Coaching in the Age of New Media

Ozzie Sawicki’s excellent Technology Solutions columns in this publication help us understand how new technologies are being adapted for use in coach-athlete interactions. Some of the new technologies he has featured are instructional tools, while others are media (plural of medium) that facilitate communication between the coach and the athlete.

Instant messaging programs, Skype, text-messaging, Facebook, and e-mail are a few of the media that have entered the coach-athlete relationship communication sphere. By using these new computer-mediated communication media, also known as CMC media, coaches and athletes are able to interact more efficiently, more effectively, and more closely than ever before.

While CMC media bring obvious improvements to coach-athlete communication, they also bring challenges - particularly in the area of ethics.  Coaches are asking themselves important questions:  Should my athlete and I be friends on Facebook? What do I do if my athlete adds me to MSN? My athlete wants to webcam with me at 1:00am to show me his new pitching grip – is that okay?

Ethically, these matters can be addressed through both organizational policy and personal guidelines. Given the rapid advance of these new technologies, we feel it is very appropriate for an elite-level team or national-level organization to recommend guidelines for coach-athlete interactions in CMC media. But regardless of whether or not your sport organization has a policy, we feel strongly that every coach should set his or her own personal standards for managing this new method of communication. For example, if you reject a Facebook friend request from one player – then you need to reject the friend requests from all of your players.

And what about legal implications? It is obviously not illegal to exchange messages with an athlete on Facebook. But what happens if you see a picture of that athlete engaging in illegal behaviour, such as underage drinking? What if an athlete Twitters about marijuana use?

The athlete has trusted you enough to befriend you and to invite you into his or her personal world. Once you enter that world, you will inevitably become privy to information that you otherwise would not have encountered through normal face-to-face interaction. Do you have a responsibility to report illegal activity to the police? Or to the athlete’s parents? If you have evidence of use of prohibited or restricted substances, do you have an obligation to disclose this to your sport governing body?

These are serious questions, which is why the ethics of new media can be very challenging!

To explore these questions further, let’s first start with the statement that it is not illegal to interact on Facebook (or via any CMC medium, including e-mail) with an athlete. There is no harm in communicating this way – but it is critical to note that exchanging messages via CMC media is different than talking face-to-face or chatting on the phone. We know that when we send emails, we sometimes write things that we would not usually say in person. It is much easier to harshly criticize someone, reveal personal details, and comment inappropriately when we are hidden behind a computer screen.

This well-documented phenomenon is called hyper-personal communication. We more readily reveal personal feelings or ask personal questions when communication cues like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions are not present in the interaction. So if a coach is talking to a young athlete on MSN about skill development, the conversation could quickly transition into a discussion about effective technique and the coach and athlete could wind up arranging to watch a DVD about skills instruction together at the coach’s house.  If this discussion happened face-to-face, the coach would be aware of the possible impropriety of arranging this private meeting.

Is hyper-personal communication illegal? Of course not. But this type of communication may lead to the breakdown of appropriate coach-athlete relationship parameters. Recently, in R v. Legare, 2009 SCC 56, the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the federal Internet luring laws. In a unanimous ruling, the Court wrote: “The offender need not meet or intend to meet the victim” in order to be guilty of Internet luring. In fact, “groom[ing] them online by first gaining their trust through conversations about their home life, their personal interests or other innocuous topics” may be enough to earn a conviction.

In Ontario, high school teacher Dina Calautti was convicted of Internet luring and given a year’s probation. She did not ‘talk dirty’ to the student, she did not meet the student outside of class, and she stopped talking with him after one week. Her crime was that she counseled the student about his personal relationships and she “crossed a line” by not ending the online conversation once the student expressed romantic feelings for her.

Although the position of trust is not the same for coaches as it is for teachers, it is arguable that an improper relationship is just as likely to develop. After all, to be an effective coach you must know your athletes, and that involves having an awareness of their emotional lives and off-field activities. You need to be very cautious if an athlete invites you to get to know him or her via social media (which is how most young people prefer to communicate). Once engaged in these communications, you will become aware of activities that will impose disclosure obligations upon you, especially if the athlete is a minor.

For example, legally you might be able to turn a blind eye to underage drinking (as many adults do on a regular basis), but the context of this drinking may require that you disclose your knowledge to your sport governing body. For example, if your players hosted a drinking party in a hotel room during a team trip, and you saw photos of it on Facebook, your organization likely requires you to take action and report the activity. We would further suggest that, as a coach, you have a clear ethical obligation to report any use of substances that are banned or restricted under the Canadian Anti-Doping Program, including marijuana.

Morally, you also have a duty to report indiscretions to parents if the athletes you coach are minors. It may turn out that the parent and athlete are friends on Facebook, and the parent is already aware of the improper activity. But having this conversation would be far less difficult than having a later conversation in which a parent accuses that: “You knew!” about their child’s drug habit and you said nothing about it.

So what is a coach to do? We suggest a number of things: be aware of new CMC media and how they can enhance (and complicate!) your communication with athletes; be particularly sensitive to the phenomenon of hyper-personal communication; and spend some time to think about your own personal standards about using CMC media with your athletes.

There is no doubt that communication technology is growing rapidly, and that considerations of law, ethics and privacy are lagging behind. CMC media have the potential to significantly enhance your effectiveness as a coach, but for the reasons we have described here, we urge prudence and caution.

Originally published: Coaches Plan (2010) Vol. 17(1)

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