We are hearing some tough stories coming out of sport these days. Tales of coaches abusing their power and athletes afraid to speak out or fight back for fear of reprisal or negative career impact. A specific and in my view, particularly manipulative abuse of power that seems topical these days (thanks to Donald Trump for introducing me to the term [insert eye-roll here]) is called gaslighting. Sadly, gaslighting is finding its way into sport as well as politics.
So what is gaslighting, anyway? Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year, and powerful advocate and supporter for sexual abuse survivors recently tweeted this helpful operational definition which goes by the acronym DARVO.
Here’s an illustration of how gaslighting might play out in sport, but could as easily happen in any number of high performance domains. An elite athlete, let’s call him Joe, incurs an injury necessitating time off from training. He brings a note to his coach from his doctor stating same. The coach says, “don’t worry, Joe, I already spoke to your doctor and you’re actually fine to train.” Joe is surprised to hear this but doesn’t question his coach and attends training. His injury is exacerbated and what would have been a several day rehabilitation turns into several weeks. Angry, Joe confronts his doctor who is as surprised as Joe is. “I can’t talk to your coach without your permission. That’s why I gave you a note for you to deliver to your coach.” Now confused and even more angry, Joe confronts his coach, demanding an explanation for this behaviour. The coach’s response? “How dare you talk to me like that. I’m your head coach.” End of explanation and story.
Okay, so if we apply the DARVO formula to this story:
DENY didn’t happen. The coach didn’t even bother, instead playing the authority card.
ATTACK: How dare you??
REVERSE: You are the offender for confronting me. I’m the victim of your confrontation.
VICTIM becomes the coach, and Joe, somehow, ends up being labelled the OFFENDER.
What would be the point of a coach doing that?
Gaslighting, when it works, gives the perpetrator the ultimate power: greater control over the person being gas-lit. Grace Tame tweeted about this, expert that she is in having been gaslit herself as a teenager who was groomed by her 58-year old teacher and sexually assaulted for several years before reporting the situation to authorities. This abuse exacerbated Grace’s disordered eating and mood disorders, and undermined any agency she might have had.
In fact, this is a dynamic prevalent in many abusive relationships—the impacts of which are significant and often toxic. At this point in the story, Joe not only has a more serious injury but his relationship with the coach is on the rocks. He is so back-footed by this exchange that he becomes depressed and suicidal.
Joe’s reaction, as described in my story, is common. Gaslighting has been shown to lower victim self trust and self-esteem while increasing anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms. This dynamic is also insidious to observers who, if they are not paying attention, are more likely to believe the perpetrator…or at least doubt the actual victim.
So gaslighting, given the right circumstances—power imbalances being a big one—can be effective not only in gaining control in relationships, but is toxic to athletes.
Can we agree that it has no place in coaching?
The USA newspaper The Washington Post ran a recent news article showcasing the topic of coach abuse and the shifting culture of sport. The main thesis suggested that coaches are recognising that times are changing, but for many, they appear to be feeling their way rather than being guided by what science tells us is true about how to motivate and appropriately challenge and develop humans, especially young ones.
Here’s what coaching science professionals had to say. Jason Sacks, the chief development officer for the USA’s Positive Coaching Alliance which addresses toxic coaching at the youth level: What we’ve seen the last couple of years is, getting in the face of one of your players, grabbing them by the face mask, blowing them up, cursing them out — the research shows kids aren’t reacting to that. That’s not how that’s going to motivate them. If anything, it’s shutting them down.
Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, Director at the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science at USA’s West Virginia University: Athletes, no matter the age, will be motivated by fear, but only temporarily and at a great mental health cost. Athletes motivated by positive perspectives, on the other hand, have more positive outcomes on the field and in life afterward. That doesn’t mean you’re always soft on athletes and everything is happy feel-good. But just like in teaching . . . you set expectations, [and] you help them meet them. And when they’re not met, there have to be consequences for behavior.
Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson to describe the most important quality differentiating truly excellent teams from the merely good ones (as determined by Google’s ten-year Project Aristotle).
I have written about this concept before, but the main tenets bear repeating. Psychological safety is the idea that people work better in environments where they can feel safe enough to admit mistakes and give honest appraisals of their work and the work of teammates. People get hung up on the “safety” part of the title, thinking it’s all unicorns and rainbows, but as Dr Dieffenbach suggests, there’s another part to this formula: accountability. Here’s the model that lets us see the interaction of safety and accountability:
So, yes, coaches, if you want to develop your athletes to do things that are challenging and new, you can and must hold them accountable to standards. But can we agree that such accountability should never come at the cost of psychological safety? This advice, by the way, applies as usefully to leaders and even parents.
Applying psychological safety to the athlete-coach story, Joe comes to training with his excuse in hand. If the coach wanted him to be comfortable, it might have suggested that Joe go home and take a break while allowing his injury to heal. Equally, the coach could accept the injury premise but insist that Joe watch the training and help out teammates, thus holding him accountable to some training behaviour—and potentially learning.
The DARVO bad-news-good news story, according to Dr. Jennifer Freyd, founder of the Center for Institutional Courage, is that research results suggest that [while] DARVO remains an effective strategy to discredit victims, the power of the strategy can be mitigated by education.
Consider yourself educated.
We can have truly high-performance environments that challenge but do not hurt people. That includes calling out gaslighting when we see it - in sport, at work, even at home. Time for us all to call this out and support those impacted by gas-lighting or any other form of inappropriate behaviour.
What do you think?
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org