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Rhythmic Gymnastics coaching, what we strive to improve? Reflections on Netflix's Athlete A

Athlete A has become a hugely popular documentary since it's release on Netflix on June 24th of 2020. While the main focus of the story is Dr. Larry Nassar's sexual abuse of young gymnasts, it raises awareness about the coach-athlete abusive culture in the world of gymnastics in general. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the film follows Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans as they investigated and broke the story of USA Gymnastics' negligent treatment of their female gymnastics champions.

“Athlete A” makes the telling point that the Károlyi method was, itself, a form of abuse. The girls who were subjected to it had to steel themselves, in an almost Stockholm Syndrome way, to the sadistic rigors of their training. So it’s only natural that they ended up numbing themselves to even more devastating forms of abuse. “Athlete A” is a testament to their perseverance, and to the courage of all those who stood up in court to face the man who had violated their humanity. But it’s also a testament to the obsession that gave cover to their abuse — to a culture that wanted winners at any cost.

-Owen Gleiberman for

Former U.S. rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard is fighting to end what she calls “crippling” abuse plaguing USA Gymnastics, which she said she experienced nearly 18 years ago. Fortunately, the world of gymnastics is changing, and organizations like The Gymnastics Ethics Foundation (GEF) strive for safety and fairness in all gymnastics disciplines. Governing bodies are educating coaches to use positive reinforcement instead of fear and unbearable pressure on athletes that, sometimes, are not even in their teens. Athlete A shows us something needs to change in the sport... but how do we do that?


  • In order to keep the gymnast safe, a parent can do some research on the type of training and the club that the gymnast is part of.

  • Ask other parents with their children training what the club is like is a good way to get honest feedback.

  • Make sure that the gymnast's coaches are garda vetted, and that they have a safeguarding certificate is important. Don't be afraid to ask if you are not sure!

  • If your child seems reluctant to go to training or complains about going to sessions, ask why and listen to what they have to say.

  • Sometimes children are stuck in a sport that they don't enjoy all that much because their parents insist on keeping it up. Sometimes parent's see potential, and with the best of intentions, they put children in a time and energy-consuming activity that they don't even enjoy.

  • If the gymnasts are clearly happy competing, but suddenly they seem to change their mind it could be a sign that something is going wrong in their sessions: It could be bullying, abusive behaviours from a coach, sexual abuse and so on. This doesn't necessarily need to be the case, it could be an innocent personal reason, that's why we want our children to trust us to open up and stay in the loop about what is going on in the gym.


  • Remember that if you feel uncomfortable with any coach, physio, doctor, or adult involved in the club, you are in your right to avoid them and let the child officer of your club or your parents know.

  • If someone touches you in a way that doesn't feel right at training or at a medical appointment you can ask them to stop, and you don't owe an explanation to anyone about it.

  • If coaches make an aggressive comment on your physical appearance or your weight you should know that it is not acceptable and you should let a trusted adult know.

  • Fat-shaming should be completely out of order in any club, and weight loss should not be encouraged systematically for no reason.

  • If a trusted doctor tells you that you need to rest a certain part of your body or take some time off, don't be afraid to do so.

  • You shouldn't be alone with another adult in your gym, whether it's your coach or someone trying to help you. A second coach should be there. If that is not possible, a parent or another trusted adult should be supervising you.

  • Remember that you are in control, no matter what.


  • Most coaches were once a gymnast, treat your athletes the way you would have liked to be treated when you were one of them.

  • Just because when you were a gymnast, your coaches were too strict or abusive towards you, it does not mean it's the only way you can coach. Remember that you can break the chain!

  • Positive reinforcement is the most effective and civilised coaching method.

  • Listening to your gymnasts is part of your job, make them feel you are on their side!

  • If they complain about pains and physical restrictions don't assume they are exaggerating. Listen to them, adapt your session plans to their needs, and be in touch with parents and doctors to find out what's best for your athlete.

  • Make your feedback useful. We have advice on how to give good feedback on our Gym etiquette: three simple things to do at gymnastics training.

  • Your job is not only to make good athletes. It's also about their personal and physical development, protecting their best interest, and giving them a safe and fear-free environment to practice.

Governing Bodies:

Money should be a tool to improve the sport in our country. The sport should not be a tool to make money, it's different!

  • Governing bodies' priority should be the wellbeing of their athletes. Not their sponsorships, not their medals.

  • This should not be something stated only on paper, it should be put into practice.

  • They should reflect regularly on how to make the sport more accessible and safe.

  • The complaints from athletes, coaches, clubs, parents and so on should be taken seriously.

  • A gymnastics governing body of a country has immense power, this comes with immense responsibility. Do not take it lightly!

  • Money should be a tool to improve the sport in our country. The sport should not be a tool to make money , it's different!

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