Former AFL star Eddie Betts’ revelations about the 2018 Adelaide Crows training camp, which left him feeling like he had been brainwashed and sapped his passion for football, raises all sorts of questions.
But the most obvious is how could the Crows’ management, running an elite organisation with a team that had made the grand final the year before, treat its most valuable assets – its players – so badly?
Who decided the bullying and abusive behaviour that reportedly traumatised individuals and fractured the team was a good idea?
We can’t answer that. But as academics with experience in the “motivational industry”, we’re not all that shocked such things occurred.
The market for programs and processes to improve individual and organisational performance is huge, and with it comes faddish ideas with little or no basis in evidence.
A shattering experience
Betts’ account of the 2018 training camp, in his recently published autobiography The Boy from Boomerang Crescent, describes scenes of humiliation, misappropriation of Indigenous cultural practices and an emphasis on toxic aspects of masculinity.
The four-day preseason camp followed Adelaide making the 2017 AFL grand final but being trounced by the Richmond Tigers.
Betts describes being blindfolded, led onto a bus with papered-over windows and taken to a random location with Richmond’s club song (“Tigerland”) being played loudly over and over again.
He says there were criticism sessions in which “counsellors” yelled taunts at him about personal matters he believed he had disclosed in confidence:
I was exhausted, drained and distressed about the details being shared. Another camp-dude jumped on my back and started to berate me about my mother, something so deeply personal that I was absolutely shattered to hear it come out of his mouth.
The experience clearly left a lasting impression. Betts says his performance and relationship with his family suffered.
His account is disturbing. Equally concerning is how easily these kinds of inappropriate, confrontational and ethically dubious experiences occur in the name of “training” and “motivation”.
A tough idea with no evidential basis
As industry-engaged academics, we are experienced in developing, implementing and evaluating training and interventions that build psychological capital, resilience and wellbeing.
We can only presume the rationale for the training camp was to develop greater mental toughness.
But while it might be a commonly held belief that placing people in highly stressful and emotionally confronting circumstances will help them “sink or swim” and “face their fears”, the evidence shows this is not helpful. Indeed, it has the potential to be very harmful.
The brain is a highly efficient learning machine. It uses emotions (the automatic deployment of chemicals in the brain as a response to stimuli) to “bake in” memories – and, for that matter, skills.
When external stimuli trigger negative emotions, this leads to a “flight, fight or freeze” response. Long after the trigger and experience, the emotional and physiological reaction to the memory can remain.
This is called trauma. As described by Martin Seligman - often referred to as the “father of positive psychology” - if that trauma isn’t resolved it can lead to anxiety and depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
The time and place for ‘post-traumatic growth’
Decades of research in the field of psychology has led to the general understanding that there are times when it is appropriate for people to face emotionally confronting circumstances, particularly childhood experiences, that may have had a defining impact on a person’s behaviour or cognition.
However, there are very strict guidelines and protocols as to when and under what conditions this occurs. In Australia this is governed by the Psychology Board of Australia and underpinned by the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act.
In brief, such confrontation should only occur when a qualified and registered practitioner believes the person they are treating feels safe and supported, so the emotional and physiological reaction can occur in a contained way. When this occurs, it is called “post-traumatic growth” – and it must be done by a dedicated expert practitioner.
There are no circumstances under which an organisation, or those acting on behalf of it, should deliberately subject its employees to experiences that have the potential to be emotionally traumatic.
Indeed, Australia’s work health and safety regulations are increasingly making employers legally responsible for “psycho-social hazards” – anything that could cause psychological harm – at work. This includes aggressive, bullying behaviour and exposure to traumatic events.
In some workplaces, exposure to emotionally confronting events is unavoidable. Examples include aged-care and health-care workers who regularly have to confront human frailty and death; paramedics who have to attend car accidents; and police officers who are exposed to the very worst of human nature. Particularly for paramedics and police, substantial organisational resources are deployed to help mitigate the impact of exposure to trauma – although, sometimes, they can still fall through the cracks.
All workplaces should be safe and respectful
The idea of provoking trauma for some organisational benefit is wrong. Do not ever believe that any good is done by doing harm. There is no evidence to support this.
Helping someone to achieve personal growth requires standard mental-health first-aid skills: listening; giving support and information; and encouraging them to seek appropriate professional help.
Betts’ reported experience is a reminder that engagements with colleagues, managers, subordinates, customers and clients at work should always be safe and respectful.
Deliberately exposing someone to an emotionally confronting situation is only likely to harm their ability to perform.
Ben Farr-Wharton, Associate Dean of Management, Edith Cowan University; Matthew Xerri, Senior Lecturer in Human Resources, Griffith University, and Yvonne Brunetto, Professor of Management and HRM, Southern Cross University
Media contact: Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University 0429 661 349 or email@example.com