Sunday 18 March 2018

Top coaches don't need to be obnoxious

Coach Shane Sutton (left) with Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton in 2016. Sutton has resigned as British Cycling technical director. Photo: Tim Ireland/PA
Coach Shane Sutton (left) with Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton in 2016. Sutton has resigned as British Cycling technical director. Photo: Tim Ireland/PA Newsdesk

If the allegations against him are true, it's hard to have any sympathy for Shane Sutton, who has resigned as boss of the UK Cycling team. It has been reported that Sutton referred to Paralympic cyclists as "gimps" and "wobblies", told female cyclist Jess Varnish that her "arse was too big and she should go and have a baby", and was guilty of general bullying and sexism.

There have been a few attempts to defend Sutton on the grounds that he's an "outspoken Australian", or even that old chestnut, "politically incorrect". But describing Paralympic competitors, or indeed disabled people in general, as "gimps" and "wobblies" doesn't make you a brave foe of political correctness, it makes you an obnoxious twerp.

Yet the idea remains in some quarters that in sport bullying isn't merely acceptable, it's almost compulsory. Victoria Pendleton, who worked with Sutton during her cycling career, hit the nail on the head when commenting, "They'll say 'get over it, we get results'. But how wrong is that? Just think how good it could be if you felt supported. We are all totally committed as elite athletes. To think that pushing people around and bullying them is the best way to get results is just ludicrous."

There are plenty of examples which prove Pendleton right. The most successful coach of elite athletes in Irish sporting history is Billy Walsh, whose relationship with the boxers he steered to Olympic, World and European medals seemed to be founded on affection and empathy rather than fear and loathing. Whatever the disputes about his departure, no-one has ever claimed Walsh to be anything but one of nature's gentlemen, the pain he obviously felt and the help he gave when Kenneth Egan was struggling with a drink problem being merely one example of the man's character.

Perhaps the finest coach we've had on the domestic front was Mick O'Dwyer, and again when his former players talk about their old boss they tend to mention their conviction that the Kerry manager was someone who was on their side and would do anything for them. O'Dwyer was all about psychological acuity, craftiness and motivational ability. He apparently could also get the job done without recourse to attack or insult.

The cliché of the coach as a kind of Prussian aristocrat with riding crop in hand is a sturdy one and didn't come from nowhere. But it's probable that coaches who act like Sutton is accused of doing are merely revealing the flaws in their own personality. A coach who's a bully would probably have been a bully if they'd opted to become a bus driver, a bank manager or a bricklayer instead.

America's great example of the sports bully was Bob Knight, a legendary college basketball coach with Indiana who was notorious for the abuse he showered on his players and staff, something which former players alleged sometimes crossed the line into physical mistreatment. Knight, whose off-court scrapes included a conviction for assaulting a policeman, eventually lost his job at Indiana not because of anything he'd done to the players but for grabbing hold of a student and roaring at him during a dispute on campus. All that anger couldn't be confined to the court.

On this side of the pond Alex Ferguson is often Exhibit A for those who argue that a successful manager has to be a bit of a bully. But Ferguson's behaviour in the Rock of Gibraltar saga showed that this side of his nature wasn't something which could simply be switched on and off at will for the benefit of Manchester United. Who's to say he wouldn't have been an even better manager if he'd behaved better towards people? For starters, he might have got more out of David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane. And we don't know how many world-class players were reluctant to come to Old Trafford because of Ferguson's reputation as United spiralled out of the European elite in his final years.

But in a way the point is moot. Even if bullying did help you achieve results, it still wouldn't be justifiable for the simple fact that it's no way for one human being to treat another. All over this country, and others, in offices, workplaces and families, there are bullies making life miserable for other people. The last thing they and their victims need is to see that behaviour being validated on the big stage by the Shane Suttons of this world.

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