One of the things I have hinted at in this space is the explicit connection I see between the fight that many people in the swimming world are engaged in against performance enhancing drugs and those of us fighting abuse. I want to make one more connection explicitly clear.
First, why is it that an overwhelming amount of sporting people are so against the use of performance enhancing drugs? For starters, we find it abhorrent that the competitive field of play could be tilted by taking a substance. But it is not just the competitive balance of the substances.
Some are on the list because they are deemed illegal drugs by most countries (I think there are few of us that believe cannabis is a legitimate PED). No, many of the performance enhancing drugs are also on there because we know, with good evidence, that they may have disastrous health outcomes for those that take them.
So how does this connect to the issue of abuse in sports? Well, it turns out that some people that are abused actually do quite well competitively. Deena Deardurff was able to win an Olympic gold medal despite the fact that she was being sexually abused by her coach Paul Bergen. Many of the coaches who’s names that sit on the “banned list” have had swimmers competing at a very high level.
Post-traumatic growth is possible. I see it everywhere in swimming, it is one of the reason that even terrible swimming environments often turn out amazing people who go on to do amazing things in the world.
Abusive tactics are very much like performance enhancing drugs, in my mind. The most resilient young people respond to them by getting even better, digging deeper. They can achieve some amazing competitive results. But the health consequences down the line are terrible for far too many.
In a recent thread I witnessed on the swim coaching idea exchange group, a place where posts like this are often met with quite a bit of vitriol, a coach asked what were the best tactics for getting swimmers into the water on time. Several coaches responded that turning a hose on the swimmers until they jumped in was a viable option. There were likes and support (and some dissent).
It’s just one example of how abusive behavior is openly discussed and accepted in sports. Hosing people as a punishment is below my own standard for convicted felons, much less people (say it with me PEOPLE) that I coach.
Coaches that turn to these tactics are creating an unfair playing field for those who attempt to get improvement by humane means. They are striving to get results in the short term without concern for the long term harm they are doing.
One thing that creates so much ambiguity is that while we have an exhaustive list of banned performance enhancing drugs, we have almost no standards about what is and what is not acceptable behavior for coaches on a pool deck. Given the ongoing pressure on USA Swimming to lead on this issue, I would think it is incumbent on them to develop some actual high professional standards for how coaches conduct themselves.
Until then, we are operating in a largely uncontrolled environment where nearly anything goes, and “good results” continue to justify the coaching style.