Athletes

Sports Abuse: Not All Pain Leads to Gain

I’ve been working on this sports book project for over seven years. I have tried to identify the personal places I need to grow and some of what I’ve worked through has been tough to process. I have avoided thinking or writing about this one…until now.

I am proud of my sports story. I played four years as a Division I soccer player and a year as a Division III basketball player. I achieved recognition in both sports. It is only recently I have been forced to contend with the fact that how I accomplished what I did wasn’t really all that good. There was a lot of pain for that gain, and more than there should have been.

Generally, I pay attention to those things that strike a nerve with me. A pain-filled nerve was struck for me three times in the past ten days and I need to attend to the thoughts that have emerged.

Last week, a friend of mine shared that her daughter had suffered intensely over the winter months of her sport season. The coach was emotionally abusive, but no one wanted to deal with it because the team was winning. It is a difficult position for kids and families to be in. Their choice is to endure the abuse for the sake of the team or stand up for your personal right to health and safety. I always chose the team. Most athletes do. Athletes are encouraged to put team above self and very rarely does anyone consider how potentially damaging that decision can be. Those who stay engaged beyond discomfort, working through humiliation or physical punishment, are lauded and celebrated. Toleration of coach emotional abuse is a complicated issue, but it is high time we begin conversations to change destructive coaching tendencies.

The second thought-provoking instance happened on Facebook. I commented on a shared article post about how NFL coach Mike McCarthy yelled at refs after his kid’s basketball game. I commented that he likely has emotional issues he needs to attend (as does every yelling parent everywhere) and a commenter argued that she was glad she played in a time when coaches were allowed to yell at kids because it made her resilient and tough.

Yelling coaches also made me tough and resilient, for sure. It was my only defense. This instance, however, McCarthy was in the role of a dad. The commenter forgets that a dad’s behavior, even when that dad happens to be a coach, opens an entirely different box of emotional fireworks for his kids.

My drunk and yelling dad certainly contributed to my determination. He was the fuel for my angry energy. His abuse, although explicable, should never have been excused, yet I chalked it up as something that just happens for some fans at sporting events. Too many people say the same thing.

I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of my alcoholic father, a number of times in connection to basketball memories specifically, but I forgive him. I forgive him for yelling at referees during games because he was battling his own demons. I forgive him for drinking four beers in fifteen minutes before driving me and a teammate home from a game he coached because I know he wanted the withdrawal-shaking to stop. I forgive him for showing up drunk at the hospital because I too found it a little overwhelming that I broke both my arm and my leg in one fall. I forgive him for standing me up when he told me he would take me to dinner after a college game and I forgive him for missing my senior season in college because he was in jail.

I forgive him, but I continue to be affected by how those memories shaped me.

I thought I had completely moved past my emotional abuses, and in relation to my dad I’m doing pretty well. I also had pretty decent coaches growing up and aside from one horrific conditioning night, as punishment for an irretrievable season, I wouldn’t say I was abused by coaches.

Coming to terms with the part I played in tolerating and perpetuating my own abuse, however, has been harder to work through.

The third nerve-strike happened when my husband and I were watching an ESPN 30 for 30 show last week about professional wrestler Ric Flair (AKA Nature Boy). I was riveted. He wrestled for forty years. Each day he would abuse his body on the mat and then he would drink five cocktails and ten beers at night. Every. Single. Night. His son was on the same trajectory of becoming a professional wrestler and a raging alcoholic, when he overdosed on drugs and died. Flair’s daughter is now wrestling on the professional circuit, in honor of her brother. I couldn’t turn off the program and I couldn’t get the story off my mind.

I recognized the tendencies, the addiction, and the dysfunctional drive. The question that then arrived was “Can an Athlete Self-Abuse?”

It seems like I should have known the answer to that already. Obviously they can. There are eating disorders, addiction to exercise, and toleration of abuses that should never be tolerated. I’ve recognized self-abuse in others, yet I hadn’t ever turned the mirror to acknowledge that I too abused myself in the name of sport.

You would think it would be easy to write that, “I was abused in sport”, but it’s not easy to admit. The thing is, my abuse was subtle, never criminal, and, disturbingly, mostly at my own hands.

I achieved recognition for playing and I prided myself on the highest level of sacrifice in that pursuit. The thing is, I had no clue what I was pursuing. No one asked me my long term goals and I know for a fact I couldn’t have offered one had they inquired.

Without a doubt, I battled with RED-S Syndrome starting in high school and all four years of college. It is an energy deficiency complication that affects all systems of the body, including the psychological aspects of performance. It was not diagnosed while I was an athlete, but all the evidence is there. I didn’t start my period until after I turned 16, I broke two bones in one fall, I was diagnosed with anemia in college, and I spent more time in the training room than I did on the field.

In spite of injury after injury in college and lackluster performance after puberty, I kept at it. I was tough, resilient, and gritty. I wanted to prove to the world and to myself that I was above my circumstances. I was stronger than anything that might have made me feel shameful and I could prove it. It seemed like a constructive mindset at the time, but in conjunction with everything else I hadn’t taken the time to analyze, this was not my healthiest time.

I tolerated practically anything. I put up with: sexist weight room attendants and coaches, whispers of icky sexual advances by gymnastics coaches, rumors of players sleeping with coaches, having to talk a coach out of his “funk” because he was distraught our 16-year-old captain wasn’t paying enough attention to him, driving a van full of college teammates, as a freshman, back from Nebraska at 90-miles an hour because the hungover assistant coach couldn’t drive, driving 45 minutes one way to coach for my childhood club even though I passed five other clubs along the way, accepting the emergency hire position to replace an emotionally abusive coach, agreeing to clean up his mess even though I had three children under the age of five and I had no aspirations of being a college coach. There is a lot more, but you get the idea.

I was the punchbag clown that kept popping back up after being beaten down in order to prove I could take anything that came my way. I must have thought I deserved to be injured or hurting practically all the time.

My work with this book project, including my relationship with sport and finding healthful ways for our family to navigate sports, I am convinced there are healthier ways to engage.

There is a difference between grit and self-abuse.

Self-abuse is behavior that causes damage or harm to oneself.

The definition of grit that resonates most with me comes from Cindra Kamphoff’s book Beyond Grit: Ten Powerful Practices to Gain the High-Performance Edge. She writes, “The leaders I see kill it know their goals, know why they are pursuing their goals, and keep going despite setbacks and adversity. Without understanding why you want to achieve your goals, it is almost impossible to stay devoted in your pursuit.”

As a high school and college athlete, I didn’t have goals or a clear idea of why I was pursuing them. I just knew sports kept me busy, afforded me recognition and success, and was the proof I could offer the world that I was worth something.

Healthy athletes have goals and clear boundaries. They know what exercises strengthen them and what exercises hurt them. They realize they need to push muscles through micro-tears to make them stronger, but they don’t push hard enough to inflict harm or injury.

If you haven’t had conversations with your children or your athletes about goals and boundaries, it is time.

Ask these questions:

What are your athletic goals? What are the ways you are pushed too far past your emotional boundaries?

Keep in mind, stretch and challenge is what grows you, but pushing too far can damage you. It is a fine line.

Emotional abuse is “making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need.” In the context of sports emotional abuse plays on fear of not achieving a place on the team, playing time, or opportunities at the next level. That fear can be imposed upon an athlete or it can be internally driven.

Where is the line between challenging a kid and crushing him?

Where is the line between pushing a kid and paralyzing her?

Where is the line between internal grit and self-abuse?

The answers to those questions are unique and different for everyone. Part of why coaches avoid the “emotions” conversation with teams is because it’s exhausting to imagine addressing the emotional needs of each and every athlete. There is not a playbook that can be shared or X’s and O’s that make sense in the emotional world. Each athlete’s emotional needs and journey are theirs alone and it is difficult to appropriately navigate that journey but oh-so-necessary.

Sports Abuse is real. There is physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuses happening consistently by coaches, parents and by the athletes themselves. Since we have our kids in sports for their health and well-being, and as exhausting as this work is going to be, it’s time to pursue the complete health and well-being for people who show up to take part in sports, and work to end the abuses we’ve let run rampant for way too long.

Copyright 2019 Meagan Frank

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