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How coaches can dispense honest criticism without fear of reprisal

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Great Britain hockey

Great Britain's women hockey players celebrate after beating defending champions the Netherlands to win the Olympic gold medal in Rio

Great Britain hockey head coach Danny Kerry and Dublin Gaelic football team manager Jim Gavin are shining examples of how, by adopting a transformational leadership approach to coaching, and establishing collective responsibility and a common sense of purpose among players and staff, an environment can be created that supports conflict-resolution-type conversations, and in which honest criticism is regarded as being vital to the success of the squad. 

  • The behaviour of some high-performance coaches has come under sharp focus this year, raising important questions on how coaches communicate with their athletes.
  • Headlines like ‘welfare over winning’, ‘toxic culture of fear’ and ‘institutionalised bullying’ have sent shockwaves through the industry.
  • Danny Kerry and Jim Gavin have shown you don’t have to tread on eggshells with your athletes for fear of conflict, and that being honestly critical is actually critical to continued progress. 

If I’m being perfectly honest, I do not anticipate members will be overly keen on expressing their opinion about the issues raised in this blog. 

Who would want to put their neck on the chopping block and dare to suggest there is a rising climate of nervousness, fear and confusion among elite coaches when it comes to delivering brutally frank, uncensored criticism to their athletes.

Or claim that, if the current course is maintained, a reluctance to give candid feedback could begin to undermine direct communication between coaches and athletes. 

On the question of whether athletes today have become oversensitive to criticism, the silence of our elite coaches is deafening. But can you blame them either for their reticence in proffering an opinion? 

In the current climate, high-performance coaches who rise to the bait and comment on their approach to managing tardy performances and slack work ethic would likely face a media backlash. Such is the intense scrutiny coaches currently find themselves under. 

With media soundbites like ‘welfare over winning’, ‘toxic culture of fear’, ‘institutionalised bullying’ and ‘no-compromise approach’ being used to berate governing bodies, the topic of honest criticism has become a real hot potato. 

I will go on to provide a few glowing examples of how unadulterated honesty can work wonders, as long as it is used within a carefully formulated framework, remains constructive and is not born out of malice or total disregard towards people’s feelings. 

Whatever your viewpoint, we must not shy away from the controversial nature of the topic, for the future direction of coaching in this country stands at a crossroads. 

Blurred lines 

We must factor in the vice of social media that has magnified the debate. We live in a society that wallows in negativity and is perpetually on the offensive, playing the role of judge and jury over every allegation. 

There is a rolling recital of doom and gloom, woes and woe betides spouted in tweets and under online newspaper articles by our nation of avid and rabid keyboard commentators, who are always so keen to pick fault. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on everything. 

The upshot of this pervasive pattern of negativity infects every niche and corner of our culture, and sports coaching is no different. 

I don’t want to become embroiled in the high-profile scandals that have hit the headlines this year, but suffice to say some will argue the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable has become blurred to the extent that it is no longer discernible. 

Others will be just as resolute in their opinion that, if the need arises to confront an individual performer, the ‘do not cross’ threshold should be common sense and not a grey area at all. 

The line may move up or down depending on the age group, person or performance level but if you know each of your athletes well, as coaches should, then it should be fairly obvious what manner and tone you should take when addressing any performance concerns with individuals.

Simply by adhering to the UK Coaching Code of Practice for Sports Coaches – which states: ‘Good coaching practice reflects the following key principles: Coaches must develop a relationship with their participants (and others) based on openness, honesty, mutual trust and respect’ – will help eliminate potential for conflict.

It is also true to say that, in UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ high-performance system that sets such a high bar in terms of effort, commitment and success, you could potentially weaken medal prospects by tiptoeing around people’s feelings for fear of reprisal, or taking the easy route to avoid conflict. 'Compassionately ruthless' is the compromise phrase currently doing the rounds.

Absolute honesty 

There is a way of keeping an open line of communication with your athletes, where straight-talking does not lead to animosity, alienation or potentially damage an athlete’s wellbeing. 

An online article by Irish-based sports psychologist Keith Begley spelled out this solution. The ideas he discussed mirrored the coaching methodologies of Great Britain and England women’s hockey head coach Danny Kerry, as detailed in our popular blog

Begley was discussing the coaching philosophy of Dublin Gaelic football team coach Jim Gavin, who attributes the cornerstone of his side’s continued success to being honestly critical of his players and taking a transformational leadership approach to his coaching, whereby each player accepts accountability for their actions.

‘To get players to the top level you have to be honestly critical. If a player does not know where he needs to improve, then he will not know what he needs to work on,’ Gavin is quoted as saying.

On transformational leadership, Begley writes: ‘It facilitates transference of responsibility and power from the manager to the players so that the players feel a sense of ownership of their own progress. 

‘Central to the transfer of power is an expectation of absolute honesty – creating an environment where players learn and want to grow and improve.’  

This strategy establishes a crucial three-way honesty exchange between coaches and athletes, athletes and coaches and between the athletes themselves. 

Mutual trust and common purpose 

Kerry uses the same empowering strategy of honest feedback, distributed leadership and collective responsibility as a means of developing followers into leaders in his international hockey fold. 

He has created an environment where transparency of thinking has become firmly implanted and where open criticism is encouraged, founded upon mutual trust and a common sense of purpose. 

The approach seems to be working, if an Olympic gold medal is anything to go by, and the compassionate reaction of players as they rallied round in support of Kerry after his recent heart scare

That is not to say transformational leadership and encouraging conflict-resolution-type conversations and an open leadership style, where players’ opinions are both encouraged and valued, is all plain sailing. 

Any criticism can be hard to take, even if it is not aired in spite but comes with the team’s best interests at heart. 

Kerry needed to display the same growth mindset he had been diligently cultivating in his players and call upon all his reserves of intellectual humility, not to mention develop a broad set of shoulders, when he found himself on the receiving end in the early part of his tenure. 

He freely admits he came close to resigning after a tough post-Beijing Olympic Games review, when GB finished sixth. 

‘I thought I had given everything for the team,’ says Danny. ‘But in the review process, the athlete group and the staff I worked with really tore me to pieces. They pretty much called me grumpy, miserable and unapproachable. I felt betrayed.  

‘There was a lot of soul-searching at the time. The feedback was pretty harrowing. 

‘For people to turn round who you have really respected to effectively character assassinate you was really tough. But actually, they were right.’ 

On the right track 

With Kerry stood at a crossroads in his career, he successfully turned the corner, using the lessons learned to shape his personal development as a coach. 

He now underlines the message of collective ownership, common sense of purpose and the importance of mutual understanding within the group at every opportunity. 

No system is foolproof but Kerry and Gavin, to name but two, have put safeguards in place to at least minimise the risk of fallout arising in tense situations – for example, when a player takes umbrage at being dropped from the squad or has an issue with a coach’s manner or tone of voice. Without conflict-resolution-type conversations, disillusionment is left to fester and could lead to a deterioration in team unity or the coach-athlete relationship.

They are proof that honesty really is the best policy… when utilised in combination with the right framework.

What is your approach to dispensing honest criticism? Add a comment to share your views and experiences.

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Comments (3)


By "honest criticism" do you mean feedback?
This isn't really that difficult - it's been so well documented in the corporate and coaching worlds that it's surely not worth going through it all again.
Perhaps the issue is "Why don't people in general and coaches specifically do it?"
By the way your example with Danny is perhaps not ideal - the surprise for me is that, as it seems to involve a personal attack on an individual, he came back from it at all. The example seems to illustrate a strength of character of an individual coming back from adversity rather than as a model of giving honest feedback to improve the performance of someone.
Perhaps I've got it all wrong and maybe you do think that coaches should be going around criticising their athletes or carrying out "character assassinations".
This is a coaching blog? Isn't it? :)

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Hi Martin, the point I was trying to make with Danny was that because of the culture he has gone on to successfully establish, there is now far less likelihood of player grievances festering and then being aired in the manner of a group 'character assassination' in a one-off debriefing in the future. The players/coaches/staff now have a communication structure in place whereby issues are thrashed out and resolved before they fester.

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This is an important subject that is always tricky to get right. But recently after many freqent conversations based on giving feedback one outcome to avoid incertitude. The trick is how and getting to know the person is key. Which is why I believe Emotional Intelligence is a skill to develop.

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