How athletes should speak up and why it is important to do so

19 May 2022

A recent inquiry into the culture of the high-performance environment at one of New Zealand’s top sports revealed:

Many athletes perceive that their ability to perform is the most important thing, and some … athletes reported that they were afraid to speak up about personal grievances, physical or mental health concerns, or complain about staff or processes that negatively impact them out of fear that they will be seen as incapable and will not be selected for a team or competition as a result. This feeds into the “sweep it under the rug” mentality.

Whilst this finding won’t be a surprise to many, it is concerning that athletes feel this way. Speaking up requires courage and that can often be determined by an athlete’s personality or the degree of success they have had in their sport (more successful athletes feel more empowered to speak up). However, every athlete should feel empowered to speak and there are skills that can be learned which enable powerful conversations to take place.

Why speaking up is so important

One other interesting finding from the same report was how athletes need to feel to perform at their best. The top five feelings were:

  • Supported
  • Welcomed
  • Appreciated
  • Understood
  • Energized

On the flip side, the negative feelings which prevented athletes performing to their best were:

  • Powerless
  • Judged
  • Controlled
  • Disconnected
  • Insulted
  • Neglected
  • Confused

The relationship between an athlete and her coach, or her sports organisation should be one of partnership with the aim of being successful in the field of play. However, there is usually a power imbalance which can stem from the coach’s ability to select teams, or an organisation’s ability to fund athletes. Sometimes that power imbalance is reinforced by negative behaviours from the coach or the organisation. I have heard stories of athletes being left out of teams because they expressed how they were feeling after a hard workout. I was nearly dropped from a crew after expressing nervousness about a race – a feeling experienced (but not often vocalized) by all athletes.

Where there is a fear of speaking up there is no partnership relationship. Rather it is more akin to a master and servant relationship. However, it is those types of relationship that lead to the negative feelings outlined above, and inevitably below par performances in the field of play.

Why speaking up is so difficult

Let’s acknowledge first, that regardless of the state of the coach / athlete relationship, many athletes will find speaking up to be extremely difficult. The reason for that is because speaking up requires some form of confrontation. Inevitably, the athlete will have a perspective that is not shared by the coach. As human beings, most (but not all) of us are wired to avoid confrontation. Often, we will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation even when it may harm us by doing so. The fear of confrontation will often outweigh the benefits that a resolution may bring. If you add to that a fear of reprisal, then it is no surprise that athletes often choose not to speak up.

Therefore, any athlete wishing to engage in a partnership relationship with their coach needs to overcome the fear of confrontation and develop the courage to raise issues when they arise. Given that a partnership is a two-way relationship, how a coach responds will in part depend on the coach and is therefore outside of the athlete’s control, but there are many things an athlete can do to ensure they get the response they are looking for when they raise the issue.

The importance of empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Often the term is used for people who can sense what someone else is feeling. However, the term can also be used to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Those with natural empathy tend to sense, whereas those without natural empathy can still imagine.

But whether you have natural empathy of not, speaking up creates its own challenges. I find that those with natural empathy need to develop more courage. They will be acutely aware of the potential for a negative reaction and therefore shy away from the conversation. Those without natural empathy on the other hand often struggle to put themselves in the shoes of the other person, and therefore end up raising the issue in a way which prompts a negative action from the other person. Both types of athletes need help with confrontation.

Tips for speaking up

Whilst every situation will be different and will require its own preparation beforehand, there are some useful tips which I have found work in almost every situation.

  • Make the time to prepare for your difficult conversation. So many people shoot from the hip and regret it later. If you are not used to having difficult conversations, the more time you can spend preparing, the more likely you are to get a positive outcome.
  • When raising an issue which may lead to confrontation, be empathetic and put yourself in the shoes of the person who is receiving the information. When you can do that, it is possible to craft your message in such a way that it does not create confrontation. Negative terms, particularly those which convey some form of blame, should be avoided. Ask yourself, ‘how would he respond if I said it this way? What is a better way of saying the same thing?’ Look for shared goals / objectives and craft your message around them so you come from a position of unity rather than division.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions (and then listen for the answer). Asking questions allows you to understand the other person’s perspective and identity what is important to them. When you understand what is important to the other person, then you can craft your message appropriately to get a good response. It’s a given that everyone in a high-performance environment wants to win, but people’s needs go beyond winning. What is important to them may not be the same as what is important to you. Don’t make assumptions and listen to how they respond.
  • Once you fully understand the other person’s position on a matter, don’t be afraid to make a proposal for resolution of the issue. Craft your proposal in such a way to meet the needs of the other person as well as your needs. It is much easier to talk about a proposal than an issue, and it moves the conversation forward.
  • Don’t be afraid to share information or feelings if you are in a safe environment to do so. If you are open in your communication, then it is more likely that same openness will be reciprocated by the other person. If it is not reciprocated, or you know it will not be reciprocated, then that is a sign there is a more fundamental problem with the relationship. It could be time to look for another coach or raise the issue with someone else, because the relationship is showing signs of not being healthy.
  • Choose your time (and place) wisely. For example, speaking up in front of others may put the person on the defensive. Instead, find somewhere private and at a time when you know the person may be more receptive to what you have to say. If they are already tired and wound-up from something else, then wait for a better time.

The importance of having support

Support can take many forms. One way you can get support is to have a life coach help you prepare for a difficult conversation and find ways to overcome the fear of confrontation or gain courage. You could also use a support person to come with you to any meeting with your sports coach to help guide you on what to say or how to respond as the discussion develops. Many organisations are now encouraging athlete representative bodies to provide that support, however alongside those I would also recommend learning how to have those difficult conversations yourself rather than simply leave it to your support body. After all, the relationship between you and your sports coach is personal and you need to know how to relate to each other.

I can help athletes prepare for difficult conversations with their coach and accompany athletes to meetings

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