A case for the language of person-centredness  

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By Dr Paul Garner

As suggested by Dr Tom Brownlee in his October post, much of our work in the GSSPP looks to develop and enhance what it takes for practitioners/students to thrive in applied settings, looking beyond their discipline specific knowledge to the skills required to navigate new environments and build effective relationships with colleagues. In academic circles we often refer to developing interpersonal knowledge, equally we might ask “how do we support the process of developing people people”? We know this is difficult; the appropriate knowledge is often hard to articulate, it is contextual and therefore infinitely complex. It is a challenge to teach, and problematic to assess, two reasons which explain why this area is so often conveniently missing from curricula.   

When trying to develop these skills in others, language is important. Depending on the environment, there are many terms that align with highly attuned, contextually appropriate behaviour. For example, student or learner-centred in education, client-focussed in business, patient-centred in medicine, athlete-centred in sport. One common barrier that I come across when discussing interpersonal knowledge and an other-centredness in sport, is that most people assume that it requires the coach to be nice, and entirely altruistic. However, putting others’ needs before one’s own is sometimes an idealistic notion in performance environments, and not just in sport. 

In considering the balance suggested by Aristotle’s golden mean and the POWA model (Garner et al. 2022), there is merit in elaborating on a call for person-centred approaches as opposed to those outlined above, where reciprocity (mutually beneficial relationship) within the coach-athlete, teacher-learner, medic-patient dyad is to the fore. Using coaching as an example, with a lack of balance or reciprocity underpinning the relationship there is a danger that the coach becomes servile in their aim to unequivocally satisfy the athlete’s needs, potentially contributing to coach burnout and a reduction in their ability to care for the other. There is a notable body of literature concerning sport coach burnout (e.g., Olusoga et al. 2019) that, not exclusively, identifies a lack of balance between personal life and work, overcommitment and an unmoderated selflessness as contributing factors. This lack of balance can be mitigated if the relationship, instead of uniformly foregrounding the athlete, accepts the equal importance of the coach, with a person-centred approach recognising the people (at least two) involved in the process.  

Of course, there is a danger that reciprocity is taken too literally; there is no suggestion that the coach or teacher or medic should demand the care of those with whom they interact. However, much in the same way that coaches should model the vulnerability required to learn, person-centred coaches should strive to role model morally sound behaviours. It is through an explicitly caring, respectful and open approach that they can encourage reciprocal behaviour from their athletes and create an environment of mutual flourishing.  


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