British Columbia·CBC Investigates

North Vancouver gymnastics club asked to clarify rules around disciplining kids

Flicka Gymnastics club in North Vancouver has been asked to clarify its discipline policy around kids as young as three years old. The recommendation comes following a complaint from parents of a five-year-old girl who claim their daughter's coaches forced her to do the splits for 42 minutes.

Parents allege 5-year-old forced to do splits for 42 minutes, Gymnastics B.C. dismisses complaint

The parents don't feel their complaint about treatment at Flicka Gymnastics has been taken seriously. (Submitted by family)

A popular gymnastics club in North Vancouver has been instructed to clarify how it disciplines members as young as three years old.

The suggestions come after parents of a five-year-old girl made a complaint alleging their daughter was forced to do the splits for 42 minutes by her coaches as punishment while attending the competitive program at Flicka Gymnastics in April.

The family says the girl's mom was so concerned she pulled her daughter off the floor.

"She took her into the bathroom and said are you all right? And [our daughter] said she didn't know if she wanted to continue," said Oliver Hajdu, the girl's father. 

Oliver Hajdu is frustrated with the complaint process and wants Gymnastics B.C. to take further action. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Ultimately, they decided to finish training that evening, so the mom could talk to the coaches after practice. The claim was immediately contested by the club, including the young girl's Grade 11 coach.

Following the complaint, Gymnastics B.C. says it enlisted a third party investigator to look into allegations of "harassment" by the parents.

The investigation found the family's claim to be invalid. No one at Flicka can say exactly what happened.

The club does acknowledge that "an incident occurred and should not have."

As part of the investigation, coaches at Flicka say the child was not paying attention during conditioning training, so she was told to "sit out" because she hadn't finished her exercises.

"She was asked to stretch while she sat out for her rotation. The details of that are where it gets murky," said Flicka's Nicole Turcotte.

"Absolutely, we acknowledge there was an incident that occurred and regrettably it evolved into this but not that she was forced to be in the splits for 42 minutes."

The young gymnast loves the sport but is no longer with the club. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Hajdu says his daughter was unable to walk the next day.

"When she woke up she had to crawl down the hallway to be able to go to the toilet because she couldn't stand or walk," said Hajdu.

"I had her go to the doctor and he said that she couldn't attend gymnastics for at least several days, until she could walk again."

Hajdu takes issue with the complaint process at both the club and Gymnastics B.C. and says for months it didn't feel like the family's concerns were being taken seriously.

"It feels like you're caught in a system where people are just simply pushing your complaint around until you go away," he said.  

"I was really surprised because I thought it would be taken far more seriously, because it involved a child and I thought the resolution would be immediate, or, at least, there would be some sort of action taken."

'Incident should not have occurred'

In a statement to CBC News, Gymnastics B.C. says it has dismissed the complaint but acknowledges there was a problem.

"After careful review of the harassment complaint investigation report, the committee recognizes the incident should not have occurred and presents the opportunity to learn and improve with the objective of preventing a similar situation from occurring in the future," read the statement.

CEO Brian Forrester says safety is paramount.

"The safety of children participating in our member clubs is the primary concern of Gymnastics B.C ... We take these accusations very seriously."

Changing the discipline policy

Now, six months after the initial complaint, the recommendations being made to Flicka include accepting there were gaps in the club's processes and policies.

Gymnastics B.C. says it wants Flicka to "acknowledge that in the days following the incident, they did not consider the athlete's interests to the same extent to which they protected coaches' interests."

Flicka has been asked to clarify what it means to "sit out" for disciplinary reasons. The suggestion is that if an athlete is asked to "sit out" after three warnings have been issued, a supervising coach must be consulted.

The recommendations says the time period should coincide with the age of the athlete (i.e six minutes for a six-year-old) and that while sitting out, a child is not to do any conditioning or other gymnastics related activity.

Flicka denies the child was forced to do the splits. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

"We definitely want to make sure this is addressed quickly and appropriately. If anything, this has given us an opportunity to learn from the situation," said Turcotte.

"We don't have a strict timeline in place but we will be addressing this with the board and our coaches to make sure a situation like this doesn't arise again."

Hajdu is skeptical anything will change and wants more oversight.

"Everything they have in their own handbooks and their own guidelines, they ignore," said Hajdu.

As part of the recommendations, Gymnastics BC says Hajdu's daughter should be able to return to Flicka, but the dad says they've now chosen another club.