A question of ethics: right or wrong?
A question of ethics: right or wrong?

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

A question of ethics: right or wrong?

4 Creating a power culture

An imbalance of power in a coach-athlete relationship can create a very controlling environment. In a study by Johns and Johns (2000) on the training and eating habits of middle distance runners, rhythmic gymnastics and wrestlers, the role of the coach in creating a culture of discipline and control was evident. One gymnast described how she had to conform to this culture:

‘One coach would weigh us four times a day. We had to weigh in before each practice and it made us really self-conscious. And then she would say, “You’re fat, why do you weigh more than you weighed this morning? What did you eat this afternoon that made you weigh more?” It was an interrogation and it was terrible.’

(Johns and Johns, 2000, p. 228)

The culture created by the coach in the example above would not be considered as ethical or moral according to the codes of conduct reviewed in Activity 1. So why do athletes remain in a coaching environment that is not pleasant? Often this is because the athletes feel dependent on the coach to be able to succeed or because they see this culture as being ‘normal.’

The next activity involves reading a case review concerned with the culture created by coaches in a UK based gymnastics club. This shows the effects that the abuse of power may have on athletes, in this case a child athlete who develops Trichotillomania (recurrent pulling out of one’s own hair, resulting in noticeable hair loss):

Activity 5 Emotional abuse in sport

Allow about 40 minutes

Read the clinical case report ‘Emotional Abuse in Sport: A Case Study of Trichotillomania in a Prepubescent Female Gymnast [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ by Gervis and Godfrey (2013). Then answer the following questions:

  1. Referring back to the four principles stated in the sports coach UK Code of Conduct (Rights, Relationships, Responsibilities (personal standards) and Responsibilities (professional standards)), which of these have the coaches failed to adhere to?
  2. Do you think the example of coaching behaviour described in this case would be considered as ‘abuse’ when working with young athletes?


  1. Rights – in this instance the behaviour of the coaches did not appear to be ‘guided by the best interests of the client.’

    Relationships – the relationship between the coach and the athlete is not described as a balanced relationship and one could argue that ‘fairness and integrity’ were not used to guide the professional decisions and relationships within this case.

    Responsibilities (personal standards) – professional image would appear to be compromised here as maintaining ‘appropriate professional boundaries’ would be questionable.

    Responsibilities (professional standards) – lack of ‘education and training’ could be an issue here as the coaches did not seem to adopt good practice or possibly appreciate how this culture may impact the athletes involved. It could be questioned whether this was ‘a safe environment.’

  2. The case study describes ‘belittling, public humiliation, shouting and generally aggressive and intimidating behaviour’ by the coaches. The module team considered this to be a form of emotional abuse and contravening the codes of conduct set out by sports coach UK. Interestingly, the coaches felt that this was simply the culture of gymnastics and did not see an issue with their behaviour.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has nearly 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus