SwimVortex has been running a series scrutinising sports governance and the structures that underpin it. From domestic to international, federations and associations are coming under scrutiny like never before. For good reason, too.
In light of the allegations this past week by Ariana Kukors, the denial of the coach, Sean Hutchison, she accuses and a USA Swimming statement that suggests both swimmer and coach – among others – lied to an inquiry back in 2011, we considered some key aspects of history and the system and realm in which such things are possible in our Weekend Essay: Editorial – Time To Step On Fingers Clinging To A Wall Of Woe As Winter Comes To The Games.
We dedicate the next two weeks of our coverage entirely to the environment and governance structures – as well as people – that and who, in the opinion of many and confirmed in the book of Olympic history, enable abuse.
This week, we will continue to look at the latest news related to this theme and consider the lot of athletes whose rights are reduced significantly by their ‘amateur’ status, whose guardians and governors accept no responsibilities remotely close to those of an employer but benefit hugely from the work of athletes, and ponder some of the things already in place to protect athletes that need spreading throughout the Olympic realm as a must for all nations – and reforms required far and wide in terms of laws and codes of practice that come with legal obligation.
Next week, we will post a series of questions to key players in the sport of swimming and invite them to respond in the interest of open, transparent and intelligent discussion in a sport crying out for its own community to help exorcise the ghosts of a woeful past so that reform can take place at the start of a much better, brighter future that places athlete interests and rights at the top of its list of priorities – and acts accordingly.
Previous features in our series looked at significant developments in GB Masters and then turned to the words of Olympic podium placer Michael Jamieson and considered their relevance to woeful culture at the heart of FINA and the poor response of national federations who show no inclination to use their potential power to change the game in the interests of athlete protection from various forms of abuse. We then turned to the Larry Nassar abuse case, a story about much more than a doctor who traded the hippocratic oath for hypocrisy and criminality; a story that calls into question the usefulness of the Olympic Movement, the United States Olympic Committee and the role of USA Swimming when it comes to the protection of athletes.
Today, we reach into our archive to recall a 2014 lecture delivered by Prof. Joan Duda, of Empowering Coaching, at the World Aquatics Development Conference in Lund on a day of high relevance to current events. It was a day on which we also heard a call from Dr. Fiona McLachlan, academic adviser to Shane Gould in the 1972 triple Olympic champion’s PHD studies, for the guardians of swimming youth to consider “How to be Good”; and we heard telling, instructive, motivating, chilling and moving presentations from American swimmers Allison Wagner, Dana Vollmer and Caitlin Leverenz.
And … we weep over the relevance of Fran Crippen and his passing to events at the Winter Olympics.
NB to coaches: if and as you read these pieces, please consider the following question: why are so many of you silent on all of this? Not all of you are, of course, and healthy exchanges can be found at the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange on Facebook.
To others: why do we not hear from you (and please don’t say because you didn’t call)? There are thousands upon thousands of you – and you have a voice – do you think you use that voice nearly to the extent that you could use it? SwimVortex invites you to engage (coaches he’s athletes and others): send your views and comments and responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. No response will be published without your express permission: if you do not state that permission in your email, we will contact you if we wish to publish your words either with your name attached or anonymously/a general description such as ‘coach’, ‘swimmer’, ‘official’ and so forth. If we get in touch, we will inform you of the context in which your words would be used should you give permission. A tally will be kept of how many replies we get from coaches.
In Lund in 2014 (and on many occasions since in several countries on several platforms), Prof. Duda talked about quality environments, the lack of them, the conditions in which abuse can take place. Climate Change in sport is how she put it.
She was right then. She is right today – and how. There’ll be more on Prof. Duda’s ideas ahead but first up, the project has developed further since 2014 and here is Prof. Duda explaining what it is all about:
And then, as you read the below, think abuse of just about any kind (sexual, too, in some key regards) when reading ‘doping’;
From the SwimVortex Archive…
2014: A Vision of Hope from Prof. Joan Duda
Ask yourself, athlete, coach or anti-doping agent: as you look around your realm, can you see the folk about you (or the devil within) wearing signposts to cheating on the road of bad practice and woeful outcomes?
The clues can be found in the virtual lenses through which we all view the world and where we fit in it, suggests Prof. Duda, a Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at The University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at the helm of the PAPA Project and Empowering Coaching™ scheme. Systematic, evidence-based approaches.
Are you wearing Task lenses – or are they Ego lenses? Look around the deck on race day; who do you see getting on with the business of coaching, racing, analysis, the folk with their head down, even among those making a noise with a cheer and the swing of a towel of start list over their heads; who do you see sucking up the atmosphere, talking about beating others while beating their chest and playing up to the lights and the camera?
We all wear both task and ego lenses to some extent in life as we make our choices. The tried and tested research at the heart of the PAPA Project shows us that Task lenses are what you want to focus on and through if you’re in search of healthy outcomes that transcend sport and speak to the rest of life when the racing is done.
Prof. Duda is not one to make big claims. That she is no expert in anti-doping she makes clear immediately on taking to the stage during the opening session of four fine days at the World Aquatics Development Conference in Lund, Sweden, last week. She also makes clear that the findings that provided the building blocks for Empowering Coaching™ are from evidence-focussed research. In other words, not the stuff of whim and wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if.
Day 1 in Lund was all about Ethics, doping among key topics. The book of bans and bad stuff in sport is far too fat to be contained in one volume these days. The book of personal accounts of those who cheated, supplied, coerced and played a part in the fraud and deceit inherent in taking banned substances is a more modest collection. [update 2018 … and neither volumes can be viewed through FINA, which has removed the historic record of doping cases from public view on ‘legal grounds’ designed to be ‘fair’ to those who cheated]
What is available provides some insight into what motivates athletes and others to reach into the realms of fraud for the sake of personal PR and the rewards that may flow from ‘success’ in sport. Fair play and respect for fellow competitors are among notions often sent to the back of the queue of consideration, not only by those who cheat but those who defend doping and would have ‘controlled doping’ or believe there’s no alternative other than to tolerate it.
Climate Change in Sport
At a time when federations are deciding to or about to be forced to make fundamental changes to the way they operate, to the very cultures at the heart of their thinking, their structures and the application of their rules and governance of the conditions in which your people are invited to participate in sport, they will find a rich vein of gold in the work and resulting projects stemming from the work of Prof. Duda and her team.
She calls it ‘climate change’. Not only is she suggesting that sport can get rid of the stuff that harms and hurts and replace it with much healthier options but in doing so, progress will not only happen but might also be measured in new ways.
Predictors to Doping
Among those things that give us a clue to behaviour on a bad path:
- the importance attached to winning
- the use of non-banned substances designed to enhance
- behaviour that violates the spirit of sport
One of the things that works best in persuading people not to go down the wrong path is health: premature death, long-term illness or poor health, an inability to have children or the risk posed to the unborn all contribute to apprehension among those who contemplate possible outcomes.
Things that can override that include ‘risk worth taking’ and the financial gains that are perceived to outweigh the risks.
The required field of expertise is psychology, while punishment is often the way those who fall foul of the rules are death with. “That’s after the event, of course,” says Duda. “How about prevention? What efforts are made there?”
Lean on a dose of achievement goal theory, put on your task goggles and contemplate research that provides evidence that an ego orientation is a positive predictor of doping.
Many are the answers when you ask ‘why do you participate in sport’?
- I swim to win the trophy and get the praise
- I feel pressure to swim
- Being fit and trying to challenge myself is important to me
- I love swimming
The first two answers suggest controlling behaviour at play – and predict a poor outcome; the latter two are autonomous in nature – and suggest a good outcome.
Create the Right Climate, Get The Right Weather
Motivation is the root of sport. A child walks through the door of the pool, encouraged by parents, driven by a desire to be with friends, by the sheer love of being in the water, by a host of other triggers to choice.
It is a long road from that point to the decision to dope but make no mistake, says Duda, the warning signs line the route to the place where the path forks.
Duda frames the link between motivation and doping in terms of moral functioning and moral disengagement.
- Moral interpretation (implications for others, self, the spirt of the sport?)
- Moral Judgement (what ought to be done)
- Moral intentions (amongst competing values; what one intends to do)
- Moral behaviour (implementation – what you actually do)
- Motivation impacts (at the very least) – the decision-making aspects of this process.
This is the process by which a person is convinced or convinces themselves that ethical standards do not quite apply in a particular context. It is about the separation of moral interpretations and reactions from inhumane conduct and disabling self-condemnation and/or self-reproof. This might take the form of:
- Moral justification: “I did it for my country”
- Advantageous comparison: “Yes, I’m doing it – but what I’m doing is not as bad as the stuff the other guy is doing”.
- Displacement of responsibility: “Don’t blame me; it’s the system…” In a sense, the Armstrong out.
- Distortion of consequence: reflecting the kind of attitude that ends in ‘… well, it may be that there are health risks related to banned substances but you’re going to die some day anyway”.
- Dehumanisation: it is easy to cheat when the cheat no longer perceives the others lining up to race alongside them as other humans who trained hard (they are ‘rivals who probably cheated too’ not other humans who are racing clean).
What makes the difference, asked Prof Duda, when we contemplate those opposing outcomes. To explain, she trained her spotlight on the following:
The nature and quality of motivation
The Keys to unlock quality motivation including:
- She advocated building and maintaining competence by fostering task involvement (humans don’t thrive when they feel isolated)
- As in swimming, the type of goggles you choose counts for much in the world of goal theory.
- A question for coaches and teachers – which of these do you wear when you work with young people?
Task Glasses are worn by coaches who work with their charges to set goals and find ways to help young people to achieve them:
Here the coach is socially supportive, caring, concerned, a coach who sees his or her role as one of helping the charge get the best out of themselves; the swimmers is seen as a person not just an athlete in pursuit of a result.
Ego Glasses are worn by those apt to say ‘my way or no way’, apt to make the charge vulnerable, self-doubting:
Here is a coach who is controlling (through use of rewards, for example), intimidating and places conditions on performance.
If one is a world in which each of the participants has a role to play, has a goal to work towards, tasks to help them to get there and in which there is enjoyment, self-esteem, well-being and respect for self and others, then the other is a world on the opposite side of that coin, one that stretches to the darker reaches of bad practice in sport and life. Pygmalion practices, you might say. Said Prof. Duda:
“Cheating will take place in ego-involved environments.”
Many in aquatic sports may have examples of either or both that spring to mind. Some who fall into one category for some may well be another for others. A broad spectrum of experience, the extremities of which are wonderfully portrayed in popular works such as Roald Dahl‘s Matilda: Miss Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Academy, an Olympic thrower turned child chucker and inventor of the chokey, and Miss Honey, who values every child for who they are and seeks to free the magic locked in each of them.
Fabulous fiction. Reality can be darker still and void of humour. Swimming has been awash with bad practice, including the darker reaches of doping and other forms of abuse, including allegations, some now proved, of sexual abuse. Of late in the US, swimming has been steeped in a scandal of abusive coaches and the bad culture, one that transcends sport, that allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged for so long, decades in some cases. In many of those cases, the coaches concerned were assessed, judged and given status on the basis of how many big medals and/or world records could be counted in their shoal. Former Olympic coaches of leading swim nations are in the count of the prosecuted and the banned for life.
In some nations, you may be shown, by people with pride in their ‘system’ (as I have been), a diving pool with 200 and more children aged 6 to 8 pouring off the edge of high boards one after another and you may cringe as one young chap lands on the outstretched arm of another and you may wonder at method and motive when the injured child is sent crying and alone, uncomforted, to leave the pool and get changed. From such a system have Olympic and world champions emerged. They are the survivors, the shining examples.
Gold has too often blinded the eye to criminal, the bad and the ugly practice.
Prof Duda and her team are not dealing in the world of the criminal. Rather, they seek to tackle the kind of poor practice that leads to low quality motivation, low self-esteem, drop out and feelings of failure that can affect development of child and young adult for many years in life beyond sport.
There are, of course, myriad examples of world-class athletes who have only good things to say about those who have steered them through their formative years in sport. Read the words of Vollmer and Leverenz, hear the words of some of those who passed through Britain’s Smart Track program as teenagers and you know that good work has been at play. None will tell you that it has been easy, soft, cushioned and many have tales of truths told that some in a squad handle better than others. In the course of any sports experience, there will be highs and lows. How those are handled will determine the direction in which the young sportsperson or even the mature athlete travels.
Which leads us to the research project that is lighting a path to a brighter future for young people in sport: Empowering Coaching™ and the PAPA Project.
How Swimming Can Pan For Gold With The PAPA Project & Empowering Coaching
What is motivation? Is it the ability to get in a pool and appear to be working hard each day? Is it being at the pool because a friend is there? Is it being at the pool because you don’t want to let your parents down? Is it being there because you love swimming? Is it being there because what you can see what you get out of it?
Deeper understanding is called for by Prof. Duda and her team. “We need to move beyond understanding motivation as a quantity to a quality,” she suggested on a fine day in Lund as she turned to the European Commission funded PAPA Project that she heads.
The project centred on youth football and considered how to optimize young people’s sustained engagement and healthy participation in the sport. PAPA, spanning five European countries (England, France, Greece, Norway and Spain) delivered and rigorously tested with different methods the Empowering Coaching™ programme.
The sample was football. The gold in it glisters for all sport (indeed, you may well read into it many a fine application in all aspects of a child’s education, sporting or otherwise). The training concept has evolved over the past 20 years and more. It draws from Prof. Duda’s research and applied work, including an earlier version of the programme that was embedded in the Healthier Gymnast scheme run by USA Gymnastics.
Why not swimming? The sport is brimming with daily interaction, the world over, between teachers/coaches and kids setting out on the road to finding themselves. Many have good experiences – and too many do not.
Evidence-based, the Empowering Coaching™ programme is grounded in contemporary theories of motivation, optimal development and behavioural change. Look through the topics covered by an average swim coaching qualification and you may never find the box to tick the things that Duda and Co are getting at.
The PAPA project
A four-year research grant from the European Commission funded what is the largest ever research project into coach-created environments. It involved almost 10,000 children.
The point was to find the best ways to unlock potential psychological benefits from engagement in youth sport, including the promotion of children’s psychosocial development and feelings of self worth.
The vehicle and vision was to work with coaches to help them to understand how they can create a more empowering motivational climate in training and competition; to make sport more enjoyable for all children in a programme; to have children find good reason to stick at it and include sport in their lives for the long term; and those to promote health through healthier experiences in sport.
The project run by Prof. Duda was partnered by seven European Universities, namely, Bergen (as well as the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences) in Norway, a nation with close ties to the EU, Valencia and Barcelona in Spain, Joseph Fourier in France, Thessaly in Greece; and York St John in England.
The work focussed on football, If participation is high and the sample available for testing large and varied, then the beautiful game is a world in which many of us can recall witnessing bad habits and poor behaviour when it comes to providing the best experience for children. The demands of high participation dictate a need for large numbers of coaches and teachers. Not all are trained to the same standards, while in many an average local football club the youth side is often left in the hands of volunteers who lack adequate training for the role of ‘coaching’ children.
Add to that picture the pushy parent barking commands, comments, opinions and even insults from the sideline of a game of eight-year-olds and you not only have a poor environment but one in which the potential for harm is high.
The Quality of Motivation
Let’s return to motivation ands the motivational climate in which young people thrive or not.
Motivation has been described as “the drive to strive”. It is often looked as being either high or low. PAPA adds the word quality to the mix.
High quality motivation = “I swim because I enjoy it” and “I swim because I value the benefits”
In Lund, Dana Vollmer related an example of a little girl who told her that she swam because it made her dad happy. That fits a different category:
Low quality motivation = “I swim because I would feel guilty if I quit and I know how much it means to mum or dad”
There is also emphasis on winning for winning’s sake to be cautious, as in: “I swim to win the 50m freestyle on Saturday”. So, if the child finishes second in a best time by a big margin, all is lost.
Amotivation (none) = “I don’t know why I swim”
In an empowering climate, children recognise the importance of striving for mastery goals and doing their best. In such an atmosphere they have a sense of belonging, they find their voice and know they have a choice.
In a climate in which they are disempowered, children feel intimidated, controlled by coach or parent, They suffer feelings of rejection and isolation. Think about the program you know best: does the coach encourage swimmers to outperform others rather than emphasise the need for each swimmer to be take charge of and be responsible for their own progress and personal development and take pride in their achievements.
Recent findings from the PAPA Project showed that coaches who participated in the 6-hour Empowering Coaching workshop changed their behaviour to be more empowering (and less disempowering) based not only on the views of the young players (as assessed via validated questionnaires) but also via objective observations of the coaches in action. Coaches (and their players) who attended the workshop were compared to those who did not attend, the presence of a control group important to the strong evidence that is emerging from PAPA.
Feedback from coaches in the PAPA project includes observations such as “After a game … instead of ‘who won?’ I asked them ‘how did you do?’ I got a very different response”; and “my terminology is changing … Its “can you try to…” instead of “ok, I want you to do this and this is how you do it”.
The latter feeds directly into how Milt Nelms, a guiding light in the WADC and its related work, interacts with swimmers. You will not here him say ‘do that’, ‘lift that’, ‘reach for this’. What you hear is “how did it feel …”; “when did you notice a change” and other such inquiries that ask the swimmer to understand, interpret and feel their relationship with the water, their quality of movement and their ability to replicate what not only feels right but makes them more efficient, faster. The athlete is not following instruction, he or she is being guided through the encouragement to acquire skills through a direct relationship between themselves and the environment, by learning how they, and they in particular not they as part of a uniform group of people, can work with the element and harness those things helpful to efficient and fast swimming. Their goal is ‘the best I can be’. Focus, belonging, ownership, self-worth, vitality and fun all flow.
In her concluding remarks, Prof. Duda noted that coaches play a vital role in promoting athletes’ healthy, optimal and sustained engagement in sport.
:There is a need to work with coaches to enable them to foster an empowering motivational climate that will help to optimise and sustain young swimmers’ sport experiences, enhance their well-being, and promote their personal growth,” said Prof. Duda.
Her work, drawing from a large and compelling scientific literature, challenges the assumption that development of swimmers’ well being and personal growth is NOT in opposition to creating champions/optimal performance outcomes. She noted:
“If we get the motivational climate right … and also give the athletes skills to regulate their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours via systematic psychological skills training … we have a win-win situation. We can realise both those goals and aspirations.”
In the forum discussion that followed her presentation, there was no denying the wave of strong feeling that the theory and research based Empowering Coaching™ programme ought to become a fundamental course required for all swimming, diving, synchro and water polo coaches and teachers in all countries, learn-to-swim teachers right through to Olympic coach.
Of all the comments made in the forum, this one stood out:
“If we don’t get the climate right, then how much swimming coaches know about technique, strategy, the physiological aspects of swimming training and so on doesn’t matter if we hope to optimise/truly empower our swimmers”
The large-scale and successful PAPA project is being rolled out, with more countries tapping into the betterment of sport. Prof. Duda and her team are now leading efforts to form the Empowering Coaching social enterprise at the University of Birmingham in Britain with hubs and partners planned in other countries in Europe and around the world.
This social enterprise centres on the dissemination and further development of such theory and evidence-based programmes at the interface of teacher and pupil in sport.
In collaboration with the university leaders involved or planning to be involved in the project, the Empowering Coaching ™ programme (and related schemes such as Empowering Teaching™, Empowering Parents™, Empowering Dance™), negotiations are being held with various sports organisations/national governing bodies to include the training ands skills set of PAPA in coaching and teaching qualifications and awards.
How about Empowering Swimming? To achieve that requires an upgrade to the status of the coach and teacher in a way that many will want to embrace as a critical part of their work in helping to unlock the gold in every child that passes their way.
Climate Change in sport is how Prof. Duda put it. Let it reign.
From the Archive – 2014
Swim Sorority of Thinkers Light Up A Pathfinding Day In Lund
When Professor Joan Duda stood up to speak at the World Aquatic Development Conference here in Lund, Sweden, she said: “We’ve heard the good th
e bad and, quite frankly, the ugly, here today.” Just before she sat down at the end of a world-class presentation that challenged swimming to find a better way of being, she concluded: “I never want to see this kind of thing happen ever again.” SwimVortex was there to hear the outstanding presentations of American swimmers Allison Wagner, Dana Vollmer and Caitlin Leverenz that triggered her comments and we will report on those soon alongside the pathway set out by Prof. Duda beyond a leading research project by seven European Universities that aims to transform the environment of youth sport and athlete wellbeing.
Rarely, if ever, do you sit through four presentations at a swim conference (any conference for that matter) in one afternoon without being overwhelmed by a need for coffee and fresh air. Though coffee and 15-minute breaks were on the agenda, the first day of four at WADC went far further than marking one of those rare occasions: if in the years ahead (and the sooner the better), the words spoken by a sorority of thinkers in Lund do not influence change for the better in sport, if they are not held up as building blocks for a culture to aspire to and act upon, we will all have to hang our heads in shame.
Of the four presentations, that of Vollmer and Leverenz marked the only deliberate collaboration and interaction, yet there was no denying the thread that wove all themes neatly together by coincidence on a day that started with the swimmers in the water at the Swedish Center for Aquatic Research demonstrating and advocating the work of the man on the deck, Milt Nelms (more on that over the weekend). The ethical and performance issues raised, opinion based heavily on experience, facts and research, are as challenging to the sport as a whole and those who govern it as much as the coaches at the conference.
The Stage-Setter: How to be Good
Context was set from go. Coaches were asked to think outside the box from the starting blocks, the day 1- heat 1 presentation from Dr. Fiona McLachlan a call for the guardians of swimming youth to consider “How to be Good”.
McLachlan, a scientist from Victoria University’s Institute for Sport, Exercise and Active Living, took her cameras, supertroupers and director’s chair away from the familiarity of the pool deck to a hilltop several waves back to a glimpse of a different horizon for swimming to set its cap to.
Her opening shot, one that would frame all that was to follow on a day stacked high with thoughts, facts, experience and research broad and deep, offered four signposts. The pathway did not come with a set of directions demeaning ‘take this route to the light’, rather this was about “the beginning of a conversation”, and “the start of a process” designed to empower and to deliver a better environment and understanding than that which prevails.
The journey set out by McLachlan, academic adviser to Shane Gould as the 1972 triple Olympic champion embarks on PHD studies, took in the cultural shock of the Australian review that judged culture at the heart of the sport Down Under to be “toxic”, the Stilnox saga, leadership vacuum and what she described as “the mismatch of expectations (nation) and what they (swimmers) did”.
McLachlan listed her four-step process as follows:
- Big-picture thinking (philosophy)
- Contextualisation (sociology, history, cultural studies)
- Critique (social and cultural analyses of power)
- Transformation (professional experience + research = performance)
Her work is centred in the realms of bringing meaning and fostering integrity to sport. There were, as McLacghlan told it, two key pillars:
- a. understand swimming, its embodiment and performance, including an invitation to travel the road down which Milt Nelms has led: “unlearn the cognitive and go back to the sensation of being in water”.
- b. enhance elite swimming coaching, learn-to-swim instruction and everyday aquatic experience in public places.
Technical and tactical efficiency is the aim of most performance-led programs and clinics and that comes with the pursuit of the latest and best knowledge with which coaches can help their athlete to get the best out of themselves.
How does that fit into the four-step process of the scientist, asked McLaghlan prior to explanation:
This requires letting go of taken-for-granted assumptions, engaging in experiment, asking why and thinking about possibilities for practice. The need to question should be a daily, integral part of the coaching role, she suggested, big-picture thinking as important as the technical and the tactical.
Asking the question what do we want sport to be about, she listed an environment “exclusive, progressive, healthy, one that promotes good practice, diversity and enables people to live fulfilling lives”. The question came down to “how do we use sport in society?”. The theme is an ethical one, including this range of thought put to coaches by McLachlan:
” … what swimmers do, what they should do, what they are made to do, what you make them do, what you do to them in making them good”. Thought extended to “what coaches should do and how they can be good”.
In swimming, the answer to the question “how to be good” ran on parallel lines: performance, yes, but also “being human”. Said McLachlan: “Being good is about both of these things.” She then challenged coaches to send to the conference app five quick-fire answers to the question “what makes a good swimmer?”
The replies spoke often to the theme of the three D’s that Debbie Meyer once cited to me as the mantra of her illustrious achievement:
dedication, determination, discipline. Here’s a sample: training; sleep; food; motivation; self confidence; water perception; being interested; wanting to get better; being mentally strong; physical attributes; athletic readiness; independence; being focused on goal/goals; a will to train hard; passion; intelligence.
- Leverenz and Vollmer offered: a competitive drive, a continual desire to learn.
One coach wrote: A good swimmer wins! Another offered: being coachable. The latter is among those thoughts that invite further questions on a day that raised issues of power and control, of task-led approaches versus ego-led approaches and the directions in which such journeys lead athlete and coach. What does it mean to be coachable? Presentations by Leverenz, Vollmer and Allison Wagner would shed light on answers from the book of deeper understanding.
Coaches, meanwhile, were invited to discuss their answers with McLaghlan throughout the conference and its workshops over four instructive days in Lund.
Coaching is something that happens in Fiji, Sweden, the USA, Australia, Japan and many other countries every day. The word describing the job may be the same but each situation comes with its own environment and circumstances: context. Neither was coaching now what it was 50 years ago, nor what it will be 50 years from now.
“It is important to understand the context in which you are working, to understand changes and trends and meet prevailing challenges in ethically responsive ways,” McLachlan told coaches. Doping, suits and a number of other topics sprang to mind, all apt to mould the coaching profession, the sport, the governance of it and the environment in which young folk grow up on the way to a wider world.
McLaghlan, from New Zeaalnd, had arrived in Australia not too long before the fall out of the Australian review into the events of 2012, lead-up and London 2012 Olympic Games. She felt the cultural shock of it all through media coverage that left her reeling. The accusations included:
- Abuse of a system designed to assist preparation
- Not attending competition to support teammates
- acting in a manner detrimental to team and elevating themselves above teammates
- expecting special treatment
- being satisfied simply with selection rather than performance in Olympic waters
- having an attitude of what’s in it for me
The end result was one of a sport that had not lived up to what the media (supposedly reflecting the views or a nation and a culture) expected of ‘good swimmers’. There had been a mismatch of expectation and what unfolded.
Though much coverage was focussed on the ‘Stilnox Six’ and carried a tone that left McLaghlan “appalled”, the subsequent review came to conclusions that spilled well beyond the individual athlete, including:
- lack of leadership
- generational shift challenges
- lack of proper induction processes
- team not enforcing consequences for poor behaviour
- failure to create the right environment
- abrogating responsibility
The challenge to coaches was not only to list the things that influence and determine how they run their programmes for athletes and what environment they created but to do so regularly in equal measure to the attention paid to the technical and the tactical.
This is where we raise problems, ask questions, including those that challenge the status quo. It was, suggested McLachlan, hard for those “outside the sport” to do this but it was crucial to do so. Much more difficult for many within the sport to raise hot topics, from discrimination to sexual misconduct, doping, other bad practice and much else.
Many within the sport would find it difficult to engage in the ‘critique’ part of the process because:
- a. They have vested interest in keeping the status quo: it is not in their best interest to challenge or annoy the organisations that employ or control them in some way
- b. when practices become entrenched and part of the culture of the sport, being a part of that culture “obscures from us the negative context of what we do and criticism of it”
It was important, McLaghlan noted, that the process of critique was not focused on the individual athlete but the big picture. Convention often limits us from thinking outside the box, she suggested, with careful, moral judgment not always within easy reach.
There is, said McLachlan, no point in points 1 to 3 if you don’t close the deal: transformation was the where you change for the better, rid the status quo of the problematic and dangerous.
The process of finding areas for potential problems, working through solutions and finding a way to change for the better required “ethical engagement’. It was not simply a process of fact accumulation. Instead, coaches needed to think about it as an ongoing critical reflection, updating knowledge and responding to context in an ethical manner. The effects on swimming could be potent.
McLachlan is due to make further presentations here in Lund.
From the library:
- McLachlan, F. (2010). ‘You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone’: Erased evidence, political parody, postmodern histories. Sporting Traditions, 27(2), 91- 100.
- McLachlan, F. (2009). Cohesive narratives: Dissolving Aotearoa/New Zealand’s heroines of water. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26(14), 2143-2159.
- Loy, J., McLachlan, F. & Booth, D. (2009). Connotations of female movement and meaning: The development of women’s participation in the Olympic Games. Olympika, XVIII, 1-23.
- McLachlan, F. (2009). Working with ‘obesity’: Lessons from reality television. The New Zealand Physical Educator, 42(1), 22-25.
- Burrows, L., McLachlan, F. & Spowart, L. (2011). The dissertation. In K. Armour & D. Macdonald (Eds). Research methods in physical education and youth sport. Routledge: London.