Dissecting the power dynamic: a Coaching Insight in Nottingham

The coach/performer relationship is key to coaching success but hard to get right. In November more than 30 coaches gathered in Nottingham in search of insight into this building block of coaching. Mick Owen reports.

Dave Haskins: the "energy and drive of the apostle"

In 2010 when The Leisure Review pitched the idea of a coaching seminar without learning outcomes or links to an over-arching strategic imperative we were both surprised and delighted to be taken up on our offer. A dozen Coaching Insights later and the original partnership with Sport Nottinghamshire has been enriched by the addition of Nottinghamshire County Council, while a switch in host institution from Nottingham Trent University to the University of Nottingham has meant a move closer to the beating heart of the city. However, the refusal to be stereotypical still characterises the burgeoning seminar programme and the breath of fresh air which the Coaching Insight concept represents has become a persistent draft round the ankles of the more staid agencies in the coaching workshop pantheon who try manfully to ignore it.

For the November seminar, titled “Coaching is a people business: the power dynamic in the coaching relationship”, we were lucky enough to reunite two of our original contributors and add two fresh perspectives to our expert panel.

The first of the new presenters, Martyn Rothwell of the Rugby Football League, having won a Churchill Scholarship, was able to travel to Australia and New Zealand to watch how their rugby coaches operate. The experience has turned him into an advocate for performer-centred coaching and he used his time to proselytise this approach. Quoting Rod Thorpe, showing video footage of Graham Henry and sharing tales from his antipodean odyssey, Rothwell explored the concept of athlete-centred coaching which is less prevalent as a modus operandi than it should be. One reason for this is that high-profile advocates such as rugby union’s Brian Ashton have, quite literally, lost their jobs because the people they coached were unable to cope with being allowed to make decisions.

Despite the risks, Rothwell is prepared to hand over his power to choose tactics, determine team culture, gate-keep team rules and even to develop a style of play to the players he works with but he was clear that the choice to do so has to be an informed one. He showed an image of a “questioning coach” getting kids to run into a large tackle roll and asking the stereotypical “question”: “How did that feel?” Rothwell’s point was that grafting a misunderstood behaviour on to an otherwise unsuccessful coaching style will not change the dynamics of the coach/performer relationship. For that to happen the coach, or the coach educator, needs to apply critical thinking prior to applying an intervention, identify where a balance is required between ‘tell’ and ‘delegate’, remember that communication is essential and above all to reflect on the journey.

One of the joys, or challenges, of a Coaching Insight seminar is the variety of the speakers and their perspectives and Sally Proudlove of the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) comes at coaching from a very different angle. Although not a practitioner, she is a consumer, or at least her children are, and she wants to believe that their coaches are people she can trust. At the heart of the CPSU’s mission is their role as a champion for safeguarding in sport. Her presentation showed why more than 10 years after the unit was formed this is still a job which needs doing. Recent research shows that while the risk of sexual abusers targeting sport to access children is still very real, one of the biggest threats to a child enjoying all that sport has to offer and staying safe from harm is their coach, with peers being the most common perpetrators of harm. The latter, far more prevalent situation, is, of course, a situation where coaches “have a particular role in challenging negative peer behaviour and creating the kind of culture in training where harmful behaviour is unacceptable and positive behaviour is modelled”.   

Having pointed out that a coach is in a “position of trust” and that the coach’s ability to manipulate factors such as playing time, coaching attention and opportunities for success creates a power imbalance, Proudlove warned that this can skew how participants react to coaches. Sharing some recent research from Kate Alexander and Anne Stafford of the Centre for Learning on Child Protection, she pointed out that, while participating in organised sport is a positive experience for most children and young people, “a negative sporting culture exists, is accepted as ‘the norm’ and is perpetuated by peers, coaches and other adults”. Which is a fairly horrifying headline.

Other headlines were equally disturbing with 75% of the young people in the study reporting “widespread emotionally harmful treatment” and 29% of them having experienced “unacceptable levels of sexual harassment” in sport. From a coaching point of view she did say that “peers were the most common perpetrators of all forms of harm reported in the research” but followed that with the fact that “coaches were the second most common perpetrators of harm, with their role in harm increasing as young athletes advanced through the competitive ranks”. Coaches were also sometimes guilty of failing to challenge the negative behaviours of participants.

To illustrate her points Proudlove showed the room statistics from the study, shared quotes from young participants – “If you do one thing wrong then suddenly like you are being screamed at in the middle of an entire gym” – and showed a pair of DVDs which consisted of children enumerating how important sport is to them and how they would like to be coached. She also told a tale from her own experience as a touch-line parent. She had recently been at a competition that was being used to develop young officials and where every refereeing mistake was loudly criticised by coaches of both teams and parents; other adults did little more than shake their heads, fearful perhaps of the power of the coach.

The message that “sport should take steps to promote a more positive sporting and coaching ethos, at all levels of participation and in all sports” could be held to be obvious, although many in the room may have been surprised to hear how far we still have to go. While much of the CPSU’s remit is strategic, the conclusion for coaches, clubs and grassroots programmes is that action is an individual responsibility.

With ten minutes left before a well-earned coffee many presenters would accept the inevitable, tell a couple of jokes and let the participants relax into the break. Not so David Haskins. Despite having retired, Haskins has the energy and drive of the apostle and faced with an audience in need of a boost he backed himself, to use a sporting expression, and went for it.

Currently in the middle of a nationwide tour explaining the “Five Cs” – first reported by The Leisure Review in September 2010 – Haskins focused briefly on “connection” and used some of Daniel Goleman’s thinking as his starting point. Goleman talks about the importance of developing emotional intelligence and Haskins has extrapolated his thinking into the world of coaching. Put simply, if we want to help people develop in sport we need to know what they want and how they think, although the first step is to know yourself. If we want to facilitate the creative chaos the best coaches espouse we need an accurate self-image, the competence to manage a chaotic environment and the confidence to do so.

After the break Haskins was again on his feet but this time to serve as the facilitator of an experiment proposed and involving Dr Hamish Telfer, another old friend of The Leisure Review. Telfer introduced himself by making the point that he had never had an original idea in his life and then introduced two guests whom he had persuaded to take part. These guests were athletes he had coached when the world was younger; Rona and Steve had both been performance-level runners when they met and were coached by Telfer, a national coach for his sport. They had come to answer questions about their relationship with their coach then and now, with Telfer either at the back of the room or in the corridor if needs be.

With Telfer having talked of a relationship forged on rain-swept running tracks of the north west where exhausted runners were “invited” to “do another lap” even as they vomited, the first question from the audience was: “Were you abused?” Both athletes were vehement in rejecting this suggestion and Steve told how he had sought out Telfer because he wanted to improve as an athlete. That choice and every one thereafter was made by consenting, albeit young, consenting adults who had formally agreed goals with their coach and recognised that hard work was part of the process.

As the athletes spoke it became apparent that as well as sharing goals the group shared jokes, confidences and a deep and lasting trust. With an NSPCC officer in the room and a national obsession with coaching children exemplified by the growth of the Youth Sport Trust it was always likely someone would ask about “professional distance”. Telfer was very close to his athletes and still holds an important place in their psyches but did he compromise the position of trust he occupied in allowing this dependency to develop? Again both athletes demurred and, with the perspective of the intervening years spent teaching, coaching and parenting themselves, were persuasive that their time with Telfer had been all about them, the athletes, and the relationship professionally bounded..

In a conversation lasting nearly an hour every participant will pick out parts that resonate for them. Having gone to the trouble of putting the three together, it makes sense to listen to what they said. Steve suggested that his coach “enjoyed me winning as much as I did”, explaining, “We were a team together, striving for it.” Rona recalled with respect “his attention to the athlete” and “his attention to detail”. Both agreed that before they came to trust Telfer as a person they “trusted his knowledge”.

Throughout the session, which ebbed and flowed with Haskins probing, challenging or just leaving well alone, the most used word was ‘we’. All three had a depth of memory that was remarkable and all recalled the “family of athletes” and coach. The experiment had been proposed as a way of shining a light on one coach’s relationship with the athletes he coached and how they had learned from him but Telfer, being perversity in human form, insisted that “they taught me so much; they were better than me and their outputs were so much more that my inputs”.

With the gloaming falling on the University of Nottingham’s playing fields, by now almost obscured by possibly migrating wildfowl, the afternoon drew to its conclusion with one question reverberating in your correspondent’s head. “If nobody set any learning outcomes, how come so many people learned so much in such a short time?” The answer lies in the open minds of the participants, the wit and wisdom of the speakers and the alchemy created when coaches come together for a chat.



The Leisure Review, December 2012

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Throughout the session, which ebbed and flowed with Haskins probing, challenging or just leaving well alone, the most used word was ‘we’. All three had a depth of memory which was remarkable and all recalled the “family of athletes” and coach

Hamish Telfer: preparing to leave the room if necessary

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