“The Issue Of Ethics”
Dr. Joe Massimo & Dr. Sue Massimo
Excerpt from Psychology and Gymnastics by Drs. Joe and Sue Massimo.
In today’s climate of politically correct responses, it is clear that ethics is a concept that is well known and discussed in considerable detail. Many professions have a strict and fairly well monitored code of ethics (lawyers, medical doctors, psychologists, etc.). Many of these directives were a direct consequence of years of planning and deliberation on the issue. Coaching sports as a profession should be no different and coaching young athletes should definitely have a strict code of ethics.
If we look in the past to an issue of “Olympic Coach” published by the U.S. Olympic Committee Division of Coaching Development, an article appeared that dealt with ethics in coaching. A challenge in sport was offered during a presentation at the USOC Coaching Symposium. In this presentation, it was stressed that the coach’s highest priority should be in establishing relationships with athletes that help them develop in positive ways. The most important first step, in this regard, would be the development of a set of principles that would address expectations in the coach-athlete interactions—a code of conduct. In fact, that is the direction that USA Gymnastics took and this organization has made great progress in developing a Code of Ethics to better serve those who participate in gymnastics.
There are many obvious obstacles and resistances that interfere with the development and subsequent adoption of a code of ethics and behavior. One basic difficulty is that not many coaches like to talk about the subject. It is not just that they see it as an infringement on their autonomy and right to manage their own functioning, but also because some of the content is sensitive. Issues that present clear ethical dilemmas are touchy subjects for many coaches. They would prefer to deny the existence of such problems, even knowing that they are out there.
A major contradiction concerning a code of ethics is that sport is often seen through a different set of moral lenses than those used in the rest of our lives. For example, in years past some of us have seen gymnastic coaches treat their athletes in ways that, outside of the training setting, would be grounds for dismissal if not a civil or criminal lawsuit. What to some is acceptable in the gym might not be outside of that setting. Does this mean the behavior in the training setting is above the law in terms of what is right and ethical? Many more athletes participating in sport today are sensitive to the issues of abusive, demeaning, humiliating, or degrading actions of their coaches. A larger than hoped for number of coaches uses the gym as a place to work out their own personal problems around authority and control. These personalized agendas usually involving themes of domination are used to abuse the power the coach has by virtue of their positions and role. A loss of objectivity can often occur and contribute directly to emotional damage in a young gymnast who sometimes holds the coach as a special person and even god-like figure. A code of conduct goes a long way in illuminating what can be expected and accepted by everyone.
Since many coach’s livelihoods depend on production and performance of their athletes, it is understandable that they might tend, to some degree, to take advantage of their student’s time and physical well-being. Safety has always been stressed in gymnastics, but we are all aware of the fact that far too many coaches go for the big “tricks” prematurely, without preparation, in order to produce a winning team. A code of ethics also addresses the issue of over-emphasis on winning to the long range detriment of the gymnast. When it is a question of keeping your job, some resistance to looking at this question is to be expected. Again, however, is that an ethical point of view?
Seven basic attributes have been identified that athletes between the ages of 12 and 20 look for in their coaches. It is suggested that priority by the coach should be in developing positive and helpful relationships with their athletes. Our own research over the years with competitive gymnasts here and abroad has revealed similar findings. These attributes will be discussed in this paper from the perspective of the sport of gymnastics.
- Competence. Research has clearly shown that most athletes want coaches who know their business. This not only means technical, biomechanically-based knowledge, but also the ability to communicate this information to them in a clear and useful manner. It is of interest, in this regard, to note that a questionnaire format survey, conducted by your authors involving hundreds of gymnasts, the less successful athletes felt that “technical ability” was the single most important attribute in a coach. The ability to provide “spotting” was also identified with the competence variable. More successful and experienced gymnasts as determined by actual competitive performance and record placed far less emphasis on this characteristic and indicated that the empathetic, emotionally supportive qualities of a coach were more highly valued. The question was raised, at that time, whether a partial key to outstanding coaching involves the coach’s ability to grow and change in keeping with the changing needs structure of an athlete. Obviously rigid, set-in-their-way coaches might have difficulty when such flexibility is needed. This issue has not been adequately examined to date and remains an intriguing question, with many ramifications for professional coaches and program development.
- Approachability. Another important identified attribute involves the gymnast’s desire to have a coach who is open to what they think, say, and feel. They also look for coaches who can handle feedback about their coaching style, without becoming defensive, and who have the capacity to admit to mistakes. Many gymnasts have indicated that they often do not communicate with their coaches because they feel their concerns will be invalidated. Two of the most common examples involved the gymnast’s reluctance to tell the coach that they are afraid of a skill and do not feel ready to execute it in the demanded way, or that they are hurting with some physical injury. Many have stated that the coach often denies the crucial emotional message in these kinds of statements and will respond with “What are you afraid of?,” “so what,” “that’s foolish,” “cut it out,” or “you’re faking it.” Such a style, on the coach’s part, makes it most difficult for a gymnast to “trust” that they will be heard, and many would rather not risk enduring the coach’s anger. In terms of being able to admit to having made a mistake, a coach who says to an athlete, “Look, my behavior yesterday was out of line. I’m sorry,” will gain returns in personal credibility and in establishing the human qualities of the coach that few other actions could achieve.
- Fairness and Consistency. This dimension of the coaching interaction is one of the most difficult to maintain. Most coaches, although they may wish to deny it, have “favorite” athletes in the gym. Their preference may be subtle, but it is detectable in any training setting and sometimes is glaring. Gymnasts, as with other athletes, expect and should receive equal treatment. Rules should apply to everyone, and although individual differences need to be taken into account, athletes should expect that approaches to the unique needs and characteristics of each gymnast will be addressed in a timely fashion and does not automatically mean unfairness. All athletes should receive such sensitive and individually tailored management, not just a select few. A code of ethics would need to discuss this area in detail.
- Confidence. Gymnasts want to know they can rely on the coach to set a positive example, both in and out of the training setting. Athletes look for a clear set of guiding principles that focus on the overall long and short term goals of the coach in relationship to the team as a whole, and its individual members. Many of the rules and disciplinary expectations that apply to the gymnast should also be evident in the coach’s behavior and personal standards. Practice what you preach is associated with this kind of coaching characteristic and must be viewed as an ethical guideline.
- Motivation. Another basic attribute sought by athletes in their coaches that has ethical implications involved motivation. There are basically two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. External motivation concerns stimulation that comes from outside the gymnast. Pleasing the coach or family members, concrete rewards for success, etc. are examples of extrinsic motivation. Internally motivated athletes find their drive in more personal factors such as pride, the acquisition of skills, and demonstrated mastery. Rarely is a gymnast purely one or the other in terms of a motivating force, but as with most athletes, motivation is usually sustained by a combination of outside and inside factors. If it is the ethical responsibility of the coach to serve as a motivator, then it is crucial that he or she have a great deal of enthusiasm and love for the sport. This kind of dedication and excitement in the coach is contagious and serves as a very powerful and basic motivational technique. In this regard, passion for the support is ethical.
- Personal Concern. Most gymnasts and athletes, in general, want a coach who is genuinely concerned about their overall well-being as people, not just as motor wonders. Sometimes the coach serves as an adult friend and mentor as well as someone who directs the physical training of an athlete. Many young people want to be able to confide in their coach and ask questions without being treated as an inferior. Mutual respect, in this regard, is highly advantageous. At times of injury, this principle becomes very clear, and often young athletes are ignored or abandoned on some level when they can no longer “compete” and make an active contribution to a team. Such behavior on the part of a coach is not right and is, in fact, unethical.
- Support. Gymnasts want coaches who encourage and also who demand that they go for the maximum realization of their individual potential. They are looking for coaches who instill security and confidence. All athletes want coaches who will recognize and praise their achievements and constructively deal with their weaknesses and areas for needed improvement. Coaching through the overt use of fear, intimidation, and domination is counterproductive and not ethical.
Adopting a “Personal” Code of Conduct
In summary, although progress has been made by several sport federations to develop a strict code of ethics, many do not involve the type of desired characteristics nor coach-athlete relationship issues just reviewed. The code of ethics for gymnastics addresses issues such as motivational or training methods which may be considered abusive, has established guidelines for all registered coaches and gymnastics facilities, and continues to monitor and update their ethical code. However, based on the previous seven attributes of competence, approachability, fairness, confidence, motivation, personal concern, and support perhaps we, in the gymnastic community, should strive towards adopting these additional desired characteristics as our own “personal” code of conduct. Refer to “Abuses of Anger in the Gym,” “Male Coach-Female Gymnast,” as well as “I Have a Problem with My Coach” found in Psychology and Gymnastics for a more in-depth look at this important issue.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “Abuses of Anger in the Gym,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. & Massimo, S., (2012). “Male Coach-Female Gymnast,” in Psychology and Gymnastics, NY, NY: Morgan James.
Massimo, J. &. Massimo, S., (2012). Psychology and Gymnastics. NY, NY: Morgan James.
Nielsen, W., (1994). “Ethics,” in Olympic Coach: U.S. Olympic Committee Division of Coaching Development, Winter 1994, Volume 4, Number 1.
USA Gymnastics Code of Ethics. October, 2011. http://usagym.org/pages/aboutus/pages/code_of_ethics.html