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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Coaches: where are our better angels?

In the last three years, a sequence of formal inquiries into coach behaviour have revealed the worst in unethical coaching. Not only in the territory of Larry Nasser’s despicable treatment of young female gymnasts, but in that murky driving of athletes to win at all costs. This is a longer post about coaching ethics.

The axiom “high performance sport is a tough business” has become the touchstone for some coaches to justify driving athletes to the edge of self-destruction. Too dramatic? Well, let’s take a look.

‘No compromise’, ‘winning is everything – and second is nothing’, ‘who remembers second place?’, ‘unashamedly in pursuit of excellence’……..

CNN reported recently that University of Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin and members of the athletics staff have been placed on administrative leave during an investigation of the death by heatstroke during practice of Jordan McNair.

Ethics centre around ideas of what we ‘ought to do’ and what we ‘must do’. While rules and laws tend to proscribe the ‘must do’ – we must call on our better angels to judge what we ‘ought’ to do. A practical first step for coaches is to think about how ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ intersect and how to identify and use the teachable moments that arise on the coaching floor. Team sports provide endless opportunities for such moments. The best coaches will ensure practice applies the rules i.e. practice the way we wish to compete. Individual sports provide different moments.

At the very least, professional coaches must balance contractual duties against their ethical principles. The majority of coaches – amateur and volunteer, will not have such dilemmas. For them, it is straight ethical choice. And shouldn’t that be easier? Well, maybe: but we don’t develop ethical principles in a vacuum. In day-to-day living, we rarely encounter the ethical challenges of sport. So coaching ethics are mostly developed through experience. At their best, our early-career decisions teach us about future decisions.

In real life, however, many coaches are more challenged when they are asked to modify their ethical base than they are when give the opportunity change their tactical approaches to games or ways to address conditioning practice. Why is that? Most simply, you can change your tactics or conditioning programme without any real challenge to your belief system. Not so with ethics. Holding two ‘feelings’ inside ourselves at the same time is uncomfortable and unsettling. In my view, herein lies the real challenge of becoming a better coach.

The 2017 investigation into UK Cycling’s high performance programme provided a revealing recommendation “the evolution of an adult-adult [adult-to-adult] relationship between World Class Programme (WCP) staff and riders should be nurtured.” In that recommendation alone are telling observations.

First, the conclusion that a world class programme could involve anything but adult-to-adult relationships is breath-taking. In today’s era of a science-based, best practice, long-term investment, planned programme environment, underpinned by investing millions of public dollars – and then we are told that ‘adult-to-adult relationships should be “nurtured”!! Better words might have been: ‘compulsory’, ‘mandatory’, or ‘taken as read’.

Second, it seems clear that the reported WCP staff behaviour is not unique to UK cycling. If we hold onto the ‘adult-to-adult relationship’ framework, recent very public tensions in high performance programmes seem to be underpinned by dysfunctional relationships driven by coaches.

In February 1985, Hoosier basketball coach Bobby Knight’s volcanic temper exploded and he threw a chair across the floor in a major NCAA Big 10 Conference game against Purdue. Often described as an inspirational coach – and undoubtedly his coaching prepared great teams, how much better could he have been if his child-adult behaviour had been better controlled?

High performance sport is indeed a tough and challenging experience. The athletes themselves may impose uncompromising standards on themselves. Often this leads to overtraining, eating disorders, injury and, from time to time, outstanding athletes leaving the sport. Our responsibility as coaches is the application of ethical frameworks to our guidance – to do the right thing.

The phrase ‘no compromises’, while slipping off the tongue easily, has little meaning unless it can be interpreted in a meaningful way. Does it mean athletes should compromise their physical and mental wellbeing? There is no bottomless resource of energy, effort and commitment. We know that physical training intensity can’t be sustained at 90% plus of maximum. We know that optimal physiological and neuromuscular adaptation occurs at sub-maximal workloads. But not all athletes in a group will have matched physiological capabilities. Some will have a greater capacity for work than others and some will have different physiological and psychological capabilities to others.

In 1907, the English philosopher, Hastings Rashdall, wrote “sport has been well defined as the overcoming of difficulties simply for the sake of overcoming them”. It’s a seductive framework implying that rules of the game are there to make sport challenging. But from an ethics perspective, that’s not enough. Is it not that sport also gives us the chance to demonstrate the best of ourselves in terms of excellence and doing the right thing?

(photo: Titian)

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