Blog Post: Dickheads Allowed: Why we Cling to the Coach-Centric Model of Sport Leadership

“Why is there such a pervasive problem in elite sport with serious misconduct by coaches?” asks John Hoberman, sports historian at U Texas in the film Broken Trust, “and this is overwhelmingly a male population.” Hoberman ponders how “many coaches have found it necessary to establish authoritarian relationships with their athletes…that this young person has to be molded and shaped and brainwashed… and enter into what is often a dangerously dependent relationship with the coach, who, in any number of cases is just going to get ‘high’ on that authority.”

It is this egocentric mindset and approach to coaching that can lead us down a precarious path of power imbalance in sport. When power is imbalanced, everyone behaves badly: the coach misuses their power to violate, dominate and manipulate athletes; athletes cow to power by remaining silent, becoming a bystander when teammates are abused, and sometimes even embodying some of the violent behaviours to demonstrate compliance; parents strive to ingratiate themselves with power in order to protect or advance their child; officials turn a blind eye to power in order to maintain the status quo, gain the approval of leaders and avoid criticism; sport leaders bend to power to support cultural norms, protect status and position, and manage reputations and/or funding as we saw with Sandusky, Nassar, and UK Gymnastics cases.

‘No dickheads allowed’

The mental skills coach for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, Gilbert Enoka, introduced a “no dickheads” policy, which is operated by the players themselves. The point of the policy is to wean out inflated egos and make everything about the team, with the central belief being you can’t “be a positive person on the field and a prick off it”.

“A dickhead makes everything about them,”

Gilbert Enoka, All Blacks Mental Performance Coach

“They are people who put themselves ahead of the team, people who think they’re entitled to things, expect the rules to be different for them, people operating deceitfully in the dark, or being unnecessarily loud about their work,” says Enoka. Alternatively, athletes of strong character on the team stand up for, and to, their leaders as Ira Chaleff so eloquently states.

Enoka recalls when the coach Steve Hansen, a brilliant and well loved man, once came into a team meeting a few minutes late: “As he walked in, one of the senior players stood up and said, ‘Coach, you can’t be late. Not again, please.’ In a model where Sport and Development is central to the activity, the athletes are also responsible for monitoring this behaviour and stewarding the principles.

But dickheads prevail.

In a meteoric shower of personal stories by athlete after athlete, professional and amateur, we see that the abusive coach is an enduring and unchecked norm in sport.

In a recent webinar I attended on ‘sustainable high performance’ and ‘human centric sport models’, an attendee rushed to the defense of a coach who had been called out for bullying behaviours, Tom Izzo:

“just to clarify… Izzo really loves his players… he doubles down… he treats them like family. I don’t know him, but I know the trainer who works with him.”

The patterns are consistent with organizations shaming victims, conducting biased investigations, suppressing complaints, protecting and even promoting coaches, preserving reputations at all costs.

Finally, undeniable evidence emerges and they leaders fire the coach only to allow him/her to continue coaching elsewhere and changing nothing in the power structure and dynamics of the organization that enabled the abuse and covert protectionism to occur in the first place.

It’s not the dickheads’ fault. They walk into a system where dickheads are allowed.

Better People Make Better Sport

I think there are two reasons why dickheads are allowed in any sport system:

  1. There is something appealing about the dickhead.
  2. Organizations leave the door open to dickheads.

Therefore I think there are two challenges we face:

  1. How can we satisfy the appeal with something less destructive?
  2. And, how can we make dickheads less welcome?

Dickheads are appealing because they exude confidence, authority, bravado, and intensity – factors people believe are necessary for high performance. I challenge the ‘myth of machismo’ in sport. I believe we can win better in fact. By attending to the health and development of the athlete as well as their performance, by treating athletes and all sport participants with respect, and by balancing power between coach and athlete, we create a winning environment where not only participants win, but sport wins.

I also challenge the myth of machismo in sport because it fosters an infatuation with violence. Violence is contrary to sport.

To compete is to ‘strive together’ (latin root). When we add violence to sport, we are no longer competing, we are fighting, in conflict, at war. We are doing harm.

You will argue, what about tackling in rugby? football? checking in hockey? Yes and none of those acts are designed to do harm.

Hits to the head are designed to do harm.

So to address the machismo appeal factor consider a great tackle, a great contest, a close game, a supreme effort by two opponents. The effort, challenge, and display of skill and intensity far outweighs a violent hit in terms of performance impressiveness.

In order to make dickheads less welcome, we must turn to governance. Governance that places sport at the center of our purpose and focus in sport, rather than the coach, removes power imbalance and creates a partnership structure in which all are equitably pursuing healthy performance for all.

Sport is for human and social development, not just of the athletes, but of all.

The Sport Centric Model of Sport

To use the NZ All Blacks example, sport centric governance starts with leadership – leaders who create principle and policy foster leaders who enact the principle and policy: “No Dickheads Allowed” is a policy based on a sport-centric principle of sport in service to human and social development.

How can we put human and social development at the center rather than the coach’s ego? I’ve created this matrix to illustrate how what we place at the center of our sport organizations and endeavors governs how we behave. If we accept that sport is for the sake of both human/social development AND performance. and place those two concepts on axes we see what happens when we sacrifice one for the other:

When we place the coach at the center, we are abandoning both the development and performance of the athlete. When we focus only on performance or medals, we sacrifice development and we find the performance to be ultimately unsustainable. When we sacrifice the performance for development, we foster entitled athletes and ‘participation ribbons.’

Performance and development are not mutually exclusive.

Tom Hall, Gameplan Canada

When we hold both performance AND development in focus at once, we force the system to behave in the best interests of the athletes, the coaches, the sport support system that sustains them, and society as a whole: we foster healthy, whole athletes, who are better equipped and poised to perform, who represent the success of their coaches and sport support system, and who are prepared to better contribute to society during and after sport. We all win.

“If you put people before performance, performance takes care of itself”

Melanie Marshall, UK Swimming

John Wooden, when called a ‘good coach’, would counter that ‘he wouldn’t know if he was a good coach until 5, 10, 20 years after his player had left his team.’ The measure of his coaching was what kind of person his players would become.

Likewise, the All Blacks will quip, “better people make better All Blacks.”

@jwalinga

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