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Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness
Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness

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3 When does tough coaching become bullying?

In the build up to the 2020 Olympic Games a number of sports have been forced to address claims of bullying following formal complaints from elite athletes about coaches’ communication behaviours.

Activity 3 When does tough coaching become bullying?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

In this audio, Professor Chris Cushion and top footballer, Rachel Williams, respond to the interviewer’s questions about such accusations of bullying.

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What do you think is the boundary between tough coaching and bullying drawing on your experience and this audio?


In the audio, Williams pointed out that some, but not all members of her team, found occasional communication practices unacceptable. Although this was tolerated whilst the team was successful, it would be less likely to be supported when results falter or a team is put under pressure or members of the team feel like outsiders. Cushion’s important observation of coaching being largely about power will be explored later, in Session 7.

Here, the motor racing team scenario is used to help put the discussion in context. The culture in the motor racing team is largely influenced by the team principal’s straight talking style. The boundary between his tough words and bullying would be determined by the situations in which he says things, how often harsh words are used and the opportunities for team members to raise concerns and speak openly. It would also depend on how those people the words were directed at perceived them, which as you heard in the interview clip is different for each individual.

The features of a person-centred approach to communication (Session 3) may be useful in interpreting such situations. In addition, appreciating some key evidence-based principles behind feedback may help guide your practice and that of others.