Coaches need to speak-up on how gymnastics can be done safely and successfully in the wake of allegations of psychological and physical abuse in the sport in New Zealand, two experts say.

Dr Roslyn Kerr, Associate Professor in sociology of sport at Lincoln University, and Dr Georgia Cervin, Honorary Research Fellow in sport history at the University of Western Australia and a former NZ gymnast have published over 35 articles or book chapters examining the sport of gymnastics.

“Women’s gymnastics, both artistic and rhythmic, has for many years proliferated a culture of extreme obedience and harsh training methods while requiring gymnasts to aim for unrealistically thin, fat-free, pre-pubertal physiques. All over the world, verbal abuse and fat shaming have been normalised as a standard way for gymnastics to operate,” Associate Professor Kerr said.

“As former gymnasts and coaches ourselves, we know of the struggle of even defining which behaviours constitute abuse owing to our own experiences of extreme behaviours being normalised.

“Recently we have heard many gymnasts speak out about their negative experiences, but we have not yet heard from any coaches willing to say how you can do gymnastics safely and successfully.

“In our research, we have interviewed a wide range of successful international gymnastics coaches, some of whom have altered their training methods to move away from abuse. This is what the sport desperately lacks – role models and clarity for how success can be achieved without ruining the lives of children,” Dr Cervin said.

She said Gymnastics New Zealand is responsible for coach training and accreditation, so it is within the organisation’s power to train coaches and clubs on positive coaching methods, and identifying and reporting abuse.

However, in New Zealand, there are some other factors in our system that make the situation somewhat more complicated.

“Unlike countries such as Australia, where elite gymnastics training is heavily centralised and funded at either a state or national level, competitive gymnasts in New Zealand all train in non-profit sports clubs,” Dr Cervin said.

“These clubs vary in size and structure, but few are able to afford professionally trained managers with the knowledge and experience to negotiate through cases of abuse. In addition, experienced coaches are few and far between, so when a club finds itself in the position of having a top coach who uses abusive methods, replacing them is extremely difficult,” Associate Professor Kerr said.