Blurred lines: building winning athletes in sport or just plain bullying?

Bullying can take place in all manner of settings, from the school yard to the boardroom. Recently there has been an increase in allegations associated with sport, particularly around athletes competing at the highest level.

As one Canadian sporting body put it, bullying is a pattern of behaviour that occurs when there is an imbalance of power between peers, and in the absence of provocation. It is a definition that may make you think cases of bullying in sport are limited to the relationship between coach and athlete.

But it has even been suggested that the behaviour of spectators toward players in the Australian Football League could be defined as bullying. And although not labelled as such in the media, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to interpret as bullying the alleged player power that ousted Claudio Ranieri from his managerial role at the English Premier League champions Leicester City.

Happier times for Leicester and Ranieri. EPA/PETER POWELL

Performance enhancing?

If nothing else, these stories make it clear that we have yet to agree on the limits of acceptable behaviour when managing those whose goal is to be the “best in the world”. Ask athletes, coaches and practitioners if bullying was ever OK in sport and the resounding response is, “no”. But then the caveats start: “well, sometimes, maybe, yes. It depends on what you mean by bullying”.

This may not be surprising. When an athlete pursues a goal which demands total dedication to elite performance, then coaches and team mates will at times take them out of their comfort zone, and deliberately challenge the athlete’s beliefs about their limits. This may even involve them being coerced into something they don’t want to do, or which they think they are incapable of.

It can take many forms, and opens up some ethical questions. Consider that studies have shown that athletes who are told their training session will be shorter than it is actually planned to be will perform better during the session. One study showed that endurance runners given a placebo will push harder and improve their times if they are told it is a performance- enhancing drug. Few would support tactics such as deception among the general workforce to make employees work harder. Despite this, their use in sport appears to be accepted despite the fact that athletes appear to have little choice in the matter.

Competition for the top step can be brutal. Gena Melendrez/Shutterstock

How many of us would accept being told that our working day was being shortened only to be told it was a ploy to enhance our productivity? To get the best out of athletes, coaches and team mates must strike a balance between reinforcing positive behaviour while challenging aspects which require improvement. At what point the latter becomes bullying may be entirely subject, as uncomfortable as this is, to the individual’s perception – and likely, the results such tactics achieve.

Something cooking

We can show the importance of perception when discussing bullying by switching from pitch to the kitchen. We have become used to aggressive and shouty chefs on our TV screens, and this group’s behaviour has led to some surprising findings about conduct we would ordinarily consider unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. Verbal bullying is perceived to be necessary to ensure the kitchen team performs optimally in stressful situations. In fact, the extreme behaviour that characterised the cooking and preparation environment in that study was cited by chefs themselves as a vital step in forming a cohesive team that exhibited high morale, got the job done and communicated effectively.

Acknowledging that this created a stressful environment, those that handled the pressure were idolised. This may ring true with those who have heard athletes extol the virtues of persevering despite setbacks, surviving unsavoury working conditions early in their career and dealing with often harsh criticism. Retired professional footballers have highlighted the benefits of their early career training and the undertaking of jobs not intrinsically linked to being a footballer, including cleaning boots and sweeping the stands.

Letting off steam. hxdbzxy/Shutterstock

Sporting organisations, however, are not ambitious restaurateurs, so should they be allowed to develop a culture that might deliver success, but which is at odds with what would be considered acceptable within the wider population. This is clearly a particular issue for organisations that receive funding from the public purse.

Governing bodies and those who fund sport should consider what is the stronger governor in terms of investment: the culture of the organisation or its success? The former is sometimes a precursor to the latter, but this may not always the case, especially as by definition, not everyone can be a world champion. Employers must decide whether the pursuit of resilient, and successful athletes may require them to break employment law and employees (athletes) must decide whether they are willing to accept this. The challenge that sport faces is to draw the lines clearly enough for the rest of us to see.