Generative Tension

It feels like Phil Collins understands a thing or two about tension. It is not widely known that arguably his best solo song, “In the Air Tonight,” was written during the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife. He shared in an interview that he wrote the lyrics spontaneously and while he can’t clearly articulate what the song is about, there’s a lot of anger, despair and frustration that reflects the anguish he was feeling at the time.  

When we were reflecting on a theme song to describe the emotional state of Canadian Sport at the moment, “In the Air Tonight" is the one that came to mind. Sport is soul searching right now … in a period of deep transition … and with each transition comes loss … and with loss, comes grief.  

By finding the right language to describe the often unexpressed emotions that speak to our lived experience, we can begin to make sense of what might be contributing to what is keeping us stuck. This blog aims to put some language around one of the issues that is contributing to the tension … or ‘the state of being stretched’ … we are witnessing as we accompany sport leaders in their journeys.  

Here’s one way of thinking about what is contributing to the ‘tension in the air’. The Sport Law Team is spending much of our time working alongside sport leaders as they look to manage and mitigate the risks related to unsafe practices and maltreatment.  We are witnessing the struggles of sport leaders who are attempting to deal with this tension by ensuring they have the right policies in place and that they are implementing the guidelines related to the Responsible Coaching Movement. For instance, we are supporting the implementation of more inclusive and open policies for transgendered athletes and for the BIPOC community. If you are interested in learning more about the process we’ve designed to host meaningful engagement with your stakeholders through courageous conversations, click here.  

There’s so much to be concerned about and yet, we remain hopeful. Here’s why. 

It is our belief that tension or the ‘state of being stretched’ can be generative. We love the term generative as it speaks to ‘capable of producing or creating’. Here’s how we describe the continuum in the sport environment as it relates to the topics of safe, inclusive and respectful engagement. On one end of the continuum, we have Generative Tension or what we define as the natural friction that occurs when two or more people join together ‘in common cause to produce the miraculous.’ This sense of being stretched when accompanied by shared values and an ethos of mutuality can lessen the power imbalance and serves as fuel to create extraordinary outcomes. We see this form of human interaction as positive, healthy, and mutually rewarding. Think of the bonds between coaches and athletes at their best. This is what Generative Tension sounds like … ‘I feel supported. I extend trust. I speak my truth. I know myself. I want to learn.  I want to share. I apologize when I get it wrong. I ask to be pushed. I know my limits. I feel safe. I ask powerful questions. I belong.’ Some of the ways we are supporting more of this healthy tension is by working alongside sport coaches to expand their awareness through tools like the NOVA Profile and one on one Integral Coaching sessions. We are bringing sport leaders and their staff together in conversations to invite more thoughtfulness and skill to communicate better, together. We are also supporting the sport sector who is struggling to stay afloat with the mental health concerns related to the isolation and ongoing disruption of the pandemic through our Holistic Return to Sport and through our Grief and Loss literacy workshops. 

At the other end of the continuum is Maltreatment. We believe that most coaches and sport leaders are not intentionally seeking to harm others. We believe that most people in positions of power and authority are there for the right reasons and are seeking to support others in living up to their full potential. We also believe that most of our training is focused on ways to enhance the technical and tactical nature of our work … or how to outsmart our opponents by being faster, smarter, or more skilled. What often gets lost however is how leaders feel about being in the experience of leadership and to our knowledge there is less training or support for ‘how to be’ as a sport leader, sport coach or athlete.  The systems and structures currently in place at the moment to deal with all things ‘maltreatment’ are to be found in the Safe Sport Policy Suite that we have created to support sport organizations. However, it has been our experience that many of the issues that are landing on the Maltreatment side of the continuum may be better dealt with through proactive leadership training that supports greater self-awareness, enhanced communications, and deeper empathy. You can read more about one leader’s way of leading here

In the middle of the continuum is Unnecessary Conflict. We believe more needs to be done to help sport leaders access proactive measures to avoid unnecessary conflict and maltreatment.  Conflict means ‘to clash’ and accurately describes what is happening in sport at the moment. Dina wrote about a ‘clash of values’ in 2010 in Values-in-Action which is based on research into the cultures of 9 National Sport Organizations. The philosophy of Management by Values is a refreshing new ethos that we believe will better support sport leaders as they look to better manage conflict. Here is one example to illustrate the point. We were asked to manage a complaint about a sport leader. The staff person in question felt disrespected, undermined, and bullied. An investigation was initiated. The report was shared. The remedy offered was training to support the sport leader in becoming more self-aware. Working with an Integral Coach gave the sport leader the opportunity to self-reflect, see their limiting beliefs, build new leadership capabilities, and commit to communicate with greater skill and compassion. The Sport Leaders Retreat is one example of a holistic training program that supports greater skill development. We are excited to be launching several other leadership and training programs to support sport leaders, sport coaches, and athletes in elevating their performance in the coming months. Stay tuned! 

In the end, it’s impossible to have a meaningful and rewarding relationship without tension. Sport offers one of the best possible environments to shape the minds and hearts of children and youth when done so intentionally. We believe that generative tension arises when two or more people come together to achieve a common purpose. We see this tension as a natural part of the healthy bonds that are forged between people as they collaborate to realize extraordinary results.  

Our hope is that this blog helps to provide a more hopeful path forward so that we can better resolve some of the things that are keeping us up at night. To explore how we might be of service, please connect with DBL@sportlaw.ca or SJI@sportlaw.ca.  

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