Sport organizations frequently face allegations of a culture — the values, beliefs and assumptions that define behaviour among individuals in a shared setting — that is toxic. Over time, certain behaviours and practices become accepted and reinforced, despite questionable outcomes.
Eric MacIntosh, a professor of sport management at the School of Human Kinetics, is working on a research project seeking to promote a safer high performance sport culture. MacIntosh and his colleagues interviewed 28 Canadian high performance athletes who are (or were) on a path to the podium at the highest level of their sport about what safe sport means to them, when they feel unsafe in sport and how a culture of safe sport might be achieved.
Identifying toxic cultures in high performance sport
MacIntosh and his colleagues suggest that a shift in culture requires an understanding of the culture’s current undesirable aspects as well as of preferred values, beliefs and practices. Understanding athletes’ perspectives is critical because they experience the culture and can help create the changes needed.
The athletes interviewed discussed coaches at length, providing examples of unsafe behaviours and practices. Coaches hold a significant influence on athletes’ professional lives, as the gatekeepers of resources like information, opportunities and financial support. They hold extreme power with little or no accountability.
The athletes reported examples of coaches overstepping boundaries in the coach-athlete relationship. Some have gone as far as using their position of authority to influence areas of athletes’ lives where athletes should have autonomy.
Overly aggressive behaviours, which the athletes equate to belittling, having their character attacked and having their confidence broken, were also reported. Feelings of exclusion and isolation when coaches show favouritism toward other athletes, putting athletes at risk of falling behind, also were reported.
MacIntosh and his colleagues stress that these coaches’ behaviours and practices should not just be “the way things are,” as they contribute to an environment where athletes feel vulnerable, fearful, intimidated, devalued and mistrustful of those with such influence on them.
Defining a safer sports culture
The athletes’ stories should prompt a shift in coaches’ behaviour, one that starts with clarity and a reset of expectations and boundaries, and includes increased accountability.
Here are some examples of a safer sports culture:
- The coach is knowledgeable about athletes’ development and self-aware.
- The athletes’ best interests (individual development, positive personal relationships, being understood and heard) are prioritized.
- There’s a sense of community shared by athletes and coaches, featuring open communication, inclusion and trust (a sense of being “in it together,” of family).
- There’s ancillary support (e.g., physiotherapy, nutrition and mental performance counselling, media support).
- Regulations are in place and followed (playing regulations, rules, practice guidelines; safe venues and equipment; clean sport codes of conduct).
In phase two of the project, MacIntosh and his colleagues plan to highlight coaches’ and administrators’ voices to allow for a fuller understanding of high performance sport culture.
In the meantime, MacIntosh and colleagues recommend Safe Sport Training, developed by the Coaching Association of Canada. They also recommend adherence to the Responsible Coaching Movement (RCM), but believe the system must go beyond the RCM pledge.