Are our sport coaches bullies or is it simply a case of political correctness gone mad?

The recent case of Black Sticks women's hockey coach, Mark Hager, brings to head a rash of incidents where elite players have put their mentors under scrutiny over alleged inappropriate behaviour.

It seems there's been a drastic shift in paradigm according to how New Zealand sport institutions and administrators see the role of coaches.

Let the truth be told — the old paradigm is almost extinct, if not already dead.


Dare I say it, it hasn't just, metaphorically speaking, happened overnight but something that has slowly and purposefully become ingrained in our psyche — about the time NCEA exams were introduced in schools.

Without all sides of the story, it's difficult to ascertain culpability but allegations against elite coaches suggest all isn't well.

Cycling New Zealand got the ball rolling early this year after head sprint coach Anthony Peden resigned amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

New Zealand Football chief executive Andy Martin eventually initiated an inquiry into former coach/administrator Andreas Heraf, of Austria.

A 13-player Football Ferns mutiny saw Heraf resign abroad before an inquiry was completed after letters were submitted on allegations around bullying, intimidation and a culture of fear.

Last month Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby walked the plank before she was pushed after Netball New Zealand engaged a review panel to address a list of shortcomings.

Unlike other mentors, Southby came under scrutiny for her commitment to developing a player-led culture and, with her assistant, Yvette McCausland-Durie, lacking international experience.

Hockey New Zealand this week agreed to an independent person looking into Hager after he inadvertently submitted an email of appraisal to the entire team during the Hockey World Cup in London last month where the Black Sticks finished 11th.


In it the Australian, who goes by the nickname of "Horrible" (presumably based on the cartoon, Hagar the Horrible), detailed his frustrations with several players' training habits.

He reportedly stated one is "struggling to run", another "struggles to do repeated efforts" and a third "struggles to push through pain and heat".

The former Olympic medal-winning Hockeyroo, who akin to Peden has an illustrious record of achievement, had apologised for his mistake.

But should the 54-year-old be seeking forgiveness for questioning players' alleged lack of commitment and attitude?

It appears there's a shift in the axis of power in elite teams in the country where players can wait for mentors to have a hiccup before initiating an inquiry of winebox proportions.

During my interviews with Hager, including the Hawke's Bay Cup which is the international women's segment of the annual Vantage HB Festival of Hockey in Hastings, he has been refreshingly forthright.

In April last year, he didn't sugar-coat the fact that none of the six teams, including his defending champions, were up to scratch.

Former Football Ferns' coach Andreas Heraf brought a philosophy that elite New Zealand players just didn't buy into. Photo / Photosport
Former Football Ferns' coach Andreas Heraf brought a philosophy that elite New Zealand players just didn't buy into. Photo / Photosport

He had put his players' patchy performances down to inexperience, which had a correlation with age and cognitive development but expected the newcomers to break out of their cocoon by 50 caps.

"If they don't show it now we'll be asking some questions down the line."

Amen. Player accountability should not be treated as a bitter pill to swallow.

I suspect such recriminations stem from pushy parenting.

About 17 years ago, I recall a cricket stalwart who made his predominantly 13-year-old female cricket team run around the camp block at night because three of them were up to mischief and kept other teams awake.

Every parent from the offending trio's team agreed with the coach who had impressed on his charges how a handful of players' ill discipline had had an impact on the entire team.

Simply put, the coaches were treated with respect and had unequivocal parental support.

Nowadays children have a tantrum and parents mollycoddle them. They miss training or become a negative influence on teammates and parents demand they be given game time because they are "humans" prone to making mistakes.

In many respects, that mindset is instilled from the corridors of school offices to classrooms where students become accustomed to parents placing principals and boards of trustees on speed dial to bypass teachers.

With parents confronting coaches in similar fashion, it's no wonder children enter the sporting domain all the way to adulthood feeling coaches are there for their disposal.

In a twisted sort of way, it resembles the plot of Westworld, a fictional amusement park where androids created for entertainment start developing emotional traits in a quest to overthrow humans.

In a primitive environment where sport once subconsciously taught people life skills, it has now become a tool for the manipulative types.

Frankly, the erosion of the collective coaching esteem at adulthood is the fault of administrators who, like principals, prefer to pacify mobs for fear of losing their own jobs.

It's not farfetched to suggest some administrators find it easier to fire successful mentors than put up with team rebellion, which becomes a red herring to deflect from player inadequacies. That is, let the review panel do the dirty work.

For the record, I have come across vengeful coaches who have victimised players for myriad reasons only to find administrators backed them to the hilt.

That's wrong and, if evidence shows they are guilty, then by all means, boot them into touch.

Indubitably every mentor isn't suited to all teams. Boxing trainer Kevin Barry
and professional heavyweight Joseph Parker, as well as Heraf, come to mind.

Like players, coaches should also undergo accountability assessments.

But the buck eventually stops with administrators if they make poor choices in appointing mentors.

Trainer Kevin Barry and boxer Joseph Parker is a classic example of where mentors need to be held accountable as well. Photo / NZME
Trainer Kevin Barry and boxer Joseph Parker is a classic example of where mentors need to be held accountable as well. Photo / NZME