PDP Lead Researcher James Vaughan poses the question to coaches: are we competing or are we collaborating? In this article, James discusses the concept of ‘water’ and its implications on an individual’s approach to coaching.

One of the most important questions you can ask as a coach is: Are we competing or are we collaborating?

In fact, it’s one of the most important questions you can ask any group of people intending, attempting or pretending to work together. I’ll admit this is a strange statement from someone who’s constantly ‘banging on’ about the importance of deeply understanding the culture and context before planning interventions or asking questions.

And while I’m not suggesting that this question is a ‘silver bullet’ or a ‘one size fits all’ solution, what I’m seeing in my research suggests it’s an important place to start for many people in many organisations today. The balance between competition and collaboration shapes our contexts, environments, group dynamics, relationships, intentions, football interactions, who we are and how we think.

The balance between competition and collaboration is a key element of our water:

What the hell is water?

There is a lot to unpack in this 5-minute snippet of a 2005 commencement speech. But before we get into that I want to reinforce the entwined and interconnected nature of the fish (us) and the water (our environment, context, ecology).

When Wallace makes the point that his ‘natural default setting’ is to be deeply self-centered, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a natural default setting as such, it’s rather a result of his interactions with his environment his water. Our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and experiences emerge from our interactions with our water, shaping identity, personality, motivation and many more elements of our psyche.

The most relevant point is that many modern environments, the global water nurtures a deep self-centeredness.

According to environmental psychologists, American Corporate Capitalism (or ACC, a particular brand of neo-liberal capitalism with the greatest worldwide influence) cultivates this self-centeredness (Kasser, Cohn, Kanner, & Ryan, 2007). Spread via globalisation, ACC shapes social contexts and organisational structures intoxicated by an insidious, mostly subconscious but extreme emphasis on individuality, competitiveness, and extrinsic rewards.

At the level of the individual (us), psychologists have found that ACC (an element of the global macro water) promotes high materialistic value orientations that make people more likely to compete and less likely to collaborate (Sheldon, Sheldon, & Osbaldiston, 2000). The over-emphasis on extrinsic rewards and competition is likely to reinforce:

  • Social comparison
  • Divisions and insecurities
  • Fear of failure
  • Scarcity mentalities
  • Contexts that reproduce the controlling behaviours currently evident in many educational environments (Taylor et al., 2008).

Not ideal for learning, psychological wellbeing, problem-solving or creativity. Unfortunately, this is how many of us experience sport.

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James Vaughan
James Vaughan
James Vaughan is a Co-founder of Player Development Project and currently based in Stockholm where he is coaching at AIK and working towards his PhD in Creativity & Motivation in Football.
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