Caring: the bread and butter of sports coaching.

An elite athlete lives a life that is rigorously controlled and directed down to the minute details; they’re told when to do things and how to do things. Under the microscope, elite athletes are ranked and valued by RAG ratings, how much weight they can lift, how quickly they can run the length of the court, or how many consecutive shots they can make. Leaving limited opportunity for authentic open dialogue and raising a critically important question; are we dehumanising the pedagogical endeavour of sports coaching? Across the globe elite athletes are deeply cared about. Coaches undoubtedly care about the athlete attaining success, they also care deeply about athletes living without injury, and care about athletes having positive mental health. However, how often are conversations regarding injury accompanied with ‘so, when can you return to action?’ or ‘that’s great news, does that mean you can be medically cleared to play now?’.

Understanding care-theory, requires us to understand the inherent difference between caring about and caring for. Caring for requires the establishment of relation. Care theory at bottom is a relational theory that requires at least two people, the carer (the coach) and the cared for (the athlete). To develop a relation of care within the coach-athlete dyad both parties are significant. The cared-for has a simple, yet crucial, role. They must recognise the carers attempt to care, otherwise there is no caring relation. Contrastingly, the carer (the coach) must demonstrate commitment to the care-for (the athlete) and a passionate movement to serve their needs and wants. What are your needs and wants?

Noddings (1988) ethics of care is fundamentally comprised of two elements, engrossment and motivational displacement. Engrossment requires the coach (carer) to provide empathic attention to the athlete, to be consistent, and to be receptive. Being receptive to how the athlete is feeling, the challenges they’re facing, to place aside the wonders of how you might feel in that situation and to immerse ourselves in what the athlete is going though right now. Noddings (2012) continues by explaining the coach must be cautious of imposing their own, the NGB’s, the S&C coach or anyone else’s agenda on the athlete when in this stage. Understandably, this can be difficult due to the high pressurised environment and level of expectations when on the journey to competing on the world stage. Just stop, watch and listen to the cared-for, the athlete.

Noddings (2012) encouraged the power of asking the cared for (athlete) a few simple questions, “What are you going through?” (cited by Noddings, 2012; Weil, 1977, p.51) or “Let me hear you think.” (Noddings, 2012, p. 774). Questions such as the ones provided will be the foundation stone to enter the spirit of dialogue. Initially, your athletes may feel overwhelmed and frightened to engage in this exchange. Acting as a foreign entity to the athlete as this is a new experience to them, and possibly you. When teaching an athlete to use their ‘weak side’, do we ever give up? No, because we are confident in the cliché that practice makes perfect. Therefore, persevere with asking questions that cultivate awkward silences and long pauses. Long term benefits of encouraging the athlete to consider, articulate and process their thoughts, feelings and to be engage in the caring process will reap holistic reward.

Host of the Talent Equation podcast, Stuart Armstrong, welcomed Alan Keane (England U18 Basketball Coach) in an episode named ‘Moving away from being a ‘play station coach’ – A conversation with Alan Keane’. Engaging with UK Sport’s 18-month Aspire program required Alan to pair with a mentor. Naturally, Alan gravitated towards mentor Mark Bennett. As their relationship developed, Mark challenged Alan to be more vulnerable, commenting; “I want you to agree to something. I don’t want you to say anything to the players during the game apart from one thing. You can choose how you say it, but it has to be along the lines of; talk to me, reflect, review, or what are your thoughts.” Alan nervously agreed and opted to engage with the task in a match vs the Dutch. First time-out is called, the players sit and fixate on Alan ready to hear one minute of technical and technical jargon. Instead, they were left confused after hearing, “ok guys, talk to me”. One minute of silence, discomfort and awkwardness passed and the five active players returned to court. Next, the Dutch called a time out and Alan proceeded to ask his players to talk to him. Fifteen seconds passed and the most introverted athlete in the team declared a solution to counterattack the Dutch’s actions – breakthrough. Empower athletes to use their paramount voices to invest them in their experiences and to pave the path of a caring relation.

The bread and butter of sports coaching is often explained as bibs, balls, cones and a brain full of knowledge. Maybe, we need to retrace our steps, re-evaluate our relations and master the art of Nel Noddings care ethics. What do you think?

Useful Links:

  • The Talent Equation Podcast with Alan Keane: click here.
  • Care in Sport Coaching: Pedagogical Cases, a book by Colum Cronin and Kathleen Armour: click here.
  • Caring as sustainable coaching in elite athletics: benefits and challenges, an article by John Dohsten, Natalie Barker-Ruchti & Eva-Carin Lindgren: click here.

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