Blog Post: High Performance Sport is Good Sport

Recently, I attended a think tank supported by Canada’s Own the Podium (OTP), designed to explore what it will take to enhance the culture of sport and sport teams in Canada. Culture is an important high performance factor and presents an additional opportunity to enhance performance in our quest for excellence.

OTP is a not-for-profit organization that prioritizes and determines investment strategies for National Sport Organizations in an effort to deliver more Olympic and Paralympic medals for Canada. What the leaders of OTP are finding is that winning medals involves more than mental and physical training; there is a social or cultural element to winning as well. A strong team culture is crucial to performance.

Cultural strength is the degree to which a group of individuals acts in alignment with their shared purpose and values. Cultural strength is authentic practice. When a team is clear on their shared purpose and values, and they consistently ‘walk the talk’ by fully living those values in their daily practice, behaviours, communication, and actions, they create a level of clarity, confidence, trust, and commitment that then enables and fosters focus, intensity, and personal growth.

In contrast, cultural weakness is demarcated by contradiction, incongruity, inconsistency, and misalignment between what is said and what is done. For instance, when a coach says s/he values development, yet does not provide opportunities for development, does not reward development, and does not acknowledge development, then the coach is creating cultural fractures in the team and performance landscape. Inconsistent messages cause athletes to feel less supported, clear, trusting, and confident. Athletes will waste energy and focus by questioning their experience, the coaching practice, their performance, and expectations. Reduced focus and confidence impacts performance negatively.

Other researchers would call such inauthenticity ‘poor coaching‘ and clearly we should simply strive to foster good coaching; but in order to identify what makes a ‘good coach’, it is important to understand the factors at play and the impacts ‘poor coaches’ can have.

We know that a good coach strives for excellence in all ways and operates authentically in alignment with the shared values and purpose of the team. But what values are good values? And what is the purpose of sport? What if a coach values ‘breaking down an athlete in order to build them up’ and lives these values consistently by depriving, neglecting, berating, harassing and bullying their athletes? We know that bullying has a negative impact on performance. What if the purpose of sport is to only win medals? Then we slide down a slippery slope of assuming that medals are more important than human beings and community.

A growing cultural value in sport is ‘winning’ and to win at all costs. Currently, winning trumps health, safety, and respect. Winning at all costs is not winning; reaching the podium with the help of anabolic steroids is not winning; reaching the podium in a state of physical injury or mental illness is not winning; reaching the podium under duress of bullying, abuse, or harassment is not winning. By valuing winning over anything else, we actually lose more than medals; we lose kids because they drop out, we lose participation in sport, we lose confidence, self-efficacy, motivation, intensity, performance, and persistence. The reputational cost to sport is tremendous. With winning as our core purpose and value, we may in fact lose sport.

Therefore, what the leaders of OTP are also finding through exploring the nature and value of cultural strength, is that winning involves more than medals. A medal is one measure of winning, but not the whole measure. True winning includes integrity – reflecting one’s physical, emotional, and mental integrity as well as one’s integrity of character.

With winning as our core purpose and value, we may in fact lose sport.

J Walinga OLY PhD

With this expanded definition of winning as ‘winning with integrity’, Canada’s sport leaders are able to encourage national, provincial, club, and school sport organizations and teams to strive for excellence in all ways. I believe that the purpose of sport is challenge one another as individuals and teams to develop physically, mentally, and socio-emotionally, to pursue excellence through collaborative competition. We must strive to coach well, by building esteem, self efficacy, capacity, and self worth because we know that building the whole athlete results in greater effort, commitment, persistence and overall performance both within and beyond sport.

Sport-related research on self-efficacy indicates the necessity of building confidence in athletes. High self-efficacy is related to numerous desirable outcomes, including increased performance (Feltz, 1988), choosing difficult tasks or sports where efficacy is high (Escarti & Guzman, 1999), increased effort (George, 1994), increased persistence (Biddle, 1985) and managing emotional reactions (McAuley, 1985; Treasure, Monson, & Lox, 1996). We could expect, therefore, athletes in the present study who reported having a coach who engendered self-doubt would experience decreases in performance, would choose easier tasks, would not give as much effort or persist as long, would attribute their performances to ability, and would have a more difficult time controlling their emotions,”we had so many guys [teammates] that were so talented but it came to crunch time and they’re scared that they were gonna fail in his eyes and get degraded and benched and guys [were] like, ‘Why do it?” (Mickey).

Gearity, Brian & Thompson, Melissa. (2011). Athletes’ experiences of psychological effects of poor coaching. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 12. 213-221.

The purpose of sport is not to win, it is to strive for excellence. Winning is a measure, an outcome, not the purpose of sport. What is valuable in sport, what is most important, is the development of the whole athlete through their sport education so that they can inspire, lead, and contribute both within and beyond sport.

“The team who fights for a bigger cause together off the field, often wins together on it.”

Becky Carlson @TheFearlessCoach

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