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

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Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness

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.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: e119_2018j_aug011.mp3
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Transcript

CHRIS CUSHION:
Interesting example around football. I mean I do – we do a little bit of work in football. And you know if you think about sport as the same as any other domain, in any other profession or in any other occupation, and even, you know, what you might not - what you wouldn't call bullying necessarily but harsh language - so using expletives, the way that you talk to people, it would be totally unacceptable in any other workplace. But in sport such as football it’s perfectly fine to f and Jeff at the players for example and people accept that as normal whereas actually that’s not normal, you know, you'd get sacked. I'd get sacked if I spoke to people in some of the ways that we see football coaches and other coaches speaking to players. So it becomes normalised so if you're in a sport from a young age you kind of get used to that behaviour and it’s just normal you know. Everyone speaks to everyone in that fashion but when you're outside of that industry or outside of that sport in other domains you think how do people accept that? That’s just unacceptable behaviour.
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah I agree there because there has been a time where although I say I have never experienced it looking back then from what you’ve just said I have been under managers that the minute with Mark he’s so much more for developing the player. Not only being as a manager but developing if you like even at my age, wants things like still get more out of you and you can still learn. But then the old manager at Birmingham when I was there, Marcus, he’s the kind to kick a bottle in your face, throw tactic sheets at your head, shout at you sprout you but we didn’t know any better so we looked up to that and that got the best out of us and that made us the team we became. And we was the underdogs that then all of a sudden teams were turning up at our place thinking ‘whew – these are gonna be trouble.’ But we didn’t look at him as him being – some of the girls did and they didn’t like it,
INTERVIEWER:
Were you prepared to accept it because it worked essentially?
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
I work by a rough tough more tough-like management like that. Like everyone – they are individuals. Some people if the manager knows them well enough like Marcus at Birmingham; he will know what players he can do it with but not to the extent at what Marcus did. But if Marcus – I was the one he kicked the bottle in the face. That was just purely accident. He just kicked the bottle across the room and it’s hit me in the face but I had to stand up and kind of look at the wall so it isn't my fault. It’s no good me now kicking off 'cos for the team but we actually respond better to that. Another girl got the tactic papers threw at her head and told ‘you’re rubbish. What are you doing? You should be going and playing at …’ I don't want to repeat what he said but it worked and yeah.
INTERVIEWER:
So because it worked you feel like it was okay?
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
I feel it’s okay but I know there was people in that team that was like ‘it’s disgusting. That is not happening.’ But people overlooked it because of the results we was getting.
INTERVIEWER:
Are there things that you wouldn't be prepared to accept?
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
Not me personally.
INTERVIEWER:
You know things that are said at half time or the way that training happens you know are there things that you look back at and think well actually maybe we shouldn’t have accepted that?
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah but under Marcus yes because looking back now I think well yeah okay that’s probably a bit too far but at the time it worked. It got us results. We did well. We won things. You know, no one questions is if we were losing and he’s doing it then people are gonna start you know making an issue of it. So it can go either way.
INTERVIEWER:
While we’re on this subject I do want to bring in something that’s from – we dug out from the archives last week. This is about oh I should think the early 2000s. I won't play you the whole thing because it’s about four minutes long. You can listen to it on the Weekend Sport Preview if you're that way inclined. But it’s a bit of Billy Mims who was the Leicester Riders head coach at a time when they lost eighteen matches in a row. Radio Leicester went up to a game in Sheffield, their nineteenth, and they were twenty points down at half time so heading for a nineteenth straight defeat. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say at half time:
ARCHIVE CLIP
It’s embarrassing watching our failure defensively. It’s embarrassing watching players make excuses. I‘m not making excuses. We suck right now. We are the worst team in this country right now. And I chose every one of you here. I'm not making excuses. I'm not hiding from it. We are bad defensively. I’m a bad defensive coach so I'm asking you for some help.
INTERVIEWER:
Professor Chris Cushion – what do you make of that?
CHRIS CUSHION:
Well I understand the message and I totally get what the coach is trying to say it’s just the method of delivery is entirely unacceptable in the modern age. You don’t speak to human beings in that way. It’s bullying behaviour so humiliation, belittling, shouting at people – it’s totally unnecessary. I don’t know why it’s acceptable in sport that you feel you have to shout at people to get your message across.
INTERVIEWER:
Well it’s interesting because Rachel is saying you know for her that sort of treatment kind of worked –
CHRIS CUSHION:
Absolutely. I suspect that Rachel’s played football for a long time and has become kind of accustomed to that. I mean you know –
RACHEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah there was more of it when we was younger coming up so I'm used to that. But the younger ones coming through now with this next generation of players coming through they're not used to it and they're not ready for it so some of them are bored to tears whereas as players we then go and pick them back up.
End transcript
 
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What do you think is the boundary between tough coaching and bullying drawing on your experience and this audio?

Discussion

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.

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