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Key steps to make ethical coaching decisions

This is an excerpt from Sport Coaches’ Handbook by International Council for Coaching Excellence.

By Andy Driska, Laurie Patterson, and Sue Backhouse

To help you make ethical decisions in your own coaching, here are seven key steps.

  1. Recognize that ethical decisions must be made and that choosing to make no decision constitutes a decision in itself. Choosing not to act—as when a teacher-coach chooses not to report a failing grade that would make a star player ineligible—is not only a decision but also an abdication of moral responsibility. In contrast, great coaches exhibit the moral courage to accept that difficult ethical decisions must be made, and they are willing to bear the consequences.
  2. Conduct a “before-the-fact” analysis of difficult ethical decisions that you can reasonably anticipate needing to make in the near future. By identifying such situations and creating virtual test cases, you can think through the implications of various possible responses. For instance, coaches must often decide whether to cut a player from the roster. Before-the-fact analysis enables the coach to detect any potential bias (e.g., favoritism toward the son or daughter of a school board member), rehearse how to handle the meeting with the athlete, and consider alternatives, such as splitting the final roster spot between two athletes over the course of the season.
  3. Assess the context fully and carefully. Begin by writing down the facts of the situation. Next, determine the most appropriate set of values for the context in which you coach. Then make sure that these values are understood and accepted by the rest of the coaching staff, by athletes, and by their families. Occasionally, your analysis may reveal that the context itself dictates the appropriate course of action, thereby saving you from the need to conduct a prolonged process of ethical decision making. For instance, if a youth sport league’s code of conduct indicates that participation is paramount, then cutting a player for lack of ability would contradict the league’s principles. Therefore, the code makes the decision for you.
  4. Distinguish emotional judgments from facts and logic. Coaches form emotional judgments about players, other coaches, and referees. To varying degrees, such judgments are based on facts, but an ethical decision-making process requires us to differentiate judgments from facts. For example, a swimmer’s recent time in the 50-meter freestyle is a fact, whereas a coach’s interpretation that the swimmer failed to meet full potential is a judgment. Facts and judgments both play a role in ethical decision making, but they must be separated and weighted appropriately.
  5. Make sure that the means are not compromised to achieve desirable ends. To avoid this pitfall, examine whether a given decision would align with the stated values of your program or coaching staff. For instance, suppose that a coach professes a democratic leadership style and espouses the democratic process, then makes an autocratic decision. This action defies the democratic process that the coach claims to value, thus creating doubt, and perhaps discord, in the program.
  6. Consider the history of the issue. In addition to the current context, preceding events may also be important. Consideration of prior, related incidents or similar instances may help you grasp what is happening now and why the issue of the moment has arisen. For instance, let’s say that a player responds to a taunt by grabbing an opponent’s wrists and warning her not to start anything. You bench and scold your player but then learn that she received a similar taunt along with a black eye from the same opponent during summer league competition. Thus you realize that she was merely trying to avoid a recurrence of that episode.
  7. Make the decision. Finally, the moment of truth arrives. It’s time to step up, make the call, and own it. In terms of both leadership and ethics, it is critical that you announce your decision clearly to all affected parties and accept full responsibility for it.