Canada's top coaches connect to navigate relationships with athletes

Maelle Ricker's relationships with her coaches were pivotal in getting her to the top of the snowboard podium at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The first Canadian woman to win an Olympic gold medal at home on Vancouver's Cypress Mountain is now "on the other side of the radio" as a coach with the national snowboard team.

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The trust and respect she felt in her training environment as an athlete is a tradition the 41-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., wants to replicate as a coach.

"I feel like that was there for me as an athlete and it's definitely something that I want to make sure is there now that I'm coaching the athletes I'm working with," Ricker said Tuesday from Saas Fee, Switzerland, where Canada's boarders are training.

Ricker participated in a recent virtual Safe Sport Coaches Summit that drew 180 Canadians representing winter, summer, Olympic and Paralympic sport.

During the four-hour Zoom call organized by Own The Podium and the Coaches Association of Canada, coaches broke into working groups to compare and discuss challenges in the athlete-coach relationship.

"Even though each sport maybe had specific challenges to their environment, everybody had the same underlying themes," Ricker said.

"Everybody's looking for clarity. Everybody has the same sort of drive to make sure that we can create champions and create them safely, where we're really building off a values-based system so that there's trust and respect as pillars to drive those performances that we're looking for."

The coach-athlete relationship is under public scrutiny given the spate of high-profile sexual abuse cases across North American sport, from Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky to Canadian alpine ski team coach Bertrand Charest serving prison time for sexual offences.

Anti-bullying campaigns and the LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements are influencing the athlete-coach dynamic.

A coach is required to relate to an athlete beyond the whistle and stopwatch, but also set boundaries protecting both of them.

The virtual summit marked the first time that many Canadian coaches came together in a forum dedicated to them, the CAC's chief executive officer said.

"They talked about going from transactional to transformative in their coaching," Lorraine Lafreniere explained.

"Think about any employer-employee relationship. It's no longer a command-and-control in a way that used to exist with employers years ago.

"This is not meant to be a power-imbalance relationship. How are they navigating that to set the shared ground rules?"

National para-swim team coach Mike Thompson said he'd never associated with as many peers at one time as he did during the virtual summit, which also included a talk with Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse.

Coaches felt safe to be vulnerable with each other and discuss situations that can feel like minefields, he said.

One example cited was, in attempting to have a balance of male and female coaches in the daily training environment "is that relevant now with gender fluidity and different genders?" Thompson asked.

"That never would have crossed my mind and it's been on my mind since we've had the conversation.

"I don't want to say we're complacent, but we're just used to what happens in our environments.

"When something happens that changes that dynamic of that paradigm, that we're not really used to or we didn't see coming, it seems almost like we freeze up and don't know what to do."

OTP provides national sports federations with technical advice and makes funding recommendations directing roughly $70 million annually to federations based on medal potential.

"How excellence is achieved, or how we win medals, is as important as the results themselves," chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.

"I think the coach-athlete relationship is at the key of performance.

"The higher the quality of that relationship, in terms of everything that we're talking about with safe sport principles, the greater the opportunity for the coach and athlete to achieve success."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.

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