It’s probably no surprise when I say that gymnastics is one of the toughest sports, but what studies don’t take into consideration is the mental factor involved with it.
Almost no high schools in the country offer the sport and the chances to make an NCAA team are fairly slim. So why do we put ourselves through it? We’re all crazy, that’s why. I did gymnastics for 15 years – I started when I was just five years old. I was doing ballet, tap and jazz before, but I saw one of my good friends doing gymnastics and it looked so cool. I just had to do it.
So my mom enrolled me in classes and before my first week was over, I was moved up to the competitive team. Next thing I knew, I was in the gym four hours a day, six days a week and it unknowingly took over my life. There were a couple times in my gymnastics career that I either wanted to quit or actually did quit, but I always missed it after a few weeks and went right back. Like I said, we’re crazy. I was practically raised by my Russian coaches and knew nothing but tough love and endless yelling. “Eat, sleep, breathe gymnastics” was what we used to say to make fun of ourselves but it was accurate.
I couldn’t count the amount of unattended school activities because of practice, the long weekends spent in hotels for competitions and the quarter-sized rips on my hands. However, with all those hardships came the rewards and the gratitude of winning a competition or perfecting a new skill. It was the highs and adrenaline that kept me going – I loved it.
When I walked-on for the Penn State Women’s Gymnastics team, injuries became a whole different story. With this team, I noticed that everyone was afraid of injuries. You’re probably thinking ‘that’s fair, it’s normal to be scared of them,’ but this was a different kind of scared. I was terrified the coaches would yell at me if I told them something was hurting. Maybe that’s just me constantly looking for approval and trying for perfection, but no athlete should be scared of their coaches. Whenever I got hurt, I tried to push through the rest of the practice, then would go to our trainer so I wouldn’t have to deal with the coaches. Working with your coaches and trainers when you are feeling pain is an important factor in becoming and staying a healthy athlete. This fear stemmed from different reasons and gut-feeling something just wasn’t right with them.
Along with that, I had gotten pretty sick during preseason and missed a few days of practice. Instead of letting me focus on getting healthy and making up my school work, the coaches made me make up the two morning workouts I missed that week.
So on top of our two morning practices on Wednesdays and Fridays and our normal afternoon practices, I had to add two more double workouts on Monday and Tuesday. Unless you’re an NCAA athlete, you’re probably unaware of the amount of hours allotted for physical activity each week. The rulebook says that athletes may not exceed more than 20 hours of practice in-season, and only eight hours out-of-season. It also says that we must be given 2 off days out-of-season. I never did that math, but I have a feeling I was over those hours that week.
Not only was the physical wear and tear exhausting, the mental abuse that I saw and experienced was horrifying. The coaches had a tight grip on every thing we did, including things outside the gym. If we tweeted something too late (11 pm being too late) we would hear about it at practice the next day, we couldn’t post “going out” Instagrams even if they weren’t of us drinking and the coaches scheduled team activities every free chance they had. They somehow knew everything about our “extracurricular activities” and made damn sure we knew that they knew.
Even after a comment made about my boobs by a male coach, I would awkwardly laugh the comments off and continue with my practice. The beginning of my sophomore year was when it was the worst. I was extremely depressed, lost touch with my best friends from home and my poor boyfriend had no idea how to handle me. I was so fragile, yet so stone-cold and emotionless. He always tried the best he could to cheer me up but there was no hope. It eventually got to a point where he couldn’t handle seeing me that screwed up. I vividly remember the text he sent me: “Lyss you need to see the sports psychologist before I lose it. I can’t handle this anymore.”
I read it so many times and each time I was horrified of the person I had become. I couldn’t be angry with him because I knew he was right. How could these people make me hate something that I love so much? The next morning I made an appointment with the sports psychologist.
The recruiting class of 2016 brought in eight new girls. We were one of the biggest classes Penn State has seen. All eight of us left the team before our senior year and that doesn’t include the many girls before of after us that quit under these coaches. The team has not a single senior right now. There’s something seriously wrong with this picture. It may sound corny, but gymnastics shaped me into the person I am today and I don’t regret a single second of the hard work I put into it. From a very young age it taught me discipline, organization, time management, determination and willpower to succeed. Let me be dramatic for just a second: I hope it was the most disciplined 15 years I’ll ever have to endure in life again, especially the last two.
But I’m so proud of where it’s gotten me and how far I’ve come. Gymnastics has shown me the world and has given me more amazing friends than I could’ve wished for. Being on the Penn State Gymnastics team made me extremely depressed, almost ruined relationships with people I was closest to and left me many pounds heavier from stress eating. While I was trying to make a decision to quit or stay, I looked back at my goals and dreams as a kid and it was always ‘college gymnastics’.
Letting that dream go and seeing the reality of that goal slip away was disappointing and left me with so much anger.
It was incredibly difficult for me to say goodbye to the thing that was my whole life for so many years. I was scared of losing friends, worried I wouldn’t handle my school work the right way and afraid my parents would be disappointed in me. It took a lot of thinking and two pages full of pros and cons, but I made the decision to move on. My morals, values and mental health were a million times more important to me than seeing my name on the wall in the locker room. I realized that I was in complete control of my situation, no one else.
My time on this team will always hold memories that I’m not fond of but I was able to find the strength and courage to walk away from something that was no longer growing me. That decision will always be my proudest moment. It’s shown me that life is too damn short to live each day anything less than utterly happy. After this experience, I made a vow to myself to never settle for anything that doesn’t make me excited to wake up every morning. It’s safe to say it was a pretty good lesson learned.
PSA: I’ve gotten lots of feedback on this article; mostly good but some not so good and I was totally expecting that. Never once did I talk badly about the team in general and never once did I put down the gymnasts. This is strictly about the coaches and the horrible things they put many people through…some of which had to seek psychological help.
I was sick of sitting in the dark with all of this on my chest and I’m sick of these coaches getting away with this stuff. It’s time I, and all the other girls, step forward and make a change.