Normalizing Abuse

I have always been “coach mom” – emotionally invested in my swimmers, and attempting to be nurturing to them and their love of swimming. I’m the “nice one” or, to others, the one who is too easy or soft on the swimmers. I coach 8-11 year-olds – I’m ok with the accusation of being too soft. I run a tight ship, don’t get me wrong; there are rules that need to be followed, and I get…frustrated as you do when dealing with a large group of 8-11 year-olds.

I try my best to be supportive, encouraging, and when I get frustrated, I clearly state why, trying to be generous in my description of what they aren’t doing well or what rules they are breaking. I try my best never to shame or humiliate the swimmers, and I am always conscious of the line between physically and mentally pushing them in the name of improvement and just hurting them.

But I slip sometimes.

In order to be allowed to coach, I had to take some mandatory training from USA Swimming, particularly around abuse and bullying of the swimmers. It sounds obvious, but one thing became painfully clear as I was completing the course: I had some shitty coaches when I swam. I was body-shamed, bullied, belittled, humiliated privately and publicly, pushed past the point of physically falling apart, and even sexually harassed.

But this was all seen as normal, necessary even, to be “strong” enough to swim our fastest. This is how coaches “got results”. And if you broke, then you didn’t deserve to be on the team, couldn’t handle it, weren’t really serious, a failure. For me, it was still better than some of the abuse I was suffering at home.

I would love to say that I stood up for a particular teammate, if not myself, when witnessing an particularly egregious situation, but I can’t. What I can say is that I worked in the locker room and in the pool to build up my teammates. After being screamed at, I would whisper encouragement, talk them through the hard set, console them when we didn’t make the interval, or after a hard practice or disappointing meet, I would make them laugh, hug them, commiserate.

I quit swimming in college when, after a terrible swim meet, the coach publicly tore us a new one (so to speak) in front of our friends and family and the opposing team. I had been sick, really sick, so clearly wasn’t at my best. I sat there, and instead of feeling shame or guilt or remorse, I felt angry. We deserved a dressing down for our performance, but not publicly, not like that. I was done with swimming.

I’m thinking about this in the context of #metoo and the gymnastics scandal. As more and more people speak out against the normalization of sexual violence and abuse, we start seeing people speaking up and out about other forms of violence and abuse. I was struck by the accusations again a prominent figure in dance.

I have long lived and worked in environments where people in power abusing their positions to torment, exploit, and manipulate – all in the name of helping us succeed. Academia is in the middle of it’s own reckoning around sexual abuse and harassment, but I am also interested in academia beginning to speak out against other forms of abuse that graduate students, junior faculty, staff, and contingent faculty face from their “colleagues”.

It is, largely, normalized. It’s understood within the hierarchical structure of academia that the lower you are, the worse you are treated. But why? Because this is how it has always been done? In some ways, my old blog was in part an effort to call out this kind of behavior, but it really turned into a space like the one I tried to create for my teammates, avoiding the perpetrators and instead building community among those on the receiving end.

I haven’t had my “I quit” moment yet in academia (but a really drawn out “I quit” moment in terms of teaching contingently). I’m still here. My decision, now, however centers around what I am going to do about these moments of abuse. I have chosen the opportunity to go back to coaching and create the environment I wanted when I swam, but in a lot of ways, I have more autonomy and a voice sometimes that I do within higher education on these issues. As staff, within the hierarchy, I have little institutional clout. As a “public figure” I have a little more.

So, what am I going to do?

The instinct, for me, is to immerse myself in my research around affect, to understand and combat the environments that allow this kind of behavior to survive and fester. But that’s not enough. I have to be able to speak out against what I see, what I have seen, what is perpetuated. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I think it’s what comes next.