Let’s talk about Sex: Ethics, Professionalism and Coach/Athlete relationships

In sport, sexual relationships between coaches and athletes have traditionally been a sort of a sideline topic, saved for hushed tones in between the serious training sessions. Are they perfectly natural or should they be forbidden?

Given the emotionally demanding nature of top level sport and the undisputed need for athletes to work closely with coaches, strong bonds are to be expected.  Even the seemingly super-human are, in the end, only human, so sexual feelings and attractions will happen.  Especially given the physical proximity and time devoted to these relationships.

The debate on whether it’s okay for athletes and coaches to take their relationships to an intimate level surfaces now and again, often in the wake of more scandalous encounters such as when the relationship is an extra-martial affair.  Or more concerning, when an athlete is coerced or groomed into a sexual relationship by a more powerful and respected coach.  In the aftermath of these kinds of incidents, sporting bodies issue statements and policies which generally damn the whole idea and forbid anything other than professional relationships between coaches and athletes [i][ii].

While this knee jerk reaction offers potential protection from any unscrupulous coaches, it doesn’t address the common occurrence of long term relationships and marriages arising from coach-athlete liaisons.  It may feel too prescriptive and dogmatic to adult athletes who feel perfectly capable of deciding whether to pursue such a relationship.  For the CrossFit community, these questions are perhaps more pressing.

sex in sport tia clair toomey and fiance shane orr
Happy couple Tia-Clair Toomey and her coach and fiancé Shane Orr. A highly successful sporting couple and partnership

Our training structure is more flat and our coaches see a greater range of athletes.  There is often more crossover between the box and daily, community life.  As coaches, we also train athletes  for whom there may be reasons other than sporting achievement; personal issues or emotional needs have driven them to the box.  While this is a credit to the CrossFit community, it is also a potential ethical minefield for affiliate owners and coaches who are not 100% clear on where their boundaries lie on the issues of sexual relationships formed through time at the box.

THREE PERSPECTIVES:

1. WE ARE ALL CONSENTING ADULTS, SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

The innocent question arises – We are all consenting adults, so what’s the big deal?  Maybe nothing, but without this topic becoming an open, transparent topic questionable ethics can arise even in a best case scenario.  What’s the worst case scenario?  Damaging relationships that border on exploitation.  Those that fall on the ‘consenting adults’ side of the debate cite that fact that many respected and successful athletic careers have been built on a coaching relationship that turned into an intimate one.  Also, the vast majority of coaches are interested in only furthering the success of their athletes and are not the predatory creatures that prohibitive policies on sexual relationships seem to suggest.

Bela Karolyi, the former United States national gymnastics coach, spoke candidly about an unspoken coaching phenomenon – that male coaches get more out of their female athletes when they feel at least some attraction to their coach[iii].  It’s this emotional tie that perhaps drives the athletes to do more and get approval from a special coach.  He notes that attractive young male coaches inspire better training in his stock of female athletes. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t necessarily condone sexual relationships between coach and athlete, so much as acknowledge that they happen.

2. SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN COACHES AND ATHLETES ARE UNPROFESSIONAL

Then there’s the ‘Don’t ever go there’ camp which takes a different tack. The argument here is that establishing consent within any relationship where there are inherent power imbalances can be tricky. From this perspective, when there is a relationship where one member is a helper, teacher or expert, a sexual encounter can never be equal[iv]. One member of the relationship will always, even if unintentionally, be acting from a less powerful stance.  While the other – even innocently – will be exploiting a position of power.  Sounds terribly sinister, and although it is extreme, this perspective demands a deeper consideration of the nature of relationships in order to behave ethically.  It’s this approach that views sexual relationships, even if consenting,  between doctors/patients, therapists/clients or employers/employees as unethical, even if both parties make it a goal to shake off the previous roles that defined their relationship.

This perspective is based on the idea that once you’ve established a relationship where you are the expert helper, to engage in sex is abusing that position.  Even if you try to see each other as equals, you are not.

This perspective doesn’t hide from the fact that feelings can – and will -arise from both parties in part because of the trust, intimacy and time spent with each other.  Rather, it views these feelings as both a natural reaction, but also as a possible response to a state of dependence on another or a feeling of being needed or powerful which may not be immediately conscious or clear.  An article in the CrossFit Journal waxes poetic on the transformational, therapeutic relationships between coach and athlete[v].  The article describes how personal tragedies and struggles led people to become box members and how their experiences as athletes healed them.  While the article is touching and resonates with the life transformations I’ve also witnessed in CrossFit, without clear ethical standards, these relationships are encroaching on dangerous territory.  As the article highlights, the people being coached are often vulnerable in some way.  They might be shy, body conscious, depressed, lonely, in bad health or traumatized.  They pay a membership to be helped and look to a coach for guidance.  A well placed word or approving smile can spur them on, and a harsh critique can crush them.  To appreciate that power is to become a professional and to appreciate that a sexual relationship, even a mutually consenting one – is betraying a trust; an unspoken contract between you both.  Because when we commit to helping another – as a coach does- that commitment runs beyond the hour of the class or membership fee.

3. FINDING A MIDDLE GROUND

A middle ground perspective is to acknowledge that deep feelings are natural and may or may not be ethical.  If you are pretty conscious individual and respect your role within this transformational relationship between coach and athlete, and you meet what you believe is your soul mate as their coach, then maybe that’s not always wrong.  Some coaches suggest that finding ‘the one’ is different than viewing your box as your own personal match.com/Tinder.  See a CrossFit.com forum discussion thread on this topic here.   Erin Kelly, of CrossFit 1Force in New Jersey, shares her personal love story (Click link to view) of ‘falling in love over a barbell’.  But she also cautions coaches in doing the same, even with other coaches.  She also strongly advises box owners to make clear policies on sexual relationships to avoid the hornets’ nest of gossip, lawsuits and negativity that follow when coaches shrug off the professionalism for the sake of casual sex.  It’s useful to note that even if the coach and athlete feel fine about the relationship, their connection will affect the dynamic of the whole box.

Favoritism, jealousy and cliques are always destructive to a box and are more likely when a coach is involved with an athlete or another coach.  To be safe, coaches with experience in these issues suggest being open about feelings before taking the relationship further to ensure the relationship won’t be damaging to the box, the athlete, other athletes or the coach.  Talking to managers, box owners and more senior coaches will help to troubleshoot any potential difficulties and make more certain that the relationship is ethically sound.

PROFESSIONALISM AND THE COACHING RELATIONSHIP

Ben Bergeron posted a meme on Instagram the other day reminding us that professionals don’t gossip about their clients; saying doctors, priests and lawyers don’t talk about clients and neither should coaches.

I suggest that this call to professionalism is apt and I would take it step further.  Lawyers, Doctors and other professionals also don’t sleep with their clients.  It’s my belief that coaches should follow suit if they want to be credited with a similar level of expertise.  Clear ethical boundaries can only add to credibility of our sport.  However, I also appreciate that my background influences me to fall on the ‘don’t ever go there’ side of the argument perhaps a little too vehemently.  I would at the very least propose that affiliate owners, coaches and athletes consider their stance on the issue with more than their hormones and beyond the argument that people who spend all their time at the box can’t meet anyone else.  I hope that this can inspire some open discussion which in the end will make us all better, more effective and essentially ahead of the game in the world of sport – as ever.

[i] Brake, DL (2012). Going outside Title IX to keep Coach-Athlete relationships in bounds.   Marquette Sports Law Review, vol 22, 2, pp 395-424.

[ii] International Olympic Committee, Press Release, Feb 2007. IOC ADOPTS CONSENSUS STATEMENT ON “SEXUAL HARASSMENT & ABUSE IN SPORT”.

[iii] Bondy, F. May 2,1993. When coaches cross the line. In New York Times.

[iv] Fasting, K (2014). Women in Sport: Sexual Harassment and abuse in sport, prevalence and prevention.  Scientific Report Series, SISU Sports Books and World Village of Woman Sports.

[v] Saline, B (2014). Coach, Counselor or Both? CrossFit Journal, Dec 2014.


sex in sport tia clair toomey and fiance shane orr © Tia-Clair Toomey

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About The Author

Jessica is a UK registered Psychologist and CrossFit level 1 trainer. She specialises in performance psychology, psychological interventions for weight loss, anxiety management and cognitive behaviour therapy. She currently coaches at C4 CrossFit in Katy, Texas.

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