Picture this. You’re a five or six year old girl, watching athletes compete at the Summer Olympics. You’re suddenly captivated by a sport– let’s say it’s women’s gymnastics. You decide you want to try to be a gymnast, too. Your parents oblige and take you to a gym, where you start learning the basic elements of your new sport. It turns out you’re good at gymnastics, and the skills come easily for you. You progress quickly, and soon surpass the skills of other little girls who were also in your basic class. You are delighted that you found a sport you thrive in, as you shoot ahead of your peers and practice longer and harder in more advanced classes. Most of all, gymnastics is FUN! A gymnast is born!
After about twelve years of practicing, competing, conditioning, denying yourself basic pleasures, and spending a lot of money, you’re good enough for a shot at the Olympics. Maybe you make the team. Maybe you don’t. But you do well enough that you get recruited to a top NCAA team at a major university. They give you a full scholarship just to do what you naturally excel at and love. Your parents are so proud of you. People in your community look up to you. You’re a winner, and can hold your head high for being a star in a very demanding and dangerous sport. Great story, right?
Unfortunately, many gymnasts who outwardly seem to be living the reality I just described, are feeling like anything but winners. I’ve already written about some of them in this blog, but today I want to focus on a news article I happened to see on my Facebook feed this morning. It was about University of Utah gymnast Kara Eaker, who has just announced her retirement from women’s gymnastics after two years of competing for the Utes. Eaker is a two-time All American athlete at the university, but according to a recent post on her Instagram account, she’s had enough and has decided to quit. Below is her statement:
The article indicated that Ms. Eaker was experiencing serious mental health issues due to verbal abuse she received from the coach. She did not feel supported or valued as a contributor to the team, especially when her coach said things like “What the hell is wrong with you? What the fuck are you doing? You better get your shit together!” and the ever popular “Pull your head out of your ass!”
Gee. I can’t understand why Kara Eaker didn’t feel motivated and supported after hearing that kind of stuff coming from a coach who was supposed to be inspiring her to do her best. I know I want to perform when someone verbally rips me to shreds and tears me down when I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. /sarcasm
I will never understand why some people think that yelling, swearing, and threatening people– particularly gifted athletes, scholars, musicians, or otherwise talented folks– is going to inspire them to do better. When someone is mean and hateful to me, it just makes me want to shrink into a ball and die somewhere. I don’t have the self-confidence to try again or learn from my mistakes. I think I can’t do what I’ve been tasked to do and I want to quit. And sadly, although it’s very clear that Kara can and has succeeded as a gymnast, quitting is what she feels she must do to protect her own well being.
What’s especially sad, though, are the victim blaming comments, mostly from people who can’t so much as do a somersault. It always shocks me when men weigh in on women’s gymnastics, especially if someone quits. It’s as if any of these dudes have a clue as to what women gymnasts can do, the dangers they face, or the hardships they endure so they can be good at their sport and, most likely, give these guys a thrill in their shorts. Below are a few unedited examples of the negative comments regarding Ms. Eaker’s valid decision to stop tolerating verbal and emotional abuse from her coach:
“Maybe she should try a less stressful sport such as knitting or ceramics.“
“No. It’s the new generation of pro-terrorist, smooth minded, tootsie roll winning, week minded, can’t accept no, children.”
“Maybe she should walk across the “U” campus and talk to Bryson Barnes and ask him”:
“How did you grow up on a pig farm, attend my same school without a scholarship, work at Lowe’s after practices, have your job taken from you numerous times, get chewed up and down from the coaching staff, be criticized in the media, and then go out and beat the Heisman Trophy winner on national television?“
“There are so many people complaining of abuse, it weakens the real cases. I don’t know enough about this to know if it’s real abuse or hurt feelings. I hope they give everyone a fair chance to be heard.” (I’d love to know what constitutes a “real case” of abuse in this person’s mind.)
“That’s just horrible!! Hopefully she won’t be pushed to be better ever again..and is able to live in a safe space the rest of her life.“
“getting cursed at is the worst! Gee wiz“
“what under the rug exactly? Her complaint is that coaches yelled at her during practices. What on earth is the university suppose to fix? Tell the coaches to not coach?“
“appalling? What? A coach yelling at a player to do better? Maybe it would not be appropriate to yell at 6 year olds but we are talking about a full grown adult in a major college. The coaches were literally trying to make her better by coaching her. Yes they were coaching her hard. Nothing more…. nothing less. That’s part of sports. She should have humble herself, tried harder, learned, and become a better gymnast. That’s the whole point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that she had the grit to be great. No one is sweeping anything under the rug. In fact, I would use this situation as a selling point to future talented and ambitious athletes that the UoU will coach you up and not allow you to be stuck in mediocrity.“
“no you are wrong. Have a gymnast daughter and if you are a good parent you let them know coaches will yell a lot and loudly. It’s to make you better. If you are too soft to handle that then get out of sport. She seems to be too immature for aspects of it. Yes she’s a medalist but obviously she’s lacking now – this the yelling. These athletes now wanting to be coddled is mind blowing.“
“Everyone on earth suffers some sort of emotional abuse or verbal abuse every day“
“she’s an adult. And honestly that is how all coaching is. It works and if you can’t handle it then quit – like she did. It’s on her“
Really? So coaching is all about someone yelling at another person in an attempt to inspire them to do better? It’s really fine for a coach to be cursing at an athlete? This same person, when asked if she would accept yelling and cursing from a boss wrote:
“It’s coaching. Maybe you don’t have kids in competitive sports but it’s how it is. You can’t be coddled and babied into a great athlete. These coaches who yell – which is not verbal abuse- are also the same coaches who cheer you on and celebrate your accomplishments. You learn to deal with the yelling from a coach who cares and it helps you deal with yelling from others who don’t care that will trip you up. It’s called learning to manage the stress of sports,”
The person who left the above comment, name of Tammy, is not exactly in top physical form herself. I decided to creep on her profile, just to see what she’s on about. I see her cover photo consists of six photos of a very lovely young woman. I am assuming it’s her daughter. Oddly enough, I see she’s from Sanford, North Carolina, which is where I used to live. Now she lives in Texas. It’s obvious that she loves her daughter very much, as there are many public pictures of her all over her Facebook account.
I wonder how Tammy would like it if someone told her pretty young daughter to pull her head out of her ass and get her shit together? In one of her photos, she and her daughter are sharing an obviously heartfelt embrace. They look like they love each other very much. Does Tammy think it’s okay to curse at people she loves? Is it okay for other people to curse at her daughter?
A person can be a successful coach without engaging in verbal abuse. When someone starts cussing in anger at another person, especially one who has less power than they have, they are engaging in verbal abuse. And yelling at someone in anger, not because you’re trying to be heard, is also verbal abuse. Sorry, Tammy, but yelling isn’t constructive at all. Not surprisingly, I see Tammy is a Trumper, too. Figures.
According to PsychCentral:
Melissa Barsotti, a licensed clinical social worker from Carlsbad, California, explains verbal abuse can be incredibly harmful, especially when experienced in early development.
“Verbal abuse is meant to belittle, humiliate, and psychologically harm an individual,” she says. “Verbal abuse often is manifested as derogatory language, usage of curse words or threats, and use of a harsh tone or voice.”
So, having someone call you an idiot, ask you what the “fuck” you’re doing, threatening you by saying you’d “better” get your head out of your ass (or else what?), and saying everything in a harsh tone of voice certainly is verbal abuse. And excusing the coach by claiming Kara Eaker is an adult and should be able to handle angrily delivered criticism is bullshit. I would hope the coach is an adult, too, and can handle his emotions without resorting to shouting, threatening, and swearing at athletes. I expect ADULTS– especially professional coaches– to have that much self-control and regard for the athletes they seek to mentor.
It sounds like Kara Eaker has experienced the consequences of being verbally abused by her coach. She’s dealt with PTSD, depression, night terrors, insomnia, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and anxiety. These are real, debilitating, serious symptoms that can make gymnastics especially dangerous. These young women who are tumbling through the air off of balance beams, vault, and uneven parallel bars need to believe in themselves and their abilities to succeed. Their physical safety and well-being, perhaps even their lives, depend on having the confidence to perform. Having a coach treat you like you’re nothing, call you degrading names, threaten you, and bark at you constantly is not conducive to developing confidence.
Eaker continued, according to the Deseret News:
“The abuse often happened in individual coach-athlete meetings. I would be isolated in an office with an overpowering coach, door closed, sitting quietly, hardly able to speak because of condescending, sarcastic and manipulative tactics,” she wrote.
“… I was personally attacked, humiliated, degraded and yelled at to the point of tears in front of the whole team. Instead of receiving positive and encouraging critiques to improve my skills, I was scared to death by the loud and angry outbursts from the coach,” Eaker continued. “When a male coach suddenly erupts with anger and physically slams down mats and gets up in an athlete’s face as a tactic to intimidate them, it’s impossible to have the confidence to speak up for yourself.”
Eaker alleges that when she went to the administration at the University of Utah to report the “emotional abuse and verbal attacks, as well as request support” she was “completely dismissed.”
“One administrator denied there was any abuse and said, ‘You two are like oil and water, you just don’t get along,’ To say I was shocked would be an understatement and this is a prime example of gaslighting. So therein lies the problem — the surrounding people and system are complicit.” Eaker wrote.
Well… it sounds like Kara Eaker has made the best decision for herself. Maybe she can transfer to another program, if she wants to do that. Or maybe it would be better for her to move on to her next passion in life. I hope she can eventually enjoy some of the good that came from her years as a top gymnast who was an alternate to the women’s gymnastics team at the Tokyo Olympics and a gold medalist on the World Championship team in 2018 and 2019. She’s already proven she’s an incredible athlete and a world class gymnast, and she still has her whole life ahead of her. I’m glad she’s speaking up, and I hope her comments and complaints will be seriously addressed, for the good of those who will follow her in her sport.
People can successfully coach sports and not scream, belittle, threaten, curse, and otherwise abuse their athletes. The fact that Kara Eaker was such a highly regarded gymnast is what’s “all on her”, not that she’s finally had enough of her coaches berating her.
Kara Eaker is already a champion. She doesn’t have to prove anything to obtuse individuals who think verbal abuse from coaches or anyone else is constructive, especially when sports are supposed to be fun. I have every expectation that Kara will now go on to be a champion in another arena of life. She has already proven she knows when to quit, and that’s a big step in the right direction.