SWIFTER, HIGHER, STRONGER
JULY 30, 1996
How hard should you train to become an athelete at the Olympic games? The potential physiological and psychological toll can be so high. A child psychiatrist squares off with a former Olympian and a gymnastics coach, over when "a goal" becomes a dangerous obsession. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET provides a backgrounder.
JIM LEHRER: Now to our discussion. Jeff Barlow competed as a college gymnast and now runs a gymnastics training center in Annapolis, Maryland. Dr. Ian Tofler is director of child psychiatry at Children's Hospital in New Orleans, co-author of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine on women's gymnastics, and Pat Connolly, who's been a regular Olympics watcher here for the NewsHour competed in three Olympics and is now a track and field coach. First, Dr. Tofler, how serious on women's gymnastics specifically, which is what you wrote about, how serious are the physical and psychological problems associated with this?
July 17, 1996:
A group of former U.S. Olympians explain the thrill of competing at the games.
Review the Online NewsHour Forum on amateur vs. professional status at the Olympic Games.
Historians consider the modern Olympic games on July 22, 1996.
DR. IAN TOFLER, Child Psychologist: There are many serious physical and psychological problems. From a physical standpoint, they may be based on stress factors, which can be a result of micro trauma, growth, growth plate fractures, uh, wrist injuries, spinal injuries related to developmental problems or normal development of the spine and scoliosis reflex sympathetic dystrophy and several others.
JIM LEHRER: And are those unnatural things that are brought on by overdoing it, or is that just a natural thing of being a gymnast?
DR. TOFLER: They're all directly related to the amount of practice time, the element of difficulty in tricks and as well as other factors.
JIM LEHRER: And then there's another element, the psychological part of this. What are those serious problems?
DR. TOFLER: Well, the major psychological sequily of gymnastics in particular, and other sports that rely on image to a large extent is eating disorders which in the college level population in a study by the University of Washington, have shown up to 62 percent with eating disorders, and they're only training at 50 percent the intensity of the elite athletes. At the gymnastic level, one can assume that the level of eating disorders is almost universal.
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me just a moment. Connect that. Connect eating disorders with being a gymnast.
DR. TOFLER: Eating disorders are important and they're produced in some ways by the constant level of comments about how a child looks, umm, their size. If they're entering puberty, that's a negative because they're gaining weight, and all these explicit and implicit messages that a child receives from judges, parents, coaches, media representatives, will all, umm, encourage the development of eating disorders.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now I interrupted you. You had one other thing you wanted to say about the psychological part.
DR. TOFLER: Well, there are several others--
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DR. TOFLER: -- including depression, developmental, social problems, image identity problems, as well as the adjustment issues, burnout problems as well.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, this causes people to be sick, is that right, is that what you're saying, one way or another?
DR. TOFLER: Well, the major eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, has a 10 percent mortality rate, and one--at least one woman of--had been an adolescent competing at this level, has died in the five years related to an eating disorder.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Barlow, does that gel with your exposure to gymnastics through the years?
JEFF BARLOW, Gymnastic Coach: I think these kids are going to be conscious of the way they look and the way they're treated amongst their peers, regardless if they're in gymnastics or field hockey or track and field, or non-athletic.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think there's any connection between their wait and all of these--some of these problems, and the fact that they're--
MR. BARLOW: There is.
JIM LEHRER: --competing at the highest level in gymnastics.
MR. BARLOW: There's a small--there's a connection, but I don't think you can single gymnastics out and say that these kids are treated and look this way because of gymnastics.
JIM LEHRER: Pat Connolly, what do you think?
PAT CONNOLLY, Track Coach: Well, first of all, you have a subjective sport where they're judged subjectively by people, as opposed to track and field, which is an objective field, where they're judged by a stop watch and a measuring tape.
JIM LEHRER: Explain that.
MS. CONNOLLY: Well, when--in track and field, you have--
JIM LEHRER: The person who runs across the line first wins. Okay.
MS. CONNOLLY: First wins. They win. So no judge can say you didn't look pretty doing it. If you're Michael Johnson and your legs are short and you don't look right, it doesn't matter. If you hit the tape first, you win. So--
JIM LEHRER: But in gymnastics--
MS. CONNOLLY: In gymnastics, it's not so. You have to be pleasing to others. So it makes it more vulnerable to this kind of, this kind of treatment of athletes when they're younger, because it's how someone perceives you and so you want to please. You want to look right. You want to be right and with that desire, especially in a very young athlete, you succumb to some of the pressures that are on. That's why--
MR. BARLOW: They don't necessarily think that when they're training.
MS. CONNOLLY: Right.
MR. BARLOW:You know, they go out and they train because they know that to perform a skill, they have to be a certain weight, a certain strength level.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let me, just looking at it from a lay point of view, people who have been--and I'm one of them--who have been watching the Olympics on television and you watch the women gymnastics and the close-ups of their faces of these young women, mostly the Americans, but it's true of the others as well, they have a very, very severe, cold look in their eyes. And when something happens, there's no--none of that camaraderie that you see from the swimming team, the people who are involved in track and field. There's a difference to the naked, lay eye. Is that not a real difference?
MR. BARLOW: Are you talking specifically like team camaraderie?
JIM LEHRER: Well--
MR. BARLOW: Interreaction.
JIM LEHRER: Inter-relationships, cold desire to win.
MR. BARLOW: Well, a big point of that is the girls on our current Olympic team do not train together. They train in various gyms around this country and very rarely get together as a team like you would see, like the European gymnasts. There's a lot of team camaraderie. There's a lot of social inter-reaction. We don't have that.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Tofler, do you believe that women's gymnastics is different than all these other spots?
DR. TOFLER: I think it has a lot of similarities, as one of your guests just pointed out, but I think that the major physical and psychological sequily are much more obvious in gymnastics and a great concern.
JIM LEHRER: Because why? Because they have to start earlier? Is that one of the reasons that--if you're going to make it--these kids--correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Barlow--all these kids who are competing in the Olympics in gymnastics, they had to start when they're four and five years old, right, to be at this level?
MR. BARLOW: Yes. They started young.
JIM LEHRER: Now is that a negative, do you believe, Dr. Tofler?
DR. TOFLER: Yes, I do, and we've discussed this in terms of an achievement by proxy cascade of potential abuse, and that reaches from the level of the parents, and a parent who says something to the effect of, uh, if you're injured with stress fractures or a wrist injury at age 14, umm, I will think that you should not compete, however, it's your decision, at age 13, 14, 15, it is not that child's decision. And a parent is, is abrogating their responsibility if they allow that sort of process to continue.
Similarly, a charismatic coach who says it's your decision to vault, while verbally encouraging the child, and in a situation where a child hurts their head on a piece of apparatus and knowing that people have been paralyzed in competition, the lack of presence of medical personnel on the floor is inexcusable.
JIM LEHRER: Pat Connolly, abuse, the doctor--is the word the doctor used.
MS. CONNOLLY: Yes, but I don't find that it's any different--it's getting highlighted now--than football. Our boys, our little boys go out every spring and train for the fall glory, and they have far more injuries, far more neck injuries, back problems, Little League baseball. It's the same all over.
I think, I think whenever you have an athlete who wants to--who wants to excel, who's doing it, you can't force someone to throw harder, run faster, be a good athlete. They have to want it from within themselves and they have to have reckless abandon. And if they're going to have reckless abandon, they're going to be hurt.
JIM LEHRER: But what is--based on your experience, both as an athlete and as a coach, what is the--is there a percentage between talent and, and desire and will? In other words, can't you overcome some lack of talent if you really want to win and you give it everything?
MS. CONNOLLY: If you have heart, the athletes with the most heart are your winners.
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, heart?
MS. CONNOLLY: That's the desire to do your very best, get the most--maximum out of yourself, no matter what, whether it's a one-foot landing, as we saw Kerri Shrug do--is it Strug--
JIM LEHRER: Strug.
MS. CONNOLLY: Yeah. Kerri do, and or whether it's running with a pulled muscle, or we watched Mike Powell try to long jump. You have--it doesn't matter on that day when it's the Olympic games--I'm not talking about national championships, I'm not talking about anything but the Olympic games that comes once every four years--when you have an athlete that's going to compete, there's no coach, there's no parent, there is no team of Clydesdales that are going to pull that kid out of that competition no matter how injured they are. And that's what you've worked for in the first place, that reckless abandon. That's what you work for.
MR. BARLOW: I think way before these kids get to this elite level, they made a decision themselves whether they were going to stick it out and go to that highest extreme level of the Olympics. A coach didn't make that decision for them. I can't make my gymnasts compete on a national level if they don't want to.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Tofler, you disagree with that, right?
DR. TOFLER: I disagree because it's not that child's decision. When a 12 year old pilot wants to fly across the country and the mother says something to the effect of he won't take no for an answer, that, that is that mother's decision, and similarly, a 14 year old with a stress fracture competing, uh, it's the parent and the coach's decision, and even at a higher level, I think that the International Olympic Committee and ourselves, the general public, have some responsibility. 57 percent of the population, according to an Associated Press poll were against increasing the minimum age at the Olympics, and I think that says something about us as a society.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Barlow, what about this additional point that was made on the taped piece, and it's been made many times in the coverage of the Olympics, that you have to believe or you have to devote your own life to, to athletics, or whatever it is you're going to do in athletics, if you're going to make it to the Olympics? It isn't something you do on the side; it's your whole life.
MR. BARLOW: In gymnastics, in most of the major sports, yes, the competition is extremely difficult. If these kids have that for a goal, then they will find a way to get there.
JIM LEHRER: What does that do to somebody's mind when they finally get into the competition in terms of oh, my goodness, my life is over when I'm 14 or I'm 16, if I lose?
MR. BARLOW: Well, something that Ian did not mention in his article at all was all the positive aspects of this high level of training and what these kids gain out of it after they're done.
JIM LEHRER: Like what?
MR. BARLOW: Self-confidence, self-esteem. The scheduling, the disciplining that's in their life that they're going to carry all the way through their life.
JIM LEHRER: So there's no crushing fall after this, Pat Connolly, if some kid has gone all the way? We've seen them. We've been watching them.
MS. CONNOLLY: Life is about goal setting, and when these kids learn about goal setting, they have little goals and then they have bigger goals. And when they've reached this point and they come home from the games without the gold medal, they find other goals. And they've learned how to do that.
JIM LEHRER: Life is not over for them at the age of 16?
MS. CONNOLLY: Life is not over at all.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
MS. CONNOLLY: I was 16 in my first Olympic games, and I fell at the 700 meter mark of an 800 meter race, and I--my life was surely not over. I didn't feel real good at that moment, but I had a lot of other things to look forward to.
JIM LEHRER: Did you have people encouraging you?
MS. CONNOLLY: Of course.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MS. CONNOLLY: Of course.
JIM LEHRER: They didn't say, oh, hey, Connolly--
MS. CONNOLLY: No. There's much more to be gained from this kind of competition. Even the athletes that don't make the Olympic team, they gain tremendous understanding about themselves, especially in individual sports like gymnastic and track and field. They're not team sports. You might not see the camaraderie that you would see on a team sport, because these are individual sports and they're training and focusing on themselves. But you learn about yourself and how to push yourself in all kinds of situations. Whether it's having a baby, you could have--you can get through that labor a lot easier, if you know how to push.
JIM LEHRER: So there are some positive aspects, Dr. Tofler?
DR. TOFLER: I agree. The point that your guest has made is about the resilience and there's a large spectrum of resilience and a lot of these athletes are extremely resilient people but if they have not had sufficient developmental and social experiences, um, they are at great risk for depression and adjustment difficulties and burnout problems following their retirement at age 19, 20.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
MR. BARLOW: They still have some mainstream lives.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
MS. CONNOLLY: If--
JIM LEHRER: We have to go.
MS. CONNOLLY: Okay. It's a responsibility of the coaches.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to go. Thank you all three very much.