There is a fine line between motivating players through tough love and being a bully.

And it's a demarcation many coaches cross - increasingly so, it seems, as the stakes grow greater in the world of modern sport.

The women's Black Sticks are the latest team for whom the distinction between encouragement and abuse might have blurred, with what started as an errant click from coach Mark Hager this week leading to questions about the team's culture.


The Australian made a mistake that will send a shudder down the spine of anyone who has written potentially damaging words on a work email, hitting reply-all on a message containing criticisms of specific players and accidentally sending it to a group including the players in question.

Embarrassing, undoubtedly, but innocent enough. Until, that is, Hager's slip-up snowballed into what appears a far greater problem.

As many as 11 past and present players have told One News about a troublesome environment within New Zealand women's hockey, one in which bullying tactics are alleged and those feeling victimised are afraid to speak out.

The numbers belie the nothing-to-see-here stance so far offered by Hockey NZ chief Ian Francis and suggest there is merit to concerns raised by former goalkeeper Amelia Gibson, who outlined what she said was her mistreatment.

"You want to be treated with integrity, you want to be able to play to the best of your ability, but if you're in a negative environment, it's not possible to perform," Gibson told One News. "This isn't a one-off situation - this is the environment players are in and it is really hard for players to come forward, especially current players when, if they were like me, they could be in fear of their career."

If the environment is as negative as Gibson described, the Black Sticks would be far from alone in their misfortune. Hell, they wouldn't even be our first national side this year to find themselves in the spotlight for off-field issues stemming from the men at the top.

New Zealand Football are undergoing a similar reckoning after the calamitous reign of Andreas Heraf, while cycling sprint coach Anthony Peden resigned in May amid claims of bullying.

But setting aside those examples - and tabling for now the questions they beg about a lack of oversight from governing bodies - almost every athlete at any level would have encountered a similar situation in their career.


Coaches yell. Many scream. Some berate. A few even become renowned and successful with such an approach - the only thing more frequent than Alex Ferguson lifting a trophy was the infamous 'hairdryer' treatment to which the former Manchester United manager subjected his players.

But the yelling can easily cross the aforementioned line, especially when considering the corruptible nature of power. Motivation is one thing; malice another. A blustery coach may think they are doing what's best for the team but, if care is not taken, too often the individual will be sacrificed.

Playing sport is a job, after all. No one likes being reproached by their boss but imagine if the screaming and humiliation was so common as to become unremarkable.

The consequences can be severe. Careers can be ruined, lives can be lost. And for anyone thinking that to be hyperbole, consider this: University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June two weeks after collapsing at a team workout. The 19-year-old was showing signs of extreme exhaustion, and ESPN this week released an explosive report detailing a toxic coaching culture based on fear and intimidation at Maryland. Extreme verbal abuse was common, practices were scheduled during the hottest part of the day to build toughness, players were openly belittled.

Again, every athlete probably has a story about training under a strict disciplinarian. And there will be no shortage of sportspeople who have subscribed to such methods, especially once matches are won and trophies claimed.

But what works as stimulation for one player doubles as punishment for another. While we do not know yet on which side of the divide the Black Sticks fall, a single athlete suffering is likely indicative of a larger problem.

Because while a coach yelling at their players is fine, there's a line between rallying the troops and becoming the second coming of Gunny from Full Metal Jacket. And recent events would seem to indicate we have too many coaches straying too far over that line.