The Importance of Coaches and Coaching

For most athletes involved, their coach is an influential element of the competitive experience. The Sport in America survey found that coaches are a leading positive influence on today’s youth. Respondents were asked to rate the overall influence of a variety of groups on young people. Across all major demographic groups, coaches rank as the number one positive influence on youth today.

At their best, coaches can help their players improve their skills, perform to their best ability, develop strong character, and gain confidence. That is, they can maximize the positive value of sport, and they can enhance the intrinsic motivation to play sport. The intrinsic values of sport and the experience of mastery are more likely to generate fair play and good sportsmanship. Coaches who overvalue winning can create an environment in which unsportsmanlike behavior flourishes.

team-and-coachAt their worst, coaches can push the psychological, emotional, and physical limits of their players to the point of harm, create a hostile and unfair environment, and turn young athletes away from sport forever. A study by Baker et al. identified the relationship between athlete sport anxiety and various outcomes (e.g. performance and drop-out). Athletes were asked to relate seven coaching behaviors – physical training, mental preparation, goal setting, technical skills, competition strategies, personal rapport, and negative personal rapport – to various forms of sport anxiety (total anxiety, somatic anxiety, concentration disruption, and worry). The investigators found that negative personal rapport was a significant predictor of all measured forms of sport anxiety. Martens found that when coaches superimpose their goals on children’s participation, they can render a child’s experience a negative one.

Even coaches who love and respect their teams can lose perspective in the quest to win. This is especially true at the elite and college level, where coaches are under incredible pressure to produce winning and moneymaking teams and earn salaries higher than even university presidents.

The Sport in America survey found that 78 percent of coaches surveyed noted the inappropriate behavior of coaches as being the most serious problem facing sport today. Moreover, some studies have shown that student athletes generally want a better coach than they have – or had. Yet surveys still point to coaches as a major positive influence.

What makes a good or effective coach? At the youth level, an effective coach may be the person who provides encouragement to and learning opportunities for his or her athletes. In the book Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports, Bigelow and colleagues132 offer a simple measure of whether someone is a good coach – do children want to play again the next season? At the collegiate level, the metric changes. Coaching effectiveness is measured by the percentage of games that are won and the number of championships that are played.

The role of coach is a complicated one. Surveys of coaches at the youth level find that they serve as instructor, teacher, motivator, disciplinarian, substitute parent, social worker, friend, manager, therapist, and fundraiser. Ideally, coaches should understand the developmental stage and limits of their athletes in order to tailor practices and playing time appropriately. In addition to these expectations, coaches are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the sport they are coaching, including the rules and the skills and techniques needed to play the sport. At more advanced levels of competition, they need to understand basic kinesiology, sport psychology, nutrition, and basic first aid.

Yet the average volunteer coach of a community team has little training in any of these areas. In addition, Gilbert and Trudel found that most community coaches became involved in coaching because their children played the sport. This also means that they are likely to drop out of coaching once their children are no longer involved.

Only a few states require certification of coaches who work in school systems. They may have been coached in their sport, but might never have coached, and they may have learned their coaching skills by observing other coaches. Research by the Michigan Youth Sports Institute has found that volunteer youth coaches have little knowledge of sport safety, training and conditioning, and child development, despite the fact that many surveyed coaches have asked for effective instruction.

Studies of Coach Effectiveness Training, which focuses on positive coaching, show that there are real advantages to the children involved. These studies have found that children who start their season with low self-esteem and have a trained coach show greater self-esteem at the end of the season than children who are not coached by a trained individual. Moreover, athletes who played for an untrained coach had an attrition rate of 26 percent compared to 5 percent for children coached by trained individuals. Children coached by trained individuals also reported lower anxiety levels. Gould et al. found that children’s dislike of their coach is a significant reason for discontinuing the sport.

Research by Diane Wiese-Bjornstal suggests that the thoughts, feelings, and actions of girls in the area of sport and physical activity largely depend on the influencers of coaches, gym teachers, and exercise leaders. Although girls seek social rewards through sport, they are more likely than boys to rely on adult leaders (coaches, teachers, parents) to create their positive experiences, and, more than boys, they want to develop warm interpersonal relationships with their coaches. Thus, in general, a stinging criticism from a coach is likely to have more meaning to a girl than to a boy.

A moment of encouragementA critical role for coaches is team building – that is, making all the moving parts and variable skill levels of a group of athletes work together. In a summary of team-building research, Bloom et al. found that team-building activities can have positive results with elite sport and high school teams. Athletes who participate in team-building activities directed by their coach report higher perceptions of self-worth, athletic competence, physical appearance, and social acceptance. In addition, coaches report improving their own communication and motivational skills as a result of the activities. Studies on team building show that athletes benefit from coaches who employ team-building techniques, which create a more enjoyable environment and increase the likelihood that they will stay active in the sport. In fact, a survey of NCAA Division 1 head coaches identified team culture as a key to their team’s success because it creates a positive environment in which all team members can support and reinforce the best in one another. Team building breeds prosocial acts by players toward opponents and teammates. In turn, this maintains a continuity of play. By promoting positive relationships, coaches create a supportive environment that optimizes the potential of individual athletes and the team collectively.

Some research has been conducted to determine what coaches expect children should gain from playing sport. For example, Lesyk and Kornspan found that coaches ranked having fun, learning life skills, being part of a team, developing confidence, and the excitement of competition as important outcomes for their players.

USADA’s survey found that 5 percent of coaches responding to the survey say that fair play and respect for others are highly important values to reinforce through sport, but that fewer than one in four coaches believe that sport is effectively reinforcing fair play or respect. Importantly, 82 percent of coaches say their athletes are respectful to others and believe it is important that everyone have a fair chance.

This was originally published in True Sport: What We Stand to Lose in Our Obsession to Win (p. 55-58)


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