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Coaching, culture and performance management

So farewell, Shane Sutton.

SUtton has resigned as Technical Director of British Cycling, the coach who manages its Olympic programmes, because of a welter of criticism over his language and attitudes. To a woman cyclist,whom he was sacking from the Olympic programme, he said that she should go away and have a baby. He called, allegedly, paracyclists gimps and wobblies. He is also alleged to have referred to an athlete of Asian origin as a boatie.

Enough said, actually. There’s enough there, in one paragraph, to sack Sutton. Irrespective of his talent, even without taking account of his background in the ethically dubious chemically enhanced world of old fashioned road racing (which is why he no longer works for Sky) Sutton said enough, to enough people, to get him sacked.

The wonderful Nicole Cooke used the SUtton case to make the point that cycling is institutionally sexist. It tolerated Sutton precsely because it has a hierarchy- women at the elitre level are not allowed to ride the same events as men – for the team sprint, for men, it’s three riders over 1000 metres, for women it’s two women over 500 metres. Bythe very nature of the events they’re allowed to enter, the international hierarchy says to women, that they are different, and lesser. And of course,women are paid less, and given less opportunity to earn money. Cooke makes this argument so well I won’t labour it, but it would hardly be a surprise if a malecoach, in a sport that is institutionally sexist was not, well, just a bit sexist. It’s about the culture.

However, there’s another important point to be made here,about the culture of sport. Coaching is now a career, not a vocation. Sutton was recruited by British Cycling not to produce better cyclists, but to produce medal winning cyclists who would justify UK Sport’s grants to British Cycling. Removing Jess Varnish from the Olympic team was not about whether she can ever be a better athlete; it was a decision comparable to a call centre manager sacking an under-performing agent for not meeting their call stats.

It’s a trusim of the performance management industry that you have to be seen to manage performance. Jess Varnish had to be sacked from her job to encourage other athletes to meet their targets. This has nothing to do with Olympian ideals. Equally British Cycling’s tolerance of Sutton, when his chequered past and antedeluvian mannerisms were well known, is reflective of a business in which only results matter.

British Cycling may be at a crossroads in addressing its culture, its performance management and its goals, but it’s not alone on the journey. All professional sports face the contradiciton between performance management of the elite, and encouraging the participation of as many people as possible. The message sent by the Jess Varnish sacking is that elite status is a closed world which plays by different rules to the club events that are the backbone of cycling. The problem for British Cycling


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This entry was posted on April 28, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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