Posted 12/08/2019 in Category 1 by Spire Yale Hospital

Shame in Elite Sporting Cultures

Shame in Elite Sporting Cultures


In current years, there has been a growing recognition of the impact of competing in elite sports on the emotional and physical ill-health of athletes and coaches.

Ray Wilkins- elite athlete, coach, and manager

The recent and sad death of well-respected footballer, Ray Wilkins has once more highlighted the effects of high-performance cultures on the health and well being of sportsmen and women. Just before his death, Ray Wilkins spoke of long-standing ill-health, substance misuse, fear of rejection and the shame he felt because of unsuccessful attempts to manage his feelings in relation to perceived success and failure in football.

Research and elite athletes' health

Research has attempted to understand the complex and multifarious influences on elite athletes' health and well-being along with the types of personalities susceptible to ill-health, including athletes who are prone to shame.

For example, researchers suggest that shame-proneness can have a negative influence on young footballers' abilities and the acquisition of skills necessary to succeed in their chosen sport.

Citing other researchers, Mario Sean Fontana (2015) asserts that:

`Young people who choose to discontinue sport sometimes do so because of negative experiences they have had with athletes and coaches. Research suggests that lack of enjoyment is a primary reason for athletes to stop playing sports.`(Mario Sean Fontana, 2015)

The need to cope with media exposure, fit in, please coaches and managers along with spectators can be a daunting prospect for young athletes - although struggles are often masked by fame and affluence.

Shaming and coaching

Shame can occur as oneself in relation to others. However importantly it can also occur as oneself-to-self making relief from distress almost impossible. Writing with other researchers, Potrac (2015) discusses the impact of the `competitive and calculating nature of many aspects of football coaching along with shame-fueled behaviours and recalls:

`From my first days as a neophyte coach, I'd watched, listened and witnessed what can happen when coaches work together. A veil of co-operation, degrees of selfishness and ‘back-stabbing’ were easily discernible; personal agendas dominated. Not only did I learn these social ‘rules,’ but I also participated in their practice. I wanted to do well. I wanted to better myself. I needed to protect myself. While no one would admit it, each of us coaches was trying to outperform the other to preserve a place in a very competitive order. `(Potrac et al, 2015)

He goes on to say:

`Working with good players was a joy; match days were addictive. But… things changed. Everything changed. The positives became overshadowed as I came to question my actions as a coach of talented youth players. Nobody forced me to play by these rules. I could have resisted and challenged them, or even walked away. But I didn't. I wanted to be successful; ‘a somebody’ in football. Looking back, I did what I thought I had to. It wasn't pleasant and it doesn't fill me with pride.` (Ibid)

The seemingly dog-eat-dog environment often favoured by, and strongly associated with, competitive and perfectionist cultures can result in adverse human conduct contributing to emotional and shameful bleeding - typically causing the vulnerable to fall by the wayside.

Sports performance: a misconception?

Mario Sean Fontana (2015) throws light on various potentially misguided ideas regarding encouraging optimum performance for elite athletes and believes that:

`There is a misconception among individuals less familiar with motivational climate research, that a caring and task-involving motivational climate does not encourage participants to strive to win or compete to their fullest.` (Mario Sean Fontana, 2015)

`This is not the case, as young athletes typically list fun or enjoyment as a top reason for playing sport, the reason people partake in gameplay is to attempt to be victorious in the contest. Athletes value winning in a caring and task-involving climate, but not at the expense of other outcomes. Being in a caring and task-involving climate allows athletes to strive to win but to still value the sport-experience when they work hard, improve, and work well with their teammates.` (Ibid)

Clearly, enhancing performance is a critical aspect of all elite sports. Yet teaching sporting techniques to young athletes requires methodologies, which reach beyond reward or punishment to methods that recognise the developing personhood of others. A higher moral reasoning is called for, wherever possible, providing the optimum conditions, which allow elite athletes to harness unique aspects of their personalities and intelligence.

The need to win: an alternative method

Addressing the distress related to highly competitive environments doesn't necessarily detract from the value of performance psychology but offers an alternative and appropriate method of helping elite athletes reach their potential while diminishing the dangers of developing mental ill-health - along with its many consequences.

As Rees (2018) points out:

`This deep-seated need to win at all costs may be driven by early developmental adversity and obstacles, which leave an indelible mark on the sportsperson. Thus, although this level of determination and commitment is something we might rightly be in awe of, to think we could or should emulate it is unrealistic as well as potentially damaging.` (Rees, 2018)


It seems evident that the reported corrosive nature of many elite sporting cultures, along with other perfectionist environments, have the potential to harness shame as a means of social and professional control of others or through misguided attempts to improve sporting performance.

However, recent years have witnessed an outpouring of distress related to the need to perform in toxic environments including managing shame, and occupational pressures. Shame's function is to destroy pleasure and so maintain culturally and socially-defined group conformity - for better or otherwise. Shame, nonetheless, can also bring about strong non-acceptance of self and others, diminishing professional performance and damaging compassionate relationships.

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