The Coach and the Selection Process

Published July 20, 1996

How much freedom does a coach have in the selection process? Should the coach even be making selection decisions? The natural inclination is to say the coach should be intimately involved in the selection of athletes and should have great discretion in making selection decisions. After all, the coach has the knowledge and experience to make such decisions and will be the person working most closely with the athletes. While this may be true, there are some legal considerations which may unknowingly constrain the coaches role in this regard.

A legal contract exists between the sport organization and its members (specifically athletes), the terms of which are set out in the by-laws, policies, rules and regulations of the organization. An inherent element of this contract is procedural fairness, which has three components:

  • The decision-maker must be properly authorized to make the decision.The decision-maker must not be biased, or appear to be biased.
  • The person affected by the decision (typically an athlete) has a right to know the terms which will govern the decision and should have an opportunity to try to meet those terms (i.e. a "right to a hearing").

While the concept of procedural fairness is fairly simple, putting it into action can be tricky, especially in the area of sport.Initially all decision-making powers of the organization are vested in the board of directors and its executive. Through proper delegation, authority to make decisions is spread more efficiently through the organization. Thus, the executive may pass a motion to delegate the authority to select athletes to a coach. In this way, the coach has the proper and legal authority to make selection decisions. However, the coach should be clear about what authority has been delegated -- the authority to determine selection criteria, the authority to apply criteria, or both?

For example, in Kane v. Canadian Ladies Golf Association (1992), authority to select was not properly delegated. Just prior to an international competition, the Chair of the National Teams Committee, wrongly believing she had the authority to change selection criteria, added an additional element which had the result of excluding Lori Kane from the national team. Kane challenged the revised criteria in court, arguing that the association had broken its own rules by using new selection criteria which had not been approved by the proper authority, i.e. the board of directors. The court agreed, and directed the Association to either revert to the original selection criteria or change the criteria properly.

The second element, bias, is sometimes unavoidable as the sport community is fairly small. However, where discretion in selection is necessary and unavoidable, bias must be controlled as much as possible. Persons having a professional or personal relationship with any of the candidates for selection should disqualify themselves from the selection panel. Bias is also reduced by having a number of individuals make the decision jointly, and by having the decision ratified by a higher authority.

In Garrett v. Canadian Weightlifting Federation (1990), Brent Garrett received notice of his selection to the national team. Just prior to the team's departure to the Commonwealth Games, Garrett was told he was no longer on the team, but could attempt to make the team by participating in a "lift-off " with a reserve athlete he had bettered through out the year-long selection process. Garrett tied with the other athlete in the lift-off, but was still not placed on the team by the national coach. Garrett sought recourse in the courts. While the decision of the court turned on other matters, it should be noted that the national coach was also the coach of the reserve athlete. In this instance there was clear bias, and the association would have been well-advised to minimize or control it.

The third component of procedural fairness requires that athletes clearly know the basis for selection sufficiently in advance to properly prepare, and have an opportunity to try to meet the selection criteria. While changes to the selection criteria are sometimes necessary, such changes should take into consideration the athletes' training cycles and allow reasonable time for athletes to adjust their training and competitive schedules to the change.

In Kelly v. Canadian Amateur Speed Skating Association (1995), the selection criteria specified the top four skaters at the Canadian Championships would compete at the World Championships. One week before the Canadians the association altered the criteria and announced only the top two athletes would qualify; the remaining two positions would be chosen at a later time. It had been Patrick Kelly's training plan to finish third or fourth at the Canadian Championships and then "peak" at the World Championships some seven weeks later. Kelly finished fourth at the Canadian Championships and thus did not qualify for the Worlds. Kelly successfully challenged the change in the selection criteria on the basis that it was a breach of the contract he had with the association.

Originally published: Coaches Report (1996) Vol. 3(1)

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