As we have seen over the past few years, many well-established athletic training methods and practices need to stop. Most level-headed people now agree that clear patterns of abuse like what we saw in USA Gymnastics should never have been tolerated. But what about the behaviors that aren’t so clear, that may still be justified as “scientific” or to promote “toughness”?
When I was younger, for example, club and team weigh-ins for figure skaters were a common practice. As more education about eating disorders became available, this practice fell by the wayside. We now know what a harmful, humiliating practice this is, even though some training schools we see on Instagram still do this. When we know better, we must do better.
The more I dive into this work, the more passionate I become about protecting athletes and really, humans in general. This summer I’ve tried to talk less, listen more, and connect the dots between different themes and thought processes I see in society and sport. The more I observe society, the more quickly I recognize harmful behaviors and patterns.
A few weeks ago one of my skating students came to me complaining of how tired she was. She said that she had attended a 4-hour conditioning and practice for her school sport the evening before. Apparently, the A/C was out in the gym and the heat index was over 100. Sounds awful, I thought, but the school surely knows what they’re doing. Then she said, “My coach made us work for water.”
Whoa, what? Timeout. I was speechless.
After asking her to repeat what she said, I promptly replied, “Well, that’s abuse.”
When I pried a little more, she justified it by saying, “It’s ok, it was grit training. He’s a really nice guy. He just called it ‘work for water’.” Then she backtracked a little and said they knew they could stop for water if they really needed it, but that the coach would have been displeased. So basically, these adolescent female athletes had to choose between displeasing their coach (and potentially losing a spot on the team) or hydrating their bodies in oppressive heat.
Let’s say that these girls really did know that they could drink water whenever needed and they actually weren’t worried about displeasing their coach. On a day that hot and a practice that long, the coach should be mandating regular hydration breaks, not rationing them out like Halloween candy.
But let’s play devil’s advocate and defend him some more… let’s say that he actually did mandate frequent water breaks and simply called the exercise “work for water”. While this scenario makes me feel a bit more confident in the athletes’ immediate safety, I still cringe at the wording and realize how far we still have to go in coaches’ education.
Using terms like “work for water” sends the message that athletes don’t deserve to take care of their bodies, that they aren’t worthy of basic nourishment, let alone love and self-respect. Basically, it teaches that our worth is tied solely to our productivity and our accomplishments. Terminology like this takes away agency from the athlete, which can leave them feeling powerless, which ultimately paves the way for an environment of fear and abuse. It’s the same message that society still sends Olympic athletes today. One only has to look as far as the criticism Simone Biles received after withdrawing from the team event in Tokyo to see that society puts the weight of the world on young athletes. And for what?
We aren’t in ancient Rome training gladiators to appease the emperor and the gods, and this isn’t the Hunger Games. The grit we want for our athletes must come from within—nurtured through love for sport and community, from a desire to uplift and improve, rather than from perfectionism or fear of failure. It comes showing up day after day and putting in the work in an honorable, sustainable manner, simply because we can and because we love our sport and the process, regardless of the outcome. While teaching and building grit, we must also teach our athletes about boundaries, agency, respect, and love, and we must create spaces that empower them to make the right choices and to believe in their own worthiness and strength.
Our job as coaches, teachers, and leaders lies not in the big accomplishments, but in the small, daily efforts and in the words that we utter on a daily basis. When we know better, we must do better.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete, the effects of toxic training environments, and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with young athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life outside of sports.