Athlete Appeals: Should You Help?

Athlete appeals: Should you help? How to determine when to go to bat for your athlete and when to step aside

Appeals by athletes are most often on selection decisions made by the organization. The athlete launches an appeal because he or she feels that selection criteria were improperly applied, thereby denying the athlete a spot on a team, an entry in a competition, or a nomination for the athlete assistance program. When it's warranted, the athlete can appeal this decision by using the organization’s appeal policy or by going to the arbitration mechanism of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

In some cases a coach may assist an athlete with launching the appeal because the coach and athlete share the same goals and destiny. But the coach may also choose to stand aside and let the athlete handle the process on his or her own, or with the help of a representative such as a parent or lawyer. Having a knowledgeable representative may be best for the athlete who has to focus on training and must also maintain positive ongoing relationships with his or her teammates.

When making a decision about your best role as coach you need to consider the merits of the appeal, the age and maturity of the athlete, the preferences of the athlete's parents (especially in the case of younger athletes), your relationships with other coaches and athletes, and whether the appeal revolves around technical matters for which you might have a high degree of knowledge and thus can make an important contribution.

When coaches succeed, and when they fail

Coaches have acted as the athlete’s representative to both success and failure. One example of a coach who experienced success is University of Guelph track coach Dave Scott-Thomas, who represented his athlete Eric Gillis in a successful appeal to Athletics Canada that saw the athlete become selected for and compete in the 2008 Olympic Games.

Rachel Corbett, founding partner with the Sport Law & Strategy Group and the administrator of the Gillis appeal, credits Scott-Thomas’s success to the fact that he was knowledgeable about the appeal, confident in his assertions, and highly respectful about the appeal panel, the work of the administrator, and of the entire process. “He did not exaggerate claims, stretch the truth, or criticize the technical expertise of the selectors at Athletics Canada,” said Corbett. “His approach and deferential tone made him a valued partner in a collaborative, problem-solving process, which is extraordinary given that appeals are adversarial to begin with.”

Corbett has also been involved in cases where coaches criticized the sport organization and its leaders and where coaches used a scattergun approach, “which involves a tiresome tirade about a lot of little errors instead of a thoughtful focus on one or two significant errors. It is important to understand that an appeal panel will have difficulty finding in favour of a party that is negative, critical, aggressive, and disrespectful.”

To be a strong athlete’s representative, a coach needs to fully understand the selection criteria and what errors may have been made. Appeals follow a very stringent process and adhering closely to these requirements gives the athlete’s appeal the best chance of succeeding.

Coaches can encounter problems if an appeal involves an athlete who may be de-selected if the appeal succeeds. If this occurs, coaches can find themselves pitted against each other. In some cases, a coach may have a relationship with both athletes, which also creates a dilemma. Sometimes a coach may not believe the appeal is warranted and may need to help the athlete understand what is best for both the athlete and the organization. Maintaining a cooperative atmosphere and open lines of communication are important in these situations.

When athletes appeal discipline decisions, coaches face an even tougher choice about getting involved since they are in the unenviable position of potentially defending or trivializing conduct that may have been detrimental to the organization. And if they don’t get involved, their athlete may wonder why the coach is not a complete supporter. The coach must be delicate in determining if, how, and when to intervene in discipline appeals.

A good rule of thumb in these situations is for coaches to continue to act as the best coach possible for the athlete. This may mean intervening to stop a misguided athlete from launching an appeal, working with the athlete and other parties to try to find an alternative resolution to the dispute, assisting the athlete in making his or her own arguments, or acting as the athlete’s main representative.

Sidebar: Advice from a pro: 8 tips

Coach Dave Scott-Thomas, who successfully appealed on behalf of his athlete Eric Gillis who was not selected to the athletics team for the 2008 Olympics, offers these tips:

  1. Consider whether an athlete is emotionally prepared for the rigours of an appeals process.
  2. The coach must be completely convinced of the merits of the appeal and must be confident about proving an error was made.
  3. Prepare thoroughly for the appeal with background information, technical data, and performance indicators.
  4. Enlist the support of other interested and qualified individuals and have them work with you as a team.
  5. Back up arguments with proven facts that stay focused on legitimate issues.
  6. Be honest — acknowledge when facts do not support your argument.
  7. Understand that the appeal is not personal — you have to be logical, principled, direct, and completely unemotional.
  8. Be respectful and professional — you will lose the appeal if you lose your cool.

An edited version of this article was originally published in: Coaches Plan du Coach (Spring 2014) Vol. 2(1)

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