Posted in Ella's blog posts

The effect of deceit on the coach-athlete relationship

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.

Reference list:

Beedie, C. J. (2007). Placebo effects in competitive sport: qualitative data. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 6, 21-28.

Beedie, C. J., & Foad, A. J. (2009). The placebo effect in sports performance. Sports Medicine, 39(4), 313-329.

Benedetti, F., Mayberg, H. S., Wager, T. D., Stohler, C. S., & Zubieta, J.-K. (2005). Neurobiological mechanisms of the placebo effect. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25(45), 10390-10402.

Brody, H., Colloca, L., & Miller, F. G. (2012). The placebo phenomenon: implications for the ethics of Shared Decision-Making. Journal of General Internal Medicine(6), 739-742.

Clemence, M. (2001). Developing the ethics of placebos in physiotherapy. Physiotherapy, 87(11), 582-586.

Davis, L., & Jowett, S. (2013). Attachment styles within the coach-athlete dyad: preliminary investigation and assessment development. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 7(2), 120-145.

Davis, L., Jowett, S., & Lafrenière, M.-A. (2013). An attachment theory perspective in the examination of relational processes associated with coach-athlete dyads. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 156-167.

Jowett, S. (2003). When the” honeymoon” is over: a case study of a coach-athlete dyad in crisis. Sport Psychologist, 17(4), 444-460.

Jowett, S. (2007). Interdependence analysis and the 3 + 1Cs in the coach-athlete relationship. In S. Jowett & D. Lavallee (Eds.), Social psychology in sport (pp. 63-77). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Jowett, S., Rhind, D. J. A., & Yang, S. X. (2012). A comparison of athletes’ perceptions of the coach-athlete relationship in team and individual sports. Journal of Sport Behavior, 35(4), 433-452.

Justman, S. (2013). Deceit and transparency in placebo research. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 86, 323-331.

Vogt, W. (1999). Breaking the chain: drugs and cycling, the true story. London: Random House/Yellow Jersey Press. In Beedie, C. J. (2007). Placebo effects in competitive sport: qualitative data. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 6, 21-28.



This blog was started for a Uni subject, and has since evolved into a place where I can voice my thoughts, typically about coaching and sport. I grew up in Sydney, then moved to Canberra for some further study in 2011 and when I finished in 2014 I moved up to Brisbane. I have played, coached and generally been involved with volleyball since 2013. As of 2017 I am now the QAS Volleyball Assistant Coach.

5 thoughts on “The effect of deceit on the coach-athlete relationship

  1. What a thought provoking post, Ella. I am delighted you are sharing your work openly.

    I wrote this recently and have been pondering the fourth C word … trust.

    I have spent a lot of time coaching 1:1 in the last decade and have found absolute honesty and transparency to be the essence of coach/athlete relationships. I do think both are more powerful than placebo.

    I hope you enjoyed researching this post. It raises profound ethical issues.

    Best wishes


  2. Very interesting blog Ella! I agree with Keith, that the coach-athlete relationship is usually stronger than a placebo. However, placebos can be very effective if the belief is strong enough. This belief comes from- if the placebo is administered by the coach- a trust that the coach is NOT giving the athlete a placebo. So if the athlete does not have this relationship, then the placebo won’t work! So the two are interlinked in a way.

    Regarding turning this into an assignment to submit, can I suggest you identify a specific problem, describe how it comes about and why it is a problem. There are a number of topics you’ve raised, and you only need to talk about one. So either: Strength of placebo dependent on relationship, affect of deception on strength of placebo, affect of deception on relationship, ethics of deception. For any topic, find out what we know, therefore what we don’t know and the problems that come from that.

    Hope this helps and good luck!

    1. Thank you, your suggestions give me much better direction. I’m aiming for the affect of deception on the relationship so I will try to make that a bit clearer. It’s very interesting how much the trust influences the efficacy of a placebo though!


      1. So what happens when an athlete find out! This could be very interesting as it would depend on a lot of things: the existing relationship, the athlete’s personality, the athlete’s understanding of the situation and even, how the athlete finds out! So yes, very complex!

        Trust as a mediator, if you think about it, it pretty much common sense. You’re going to believe what someone says more if you trust them. This will affect the placebo strength, but to what extent is a good question!


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