USA Gymnastics, among RALIANCE’s grantees, is an organization with over 200,000 members and 50,000 coaches sprawled across 3,500 gymnastic clubs. While the organization’s widespread structure can create challenges to establishing uniform policies for abuse prevention, USA Gymnastics is tackling those challenges head on as part of the organization’s larger efforts to keep all forms of misconduct out of gymnastics.
“We want to stop all types of abuse in sport,” said Shelba Waldron, Director of Safe Sport Education and Policy at USA Gymnastics. “That’s why we’ve implemented rigorous policies to protect our gymnasts’ emotional and physical safety and well-being – and we will share what we learn with other sports organizations. We want to consistently be at the forefront of this space.”
We sat down with Waldron this week to discuss USA Gymnastics’ RALIANCE-supported effort to build a framework to create a better culture within gymnastics and across sport.
RALIANCE: Can you describe the effort at USA Gymnastics to prevent sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse?
Waldron: We view sexual violence prevention as part of a broader effort to prevent all types of abuse. It’s important to also address emotional and physical misconduct, as they lead to the silence that inhibits athletes from speaking out. Emotional abuse or disrespect for physical boundaries can ultimately lead to sexual abuse, so we need to address all of these at once. We’ve developed prevention policies – now supported by RALIANCE grant funding – that are focused on keeping our athletes safe in every context. Our goal is to build policies that empower local club owners to build a safer culture for everyone involved.
RALIANCE: How will you measure the success of your prevention policies?
Waldron: We have an online reporting system that gives us access to a significant amount of data, and we’ll be closely watching whether reports go up or down. What’s important to emphasize, though, is that we won’t just be looking for reports to go down, at least not in the short-term. In fact, an increase in reports could suggest that our athletes and those who care for them have a better understanding of how to file a report – and that would be a sign of progress. We want to demonstrate to our athletes and their parents that they don’t need to fear retaliation when they file a report, and that we’re here to support them. Of course, over the long-term we’ll be looking for policy violations to decline.
RALIANCE: Can you give us some examples of the most important policies?
Waldron: For starters, we have strict rules that limit one-on-one interactions between adult figures, such as coaches, and their athletes. Coaches have a huge degree of influence over our athletes, and the best way to ensure appropriate boundaries are maintained is to require that all interactions take place in open and interruptible environments with others nearby who can see what is going on.
For instance, a key part of our efforts is to make sure parents have the right to sit in on practices. For decades, parents have been excluded from many athletic environments, in large part because coaches wanted autonomy. This effectively created a relationship between coaches and athletes that parents had no awareness of. But we’ve changed this dynamic and opened the doors to parents so that they can observe. There’s no way to avoid all forms of physical contact between coaches and athletes in gymnastics – some degree of contact is integral to proper coaching. But a parental presence can help ensure physical boundaries don’t erode.
RALIANCE: What are some of the more unexpected considerations when working to prevent misconduct and abuse in an athletic setting?
Waldron: Abuse and the risk of abuse can reveal themselves in ways that many people might not expect, and we have to recognize and prepare for that. For example, we’ve established clear protocols to guide how and when athletes return from injury because we learned that abusive coaches will often override doctors’ recommendations. This can be a sign of their efforts to undermine other authorities in an athlete’s life and exert control, so we need to make sure that policies and training are in place to prevent this type of breach.
We also have to account for risks outside the coach-athlete relationship. For example, we can make our gymnastics clubs as safe as possible, but what about the parking lot? What can we do to ensure that our athletes are safe while they’re waiting to be picked up by their parents or walking to their cars to drive home? Preventing abuse is about challenging ourselves to think about all the environments that impact our community.
RALIANCE: What do you see as the most significant challenge to preventing abuse in gymnastics and in sports more generally?
Waldron: Sports can be an incredibly insular world, which means it can be hard to break cycles of abuse. Look at it this way – let’s say I’m a 22-year-old who has spent my entire life playing soccer, first as a child and then in high school and ultimately college. If I decide I want to become a soccer coach or own a soccer club, all I know about the world is how I’ve been coached and what my parents expected of me as an athlete. If those relationships have been toxic or abusive, I’m not very likely to exhibit much better behavior, so the cycle can continue.
We need to build a different model. That takes implementing new, better policies and prevention training, but it also requires making sure that coaching philosophies are built on the holistic development of athletes as individuals. Even the best athletes are not solely athletes. We need to be open to and encourage them to have relationships outside of their sport. That means supporting them having strong relationships with family, with teachers, with other members of their community. Abuse thrives when the vulnerable are isolated and have nowhere to turn. Opening up the sports world is critical to ensuring sports have a better, healthier future.
RALIANCE provides consulting, assessment, and employee development services to help build more equitable workplace cultures and create environments free from sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. We stand ready to support your organization’s goals – contact us today at [email protected] to get started.