Medals over morals; who's coaching our coaches?

UK Sport has been described as being in the midst of a crisis[1]. In recent months, a third of UK Sport-funded governing bodies have had to confront athlete welfare issues or complaints. Bullying, sexual and physical abuse, and cultures of fear have all recently been exposed in sports celebrated as examples of best-practice environments. Concerns have been raised that medals have been prioritized over morals in our Olympic and Paralympic Sports. As welfare and duty of care for athletes have become hot topics, we are left wondering how this has happened and who is responsible for taking action?

Medals at what cost?

We all know that elite sport environments are demanding. In the quest for excellence phrases such as ‘no compromise culture’ are recited as mantras. However, the continual push for medals and the extraction of every possible marginal gain means that sports often walk a fine line between being challenging and oppressive.

Some of those closer to the latter are able to cite recent Olympic success as justification for their methods and to dismiss athletes complaining of bullying as being ‘bitter about de-selection’ or ‘mentally weak’. Regardless of Olympic success the number of disturbing claims across a range of our sports confirms there have been casualties along the way. Isn’t it time for us to face up to the shadow side of our celebrated Olympic medal table and decide whether this really is the legacy Team GB wants to create?

Embracing the Paradox of support AND challenge

UK Sport has promised a "root-and-branch review" of culture in high-performance programmes. This much-needed review should start by exploring the beliefs and assumptions that hard and unrelenting environments are required for success. We believe that this message has been grossly overplayed. Recently athletes have described being "treated as a piece of data, a statistic"[2] in the pursuit of medals and funding. This myopic focus on ‘objective measures’ shows a failure to appreciate the human side of high performance. Of course high performance environments promote high standards and a relentless work ethic. Importantly they can also provide care, compassion and support. The challenge for our high performance coaches is to embrace the paradox and find a way to provide support and challenge together. One does not need to detract from the other. The aim should be to win medals whilst upholding the highest standards of integrity.

Supporting the coaches

In order to achieve ‘medals with morals’, we must invest in our coaches. They are key architects of the environment in which their athletes train and perform. For this reason, we strongly advocate that coaches, like their athletes, must be coached too.

Coaches constantly encourage athletes to leave no stone unturned in their quest to fulfill their potential. But are coaches being supported to be able to do the same? Recent criticism from athletes would suggest not[3]. Support is predominantly focused on the athlete through provision of multi-disciplinary support such as strength and conditioning, medicine, physiotherapy, nutrition and psychology. But what about support for the coach? Who is giving them feedback? Who is helping them to reflect on their work and what they are learning? If anyone, it tends to be another coach or a mentor. Whilst these relationships can be useful, they are usually with people from the same organisation or sport, meaning that the coach doesn’t always develop a fresh or objective perspective. Also, conversations often involve the mentor/other coach sharing ‘what worked for me’ or giving advice rather than helping the coach to reflect on their own situation and see things from multiple perspectives. In short, coaches require more than just informal advice and mentoring to be their best. They require professional challenge and support.

Supervision for ‘super-vision’

This is where supervision can help. By supervision we mean professional 1:1 support for coaches. Supervision sessions involve coaches periodically bringing their coaching experiences to an external coaching supervisor to discuss and learn from. These sessions provide coaches with a safe confidential space to explore all aspects of their work and ensure they are continually developing. The coach and supervisor may also agree for the supervisor to observe the coach in action so that they can provide further feedback.

The benefits of coaching supervision include:

  • ‘Super-vision’

Together the coach and supervisor take a ‘helicopter view’ of the coach’s work with a view to gaining ‘super-vision’ of all the relationships and dynamics involved.

  • Keeping the coach honest

A skilled supervisor helps the coach attend to what they are not seeing, saying, hearing or allowing themselves to feel[4].

  • Increased ‘coaching agility’

It is easy for coaches to stick rigidly to their tried and tested methods. Supervision can help the coach understand the beliefs and biases underpinning their practice and explore how to flex their style.

  • Continuous personal and professional development

Supervision ensures that the coach has a development agenda and is continually working towards it. Coaches could be working on themselves as ‘instruments of change’ and not just on technical and tactical approaches.

  • Ethical ‘intelligence’

A ‘win at all costs’ mentality has created pressure to violate rules in order to gain competitive advantage. Coaches need support to help them become aware of and navigate ethical dilemmas.

  • Support to manage the demands and stresses of coaching

Coaches can feel pressure to show no weakness and to be ‘the guru’ with all the answers. At supervision sessions the coach can express their concerns and worst fears without being judged. This can be restorative and re-energising. 

A call to arms

We believe that coaching supervision will significantly transform coaching standards in sport. It will also enable sports to develop and grow their own world-class coaches. Given that supervision sessions are commonplace for business coaches and healthcare professionals; why shouldn’t this be the case in sport too?

We are pragmatic and know that supervision, like any form of development, can easily be pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Resistance to it may be expressed, as ‘I don’t have time’, ‘I already do it informally with other coaches’, ‘I don’t need therapy’, ‘I’ve coached successfully for years and know what works’ or ‘how is someone with no background in sport going to help me?’.

Our belief is that these barriers will start to disappear once coaches experience the value that supervision has to offer them. However, the leaders of their organisations can play a key role here by:

  • Articulating compellingly to coaches and staff what coaching supervision is and how it will contribute towards them achieving the goals and vision.
  • Recruiting the services of trained external coach supervisors to work with their coaches.
  • Actively supporting supervision through providing time and resources for coaches to have supervision sessions.
  • Engaging in coaching and supervision sessions themselves to role model the importance of it.
  • Ensuring the process and logistics of supervision are well managed. This includes support to match coaches with a supervisor, book sessions, and evaluate progress.

Putting these steps in place gives coaching supervision the best chance of being successful. By success we mean coaches who are continuously learning, developing, and enjoying working more effectively and ethically. Now is the time to make this happen. The ‘win at all costs’ mentality has eroded public faith in our sports. We want to see National Governing Bodies that are successful and live the Olympic and Paralympic values and ideals.

Dr Mark Gittins & Dr Jenny Denyer

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