Gymnastics: Coaches 'battered, bruised' following wide-ranging review into sport, culture

By Felicity Reid for RNZ 

A former Olympic gymnast says some coaches are feeling "battered and bruised" after a wide-ranging review put a spotlight on the sport of gymnastics.

Tri Star Gymnastics general manager David Phillips spent his career at the Auckland club first as an athlete, including the 2000 Olympic Games, then as a coach.

The recent revelations of the culture of abuse in the sport, that lead to the independent review into Gymnastics New Zealand, has prompted Tri Star to turn the magnifying glass on themselves.

Phillips was happy that the club's "overall culture was a positive one" but knew they could do better and he wanted to be held accountable.

Change would no longer just be talked about.

Phillips' says his own experiences in the sport were positive and that gives him faith gymnastics would "show its true colours out the other side of this".

However, he acknowledged action needed to be taken on the "extremes" in coaches, athletes and parents behaviour.

"Like with anything, there is a continuum of thought around this particular issue," Phillips says. 

"By in large there is a lot of agreement with the review findings and I think it has been quite empowering, particularly for the athletes, to have some things verbalised and stated in such a clear way.

"The coaches in the review probably feel a bit battered and bruised and I think in some cases that's appropriate and in other cases not so much."

While Gymnastics New Zealand had made slow progress implementing the review recommendations - having missed the deadline for the establishment of a steering committee to oversee the implementation of more than 50 recommendations - Tri Star has made significant changes.

Phillips says the review highlighted some overall messages and actions that clubs could take right now - without waiting on instructions from GNZ.

Tri Star now paid an athlete wellbeing coordinator to advocate for athletes on the gym floor, a role Phillips describes as "the voice of the athletes".

Calling on the expertise of club alumni, Tri Star has also created an athlete wellbeing advisory group made up of a psychologist, physios, a strength and conditioning coach, a person with experience in pastoral care, as well as the athlete wellbeing coordinator.

"In discussing our environment and athlete wellbeing as a whole, we wanted to take a proactive stance.

"One of [the group's] functions will be to create an athlete performance plan, which takes into account all the different variables that we need to support our athletes, as they move through the competitive levels.

"That's things from training hours, medical support and injury prevention programmes, nutrition and 'age and stage' education. 

"The idea over a period of time is to map out the kind of support across all those areas that we would want to implement in our club setting."

Phillips says his club was in a fortunate position to be able to resource their changes, despite losing one-third of their membership when the COVID-19 lockdown happened last year.

Gymnastics clubs are lean operations, often relying on staff or volunteers to fill multiple roles in an organisation and Phillips says without support, some clubs would struggle to make changes.

"Time is the biggest challenge we face and I imagine it is the same for a lot of clubs around the country - the activity requires quite a bit of thought to do it well, and when you're busy and you're stretched finding time to give it some good thought, it can be a bit tricky."