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Coaching strategies for sincere apologies

By Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold | May 12, 2021, 3:16 p.m. (ET)

In the April coaching newsletter, we discussed common apology mistakes, especially as it pertains microaggressions. This article will discuss strategies for sincere apologies, which coaches can use to foster positive coaching environments.

Both of us have been on the receiving end of some atrocious apologies. Wrongdoers usually say things like:

“I’m sorry if…” Those conditional apologies are just worthless…

“I’m sorry that you…” Blame shifting sucks…why blame the victim?

“I’m sorry, but…” Bleh…this sounds like an apology is about to give birth to an excuse…

“I was just…” Nah. Stop centering yourself. It’s not even about you…

“I guess I…” Stop playing games. You know an apology is necessary, but you just can’t bring yourself to say it…

“Fine! I’m sorry, okay!” Acting as if someone forced you to apologize is hollow and possibly causing more harm than healing. (Neuharth, 2018)

As coaches, trainers, and leaders, we are not exempt from mistakes, in fact we are more prone to them especially as we strive to transition into a more inclusive sport community. Mistakes necessitate apologies and we simply are not well-versed in effective apologies. In fact, apologizing sucks. It doesn’t feel good to the person apologizing, which might be the reason why we do not practice this transformative skill. In fact, sometimes our apologies are so abysmal that maybe the victim would have been better off without an apology at all.

In our first three articles we reviewed implicit bias, microaggressions, and some of the major mistakes that occur when attempting to apologize. Minimizing the harm that was felt, prioritizing being a “good person” over the harm that was inflicted, defensiveness, and good intentions were all mentioned as some of the worst approaches to an apology. So what are the elements of an effective apology?

Lewicki, Lount, and Polin (2016) went to the science to discover what elements are in the best apologies. Anywhere from one to all six of the following elements were identified by 755 people. We think they all could apply to endurance sport:

1. Expression of regret.

Effective apologies are grounded in authenticity. We’ve seen the formal apologies that seem to be no more than a form letter morphed into a direct or public declaration. Authenticity requires clearly communicating that you are indeed sad about what you’ve said, done, or allowed to occur. A trite apology may exacerbate the pain, rather than initiating the healing process in those who were harmed.

2. Explanation of what went wrong.

Are you really clear about how you caused someone else harm? Are you simply apologizing as a performance to be seen as a good person? Or are you apologizing because it charts a course toward healing? Effective apologies require us to deeply examine, understand, and recount the pain we’ve caused so that we can decrease our chances of causing such pain ever again.

3. Acknowledgement of responsibility.

Upon whom does the onus fall? Victim-blaming is a double entendre of sorts when a victim of a wrongful act is held entirely (or even partially) responsible for the harm they experienced. In other words – not only was the person harmed (ouch!) but the person was blamed for their own harm (double ouch!). We’ve seen this happen toward many oppressed populations. The most common examples are blaming a victim of rape for the crime based on their attire. Or blaming a person of color for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when their body, space, or property is attacked. We see this most often with underrepresented people in endurance sport; we make excluded individuals responsible for finding a sense of belonging when endurance sport structurally can exclude on the bases of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability or another identity. Take full responsibility when apologizing.

4. Declaration of repentance.

Author Sarah Ockler said, “Would ‘sorry’ have made any difference? Does it ever? It’s just a word. One word against a thousand actions.” We are not suggesting that you skip the apology if you wronged someone. However, we are clear that empty statements with no intention to change behavior is a waste of your breath. “Repentance” usually means a complete change of direction. Imagine someone apologizing repeatedly and profusely, but never changing their behavior. (That’s not too hard to imagine at all!) If you continue to harm someone, the words you say continue to lose their potency and work directly against healing the harmed.

5. Offer to repair.

Ask what you can do to help repair the damage you’ve caused. What would the harmed person like to see happen? Would they like an official apology? Would they want to see some type of effort to include a particular excluded individual or group? Ask some probing questions about what would make the harmed individual feel whole and then take your cues from there. Even if the individual has to take some time to reflect on your question, pose the question, provide space for reflection, and be prepared when the individual comes back to provide direction for your next steps.

6. Request for forgiveness.

Now, this is the tough part. Why? Because the individual who was harmed by your actions has absolutely no obligation to accept your apology. It is not a requirement to provide forgiveness to those who request it. However, as folks who make mistakes constantly – cultural humility is key. The power of forgiveness should be in the hands of those who were most deeply affected. Don’t make your apology entirely about their need to forgive you. If you do, you are missing the point entirely.

Lewicki, R.J., Polin, B., Lount, Jr., R.B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. 9(2), 177-196. https://doi.org/10.1111/ncmr.12073

Neuharth, D. (2018). The Top 12 Fake Apologies – And What Makes for An Authentic Apology. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/love-matters/2018/06/the-top-12-fake-apologies-and-what-makes-for-an-authentic-apology#1

Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold

Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold and Dr. Lisa Ingarfield are avid triathletes and coaches and host the weekly podcast [un]phased which is designed to help you grapple with the reality of racism, sexism, ableism and many other hard-to-discuss issues affecting triathlon, endurance sports, and our lives. The podcast encourages endurance athletes to simmer in their discomfort and collectively construct solutions to big challenges.