Blog Post: We need coaches who can develop leaders, not Neanderthals and narcissists

Blog by Jennifer Walinga, PhD

The tough guy mentality in sport is dead. It’s time to evolve.

Interestingly, values based coaching is not new.

Canada’s Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle (left) competing in the 2- rowing event at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. (CP PHOTO/ COC/F.S.Grant)

There is a curious assumption that in order to get people to perform we must break them down. We call it ‘old school coaching’. I suppose we have inherited this mindset from the military; however, in sport, the militaristic approach does not make sense. While athletes certainly need to develop resilience in order to stretch their limits, sport is not battle and athletes are not facing a life or death scenario. In fact, an athlete who pushes through risk is a liability for injury. Nor does the militaristic approach actually work according to the latest research.

We know that the ill effects of ‘old school coaching’, which translates into physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, harassment and bullying, are significant: There are several ways athletes perceive a poor coach to be inhibiting their mental skills. “In the heat of the action, usually during a game, poor coaches were perceived to be distracting and to cause athletes to lose focus. Athletes also talked about how poor coaches inhibited them by engendering self-doubt through the harmful things they did. Further, by not encouraging them, they perceived poor coaches to be demotivating. Lastly, poor coaches were seen as not only inhibiting individual athlete’s mental skills, but as dividing the team” (Gearity and Thompson, 2011, p. 215).

Along with colleagues Patricia Obee and Barton J Cunningham from UVic, and Danielle Cyr from Mt St Vincent, I was recently part of a research team examining what (if any) cultural and leadership factors contribute to performance in sport.

We are finding that when sport is played, offered, and delivered with the purpose of developing the whole human being, the outcome is optimal performance. We found that non hierarchical, coach values driven structures foster non hierarchical behaviours which then reinforce non hierarchical values in the athlete and coach leading to high performance outcomes.

Our model of Leadership Development Through Sport is:

  • Governed by the underlying assumption that sport is for human and social development
  • Supported by the values of integrity, effort, and safety
  • Comprised of non-hierarchical structures/processes/systems
  • Fostering non-hierarchical attitudes and behaviours
  • Creating an environment that facilitates the development of leadership competence and abilities
  • Resulting in peak performance within and beyond sport
Figure 1. Leadership Development through Sport Model: Forming, Norming, Storming/ Learning, Performing and Transitioning (Walinga, Obee, Cunningham & Cyr, 2019).

We reviewed the experience of 11 women rowers who reached their peak performance winning multiple gold medals in the 1991 World Championships and 1992 Olympics. The case study, based on interviews, group discussions, and participant observation, reviewed their development from 1988 to 1992 and identified leadership development focused values, structures, and environments as integral to their performance. Our research builds on Schein’s organizational cultural development theory which highlights the link between assumptions, values and “artifacts” which are the enactments of values through communications, actions, behaviours, structures, and processes. The research also extends Tuckman’s model of group development in emphasizing phases of forming, norming, “learning”, performing, and “transitioning”, where learning is an interactive process facilitated by the formal leader and team members, and transitioning is illustrated in how athletes shifted from peak performance in the sport to productive involvement in other roles and contexts of life.

We postulate that the participants’ extraordinary success – recall that this was the era of steroid use and the peak of eastern bloc domination in sport – may be attributed to the total focus they were able to allocate to their performance as a result of the cultural integrity achieved through the alignment of values, principles, processes, structures and actions.

For instance, grounded within the guiding principle that sport is ultimately for the purpose of human and social development, the coach believed and communicated that sport needed to be a safe place to learn and fail, that everyone was equal, nobody was more important, including him, and that all that mattered was putting forth one’s best effort, and competing with integrity.

I did find it helpful to be really morally grounded… I felt like I was doing the right thing. I had the opportunity to do the right thing everyday; it was empowering and inspiring.

His processes and systems then reflected these non hierarchical values and beliefs:

Clarity:

There was a purpose to everything we did… we knew what the objective was, we knew what we were striving to do in the workout, more than what the workout was, we knew what we were trying to achieve in the workout.

You can’t be inspired if you don’t have a clue what the overall goal is.

Collaboration:

He made sure we deliberately had a chance to speak and really listen to each other, no matter where we were on the ranking, he asked people who were lower ranked [for their opinion during meetings].

Curiosity:

…being a student of your sport, growth mindset, that you are inquiring all the time, appreciative inquiry, asking questions and learning

Communicated Vision:

We had a meeting right at the beginning of the quadrennial…the whole quad was laid out, the goals, the expectations, the training model, the time standards we would need to meet… and the question was posed: are you in? Are you prepared to do what it takes to achieve this level of excellence? I had never felt more committed.

Community:

It always felt to me that there was a lot of mutual support and the people that didn’t quite make the team were still respected and people were genuinely sorry that they didn’t make the team. No one was out to get anyone else.

Ultimately, the athletes supported the notion that what helped them achieve optimal performance was the value their coach placed on developing them as whole athletes:

You felt that he recognized and respected you as a person first and a rower second. It was more important to him that we be good people even more than good rowers. This influenced everything he did and all the decisions he made and how he treated us … in a way it helped us keep a grounded perspective, it was ‘just the Olympics, not the cure for cancer.’ It was an effective way to remind us the importance of other things and importance of other people.

As a result, the rowers were able to transition out of sport more effectively:

My identity isn’t so linked to sport, everyone wants to see my medal again and I just think ‘yes this is a significant part of me, but that is not all of me’.

We are human beings – we aren’t mono-dimensional – we are multi-dimensional people and we need to consider that in everything we do. Focusing on something to be really good at, for peak performance you might at some point put other things on the back burner, but for your mental health and well-being you have to know how that will fit in the broader scheme of life.

The foundation of non hierarchical values, embedded in practice, influenced the development of the athletes’ values. Athletes learned to value diversity, gained respect for one another, and found that joy was critical to achieving their goals:

We learned to trust and respect each other and why did we learn this, because we were given the opportunities through training and racing and through selecting and through those experiences we learned to trust and respect each other and that was the foundation of everything.

What’s the point of doing anything if you aren’t enjoying it? I mean winning is fun but just if you are enjoying yourself getting there.

As a bow person I needed to recognize these things because it made the boat go better. It can’t just be about me, I have to connect… you have to be open to learn stuff about other people.

It is the ultimate team sport, you can’t do anything on your own … you can’t say ‘that’s not my problem’; if someone is struggling you have to help them.

Finally, athletes then developed competencies and abilities through the experience including self-efficacy, resilience, and self-awareness, enabling them to further uphold their personal, team and coach values of equality and diversity. The non-hierarchical structures, processes, and systems, as well as the coach’s values orientation infiltrated athletes’ attitudes and behaviours, providing an environment for fostering self-efficacy, resilience and self-awareness. These three themes emerged as key components of optimal performance, personal leadership development, and well-being.

Resilience:

I think rowing really taught me resilience…I am going to fall flat on my face and I am going to get up again and then I am going to fall again and I don’t think I can do another day… similar to rowing, you don’t think you can do one more day, and that you might not actually do it this time…resiliency to get back up and going. That getting back up, I did this before, it’s like a habit.

Racing experience helps you to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. The more we raced, we knew we could trust ourselves and that we would respond to situations appropriately.

Self Efficacy:

I realize that I have more agency than I really believed I had… a big thing that comes to mind about sports is the confidence it gave me in my ability to work consistently, I can’t cram for a race…. this felt like I had to work, it was the mental challenge of having to work. It had a really huge impact on showing me that I was actually more than I thought….

Self Awareness:

…learning about myself and what I need to do to get through life situations to feel balance in stressful situations… a high level of self-awareness, humility and empathy and then understanding the behaviour that supports those values so that you can check yourself against that, personally, how do I show-up everyday, it doesn’t mean with a big smile on your face.

Self-responsibility – these are life skills we can develop from sport – where am I going to go with this, what is my role in this and how I am going to vault myself from this? I was always accountable for my stuff, I knew I was the one, so I think I was introspective, and thinking what is my part in this.

Through racing with and against each other, you gain confidence, you gain knowledge about each other and self-knowledge, and all that feeds into good performance.

The team was led and facilitated by their coach but they eventually all became leaders within the team and beyond within their post sport careers. Their team experience was governed by the underlying assumption that ‘sport is for human and social development’. This assumption was represented through the expressed and enacted values of integrity (honesty, fairness, equity), effort (and the constant striving or pursuit of excellence), and safety (and the expectation that sport be a safe place to try and fail).

These values were expressed through non-hierarchical structures, processes, and systems including collaboration, curiosity, clarity, purposeful communication, and supportive community, which in turn fostered the expression and enactment of non-hierarchical attitudes and behaviours such as perspective, appreciation for diversity, fun and positivity, creating an environment that facilitated the development of leadership competencies and abilities such as self efficacy, self awareness, and resilience, finally resulting in peak performance within and beyond sport including multiple Olympic and world championship gold medals, world records, and repeated and enduring success within and beyond the sporting arena.

Nowhere in this narrative did we see old school coaching strategies or the idea of breaking someone down, excluding, or punishing someone, as an effective strategy for success.

The environment was controlled but I never felt controlled.

He created a construct, of a fabric, or scaffolding within which we all operated.

It’s a feeling of being completely in control of yourself and your situation and you got the license to perform or behave and act without any pressure.

Instead, we found that the team’s development reflected and extended Tuckman’s model of team stages of development (1964; 1984). The 1992 Olympic women’s rowing team’s forming stage was marked by the cultural strength and alignment of their coach’s values and assumptions. The norming stage included the introduction of non-hierarchical and values based structures and processes that became the team’s cultural norms. While every team faces storming phases of conflict, tension, challenge, or crisis, this team’s non-hierarchical values of appreciation for diversity appeared to call upon the athletes to treat differences and clashes more as a natural element of diversity of perspective, personality and needs. They increasingly treated their ‘storms’ more as opportunities to learn and grow developing abilities and competencies of personal leadership. These capacities also enabled the coach and athletes to continually refine their structures, processes, and systems and achieve more productive norms that aligned with their values all of which resulted in performing optimally and transitioning productively as leaders into the community and their lives after sport.

They still row together today!

2019 50+ senior masters 8+

Personal Leadership:

I don’t feel that there was one person in our 8+ who was an overall leader, (we were) all sorts of personalities and temperaments and maybe that’s why we were able to do what we did, I think we were able to appreciate everyone for their differences.

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