Agents of Performance, Agents of Protection

Sport psychology professionals and sports performance coaches are passionate about improving the competitiveness, skills, and play of the athletes with whom they work.  The best at what they do are adept at knowing when to push,  when pull, and how to educate about navigating the often confusing culture of competitive sport.  Beyond “confusing,” sport can also be cruel (see Doc Gardner’s post Just a Tipping Point…).  It is these times when sport is cruel that a performance professional’s humanity, ethics, and courage are challenged.

In the July-Sept issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Stirling and Kerr examined the following questions:

  • Are sport psychology consultants exposed to cases of child maltreatment in sport?
  • Do sport psychology consultants believe they have the requisite knowledge and training to identify the various forms of relational maltreatment?
  • How might sport psychology consultants be better enabled to act as agents of child protection in sport?

Important questions that seem outside of the desire to improve athletic performance.  However are these not more important concerns than raising one’s batting average, preparing for a national championship, or simply, finding more focus in practice?  Of course they are.

These are questions that need to be considered by all sports performance professionals.  How prepared is the soccer coach, the strength and conditioning professional, and the nutritionist to protect their athletes in the most serious of situations.  Without awareness, some education, and great courage, it is too easy to look the other way or provide ineffective assistance (or times inadvertent harmful help).  The performance coach may not be able to fully rescue an athlete from abuse or cure all that ails, but failure to adequately address such issues leads to harm for the athlete… the human being and likely many restless nights for the coach.  Great coaches care about victories and they also care about people.

Beyond substituting various others for the words “sport psychology consultant” in the above questions, the word “child” can be dropped.  In the world of sports, it is not only children that need protection and caring adults but also collegiate, young professional, and, at times, experienced athletes.  In speaking with a former student the other day, the case of a young women’s tennis professional was brought to the table.  While she was an adult, it is clear that she herself needed “protection” from an abusive family and appropriate emotional support now that she is in essence alone traveling the world.  She has a caring coach who is thoughtful enough to attempt to navigate the confusing, frustrating, and painful world of abusive relationships.  One can only hope for a positive outcome for the young lady.  One also has to realize that she is not alone in having such struggles.

Anyone that works in sport needs to consider the questions posed by Stirling and Kerr.  Truly protecting the athlete physically and emotionally is every coaches ethical responsibility.  Beyond this, it is simply the right thing to do.

Too often one tries to gain education and learn about resources after revelations of abuse arise.  Adopting a more proactive approach to preparing for such challenging situations will benefit any performance coach.  A few broad suggestions that are put forth by Stirling and Kerr are 1. Get formal training and continuing education in ethics, 2. Take advantage of informal learning opportunities (conferences and self-study), 3. Be aware of definitions of abuse and trouble as well as the signs and symptoms, 4. Become familiar with reporting protocol in your community, 5. Understand treatment options and referral resources, 6. Set guidelines in organizations for handling concerns, 7. Have clear behavioral codes for parents, coaches, and all in the sports organization.  This is a somewhat long list, but one that provides a framework for creating a caring community and a high performance community.

Ethics aside, it is very difficult to truly be an agent of performance while not effectively being an agent of protection.  Courage is something spoken about on the playing field quite often.  The coach that is willing and able to address maltreatment (unfortunately some times will be unable to stop it) is a true model of courage for players and community.

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