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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Coaches: holding the ethical line

Tennis players turning up to a tournament, withdrawing without serving a ball, yet each claiming guaranteed prize money of $7,604. Then the four New Zealand rugby players who received various lengths of suspension for the use of performance enhancing drug Clenbuterol. Two more teachable moments for coaches.

How you view the first example depends on your point of view. These are professional players who, presumably knew what they were in for by playing a couple of tournaments to open the year. The ATP has accepted their excuses/reasons and thus enabled them to claim their $7,604 prize money. Administrators defended their withdrawals, "It's always a possibility because in live sport it happens. The bigger concern would be players pulling out before they got here, that would be an issue. They make the effort to come to the event and that's demonstrated the desire to play here". We have no objective reason to doubt their claims. Coaches and players on the circuit may be comfortable with the withdrawals – its part of the game’: four withdrawing is a statistical blip rather than a troubling pattern.

But for coaches of lower grade players or those on the cusp of the professional game, explaining those withdrawals is less easy. Many coaches are focused on the physical, mental, technical and tactical elements of performance. Moral choices are some of the greatest challenges our athletes face. The line between right and wrong is mostly not grey but sharply drawn. How many coaches test-drive these situations with athletes?

And then there is the alternate view: something suspicious is not proof of fault. In July 2017, Slovakian and Ukrainian players, respectively—failed to last until a third set against a Mr Federer and Mr Djokovic respectively. It appears that both players were attempting to manage nagging injuries. When combined with the formidable skills of their opponents, their bodies failed them completely.

Like much in life, player behaviour is about incentives. In 2017, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), trialled a new rule whereby a player withdrawing before the first round starts, earns the prize money of a first-round loser, while his/her place in the draw is given to a ‘lucky loser’. On 8 July, the Economist magazine (economists are interested in how incentives drive behaviour) reported that “six months into the trial, the number of pre-tournament withdrawals more than doubled. However, despite the shift in incentives, the number of first-round retirements has slightly risen as well.”

What’s the issue here? The rewards of professional tennis are very high for winners and difficult to achieve for those who don’t. Similar incentives drive doping - as in our second example. 'Similar' in the sense that doping-induced performance may be perceived as a route to better performance and accompanying social recognition.

A rules-based solution to the tennis problem lies in the hands of tennis administrators. We have anti-doping rules for all sporting codes to implement, as New Zealand Rugby did with the four players mentioned earlier (and there may be more to come). But coaches must hold the fenceline at the top of the ethical cliff. We are the influencers, the shapers of attitudes, and teachers of decision-making skills. Teachable moments are points in time when you can role-play or simulate decision-making processes linked to real-life events. By the way, the Economist notes that to July 2017, Roger Federer has never failed to complete one of his 1,351 career contests!

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