Blog Post: Passion or Abuse: What is harassment in sport?

Recently, there have been several items in the media highlighting changes in Canadian sport policy, specifically concerning bullying, abusive, harassing, and discriminatory (BAHD) coach behaviour in sport. Most NGO’s are creating their own codes of conduct and implementing the new SafeSport policy requirements including the rule of 2, criminal record checks, and ‘responsible coach’ training. With a 60% reduction in sport participation, partly due to bad coach and parent behaviour, sport is in crisis. The values in sport need to shift.

As a researcher and facilitator in the area of leadership through sport, I find myself often in conversation about the ethical challenges in sport. The discussion invariably arrives at a debate about ‘what is abuse and what is just passion’?

Sexual abuse is clearly defined and perhaps that is what causes us to highlight it in the media most prominently. But the recent study by AthletesCAN, Canada’s national team athlete collective, emphasizes that verbal and psychological abuse is much more prevalent:

“While recognizing the numerous potential benefits that sport participation has to offer, it is also important to acknowledge that for some athletes, sport is a harmful experience, characterized by various forms of maltreatment,” says Dr. Gretchen Kerr, University of Toronto Professor. “This study looked at all forms of maltreatment including sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, various types of harassment, bullying and hazing. Although most of the attention to-date has been focused on experiences of sexual abuse, the findings indicate that athletes experience psychological abuse and neglect to a far greater extent than other forms. Most troubling are that neglectful and psychologically harmful behaviours such as the use of demeaning, threatening or humiliating comments, and denying basic needs such as food, water, and safe training conditions, are accepted as normal practices in sport,” she adds. “We wouldn’t accept such behaviours in any other walk of life so why should athletes have to endure these?”

So what is verbal and psychological abuse and how is this different from ‘old school’ coaching techniques? I believe they are one and the same. We once accepted ‘old school’ coaching but that does not make it acceptable. Screaming, swearing, punishing, hitting, berating, humiliating, shaming, discriminating, intimidating, and demeaning has no place in sport. We once accepted spanking at home and the strap at school. Corporal punishment is ‘old school’ parenting and education and it is no longer acceptable. We learned to educate and parent without corporal punishment and it’s time to learn to coach without abuse.

Here’s how to coach ethically:

Maintain and enhance the dignity and self-esteem of athletes and other individuals by:

a) Demonstrating respect to individuals regardless of body type, physical characteristics, athletic ability, age, ancestry, colour, race, citizenship, ethnic origin, place of origin, creed, disability, family status, marital status, gender identity, gender expression, sex and sexual orientation

b) Focusing comments or criticism appropriately and avoiding public criticism of athletes, coaches, officials, organizers, volunteers, employees, or members

c) Consistently demonstrating a spirit of sportsmanship, sport leadership, and ethical conduct

d) Acting, when appropriate, to correct or prevent practices that are unjustly discriminatory

e) Consistently treating individuals fairly and reasonably

f) Ensuring adherence to the rules of the sport and the spirit of those rules

(from Coaching Assn of Canada Code of Conduct)

I’ve been fascinated by the arguments for abusive coaching in sport:

  • it (abuse) is what athletes need to get to another level
  • this (abuse) is sport, it’s different
  • it (abuse) is all part of a high performance environment
  • boys need tougher treatment (abuse) to wake up, behave, focus
  • it (abuse) develops toughness and grit
  • we know s/he love us and is doing it (abuse) for our own good
  • it (abuse) is what it takes to push athlete’s to their peak performance

And my favourite: not everyone finds him/her abusive

That’s like saying: the other 15 boys/girls who were not raped think the priest/coach/teacher/parent/neighbour/politician/director is a great person!

Abusers of all kinds can hide their abuse. Abusers can switch off their abuse so that only some will see it.

Abuse does not make people more resilient – it does harm, it scars, it ruins lives. Abusive coaching techniques of all kinds (emotional, psychological, verbal, physical) simply show a lack of lack of leadership, creativity, and skill.

Coaching ethically does not mean we have to sacrifice winning. Support, leadership, communication, education, challenge, and clarity makes people perform. I would argue that the most principled athletes and coaches are the highest performing. Ethical, leaderly coaches evolve, seek training, strive to understand their athletes, provide clear guidelines, prepare, communicate, utilize objective criteria. It’s not easy to be a good, ethical coach but we owe it to sport, to athletes, and to our community to try.

Time for abuse – of all kinds – to end in sport.

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