Bill Sweetenham

Sports Bullying and The True Fight

Over at Swimvortex, Craig Lord has published an editorial by former National Performance Director Bill Sweetenham on the subject of bullying by coaches. Sweetenham, who was himself accused of bullying but ultimately cleared during his tenure, has a lot to say on the subject.

Before we get into his arguments, I will say I do not agree with Sweetenham on several points. His defense of bad behavior by coaches communicates a message I find dangerous: that elite sports is somehow so special that it justifies behavior we wouldn't accept in normal walks of life.

In his editorial, Sweetenham begins with a cringeworthy comparison between sport and war. Both are "abnormal" to him, in terms of what must be done to best the other side. This comparison is tired, ridiculous and insulting to the real risks of armed combat. No one dies if they lose a swimming race.

The rest of Sweetenham's piece centers on the fact that athletes must be motivated and pushed to exceptional efforts to get exceptional results. 

No one would question this, but the issue of bullying in coaching is not this. Concern for the behavior of coaches is not about how hard the training they are giving is or what they are demanding. It is often not a question of "what" or "why". It is a question of "how" they are doing this "motivation".

Ranting and raving and unleashing a childish temper on an athlete at a swimming competition is not coaching. I've seen it many times, it simply shouldn't have a place in sport. I've heard it justified hundreds of times by colleagues because it "gets results".

You can scare an athlete into trying harder in the short term and maybe get a good result, but you are damaging them in the long term, and that's not what coaching is about.

I have seen so much behavior in the coaching world that is totally unacceptable, and the coaches escape any consequence because of the strange culture we have created around sport. This is the real problem, not the very small chance that athletes are lodging false accusations against coaches as some sort of revenge plot. 

Sweetenham ignorantly declares that "Any experienced coach knows that sporting administrators, theorists, psychologists, change culture experts, external motivators etc. do not possess a real feel for the athlete and the process." Which is a nice way to justify anything a coach does under the auspices "only a coach can understand what needs to be done here". 

I reject this argument. Coaches need to be held to a higher standard, not excepted because others just don't 'get it'. The next generation of elite athletes will have input from many sources, not just one "god" coach, and that will be a good thing. The world outside of sport has a lot to tell us about how we should motivate athletes positively to even higher planes of performance.

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