We work with a lot of coaches. Every kind, from volunteers to highly paid professionals. But, truly, it doesn’t matter if their job is about managing young children or winning national championships. They work with athletes, who like any of us, have basic human needs.
Part of those needs are to feel appreciated, listened to, and respected. However, within the realm of high performance sport, sometimes coaches can leave athletes feeling quite the contrary. Amongst some coaches, there is a deeply held belief that part of the rigor of becoming a successful athlete is learning how to handle what some might deem “tough love.”
However, the spectrum of what qualifies as tough love can be broad. Sometimes it includes behaviour that would push beyond acceptable in any professional workplace.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
There’s been a very public outing of some old-school coaching practices in the last number of months—at all levels, including university and professional ranks. For those close to the world of high performance sport it comes as no surprise, really. Instead, simply, something that many of us knew was only a matter of time.
What’s been disappointing about this process isn’t just the circumstances and tactics that have come to light, but, instead, that some individuals have seen this “cleaning house” as a loss—a loss! That moving forward as a professional coach in 2020 unable to utilize tactics that include shame and physical abuse is somehow going to effect the level of play in sport in an adverse way. That athletes will somehow be less thanwithout coaches to motivate them utilizing these archaic strategies. Wow—really?
Are there some progressive coaches out there that are building healthy high performing teams utilizing holistic practices, and achieving world class results? You bet. Dabo Sweeney, the head coach of the Clemson University Tigers football team is the standout example for us. He talks about building a culture of love amongst his players, and makes no apology for it. Why would he? He’s just gone 27 games undefeated!
On the opposite side of the field, we have a sports commentator on Fox News who recently referred to this new direction away from abusive coaching tactics as the “wussification of our youth.” If you think he’s just a one-off, think again. There are more than a few coaches who buy into the notion that high performing athletes respond best to threats, humiliation and punishment. And, we meet some of them in our workshops. Good people who believe that effective coaches have to be hard on their athletes, physically and emotionally, in order to be successful. Trouble is, by todays standards, much of their behaviour would be considered abusive.
As disturbing as that may sound, it speaks to the misunderstanding of what drives us to perform optimally, and perhaps more importantly shines a light on why these strategies have been embraced by coaches for so long. Science now tells us that many of these old-school strategies actually interfere with an athletes ability to access their best performance. That misunderstanding is why it’s so important that we redefine what effective coaching is and what it looks like as we move into the 3rd decade of the 21st century.
First of all, this is going to take some work. Because it involves possibly changing the “why” behind our passion for coaching. And, for many of us, that “why” has been held deeply for a very long time. However, it’s doable, and, more importantly, the possibilities here will make this work incredibly worthwhile. It simply requires coaches rethinking their role as influencers in the journey of their athletes.
When I was a first time coach, my “why” was me—plain and simple. I coached to garner personal recognition. If my teams were successful, then so was I. And, that drove me.
When I was faced with a good reason to revisit the “why” behind my coaching, everything changed. Including, my win-loss column. Yes, paradoxically, focusing on generating a positive experience for my athlete’s instead of my own accolades proved a winning strategy, as well.
Practically, it involves understanding that coaching is not just feedback. It’s not—it’s not good enough to simply tell someone what they need to do next. Foundational to good coaching is connection—human connection—on a heart level. It’s where we step into a more important and higher realm of coaching, one where we experience coaching as a practice. An art form that is developed and honed over years of trial and error. Fueled by a genuine commitment to getting better.
The conduit to those connections is the intention of service—which we believe is the essence of coaching. Adopting that belief supports our practice of coaching. When we step into the role of servant—where the athlete’s best interests become the driving force of our “why”—we open ourselves up to a level of coaching far beyond when it’s merely about us.
This was a difficult shift for me as a younger coach. Because it meant acknowledging that my original “why” was born out of personal wants that originated from my ego. Once I owned that, it was easy to recognize just how much of an interference that approach had been for me personally, and, not surprisingly, for the athletes I was working with.
Skill, knowledge, and strategy are foundational components required in being an effective and successful coach. However, it is the relationship between the coach and the athlete that will either support or impede all of these important components.
The essential paradigm when building relationships is seeing coaching as an exploration, and the strategy that supports it involves inquiry. When a coach uses effective questions that invite the athlete to the table as a problem solver—someone who is responsible for contributing to their own next steps—relationships flourish and performance heightens. To find out more about what that looks like, I wrote a detailed blog regarding the steps and strategy behind it. You can find it here.
Recently, a well intentioned initiative to employ police checks, reference checks and online sensitivity training began here in Canada as a first step in screening coaches. Although it may be useful on a surface level, it’s not addressing the systemic challenges that we face, nor is it foolproof. For example, if we took all of the high-profile coaches who have been fired in recent months and ran them through this catch-net, all of them would’ve “passed.”
Police checks wouldn’t have flagged anything of them. Depending on who you asked, all of them could have received shining referrals. As for online sensitivity training—I don’t imagine too many of us honestly think an online course is going to have the desired impact on seasoned coaches who have known nothing other than the abusive tactics that were used on them and that they now use on their athletes.
This speaks to the larger issue beyond the performance and success of individual athletes and teams—the overarching health and wellbeing of our youth as they pursue their athletic careers. If you look at some of the alarming events that have come to light these past few months, one could argue that none of them would have ever happened if the coach in each case saw themselves in service of their athletes.
Not surprisingly, the culprit in each instance has been the egoic pursuit of self-interests. As long as we continue to hold sport as a vehicle to serve the self-interests of coaches, owners, countries, schools, fans, and even parents, we will find ourselves compromising not only the health of our athletes, but also their ability to ever reach their best self.
Are we inviting a societal shift around sport? Yes. Is that a big ask? It certainly is. But, it’s where we are and it’s what’s required. Anything less will simply result in more of the same.
The most exciting part of this opportunity isn’t just improved performance from athletes, it’s what’s on the other side of this shift. If sport can find purpose that’s bigger than just winning stuff, it will take on a more meaningful capacity with our youth and inspire character that’s beyond just creating strong, confident and resilient athletes. Sport done well can do so much more, like developing youth that are more generous, more caring, more compassionate, and more connected. I’d be okay with that.