It all starts with ‘good intentions’… but when there isn’t an appropriate arrangement to the athlete <> coach <> sport association set of relationships, all the good intentions in the world are worth nothing.
It starts with the ‘good intention’ of an athlete believing in a coach, which sounds harmless doesn’t it? Problem is believing in a coach is code for believing that the coach will “make” an athlete into an Olympian or a World Champ. The narrative starts when a coach has one of their athletes achieve an exceptional level of performance… immediately the belief begins that the coach ‘turned the athlete’ into the success that they are. The narrative repeated enough results in the coach too starting to believe that they themselves ‘turned’ the athlete into the success and that they are indeed ‘talented’ at spotting athletic potential, at developing athletic potential, at training athletes into international stars and superstars. The narrative can grow so large that coaches end up believing that their athletes are nothing without them – its they who did the work ‘turning’ them into stars, without them… hah, good luck! With every additional athlete who achieves under the direction of this coach, the narrative grows further to the point that throughout the sport athletes and other coaches start to believe that this one coach has an unique ability of generating success. The narrative widens further when the sport association executives start to believe that the coach is indeed exceptional and has the ability to yield results. Sport organizations are always searching for ‘assets’ which will generate even greater funding opportunities for the sport so when an athlete or coach excels the temptation to raise them up to heroic levels grows exponentially, especially with each additional achievement.
“Believing” that a coach will turn you into anything is believing that the coach has the magic powers of a fairy godmother or godfather. No coach has ever ‘turned’ any athlete into anything. No coach sprinkles fairy dust and turns athlete into something they aren’t. It is athletes who decide to train, who put in the work, it is athletes who pursue, persevere, sacrifice, commit, dedicate, etc… Coaches are supposed to offer guidance based on their education and experience, that’s it.
Problem is that narratives can become so powerful that they do in fact have the potential to prove themselves true; albeit temporarily because eventually everything that is too good to be true, blows up, and typically blows up in a spectacular manner.
And… this is exactly how we end up with stories of coaches such as those of Alberto Salazar and Dave Scott-Thomas.
As the narrative surrounding a coach grows, the number repeating that narrative grows and with our deep rooted distaste for being wrong… as the number repeating the narrative grows so does the belief that the coach ‘can do no wrong’. Eventually the narrative grows to the point that there is an entire mythology behind the coach… how they identify athletic potential, train, develop, and then refine athletes into Olympians and World Champions.
[As an aside, its understandable but not reasonable for the Queens University coach to criticize the athletes at Guelph who trained under Dave Scott-Thomas (DST) for encouraging other athletes to join the program. Problem with this criticism is that when you are ‘drinking the kool-aid’ its impossible to think outside the kool-aid. In fact, its entirely predictable that the athletes at Guelph U would attract other athletes to join the training program because of the scope of the narrative and the need to feed the narrative. In fact, the size that the narrative grew too explains why the entire Centre of Excellence had to be closed… the entire culture that developed around the narrative had to end.]
The narrative typically grows to be so powerful that athletes trained by this coach who end up injured, ill, or who simply do not rise to the equivalent or expected potential, are simply ejected from memory; it can be as if the athlete never ever existed, as if they never trained under the coach. With the coach unable to do wrong, any evidence to the contrary is deleted from memory. Then when an athlete or a parent of an athlete comes forward with allegations that the coach is not as they are made out to be, that the coach is not the all-powerful ‘Oz’, the narrative takes over and the contradicting and conflicting information is deleted from memory. Since the narrative is now an entity on its own, to keep the narrative alive any evidence that doesn’t support the myth – i.e. any language that threatens to tarnish the reputation of the coach who has now become oh-so critical to the well-being of the sport – is rejected.
This is why Megan Brown stated: “this is how abuse of power works – the one in a place of power stays protected by the victim because the victim has too much to lose in speaking the truth“.
Once the narrative gains this degree of traction, it cannot be broken with only one victim coming forward… the reputation of the coach now being elevated to mythological status verges on unreachable, and victims know this which is why they rarely come forward.
And this is why Derek De Jong states: “I was angry that somebody was speaking out, I was angry that somebody was taking something I saw as a deep dark secret and putting it out there for the public“. With information about abuse coming out, other victims having repressed their pain believing its pointless because the potential of succeeding at taking down the narrative being so small, feel even more victimized because now they feel that not only will the narrative continue to live on, but their pain will be made public and their abuse simply ridiculed as a statement of anger or hate or revenge and not an authentic expression of suffering.
Meanwhile, as Brown continues: “the person [or sport organization] continues to reap the benefits of their power“.
In the case of Brown, her father contacted Athletics Canada when Megan was still a teen with his concerns over the well-being of his daughter. The reply from Athletics Canada… crickets… because by that point in time the reputation of Dave Scott-Thomas was already growing and the narrative already too large for only one voice alone to take down.
In the case of De Jong, he himself brought the aberrant behaviour of the team doctor to his swim team coaches but because the reputation of the doctor was that of a “doctor”, De Jong was told to keep his issues to himself.
It all starts with ‘good intentions’… of becoming a great athlete, of coaching athletes to their greatness, of supporting athletes & coaches as a sport organization to achieve their potential, but when narratives become reputations that cannot be questioned… we swing wide open the door to abuse… physical, emotional & mental abuse of athletes by coaches and by sport organizations and equally so, the abuse of coaches by sport organizations.
Now refer to the post titled “SNC’s Reputation vs Athlete Safety”: read the language coming from the CEO of Swimming Natation Canada (SNC)… and ask yourself: why does the CEO feel the need to intimidate & threaten? Why is the CEO of SNC so concerned with the reputation of his organization? Is it because SNC used the argument that organizational reputation takes precedence over athlete safety & well-being and used it as the basis to implement a “no association” policy which SNC used to inflict the confirmed mistreatment of Sinead Russell at the 2012 Olympics? As a parent of swimmers I can confirm that the mistreatment of athletes in the sport of swimming didn’t start or end with Sinead, as Swim Ontario (SO) & Swimming Canada ensured that every swimmer who even remotely violated the “no association” policy was ‘punished’ by club dissolution and/or blacklisting so as to not be able to join another club. Even athletes as young as 8 and 10 years of age as my children were when SO & SNC decided that they needed to be ‘punished’; clearly an 8 and a 10 year old were out to intentionally damage the reputations of these swim organizations.
Clearly we have learnt nothing!
In the cases of Athletics Canada, USA Gymnastics, and Iowa State University, all of these organizations also couldn’t handle their ‘reputations’ being brought into question when allegations of abuse were made… so guess what happened: because organizational reputation was made to take precedence over athlete safety & well-being, the allegations were swept away while hundreds upon hundreds of athletes ended up abused.
This is the risk of narratives: they can turn into ‘reputations’ which are protected & defended at any cost.
When we forget that we are all human… and no one is perfect… that’s when we collectively allow abuse to happen.
It all starts with ‘good intentions’… but when there isn’t an appropriate arrangement to the athlete <> coach <> sport association set of relationships, all the good intentions in the world are worth nothing. When there is no buffer between athlete & coach and no buffer between coach & sport organization which maintains objectivity in the relationships, we will replace objectivity with subjective stories (i.e. narratives) which are prone to protectionism and with protectionism we lose our ability to reasonably evaluate our methods eventually leading us into believing in fantastical stories where certain individuals or organizations are deemed untouchable to criticism, to review, to evaluation. With the cycle of abuse now permitted to exist, a culture of abuse takes hold hiding behind a protected “reputation” of being incapable of ever doing wrong.
Reputations cannot be placed on thrones because that is when there is a good chance that they are hiding something. There is no need for hiding, sport is meant to be used for the betterment of the individual, not the protection of reputation, especially not the protection of organizational reputation.
Next post: what is the buffer needed in the athlete <> coach relationship?