Author: Ella Ward, date published: 03/10/13
As well as being influenced by one’s psychosocial context, the efficacy of a placebo is attributed to deceitful administration (Benedetti et al., 2005; Justman, 2013). An infamous high-performance example of this is of French cyclist Richard Virenque, who attributed his success one day to a stimulant he had been injected with, however unbeknown to him, the injection contained just glucose and not the stimulant he was expecting (Vogt, 1999). As demonstrated in this example, a placebo is often administered by a third party such as a coach (Beedie, 2007). Thus, the problem arises when coach’s desire to improve performance involves deceit and compromises the coach-athlete relationship.
The coach-athlete relationship is regarded as a critical component to athlete success; with the quality of the relationship positively influencing an athlete’s self-efficacy, motivation and satisfaction (Davis et al., 2013; Jowett et al., 2012). Over the past decade there has been an abundance of conceptual frameworks developed to model this interdependent dyadic relationship; with Jowett’s (2007) model “3Cs” receiving heightened attention due to its divergence from traditional attachment theories (Davis et al., 2013). This model purports the quality of the relationship is dependent on the equilibrium of three key constructs: closeness, co-orientation and complementarity (Jowett, 2003; Jowett, 2007). However, negating anecdotal reports, there is little empirical evidence regarding the implications of deceit on the relationship (Beedie & Foad, 2009). Therefore, the next section discusses the possible implications of this, drawing upon examples from a case study by Jowett (2003) on relationships in crisis.
An athlete’s motivation has been attributed to their perception of shared closeness with the coach, thus in the event of deceit, feelings, anger, isolation, manipulation and undermining of trust may emerge, changing with how the athlete interacts with their coach and sport (Jowett, 2003). In addition, because the efficacy of a placebo is attributed to deceit, an athlete may be misinformed about the placebo treatment or even excluded from the decision making (Brody et al., 2012; Justman, 2013). From a coaches perspective, the deception may be justified in that it improves performance, however this lack of co-orientation and incongruent expectations may result in conflict (Jowett, 2003). Higher quality relationships exhibit balanced complementarity. Contrary to this, if the athlete perceives their coach in a more powerful position, it is speculated that a placebo is more likely to be effective (Beedie, 2007). Despite the potential performance improvements, the resultant power imbalance can reverse the effectiveness of the relationship resulting in dysfunction (Davis & Jowett, 2013).
Interestingly, qualitative studies have reported individual sport athletes perceive greater relationship quality compared to team sport athletes, suggesting that overall conflict in this relationship may be more damaging (Jowett et al., 2012). Overall, the deceitful administration of a placebo is speculated to be more prevalent in high-performance sport, where athletes performance is continually being influenced and manipulated by coaches and sports scientists. However, deceit does not only effect the coach-athlete relationship. A congruent problem is a placebo may avert people from seeking proper treatment, thus also highlighting the problem of long-term implications of delayed treatment (Clemence, 2001).
I believe the relationship shared between the coach and athlete is more powerful than any placebo effect. However, this problem is still not easily solved as coaches will continue to strive to improve performance by that fraction of a percent, possibly regardless of the implications. Therefore it is critical that research is conducted by sports psychologists and exercise scientists is aimed at demonstrating placebo effects can be achieved under circumstances in which the athlete knows it is a placebo. In the meantime, coaches need further education regarding the detrimental effects of their actions. Coaches have a ethical commitment to their athletes, therefore need to exercise full disclosure even though it may negate the efficacy of any placebo.
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