‘Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking Of Elite Gymnasts And Figure Skaters’ by Joan Ryan (1996)

My first kid is due to be born in 10 weeks time.  Amid the busyness of getting the house ready, buying all the supplies and taking anti-natal classes, I’ve thinking a lot about sharing my love of sport, and of sports books of course, with my kid.

Sport was such a big part of my childhood and so many of friendships and memories are tied up with playing football in particular.   I want to expose them to any many sports and opportunities as I can and hope they find something that excites them as much as schoolboy soccer did for me.

We (and by we, I mean my wife) decided that we wouldn’t find out the sex of our kid in advance.  However, as I daydream about the future, I find myself naturally thinking about playing sport with my son, cheering or coaching his teams.  My brain keeps making the connection of sport with a boy – despite the obvious fact that I shouldn’t be treating a daughter any differently when it comes to exposing them sport.

Recognising my own instinctive bias, I’ve wanted to read more about women’s and girl’s sport.  I’ve tried to take more interest in women’s sport – and it’s been a bumper year for Irish women and historic sporting achievements – and to imagine bringing my daughter to play football and watch football – both men’s and women’s.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, a book that often appears on list of greatest ever sports books.  The book is a detailed behind the scenes look at the world of elite female gymnastics and ice skating.   It is the story of the power of dreams and ambition – and how these forces can lead parents to overlook abusive or damaging behaviour by coaches, themselves and the girls they should be protecting.

The book tells the stories of many well known and less known gymnasts and skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan, Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Betty Okino.  For every success story, the book points to many more tragic stories.  It also focuses heavily on the brutal coaching regime of Bela Karolyi.

Ryan paints a shocking picture of young girls dedicating their whole lives and risking their physical and mental health for the slim chance of glory at the Olympics.  Ryan interviewed dozens of athletes, family, and coaches.  Much of the comments from parents whose kids have since retired are full of regret, shame and remorse while some only regret the outcome (failure) and not the process they imposed on their child.

At its heart, the book calls for reflection on the merits of a win at all costs mentally.  It asks readers to reflect on the physical and mental price paid by countless girls and young women.   Personally, I was shocked at the toll the sport had on the elite competitors – delaying growth, permanent injuries and serious eating disorders seemed to have been normal, almost expected, side-effects of their training.

The book is full of villains – coaches, parents and federations who failed totally in thier duty of care.  One thing that emerges clearly however  is the sheer bravery of those girls who make it anywhere near elite level.  The commitment, dedication and effort needed is truly remarkable.

Written over 20 years ago, the book seems sadly still relevant today.  A quick online search reveals countless stories suggesting little has changed.  The heart-breaking testimonies that led to conviction of Larry Nassar for horrific offences against young gymnasts paint a picture even more gruesome than the one portrayed by Ryan in the book.

As a soon to be parent, the book stands out to me as a warning not to live vicariously through your child and to always remember that life is for living, not for ‘winning’. I want my kid to love sport but, in the unlikely event they show much more talent than I have, I’ll be sure to never push them to achieve my dreams rather than let them figure out their own.

After reading this, I found myself instinctively picking up Friday Night Lights for a reread (blog post coming).  Little Girls In Pretty Boxes is every bit as powerful, compelling and moving as that Texas football classic.

gym

 

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