When does coaching become bullying?

22 February 2022

Reviews into the culture of sporting organisations over recent years have become more prevalent. Findings of bullying can be met in some quarters that sport is become too ‘PC’ or athletes are becoming ‘too soft’. There is no denying that competition is a stressful environment and those who are successful are those who are able to handle that stress, whether of the mind or the body. But what is the role of the coach in preparing the athlete for competition, and when does a coach step over the line?

The role of the sports coach

To understand the role of the sports coach it is first necessary to appreciate that the coach likely holds multiple relationships which he or she needs to balance. The obvious relationship is between the coach and the athlete, but that may not always be the primary relationship. Another relationship is between the coach and his/her employer (and even volunteer coaches may have a relationship to the club that has engaged them). The employer may put pressure on the coach to win, particularly if funding or sponsorship relies upon it.

The next relationship is with the wider body of athletes that the coach is responsible for. They too will have a desire to win and if an individual athlete within the team is not performing then pressure will be brought to bear on the coach to do something about it. And finally, there is the coach’s relationship with him or herself, by which I mean the coach’s own career aspirations or reputation (which convenience I shall refer to as ego) which may cause the coach to prioritise winning over the individual athlete.

Bullying occurs when these relationships are managed in such a way as to adversely impact the relationship between the coach and the individual athlete.

The coach / athlete relationship

In the work I do, I only need to manage one relationship, that is the relationship between me (coach) and the athlete. The athlete is my employer and there is no wider group of athletes to consider. The type of coaching I do requires that I let go of my own ego to serve the athlete and I measure my success on how much I can serve the athlete rather than the sporting results the athlete achieves. I say this only to demonstrate that in a ‘pure’ coach / athlete relationship, the role of the coach is to partner with the athlete to enable the athlete to become the best they can be. The question then arises is whether a coach can still aspire to this even though they must manage multiple relationships? The answer is yes, but only if the coach can align those competing interests.

The problem with winning as a measure of success

Everyone wants to win, but not everyone can. Every athlete has a performance limit. For some, that maybe an Olympic gold medal and for others it maybe coming 5th at the National Championships. That performance limit will be determined by any number of factors. For example, the athlete’s genetic make-up, life choices, financial resources, and support, to name a few. The coach must work within these constraints to lift the athlete to their performance limit and part of that process will involve the exploration of where that limit might be. Building reliance is part of that exploration but equally can be used as a mask for bullying behaviours if the desire to win (driven by external relationships) overtakes the true goal of finding the athlete’s performance limit. In short, the athlete is bullied to achieve a standard they can’t perform (at least at that stage of their career) and then not supported when failure occurs.

How to build resilience without resorting to bullying

To grow as human beings, we must move outside of our comfort zones. “Lean into the fear” is a phrase that I sometimes use with my clients. It means moving outside of the comfort zone in a manageable way. If I push a client too hard, the opposite effect will occur. Inaction will result and the client will stay where they are.

Training athletes is no different. A coach’s job is to move the athlete’s body and mind outside of their comfort zones to build more capability. So, the coach could implement a series of sessions over a season which build on each other in a progressive way. The coach’s role is to judge what the athlete can handle at a given time. As part of an exercise in exploration, the coach may decide to push the athlete to a point where it is obvious the athlete can’t handle the load (i.e. breaking point). That’s fine if the athlete and coach are aligned in the purpose. This can only be achieved by dialogue between coach and athlete. Tell the athlete the purpose of the session in advance and/or at least get feedback afterwards. Shouting is not off limits if it works for the athlete (alignment), but a coach can’t know that unless he/she asks and observes how the athlete responds. If an athlete is not responding positively to shouting (the athlete may respond once and then not again), then the coach is bullying. Similarly, using tactics to coerce the athlete to engage in certain behaviours is more likely to be bullying (e.g the silent treatment, criticising the athlete in front of teammates, withholding support). But an athlete who is aligned to the purpose is not being coerced even though from the outside it may look like a tough session. It is the coach’s job to ensure that alignment.

Dialogue is important to ensure alignment

Coaches shouldn’t be afraid to make tough decisions and implement tough training sessions. It is how those decisions are made and relayed, and how those training sessions conducted that is important. Allegations of bullying tend to arise when dialogue has broken down. To avoid allegations of bullying, coaches need to understand their role in relation to the athlete (find and achieve the performance limit), and when pressure is brought to bear from external relationships keep an open dialogue with the athlete to explain why certain decisions are being made and what the athlete needs to do to rectify matters. That leaves open the possibility for the athlete to come back and be better next season.

I can help athletes establish a good dialogue with their coach and can help coaches build good relationships with their athletes.

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