusted, children can be hurt. Once issues are identified, outside people can help, but the best outcomes include parents and reports from home.

Limited Parental Information

Second, USA Gymnastics gave parents few choices and little information. The parents information about training likely did not include their daughter’s lack of appropriate food and attention at the Karolyi’s training camp. They were most likely not informed that the only doctor allowed to treat the girls was unlicensed in the state where he was practicing. And from the accounts I read, good informed consent about the procedures and practices he was using were not given to either the parents or the children. And regardless of any of this, there were no choices if they wanted to compete on the world stage as an American.

As a woman, gynecological exams are extremely stressful and confusing events for adult women. Learning the rules-when the doctor examines you, a nurse should be in the room, what is a normal part of the procedure and all the other things that should be common place–takes time and good informed consent as well. I believe that the actual postures in these procedures reduce a person’s ability to use their voice. Have you ever had to set a boundary while naked and in stirrups? It is extremely difficult. And some doctors have poor manners. Where is the line between poor manners [talking to you about your professional life while sitting between your legs] and actual abuse or inappropriate treatment? Keeping those experiences in mind while thinking of a parent watching a doctor perform exams on my daughter after a pelvic injury, I could not have identified the abuse. A nurse could have. A nurse observer might have seen what Nassar was doing and been able to report it. But in these situations, it appears that he did not have a nurse observer most of the time and he was hiding what he was doing from parents.

System Closed to Outsiders

Third, US Gymnastics discouraged outside contact with healthcare providers and did internal investigations prior to notifying appropriate government investigators. Coercion to not speak about obvious problems like injuries, poor living conditions, and lack of food pervaded the entire program. These girls believed they would lose status after voicing concerns over injuries. This led directly to keeping quiet about their less obvious concerns. And no one outside the organization gave them a voice inside the organization.

So what was my reaction to this story of sexual abuse?

As a trauma therapist

As a woman and a therapist for women who have experienced trauma, I read this for clues on how to use this story to support recovery, healing and prevent future abuse. Standing amazed at what occurred, the abuse and then the actual trial holding Nassar accountable for what he did, I can only hope our legal system and society will change. Working with the traumatized women, ones who have lost so much to sexual abuse, the power of the gymnasts who admitted and talked about their abuse amazes me. It is a rare thing for us to be able to articulate abuse clearly, powerfully, over and over, and in public. I hope more women will talk publicly about how their abuse occurred so more people will learn how to prevent it and how widespread it is. Also, so others will not feel so alone in their abuse. They inspire me.

As a parent

As a parent, I read this story to determine if I would have understood the danger my daughter was in. With hindsight and with the special experiences and training I have, I hope I would have seen the red flags. But would it have been enough for us to give up on the dream of the Olympics? Would I have held my daughter back from a possible once in a lifetime achievement in a sport she loved? I know it would be an agonizing decision and if I didn’t have the training I do, I might have thought I could protect her.

But watching the structures that provided him with the opportunity to do what he did continue, I despair that change will actually happen for our gymnasts. It was not just Nassar who abused those children, it was the system which allowed him the access and protection to abuse these children. And our society is not moving toward giving parents more information and more choices. And sexual abuse in high level sports is not limited to gymnastics. Reports of assaults by Olympic coaches in Tae Kwon Doh have also come out. And many of us have stories about sports figures in our schools who used their influence and power inappropriately. In sports, the movement towards more coaching and more authority by outside adults, continues to grow. In education, movements to limit parents’ input continues. Our society puts more and more power over our children into the hands of institutions for sports and education each year. Add to that the movements to give children more control over their own lives, at younger and younger ages, and you have a recipe for unsafe, easily manipulated children. Parents are most the people most invested in the longterm happiness and success of our children.

What can I do with this now?

Watch for certain red flags in people and programs that indicate unsafe environments. Identify these red flags before your child gets involved to help make educated choices before the emotions set in.

  • When a child reports a feeling, do the coaches acknowledge and react appropriately?
  • If a child is hungry or thirsty, are they shamed for their request?
  • Are parents able to attend and participate fully in all events?
  • Do the trainers, doctors, coaches have adequate training and valid licenses in their field?
  • Do these adults show knowledge of how to spot and protect their students from manipulation, coercion, and sexual assault?
  • Can parents observe the coaches behavior and words during practice?
  • Are there times when minors practice/work out with limited supervision? Appropriate supervision is always 2 adults.
  • What are the policies of the program when allegations are made?

    Christy Graham LPC Supervisor Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. Licensed in 2001, she specializes in therapy for children under 12. She also provides training for those who work with and love these youngsters.

Child Sexual Abuse is a complex, emotional topic. I’ve been working with children and women who have experienced this type of trauma for over 17 years. Acorn provides a safe place to talk about your reactions to these stories. Do you run a program that includes kids? Acorn can help you train your employees to spot issues and set up appropriate procedures to protect yourself and the children you serve.

Call me. I can help you, your program, your family, your staff. You don’t have to figure this all out by yourself. 940-222-8703


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