Using a multilevel model to critically examine the grooming process of emotional abusive practices in women’s artistic gymnastics

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The existence and promotion of youth sport has often been based on various assumptions about its value and role in society. Youth sport is assumed to be a site where pleasure/enjoyment, physical and social development, and learning to perform and win are emphasised (Coakley &. Pike, 2014; Singer, 2004). Fun and pleasure are assumed to form the basic values underlying youth sport. This fun and pleasure is enhanced when children learn valued physical and social skills that contribute in a positive manner to their social and physical wellbeing and development as adults-to-be (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, & Deakin, 2005). Learning to win and performing well under pressure are assumed to be necessary for this development to occur (e.g. Claringbould, Knoppers, &. Jacobs 2015; Fraser-Thomas &. Strachan, 2014; Ryan, 1995). The importance of winning and achievement increases when a child engages in elite youth sport, especially sports that involve young athletes such as competitive gymnastics and swimming. This emphasis on winning is known as the discourse of performance/achievement. As we explain further on, discourses are ways of thinking about certain ideas, objects, and things.

Another newer discourse has been circulating in elite youth sport as well. In the last decade, the issue of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of athletes by coaches has received a great deal of attention (e.g. Brackenridge &. Fasting, 2005; Fasting & Brackenridge, 2009; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Grahn, 2014; Johns & Johns, 2000; Owusu-Sekyere & Gervis, 2014; Pinheiro et al., 2014; Raakman, Dorsch, &. Rhind, 2010; Ryan, 1995; Stirling & Kerr, 2008, 2013; Vertommen, Schipper van Veldhoven, Harthill, & Van Den Eede, 2015). This has led to a discourse of child protection and safeguarding that assumes that adults need to ensure that children and youth play in an environment in which they are safe and are not abused by coaches. The circulation of this discourse in youth sport has not, however, eradicated abusive coach-athlete relationships

Athletes who are in an abusive coach-athlete relationship often learn to adapt to and/or accept the occurrence of abusive coaching behavioursthrough a process called grooming. Grooming is the term applied to the gradual preparation of a child by the abuser through the normalisation of harassment and, sometimes, sexual abuse (Cense & Brackenridge, 2001; Montserrat, 2011). Scholars have shown how the process of grooming enables coaches to sexually abuse athletes, often for many years, without resistance from athletes (Cense &. Brackenridge, 2001; Moget, Weber, &. Van Veldhoven, 2012). Leberg (1997, p. 26) suggests that there are three types of grooming involved in this process: 1) physical grooming that may lead to and include inappropriate touching of the athletes’ bodies; 2) psychological grooming of the athlete and family, that may occur for example when a coach constantly tells an athlete and her parents that she needs to spend more time with him for practice, and 3) grooming of the social environment or the community, for example a coach building such a good reputation for competitive success that s/he becomes an unquestioned authority in the sport domain.

Stirling and Kerr (2008) have argued that grooming does not only lead to sexual abuse but also to emotional abuse. The focus of this chapter is on the occurrence of emotional abusive behaviours by coaches of elite women gymnasts. Stirling and Kerr employed the following definition: ‘Emotional abuse refers to a pattern of non-contact deliberate behaviors by a person within a critical relationship role that have the potential to be harmful to an individual’s [emotional] well-being’ (p. 178). Our study focuses on the grooming process of Dutch elite women gymnasts so that they (seemingly) tolerate and normalise systematic emotional abuse.

Theoretical framework

Frameworks that have been used to examine the grooming process as well as the abuse of athletes often focus primarily on interactions between coach and athlete at the micro level (e.g. D’Arripe-Longueville, Fournier, & Dubois, 1998; Gervis &. Dunn, 2004; Maitland, 2012; McMahon & Zehntner, 2014; Stirling &. Kerr, 2009; 2013). The solution then seems to be to create rules and procedures that restrict touch and define illegitimate coach-athlete interactions (Piper, Taylor, & Garratt, 2012). Such research does not explain, however, how abuse may be sustained by individuals, social ideologies embedded in discourses and institutions. The results of our work with elite gymnasts suggests, for example, that a grooming process at the individual or micro level does not occur in isolation from other processes that take place at club/local organisational level (meso) and at the national and international (macro) level (Knoppers, Smits, & Jacobs, 2015). In this chapter therefore, we focus on the primary actors, specifically parents, coaches, and directors of sport clubs/organisations that are involved in producing elite women’s gymnasts. We identified several dynamics that enabled coaches to engage in grooming processes that resulted in the emotional abuse of young female gymnasts. The elite child athlete is therefore not the only focus of our study, but also parents, coaches, and directors. We used a multilevel model to examine practices that played out in the grooming process of emotional abuse at macro, meso, and micro level of elite women gymnasts.

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