Gymnastics can be a beautiful and graceful sport, but it is also often filled with eating disorders, prima donna coaches, over-involved parents and a merciless world where young gymnasts can never measure up. Former U.S. gymnastics champ Jennifer Sey, who started at age 6, gave momlogic the inside scoop on the sport:
momlogic: When did it stop being fun?
Jennifer: I was training up to eight hours a day and suffered with extreme pressure to lose weight, but the potential of making it to the top made it bearable. My body was really broken down and it was difficult to train. I had an eating disorder, which began at age 14, that was starting to wear on me emotionally and physically. When I was a gymnast you needed to be very thin, thinner than girls need to be now. At age 14, my body wanted to mature; I battled the natural process and wanted to reverse it. I lost weight, and didn't menstruate until I was 20. I retained a little girl's frame. I suffered from anorexia, and it intensified over the years. As it got more challenging to maintain my physique I started using laxatives. I didn't have any social life other than the gym. The most challenging thing while writing the book was remembering things outside of gymnastics because it was my whole life. I didn't have friends.
momlogic: Can you describe the merciless coaching?
Jennifer: The coaches were intense. Their perspective was, "You come to us to become winners and that's what we will give you." My goal was to win, and in their minds, it was by any means necessary. I felt the coaches were merciless in several ways: they were incredibly tough in how they spoke to us, treated us, and in their expectations. Now, as a Mom, I wouldn't be comfortable with someone treating or speaking to my child like that. They were also merciless when it came to what we weighed, how often we weighed in, and what we ate. And they pushed us, even if we were injured; they'd have us come back before we were fully healed. If required, we had to work through the pain.
momlogic: What do you teach your child about competition, body image and self-esteem?
Jennifer: I think it's important to encourage children to participate in sports, monitor their mood, monitor their response to success and failure, and intervene when necessary. I disagree with the "Everyone wins a trophy" mentality. It makes people feel good, but learning to lose with grace and dignity is a valuable lesson. Winning isn't everything and it's not the end of the world. "Everyone winning" defeats the purpose and doesn't teach you anything. Our culture doesn't tell us that--winning seems to be everything- and it's important in society to have the most money and trophies. I try to teach my kids that they will sometimes win and sometimes lose, and it's okay.
Jennifer's tips on raising a healthy winner:
- Talk to the coach: Understand their philosophy. Their philosophy should be to raise happy, healthy kids, not champions.
- Watch practice: My parents were not allowed to watch; that should tell you something.
- Pay attention to your child: They will tell you if they are unhappy or depressed. Also, look for extreme weight loss. Don't assume if they win, they're happy. My parents assumed I was happy because I had trophies, and it wasn't always the case.
Have you ever witnessed a coach's abuse?
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