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Allegations of abuse in gymnastics: “Many coaches are not even aware of how they behave”

Can competitive sport be healthy at all – and how do athletes feel about it? Psychologist Marion Sulprizio has the answers.

SPIEGEL: On Friday it became known that gymnasts at the federal base in Chemnitz had been humiliated and tormented by their coach for years. Sulprizio: I wasn’t surprised that athletes who have come of age now finally say that they have had enough and say: I can’t cope with this knowledge anymore. News like that is always frightening, but fortunately not an everyday occurrence.

SPIEGEL: According to the athletes’ statements, the question arises: Can competitive sport with children and young people be healthy at all? Sulprizio: Competitive sport contributes to the development of the personality, for example it promotes self-confidence, a positive body image and stamina. Sport is in principle always good for psychological processes, i.e. it works against depression or anxiety. But: the dose makes the poison. If the goal is to do sport at all costs, i.e. to train in pain, then the limit has been crossed. SPIEGEL: When is the limit crossed in psychological terms?

Sulprizio: When the athlete is unhappy, depressed, sad. Then something must be done. By the way, this also helps the coach: Because nobody can perform permanently if he is not mentally healthy, if he cannot develop his personality. Unfortunately, this is still not anchored in many trainers’ minds. They act according to the motto: Only the tough ones come into the garden, only those who can stand it are right here and perform well. This is a very unhealthy selection.SPIEGEL: How many of these trainer types are there still? Sulprizio: There are still a few, especially among the older coaches, whose education and own active career goes back a long time. And often in the so-called compositional sports like figure skating, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics. There the image still holds that a certain style leads to success, to the top of the world. So a lot of discipline, very high training efforts, little empathy with the athletes.

SPIEGEL: One would expect officials to pay particular attention when people work with children. Sulprizio: After that, the coaches are not selected. There are certificates for everything, but nobody checks whether you are good with children. Most of the time someone has proven himself in the field and then he is always passed on to the target group, simply because he has experience. These people are kept in the system without looking at how he or she acts on the football field or the gymnastics field. SPIEGEL: So these trainers can actually do whatever they want?

Sulprizio: Basically yes. Once they have their standing, they are so to speak free in what they do. The problem is that children in particular often don’t understand for a long time that what they are experiencing might not be good, that they might even experience psychological violence. The trainers are authority figures for them, who they also like, sometimes even venerate.SPIEGEL: How do you define psychological violence? Sulprizio: You can only grasp it from the point of view of the recipient: How does someone tell you something, what facial expressions and gestures accompany the spoken word? When it comes to children, the tone is very important. Again: the trainer is an authority figure for them. This makes it all the more important that the trainer plays a role as a fatherly friend and supporter. In the video the sisters Pauline and Helene Schäfer talk about their experiences:

SPIEGEL: Some associations claim to have established a culture of looking. Do we need more controls in sports facilities?Sulprizio: That is difficult to implement. You rely on a generational change, on the young coaches who are just growing up, for whom respectful, appreciative leadership is a natural attitude. You don’t have to explain to them that pressure is unfavourable and stress is harmful.SPIEGEL: That would mean that until the new coaches are available nationwide, you would have to accept collateral damage.Sulprizio: That is a problem. But there can’t be a supervisor for every coach now. Some associations now offer further training on this topic. Besides there is recently an obligation to install child protection commissioners in the clubs and federations. One way would be to encourage children and young people: Whenever you notice anything strange about what the coach is doing, contact this person of trust.SPIEGEL: These people are often employed by the clubs themselves, but they are not necessarily suitable as persons of trust.Sulprizio: Often the sports psychologists in the clubs do the job themselves. And if you have studied psychology, then you’re dedicating yourself to the end user and not to the system and the sponsor. You are also obliged to keep quiet. But it’s also not about discrediting a coach, but perhaps also about giving him help in how he can behave better. Many trainers are not even aware of how they behave.

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