The relationship between coach and athlete is the most important and impactful of their working life. Any sportsperson will tell you that they see and listen to their coach more than a parent or partner. When it comes to influence over their life decisions, the coach wins.
That is why the breakdown of trust between coach and athlete is so damaging. The current debate around British Cycling and the resignation of its technical director Shane Sutton is fascinating for what it reveals about how coaching works and how it has changed. Coaches can be loved or they can be despised and either has been deemed acceptable, as long as the results are good. There was an Australian swimming coach a few years back called Bill Sweetenham who, a bit like Shane Sutton, was an old-school alpha male. The swimmers didn’t like him much but for a while, his methods worked.
‘People don’t understand what it takes to get success at the highest level,’ he said earlier this year. ‘I had to rock the boat pretty hard. It doesn’t always go down well because it pushes people out of their comfort zones.’
The history of sport shows us that while medals are being won, an unpopular coach can get away with it. What’s different about British Cycling is that things did go well at the recent World Track Championships even though the cracks were there to see. But once the gold medals started coming, so did the smiles. Success can paper over a lot of problems, but now those problems have come to the surface and British Cycling needs to repair itself fast.
Shane Sutton, who denies the charges against him, was a lion who roared frequently – a tough-love coach who ranted about things or people he couldn’t bend to his will. It’s a method of coaching that can work but when it doesn’t, it can be seriously damaging.
There are a couple of super coaches here in Britain – namely Sir Clive Woodward and Sutton’s former boss Sir Dave Brailsford – who share a thoughtful, scientific approach to sport. They want to understand how to get the best out of individuals but also how to make marginal gains to inch ahead of the opposition. The rousing speech still matters but it seems to me that the coach has a duty of care that goes beyond performance alone.
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