With all of the headlines in recent news about ongoing wars, torture of animals, mass shootings, economic crisis, environmental crisis, and football coach predators and cover ups, I’d like a break from the overwhelm of human failings. I hope to find this in the 2012 London Olympic Games. More than the spectacle of athleticism, what would make me feel better is seeing some redemption of coaches.
I want to see kindhearted, caring, supportive coaches prevail with their athletes; not supersized egos, seen in all sorts of sporting contexts outside of the Olympic arena, not “put me on a pedestal, I’m the coach” attitude, not one who exploits an athlete for his benefit. I want to see caring humans making a real difference with athletes they assist in limit pushing. I want to see coaches who act as facilitators of something that transcends individual egos. I want to see coaches who have great relationships with the athletes they serve. …Or at least believe that this is what’s happening behind the scenes.
The pageantry, ceremony, and celebrated beauty in physical form are pleasantries to behold during the Olympic Games. I love to watch mental skills in action: the looks of concentration, the pre-performance rituals, the quiet moments of meditation prior to “go time,” and supportive gestures from coach to athlete pre- and post-event. With the array of mental skills that are clearly important to athletic performance, a critical piece of performance that some neglect, avoid, or underappreciate, is the power of coaching—the coach/athlete relationship.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) holds that part of its mission is to promote coaching education. Attending to psychology and performance science is recognized as part of optimal coaching. I am happy to see the emphasis on the importance of sound coaching, involving psychological principles. At the same time I want coaches everywhere to recognize that a good relationship or alliance is the foundation for performance science to flourish. As with therapy, there is power in having a witness to what you are doing in an effort to be better at something. There is power in the subtle push of the witness that helps the process along. Similarly, there is enhanced physical performance when coaches pay attention to body, mind, and relationship. The crucible for any of the physical and mental skill building is the relationship.
Part of what makes therapy work is clear ethics and boundaries that define the rules of the relationship. I suggest that all coaches can enhance performance by taking care to be ethical in their important relationships with athletes. The USOC promotes a list of ethical principles and guidelines for Olympic coaches, similar to the codes therapists follow.
Some of the ethical guidelines in the USOC coaches’ code of ethics are as follows:
1.4 Basis For Professional Judgments
Coaches rely on scientifically and professionally derived knowledge when making professional judgments or when engaging in professional behaviors.
1.6 Respecting Others
Coaches respect the rights of others to values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from their own.
1.11 Avoiding Harm
Coaches take reasonable steps to avoid harming their athletes or other participants, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.
So here’s what I propose. Let’s aspire, as representatives of the USA, to be role models of good coaching. We pride ourselves on having a great lineup of athletes and tally of medals. Let’s see if the Olympic coaches can be the shining example that this country needs right now. And let’s agree that we’d like our coaches at all levels in the USA to perform at their best with all levels of athletes.
Here is my call to all coaches across the nation: If we want our youth to perform at their best in recreational, high school, and college sports, let’s take some direction from the Olympic coaches and their best practices embodied by their ethical guidelines. And here is my call to parents and school staff: If we want youth to perform at their best and agree that coaches are important facilitators of development, how about parents and schools adopt a code of ethics that parents and coaches have to sign and uphold? Let’s bring the Olympic spirit of striving for the best every 4 years to a daily practice of coaching in schools nationwide. If we want coaches to be respected and considered professionals, we need to start expecting them to uphold “what works” in the coaching world, starting with ethical guidelines that establish boundaries for appropriate behavior and good relationships. Knowledge, respect, and doing no harm within those relationships are critical elements.
What I often hear of and see is coaches who harm athletes with their words. While some people may believe that yelling, demeaning language or behavior, and verbal abuse can sometimes lead to performance gains, these things are unethical according to Olympic standards, not to mention largely ineffective. These behaviors could be considered as not scientifically sound, disrespectful, and harmful (see above ethical guidelines).
Whatever the caliber of athlete, recreational league, high school, college, or Olympic, we as the people who witness their performance need to make coaches accountable for how they perform, and not with a “firing line” for the win/loss record. Just like athletes practice their sport and aspire to constantly improve, I’d like coaches from all levels to aspire to be the best they can be and show it with sound coaching practices. No unethical behavior: No yelling, no verbal abuse, no humiliation, no disrespect. Instead, praise, corrective feedback, more praise, knowledge, motivation, understanding, supportive pushing, and respect for the path of discipline and hard work, with some fun along the way.
I’m sure we will see many exemplary performances by athletes in the coming weeks of the Olympic Games. But as for me, I will be watching the coaches. I hope to see some exemplary coaches on the sidelines role modeling what it means to be a great coach. I want to hear them say things to the media that restores my faith in the goodness of coaches who really have the athletes’ best interests at heart. I hope coaches everywhere will take note when they see subtle and overt support, encouragement, patience, and kindness toward the athletes who worked so hard to get there and recognize that our perceptions of coaching need to change. Let us see that ethical coaches do bring best performance, not the old ways of the “old school” coach. As youth aspire to be Olympic athletes, l encourage coaches to aspire to be Olympic standard coaches. Athletes would not excel in ways they do without the power of a good coaching relationship, but that power is often abused. Olympic coaches, please lead the way for coaches everywhere to practice respect, gain knowledge, and do no harm. That is worth more than gold.
USOC coaching ethics code. Retrieved 7-24-12 http://assets.usoc.org/assets/documents/attached_file/filename/1906/USOCCoachingEthicsCode.pdf
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