I was 5 when I was introduced to the sport of gymnastics. I don’t remember much about my first day in the gym, but something must have happened inside my little body to make me love and desire it for the rest of my life.

Gymnastics is a sport that takes a certain type of personality. Gymnasts must have an impeccable work ethic, crave perfection, have a love/hate relationship with fear, and the ability to push their bodies past the point of perceived limitations.

Gymnasts put in hundreds of hours of work preparing for the opportunity to put themselves on a stage to have every aspect of their performance watched, scrutinized, picked apart,  and judged, and yet, gymnasts wouldn’t want it any other way.

Gymnastics is like being in an unfair relationship, it takes way more than it gives back to the gymnast, and whatever it needs from us gymnasts, we give it. When it does give back, it gives us feelings that reach straight into our souls. The little tastes of success are enough to keep us working, and get us addicted.

I needed gymnastics, I needed to feel the highs of catching my first release move and the lows of mistakes and falls. I craved for the emotional rollercoaster and gymnastics never failed to give that to me everyday I walked into the gym.

I was willing to give anything to gymnastics and I was willing to give everything. My addiction had me focused mostly on my immediate gratification. As long as I could perform my skills, I was willing to ignore the advice from my Doctor. When my Doctors told me to take time off of gymnastics to heal, I didn’t. I pushed myself and worked in pain, and when I could’t handle the pain, I begged the Doctor to help. I begged for something to help ease my pain and so against my Doctors advice, I made them give me Cortisone shots in my ankles and wrists.

At the end of my career, my Doctor made me sign waivers that stated I understood that there could be long term damage from the shots and my Doctor advised me against the treatment. I had no problems signing the waivers, I never thought about the future of my body, I only cared about being able to do gymnastics with less pain.I knew my gymnastics was more important than my body.

Gymnasts have this mentality of; Whatever I need to do, I will do it. We know gymnastics is difficult and we want it to be difficult. Whatever is put in our path, we accept it, and do it. We don’t ask questions.

There wasn’t much I wouldn’t do to make the Olympics. When I needed to lose a little weight, I took the cheap and easy way out. Bulimia was my little secret. I was Bulimic for about a year and a half before the Olympics. I only threw up after I knew I ate too much, I still had energy for my workouts and routines, and I always thought of my Bulimia as something that I needed to do to achieve my goal. It was a small price to pay to be thin.

About six months before the Olympics someone caught me. I was confronted by this adult and they told me that they knew. I remembered being terrified, I didn’t want to be put in treatment or therapy, I didn’t have time to worry about my eating disorder. I had the Olympics to focus on, and I really didn’t have time to deal with anything more.

This adult told me that they knew about my eating disorder and they said, “Just don’t do it too much.”

I was so relieved that they didn’t want to send me to treatment or therapy. I knew that I would miss out on my chance on being an Olympian. This was exactly the response I wanted. I shook my head and promised not to do it too much, and walked away in relief.

To me, Bulimia was something I was willing to sacrifice for the chance of my dreams. I was never upset at this adult for not doing more or forcing me to go into therapy. I was fine with their passive and non confronitiatal advice on my disorder. I knew that they didn’t want to ruin my dream, and they didn’t want to be the one who spoke up and destroyed the 14 years of training I devoted my childhood to. They understood the Cult Culture of Gymnastics and so did I.

What message did that send to me? Was Gymnastics more important that an eating disorder? Was Gymnastics more important than Me?

This may seem inconceivable now, but this is not uncommon with this cult culture thinking in gymnastics, and it isn’t just gymnasts that are drinking the Kool-Aid.

The cult culture of Gymnastics convinces gymnasts that there is nothing more important than their gymnastics. This thinking creates a mindset of knowing that they will sacrifice, they will abide, they will do what they are told, they will always come second, and they will only be valuable if they succeed.

 It convinces parents to turn a blind eye to questionable coaches, misconduct, overtraining, or allowing their children to be mistreated. The parent who watches the coach punish their child with 12 rope climbs, 3 minute handstands, 1 hour of running laps, or spending an entire workout on beam, knows something isn’t right, but they allow it to happen.

This cult culture of thinking extends to coaches as well. If they must yell, harass, punish, embarrass, belittle, or bully their gymnasts to get results, they will. Their mindset is “This is what the gymnasts need to achieve their goals. They come to me as a coach, because they know I get results. If it works, It must be right.”

The gymnasts are willing to sacrifice, and they are willing to be mistreated or abused to achieve their goals. Many times they don’t even know they shouldn’t be abused. The parents watch their children be harassed, punished, embarrassed, belittled, or bullied by the coach, and they are willing to overlook this treatment to let their child achieve their dreams. The parents become accustomed to the cult culture thinking that this is how phenomenal gymnasts are made, so they let it happen.

If the parents let this happen, it must be okay. The abuse must be needed for success. The success must be important.

We must get out of this cult!

As a gymnastics community, do we look out for the wellbeing of the gymnast, the child? Do we look the other way when we see parents put gymnastics before their kids? Do we walk away when we see coaches use harsh and borderline abusive coaching techniques? Do we accept this as just a part of coaching? Do we justify this behavior as just the way things are done? Or do we do more?

Gymnastics was more important than me. My performance was more important than me. The Olympics was more important that ANYTHING. I was fine with this thinking, but who was looking out for me?

When the gymnasts, parents, coaches, and the gymnastics community send the message that gymnastics is more important then the wellbeing of the gymnast, what happens when gymnastics is over. When everyone is watching and cheering for a successful outcome, who is left to watch out for their wellbeing?

Where do we draw the line? When is too much, too much? When do we stand up for ourselves and what is right?

It is easy to see how gymnastics has not gotten to this point of abuse all by itself, we have let it slip through out hands into a cesspool of skewed thinking. We have let ourselves be blinded by the dreams of success rather than understand the ramifications of our decisions. We all sacrificed way more than we needed to for gymnastics.

The bottom line is that NOTHING is more important than the health of a child. No skills, routine, meet, medal, or trophy is more important than the child. Gymnastics will end one day, then what will the gymnast, coach, and parents be left with?

We must stand together as a gymnastics community and demand change. We must look at the parents and ask them why they allow their kids to be harassed, punished, embarrassed, belittled, or  bullied by their coach? We must look at the coaches and ask them why they want to send the message to their gymnasts that their performance is more important than their health? We must look to the gymnasts and tell them that they are so much more than gymnasts.

We must do better. Gymnastics is not life, it is only a sport.

For more information on Mental Training or Advice from 1992 Olympian Wendy Bruce, wendy bruce blue shirtvisit the website www.psyched4sports.com. Also check out Amazon.com for her book, Breaking Through a Mental Block.