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UK Coaching Team
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Safety and Welfare Self-care and development

Gold Standard Duty of Care Won’t Damage Our Medal Chances

To mark its third anniversary, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson provides a progress report on the Duty of Care in Sport Review. She discusses the moral and legal obligation sport has to care for its participants – and care for its coaches

  • Baroness Grey-Thompson tells Blake Richardson that establishing a positive organisational or team culture founded on the principles of Duty of Care will not impact negatively on performance. 

  • In many respects coaches are themselves performers, who encounter the same set of physical, emotional and psychological pressures, and they should be afforded the same level of care and support.

In the years that followed the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio, the nation became embroiled in a spiky debate on the issue of Duty of Care in elite sport. 

There were growing calls for urgent action to improve standards of athlete welfare and protection.

The argument for the industry-wide implementation of a more holistic model of care was founded on the perception that some governing bodies’ pursuit of medals had created a ‘culture of fear’, and that medal success had come at the expense of athlete well-being.

This view was evidenced by a series of high-profile controversies, which called into question the unforgiving training and development methods some performance programme coaches had adopted.

Against the backdrop of spectacular Olympic and Paralympic success at London 2012 and Rio 2016 that united the nation, the big question remained: what is the price worth paying for that success?

A prolonged period of soul-searching ensued from those in positions of power and the Government commissioned the help of the hugely respected Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to write an independent report into the moral and legal obligation sport has to care for its participants.

All this was played out under the intense glare of the media spotlight.

Grievances were listened to. Recommendations were made.

The fallout continues to this day but Baroness Grey-Thompson insists there is no reason to believe that, by embracing this new order, governing bodies will pay – as some commentators have predicted – a heavy price in the form of a diminished Team GB medal haul in future Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Break behavioural habits, not people

The danger with any appetite for organisational and cultural change is that it sets in motion a pendulum effect, whereby the status quo swings from one extreme to the other. 

But from the outset of her work on the Duty of Care Report, Baroness Grey-Thompson (pictured) says she has been conscious of the need to strike the right balance and remains “determined not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

I never want to go back to a world where we are not winning medals – like in Atlanta, when the Great Britain team won only a single gold medal. But I actually believe our drive for medals encouraged a form of behaviour which was not positive for lots and lots of people in sport.

It is incredibly important to find that balance. I don’t want to see anyone in sport broken. The only way we can do that is by thinking about Duty of Care and how we help, support and protect people and being really open and honest about the things we can all do to make a change.”

Diccon Edwards – who is Head of Coach Development at UK Sport – echoes that sentiment. He believes that welfare and winning can be happy bedfellows and asserts that Britain’s status as an Olympic and Paralympic superpower is safe.

“I think we’ve all recognised that creating an environment where people can thrive, where people can get excited about what is possible, where people can work hard because they see the opportunity, and where they are also supported at the same time, are key performance components.”

Crucially, that statement of principles applies as much to the coaches as it does the athletes.

You will only ever get true sustainable success and peak performance through happy, healthy athletes – and happy, healthy coaches,” Diccon told UK Coaching.

As our Five Pillars of Duty to Care guide explains: If coaches are to succeed in supporting people to have a fantastic experience of sport and physical activity and help them to thrive, then they must be supported to ensure they are happy and have the best experience possible to enable them to thrive in their role too.

Shining a light on coach welfare

The Duty of Care Report was published in April 2017. Its findings, messages and recommendations were rapidly disseminated among those working in the sport and physical activity sector, and beyond. And it was rightly lauded for giving athlete safety, well-being and welfare the priority it deserved. 

But in light of the escalating bullying allegations around that same time, the important message about coach welfare went largely unnoticed.

The fact is, coaches are on the same emotional journey as their athletes, having forged a dynamic partnership where each party lives and breathes an identical quest for success.

Helping athletes maximise their performance potential, while also devoting time and energy into looking after their mental health and well-being, is a pressure that puts coaches at risk of burnout themselves.

Equally, just as athletes’ interests must be protected in the event of any disciplinary or grievance procedure, so coaches should not be made to feel isolated and vulnerable in such circumstances.

As much as I’ve seen athletes not have a great experience of their time in sport, I’ve also seen coaches not always have a positive experience in sport,” says Baroness Grey-Thompson.

She admits that when she was first began researching Duty of Care, she “started off only looking at the participants”. But it didn’t take her long to realise she needed to broaden the scope of the review.

“I looked at everyone from grass-roots sport to lottery-funded athletes and professional sports clubs. It was a huge remit. But I was keen that it had to be even wider than that. It had to be beyond the athletes: the coaches, the medics, physios, personal trainers, everybody who makes up elite British sport.”

Her experiences as an athlete – and Paralympic Hall of Famer at that – and her pedigree as a talent pathway coach, combined with her experience of governance working for UK Sport and Sport Wales, gave her an all-important overarching perspective as an athlete, coach and workforce manager.

“I’ve been one of those people who have had to tell athletes they are being dropped from programmes, and I know how challenging that is. I’ve also had to do that with members of staff, telling them ‘I’m really sorry, we are not renewing your contract’.”

Under the radar

 

From the outside peering in, the public-facing side of sport is one of cheers and joyful tears as Team GB athletes bring home huge medal hauls from major tournaments. The huge collective sacrifices that go in to achieving those successes, meanwhile, remain hidden from view. 

There are amazing things that happen in sport, but I also don’t think that we can live in a bubble and say that it’s all perfect. Sport and elite sport is tough and it’s challenging and we can’t make it all warm and cuddly. That’s not elite sport,” says Baroness Grey-Thompson. 

“Equally, I think we have to question how we put coaches AND athletes back together. I’ve seen so many coaches’ relationships break because they work in sport. We have to be mindful of how we help those individuals.”

Ian Braid is the former head of the British Athletes' Commission and worked closely with Baroness Grey-Thompson in compiling the Duty of Care in Sport Review.

On the need for improvement across the sector, the managing director of DOCIAsport (Duty of Care in Action in Sport) says: "British sporting success is something to be proud of, but my role at the BAC showed that it was often achieved at a great cost in terms of the welfare of not just athletes but coaches and administrators too.

Sport has a choice; to either close ranks and lose people's confidence, or embrace duty of care and create a sustainable system so we can all be proud of what we achieve, both on and off the field of play."

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