Blog Post: #WinBetter or Win at all Costs: A Cost/Benefit Analysis Study on Sport Coaching

A coaching colleague described what it was like to coach the rowing team at the Royal Military College: “For them, sport was all about leadership, citizenship, sportsmanship. Sport involved building trust, collaboration skills, discipline, and focus; but ultimately sport was about becoming a better human.” She recalled how confusing it was, then, to watch the athletes in combat training: “It was non-stop yelling and cursing, it was violent, demeaning, hostile… it was abusive and it freaked me out!” When she asked about the contradiction, the athletes and trainers explained:

Sport is not war.

“That is war coach. War isn’t normal. War isn’t human. In combat, we need to be prepared, desensitized, for death, terrorism, hatred, violence… sport isn’t anything like war.”

athlete

Sport is not war so training for sport should not be anything like training for war. Yet, the combat training mentality thrives in sport. Coaches utilize bullying and abusive ‘win at any cost’ training tactics all the time as we are seeing in the recent NHL revelations and at multiple universities across North America: Rutgers, Cornell, Northern Kentucky, Windsor, Lethbridge, UW, St FX.

It is certainly possible to win at all costs. The East Germans won, enjoying a virtual clean sweep at the 1988 Olympics in my sport of rowing. The Russians won as well. But the costs are significant and far reaching. Those who endure the ‘win at all costs’ approach to sport suffer mental, physical and emotional damage including mental and physical injury and illness – PTSD, anxiety, trauma, nightmares, depression, suicidal thoughts, psychological disorders. Those who emerge unscathed are likely ill or morally corrupt to begin with – pathological, narcissistic, socio or psychopathic as we see with individuals like Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. In order to endure abusive treatment, humans indeed need to desensitize, harden, shut down, or scar over. Such scarring makes one more resilient in warlike scenarios and are about surviving, not thriving. We know physiologically that scarring is undesirable – when we are scarred over we are less adaptable, agile, flexible or fluid.

There are still some who believe that BAHD coaching (bullying, abusive, harassing, and discriminatory) is the only way to win. Of course, that is nonsense – Nick Nurse and the Raptors‘ positive, personal and team development approach are but one example of winning with integrity with Steve Hanson, Lisa Thomaldis, Pete Carroll, and of course the father of values based coaching, John Wooden, all exemplars of Good Sport and winning with integrity.

“We all started that way. Monkey see monkey do. Authoritarian, dictatorial – I thought I was supposed to say jump and the athletes were supposed to ask ‘how high?’ But then I noticed that the athletes weren’t all that interested…I had to lift myself to a higher level of intellectual involvement. I mentored under guys like Dave King, Tudor Bompa, Karl Adam… their concept of coaching was one that appealed to the higher sensibilities.”

Alan Roaf

Others believe that coaching with integrity precludes winning and connotes ‘participation ribbons’. But through our research we are finding that a Goodsport model in fact leads to more medals. Winning with integrity is possible, preferable, and frankly more profitable.

In their study of organizational factors that enable and motivate bullying in sport, Robers, Sojo and Grant (2020) call for ‘ alternative, respectful, and safe practices that build cohesion and camaraderie between athletes, develop athletic skill, motivate performance, and prepare athletes to compete to win.’ In our most recent research we highlight the benefits – in terms of both human and performance outcomes – of winning with integrity. We specify the coaching practices that comprise the winning with integrity model. And finally, we identify the roles and responsibilities of organizational leaders in fostering and sustaining a winning with integrity program.

“We have to honour sport, honour our opponents by putting forth our best effort – otherwise what’s the point? You discredit the significance of the event. Sport becomes meaningless.”

ALAN ROAF, ROWING COACH AND LEADER

A Cost / Benefit Analysis

The militaristic approach to coaching in sport is also known as ‘winning at all costs.’ Indeed, there are a number of costs to ‘old school’ or BAHD coaching (bullying, abusive, harassing, and discriminatory). We illustrate the costs of emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive coaching below in (Figure 1). These include costs to athletes (mental and physical injury and illness, self harm, anxiety, violence, conflict), costs to organizations (reputational harm, legal costs), and costs to society (declining sport participation, cultural malaise, health costs):

Figure 1: A Cost/Benefit Analysis of Winning at all Costs vs Winning with Integrity

“Yelling, smashing things, loud noises, egocentric, focusing on what is wrong, instilling a fear of failure, a fear of letting the coach down, instead of creating a safe environment – [that’s] about the coach not the athlete – win at all costs – [that’s] compromising the athlete’s health or dignity.”

CAROL LOVE, ROWING COACH

A further cost of militaristic coaching is the cost to sport participation and with it, the loss of associated benefits of sport participation. Though Canadians continue to support sport (Colleto, 2016; Sport Matters, 2010), Canada is currently facing a radical decline in sport participation dropping by 60% from 1992 to 2005 (Ifedi, 2008) and from 46% in 1992 to 26% in 2010 (Sport Matters, 2010; Vital Signs, 2016). Sport is in crisis. A key factor in decline in sport participation in Canada is the growing concern that community sport is increasingly focused on ‘winning at all costs’ leading to an erosion of positive societal values (Decima, 2002). Without sport participation, we compromise the positive human and social development that the sport experience can offer (Gisladottir, Matthiasdottir, & Kristjandottir, 2013; Lindwall, Gerber, Jonsdottir, Börjesson, & Ahlborg, 2014: Skinner, Dakus, Cowel, 2008). The win at all costs paradigm must be shifted.

But the misconception that militaristic coaching is the only possible way to win persists. There is a fear that the winning with integrity model is all about ‘participation ribbons’ and ‘leads to sacrificing medals for the sake of being nice to one another’. Athletes who call for respect are called ‘snowflakes’ or ‘soft’.

Along with thousands of others, I shared the Mary Cain Nike video published by the NY Times. @Jilanne’s comment in response to the video post read: ‘…I hesitate to completely write off the points, made by many men here, that individuals including Cain are making these decisions to join elite clubs and train at this level, which comes at a high cost. This point is valid…’ I disagree. The point – that training at a high level comes “at a high cost” – is invalid. The crux of the abuse problem and the argument against athletes who speak out against abuse is that there is a ‘high cost of training at this level’ and that if they can’t hack it, they should get out.

But I would argue that training at a high level requires investment, not cost. High performance requires investment, commitment, and devotion and all of these investments lead to huge returns and benefits. If an athlete isn’t prepared to invest fully, then they likely won’t achieve high performance but there is nothing ‘high performance’ about bullying or abuse.

Training at a high level involves enduring the psychological, emotional and physiological challenges inherent in sport – not enduring abuse as part of desensitization combat training. Combat training might harden you, but there are always costs. Hardening is comparable to scarring. Ultimately, scar tissue impedes performance, makes you less agile, flexible; we as coaches want to help athletes get confident and strong, not scared or scarred.

We continually shame those who speak out against abuse by claiming they are just not ‘tough enough’. Tough is what Mary Cain was as an athlete. She won medals for her performances as an athlete. She continues to be tough and courageous enough to speak out against bullying and abuse. Broken is what she became and what people are asking her to be in suggesting that she endure abuse.

The Benefits of GoodSport

In contrast to BAHD coaching, good coaching and a GoodSport or ‘winning with integrity’ approach to sport offers multiple benefits rather than costs. In our research, we show that the benefits of winning with integrity include… winning! Skills like meditation, which is designed to support and preserve mental and emotional health, can also enhance performance:

The Vancouver Canuck’s Sven Baertschi opened up to colleague Iain MacIntyre at training camp about how daily mindfulness sessions of 10 to 45 minutes dragged him out of a dark pit of anxiety.

“As humans, we spend so much time in the future and the past. We worry. We think ahead. We look backwards. But we’re never in the right now. We forget to enjoy the moment,” Baertschi said. “You go into a quiet room and go through certain body scans and just sit there and focus on breathing. That really puts you in that present moment, and that’s when your brain functions the best. In sports, people call it the zone. At the elite athletic level — where everyone is fit, everyone is technically skilled, and everyone is eating right — a sharp, worry-free mind can provide a competitive advantage.”

Sven Baertschi NHL Hockey Player

Other benefits to winning better include athlete benefits (collaboration and communication skills, confidence, well being, independence, leadership competency), organizational benefits (ambassadorship, reputational currency), and social benefits (leadership contributions, role modelling, improved health indices) (Walinga, Obee, Cunningham, Cyr, 2019). Each of these skills has also been shown to contribute to performance.

“If I don’t know the answer, I know I can find it in someone else – be resourceful – because what is most important is developing the athlete to their greatest potential. Collaboration will always be stronger.”

CAROL LOVE, ROWING COACH

Sport has long been associated with many positive leadership and personal characteristics such as social engagement, moral development, self-efficacy, respect, and positive leadership (Shrout, Voelker, Munro, & Kubitz, 2017; Ryan, 1989; Pascarella and Smart, 1991). Team sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, and football provide opportunities for performing in teams and leading others under pressure-filled situations (Chelladurai, 1980; Williams, Roberts & Bosselman, 2011; Williams, Brown, Kitterlin, & Benjamin, 2018; Griffiths, Bullough, Shibli, & Wilson, 2017). While encouraging fitness, participation and community pride, sports participation is generally seen as imparting positive values and behaviours related to leadership and, in particular, team leadership, goal setting, and collaboration (Griffiths, Bullough, Shibli, & Wilson, 2017; Nishimoto 1997). These benefits extend beyond the well known physical, mental and emotional benefits of participating in sport. Researchers have long demonstrated that participation in sport has beneficial effects upon motor, mental, and social factors (Gisladottir, Matthiasdottir, & Kristjandottir, 2013; Lindwall, Gerber, Jonsdottir, Börjesson, & Ahlborg, 2014).

Coaching to #WinBetter

We believe there are 3 reasons why many coaches choose the ‘win at all costs’ over the ‘win with integrity’ coaching approach:

  • No skill: Coaches do not know how to win with integrity
  • No will: Coaches find it too difficult to win with integrity
  • Ill: Coaches do not possess integrity

“Coaches who resort to punishment lack the skill to do it other ways. They are less effective in teaching the life lessons that can be the true gift of youth athletics.”

My coach the bully, Dr. Kody Moffatt

While sport may offer a vehicle for human and social development, simply participating in sport does not guarantee a positive experience or outcome. What becomes clear through the research is that sport has significant potential to foster leadership development, but winning with integrity requires significant intervention. Leadership development through sport requires parents, coaches, officials, and sport leaders to actively engage in fostering human and social development through sport. Therefore, our research also demonstrates what it takes to facilitate winning with integrity (Figure 2).

Winning at all Costs vs Winning with Integrity: Abusive vs Developmental Coaching Practices

“Modelling the way, walking the talk, doing what you say ( transparency, integrity, trust, inspiration)
I don’t have to know or do it all, but a good leader must be multifaceted and combine knowledge in a lot of areas. Surround oneself with, or know where to find support from, the people with specific skills.”

CAROL LOVE, ROWING COACH

Recently, we published a study on the successful 1990’s Canadian Rowing team which revealed the importance of a non hierarchical sport model for achieving optimal performance (Figure 3). Our model of leadership development through sport is governed by the underlying assumption that sport is for human and social development, expressed as values of integrity, effort, and safety, enacted through non-hierarchical structures, processes and systems including collaboration, curiosity, clarity, purposeful communication, and support, 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 stemming from tolerance for lack of control (Walinga, 2008), finally resulting in peak performance within and beyond sport including multiple Olympic and world championship gold medals, world records, repeated and enduring success.

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Figure 3: Non Hierarchical Leadership Through Sport Model

In our latest research, we delve more deeply into the specific coaching and leadership structures, processes and systems that comprise the non hierarchical sport model (Figure 4 – text box to right) and contribute to optimal performance (Walinga, Obee & Cunningham 2019).

At the root of the issue for our research team is the imbalance of power that we allow to exist in sport. Mary Cain’s coach had unequivocal power over her. The “power over” scenario invites bad behaviour, it opens the door to ego centric coaching. We have seen in all of the abuse cases (Sandusky, James, Nassar, Washburn) a pattern of total lack of oversight. Achieving a balance of power in sport requires a shared and non-hierarchical purpose, standards of excellence at all levels of the organization and program, and coach accountability frameworks and processes that mirror the performance frameworks to which athletes are accountable daily.

“There was a deep curiosity – what is working? Why? What is not working? Why not?”
“We learned from experts in other countries: here comes the Canadian with all the questions…” “There was a clarity, and a focused objective for the program…”
“There was momentum – we met regularly as a group to ask questions, inquire, learn from one another…”
“We learned together and from one another continually.”
“We all had a clean slate and were part of the athlete’s development – their first strokes, like an artist with a blank canvas – very motivating and inspiring and challenging.”
“It was truly collaborative with a focus on excellence – all focused on how to get that athlete to the podium, to their best performance.”

Themes emerging from RCA HP Coaches, HP directors, CEO/ED’s
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Such structures, processes, and frameworks also require principled leadership. The role and responsibility of the sport leader in sport organizations (CEO, ED, AD, GM) is to uphold the purpose and principles of GoodSport and hold coaches accountable to standards of excellence in human and social development. Without a leader dedicated to ensuring that sport is delivered for the purpose of human and social development, the door is left open to narcissistic, abusive coaches who are drawn to the autonomy and lack of oversight characteristic of a leaderless organization like Larry Nassar, Ted Washburn, and Mike Rice and as we often find in the NCAA.

“The coaching model is a collaborative model. Ultimately, as a coach you are working yourself out of a job – you move from being a ‘director’ to becoming a ‘consultant’ – you become peers with the athletes – they are ultimately running the show. The same goes for being an ED or CEO of an organization – collaborative, mutually curious – but ultimately you want to empower those you oversee.”

AL MORROW, ROWING COACH

“It was all about building an aura of excellence. We set gold medal standard times and the coaches focused on helping crews go as fast as possible. But we also wanted athletes to be proud to wear the maple leaf.”

DOUG HAMILTON, vp hIGH PERFORMANCE ROWING 1990’S

These days, sport is in critical need of leadership development: the recent scandals surrounding sexual abuse (James, Nassar, Sandusky), cheating (Russian doping scandal), violence (Peters, Downie), bullying (Crawford, Babcock) and corruption (Olympic and FIFA scandals) in sport point to a leadership gap at all levels of sport worldwide. The recent NHL stories of bad coaching are yet another call to clean up the toxic culture that has spread across sport like a cancer. Canadians are calling for a shift in sport culture.

“If someone came up to me and said, I met one of your athletes and they showed me their medal, and I’d say, oh that’s nice, how is your day going? But if they came up to me and they said, I met one of your athletes and she is the most grounded, nice, good citizen…I’d be really proud to hear about that and would also have a lot of time for that. I think it’s really important that we develop the athlete’s character as well as their ability.”

AL MORROW, ROWING COACH

In order to shift culture, we must peel back the layers of the cultural onion to reveal the principles and assumptions at the core. The core shapes and infuses the other cultural layers of values, structures, behaviours and attitudes. If medals are at the core, there will be costs – valuing medals over morals translates into costly practices and outcomes. If human and social development is at the core, medals and morals, we will value excellence and integrity which will translate into beneficial practices and optimal outcomes.

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