Blog Post: Building a Culture of Excellence in Sport – What it Actually Takes to Change the Norms

“We know that sport has the power to inspire a nation, to build leaders and to unite Canadians,” says Dasha Peregoudova, President of AthletesCAN. “That is why we are pushing hard for the necessary change to address abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport.”

Dasha is spot on. If sport is to truly inspire, build, and unite, we need to delete all forms of abuse in sport. Abuse contradicts the purpose of sport to inspire, build, and unite. Abuse degrades, diminishes, and fractures.

Yet somehow abuse is the norm. One quarter of our national team athletes are experiencing abuse of some form: The percentage of the top harmful behaviours experienced and reported by over 1000 national team athletes who participated in the AthletesCAN survey include psychological (17%, 23%); neglect (15%, 22%); sexual (4%, 7%); and physical (3%, 5%). 

Until we question, challenge, and refuse to accept the norm of abuse in sport, sport will never reach it’s true potential, and nor will our athletes.

Currently, our sport culture worldwide includes psychological and emotional abuse as the norm. We accept this power-over dynamic as necessary to performance and I believe our acceptance and tolerance of these forms of abuse enable and foster other forms of abuse including physical and sexual abuse.

Culture is built with series of building blocks or layers. Culture is built through our artifacts which represent our values which represent our beliefs which are based on our fundamental assumptions. Like an algorithm, the underlying principles or assumptions govern the action. The fundamental assumptions are our only levers for change. Until we call into question those underlying assumptions, we will see a perpetuation of the same old algorithm and culture in sport.

To change culture, we need to peel back or drill down through the layers of values and beliefs in order to reveal or expose those fundamental assumptions and then challenge and change the assumptions.

For instance: currently we see abuse in sport. Artifacts of abuse are represented through coach behaviours, rules, team policies, and actions: a coach demeaning an athlete, discriminating against her based on her appearance or nature, humiliating him in front of her peers, excluding him from team activities, punishing her for mental or physical injury or illness by prohibiting her from further training and development. These abusive artifacts are justified by coaches and athletes as valuing ‘grit’ coupled with a belief that a specific body type and pushing through injury and illness are a sign of that ‘grit’. An athlete’s capacity to endure abuse is believed to be the path to ‘grit’ and high performance. Finally, these beliefs represent the fundamental assumption that high performance can only be achieved via one path that is discriminatory, destructive, unhealthy and unsustainable; that abuse is not only okay but necessary to reveal the true ‘grit’ within an athlete and is a necessary element of high performance. Within this example I also see a narrow minded assumption that athletes are born, not developed.

I argue that there are many ways to achieve high performance and that we can foster high performance through support, encouragement, and celebration. Winning isn’t winning without integrity.

Part of the problem is that we also assume that high performance is only measured in medals. The assumption that medals are the only measure of success opens the door to the philosophy of ‘winning at all costs’. Medals are only one measure of success. The other measures of winning include the health of the athlete and team, the impact of sport on community, and the good, clean, safe nature of the contest – inspire, build, unite – remember? A ‘good’ win does not preclude a gold medal. Nor does a gold medal represent a win unless it is also earned through good, clean, and safe practices.

Thomas Hall, Senior Manager of Game Plan, says. “As a core pillar of Game Plan… we need to continue to push the sport system to recognize that athletes are more than medal potential.” Athletes not only have the potential to perform within the sport arena, they have the potential to lead in our communities.

Sport doesn’t build leaders, coaches build leaders. With the good, safe, clean principles and strategies that athletes learn through sport, athletes have the potential to win medals and to lead our world to new heights of integrity, purpose, and success.

There’s two kinds of coaches in America: You’re either transactional or you’re transformational. Transactional coaches basically use young people for their own identity, their own validation, their own ends. It’s always about them — the team first, players’ needs down the road.

And then you have transformational coaches. They understand the power, the platform, the position they have in the lives of young people, and they’re going to use that to change the arc of every young person’s life. I think football is an ideal place — sports in general — team sports are an ideal place to help boys become men.

And the great myth in America today is that sports builds character. That’s not true in a win-at-all-costs culture. Sports doesn’t build character unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it. Joe Erhmann

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