If you have coached long enough, you have inevitably been challenged by a team that completely drains you. Whether it is a conflict between teammates, failure to execute under pressure, or an overall lack of desire in the face of challenge, we have all reached the limit of our toolbox and our patience with “that“ team. When you get to the point of utter frustration, it is tempting to think back to a former team that responded to you or to let your mind imagine the group you want to coach in the future. While this is perfectly natural, it is utterly counterproductive. The fact is that a credible, mature coach will embrace the work of leading the team he or she has instead of dreaming about the team that he or she wants. Coaches must help athletes understand their goals, help them construct a plan to achieve them, and support them along the way. It is just what we do.
It is also a matter of pride for us that most coaches are open to helping each other and sharing what works and discussing what our challenges are. Camaraderie is unique in coaching and is a special part of the profession at all levels of athletics. Anecdotally, I continue to be amazed at how open coaches of successful programs are. The more successful a coach is, the more open and willing he or she seems to be. After all, we are all trying to help our athletes and staffs develop and improve. It's best for the team, and it is best for the continued growth and improvement of our programs. So then, I ask, why are so many of us hesitant to ask for help ourselves?
I think most would agree that a fundamental requirement of successful coaches, or any leader, is the ability to develop a positive environment of motivation, in which team members are intrinsically motivated to learn and develop critical skills, and ultimately achieve their goals. Ryan & Deci (2000) matured such a theory and referred to it as self-determination theory (SDT), which has been adapted and used in sport, business, and other settings. SDT also provides a helpful context in which to evaluate coaching behaviors. SDT claims that all people are internally motivated by three needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Successful cultures that emphasize these three drivers are evident when athletes thrive within their training environment and in competition physically and psychologically. Today we will discuss effective coaching behaviors as validated and described in the literature, including their underlying philosophies and the benefits that will accrue to athletes if they are put into practice. This discussion begins with a set of foundational behaviors that are essential to coaching at all levels of competition and create a foundation to develop further behaviors that are valued by athletes.
Foundational Coaching Behaviors
To guide athletes as they develop competence, one of Ryan's (2000) three basic needs, coaches must focus on the motivational climate they create for an athlete or team. The desirable training environment is one in which athletes are encouraged to invest in learning and embrace adaptive task mastery strategies, rather than one in which athletes focus solely on their outcomes and how they stack up with other athletes. To accomplish this, coaches must help players adopt goals that prioritize task accomplishment rather than ego enhancing achievements (Dosil, 2006). Achievement goal theory (AGT) describes a set of principles that collectively encourage a task or process orientation in athletes. The first principle of achievement goal theory proposes that coaches design learning tasks for athletes that are interesting, diverse, and challenging to engage them in mastering critical skills. Next, coaches are encouraged to teach players methods for monitoring and managing their behavior and performance that includes active participation in setting goals and investing in a learning process. Coaches are also encouraged to keep a focus on individual athlete achievement of task goals, which demands that instruction is appropriate for an athlete's level of ability. This approach helps athletes avoid performance anxiety by reinforcing the idea that making mistakes is a natural part of developing mastery. Finally, coaches should involve players in an evaluation process that remains focused on effort and task learning.
To understand coaching behaviors that facilitate athletes' need for autonomy and relatedness (the final two basic needs described by Ryan (2000)), one can turn to the underlying principles of coaching effectiveness training (CET). As explained in Dosil (2006), CET is the only coach training program in the United States that has received a critical assessment. It enjoys a body of scientific evidence that indicates the value of its approach to shape coaches' behavior and favorably impacts the psychosocial development of athletes. These objectives are achieved by providing coaches with specific strategies to support athletes' personal, social, and athletic development. According to CET, the desired coaching behaviors are supportiveness and instructiveness. Supportiveness directs coaches to provide encouragement and reinforcement when an athlete makes a mistake. Instructiveness combines with supportiveness to provide specific corrective technical instruction that arms the athlete with tools to improve her mastery of a skill. Athletes prefer coach supportiveness and instructiveness. By contrast, punitive coaching reactions that include punishment and controlling behaviors, which are to be avoided. CET focuses the athlete on the process of developing skill expertise rather than focusing on the outcome of their performance, which is impacted by variables outside of the athlete's control (like the physical condition of facilities, weather, and officiating judgment).
The first principle of CET is that winning is defined as athletes giving their maximum effort and improving. Coaching focus must be on having fun, being a team, learning to play the sport (skills development), and increasing self-esteem. CET's second principle is that coaches are to maintain a positive approach with players and emphasize positive reinforcement, encouragement, and technical instruction (that is geared to the individual level of ability) and that punitive behaviors are non-existent. This principle addresses the importance of teaching in a way that encourages a task focus vs. ego focus in learning. To accomplish this, coaches must reinforce effort as much as results. Third, coaches should establish norms that emphasize athletes' mutual responsibilities to help and support one another to enhance cohesion and players' commitment to the team. Coaches should model supportive behaviors and positively reinforce players when they exhibit supportive behaviors of each other and promote team unity. In this sense, coaches provide instruction for all team members, not just the most skilled athletes, and the basic need of relatedness is addressed for all team members. This approach increases team cohesiveness. Fourth, coaches should allow players to have a say in team rules and expectations for compliance, and they should promote accountability to follow those rules once they are established cooperatively. This principle helps to meet athletes' need for autonomy. Team members are asked to make a public commitment to team rules and governance to seal their commitment to the standards to which they each contributed. Coaches should recognize instances of players following rules and holding each other accountable. Finally, coaches must seek and obtain feedback related to their behaviors and engage in self-monitoring to stay on track and meet their expectations for positive coaching behaviors. This behavioral feedback originates optimally from assistant coaches, and players and coaches should also observe and record their behavior.
Coaching behaviors that focus on support and instruction through positive reinforcement and accountability benefit players as demonstrated by these outcomes: 1) athletes that enjoyed their experiences, 2) players liked their coach and teammates more, 3) athletes experienced increased self-esteem and decreased performance anxiety, and 4) players were less likely to drop out. Athletes with low self-esteem benefited the most from these learned coaching behaviors. Further, in one study, team win and loss percentages were similar between a control group who did not receive CET training and teams in which CET coaching training and interventions were implemented (Dosil, 2006). The benefits to players who are instructed by coaches trained according to the principles of CET are clear. CET provides a critical platform from which coaches can approach player development and encourage sustained athlete participation in sport. However, researchers have also studied the question of whether these foundational coaching behaviors alone are adequate to support athletes who possess the ability to compete at the world-class level. For this, we need to develop an expanded shortlist of desired coaching behaviors for athletes who compete at the elite level of their sport. The benefits to players of coaching behaviors that focus on support and instruction through positive reinforcement and accountability are numerous.
Elite Athlete Expectations of Coaching Behaviors
A more in-depth evaluation of coaching behaviors desired by elite athletes has been developed and expands upon the more general practices of AGT and CET. Coaches' and athletes' perceptions of coaching behavior in training, competition, and organization dimensions were evaluated, and seven coaching behaviors were identified in a qualitative study complete by Cote & Sedgwick (2003). Those behaviors included that the coaches in the elite class planned proactively in addition to creating a positive training environment, facilitating goal setting, building athletes' confidence, teaching skills effectively, recognizing individual differences, and establishing a positive rapport with each athlete. Mallett & Cote (2006) advanced these qualitative study findings and proposed that behaviors required of coaches who work with elite athletes or teams compel an even more refined understanding of successful coaching behaviors to be effective in training elite performers. They further suggested that historical outcome-based measures like winning percentages are not complete measures of high performing coaches. Specifically, Mallett (2006) proposed that the coaching behavior scale for sport (CBS-S) offers a more expanded context for the evaluation of coaches. CBS-S postulates that seven dimensions of coaching behavior are most important to athletes. Four of these behaviors are similar to or marginally expand the definitions of CET encouraged behaviors including goal setting (identification, development, and monitoring of the athlete's goals), technical skills (effectively provides feedback, demonstration, and cues for mastery of critical skills), personal rapport (coach is approachable, available, and understanding), and negative personal rapport (the degree to which a coach uses negative techniques like fear and yelling).
However, three of the CBS-S indicated coaching behaviors represent a much more intense if even intrusive approach to coaching behaviors that elite athletes desired to support their efforts to perform at the highest level of their sport. These included their coaches' comprehensive physical training and planning (physical training and planning for training and competition), mental preparation (which helps the athlete perform under pressure, stay focused, and be confident), and competition strategies (which describes coaches' interaction with the athlete in competition). The inclusion of these behaviors indicates an elite athlete's willingness to trade autonomy for an increased life structure. The hope is that he can attain incremental gains in performance, which are required to successfully compete at an extremely high level, something to which a significant majority of athletes are not willing to succumb. Both Cote (2003) and Mallett (2006) found that elite athletes were comforted by this comprehensive approach to goal setting and perceived a meaningful benefit to structuring short-term and medium-term goals to accomplish long-term goals for performance outcomes. As a result of a training environment where these coaching behaviors were delivered, elite athletes benefited from the assurance that was felt, the enhanced focus in competition, and the confidence that came from preparing for virtually all possible contingencies. These benefits allowed elite performers to relax and focus on executing a plan while feeling prepared to overcome whatever challenged them in competition. Finally, these three added coaching behaviors set elite coaching skills apart and build upon a foundation of practices necessary to coach all athletes.
Mental performance consultants can assist coaches who wish to develop behaviors that are conducive to creating a positive environment for learning, skill mastery, athlete satisfaction, and overall psychological well-being. Further, a mental performance consultant can help coaches better execute their role in facilitating the growth and development of athletes physically, tactically, and mentally. Humans have three basic needs according to self-determination theory, which includes competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Coaches who create an instructional environment that meets these basic needs and who exhibit behaviors that advance strategies to address them will be more effective in developing players who are psychologically fulfilled and have a clearer understanding of how to accomplish their personal goals in sports. Coaching effectiveness training has been demonstrated to equip coaches with strategies that exhibit supportive and instructive behaviors. These practices increase athletes' enjoyment, lead them to enjoy their coaches and teammates more, develop improved self-esteem, limit performance anxiety, and lead to higher retention. While these behaviors form a critical foundation for successful coaching at all levels, elite athletes have an even greater need for structure, acquisition of mental strategies, and planning for competition. Elite athletes desire coaches who can master behaviors that deliver comprehensive physical training and planning, enhanced mental preparation, and offer effective competition strategies. This next level of coaching behavior helps an elite performer relax and focus on executing a prepared plan while feeling prepared to overcome whatever challenges them in competition. Mental performance consultants can assist coaches who wish to develop behaviors that are conducive to creating a positive environment for learning, skill mastery, athlete satisfaction, and overall psychological well-being.
Wherever you are and whatever your struggles in coaching, an MSP Mental Performance Consultant stands ready to help you and your association, program staff, or coaches. We love to do educational sessions for coaches at all levels of athletic training. Our solutions are evidence-based and scientifically tested, meaning that they are relevant to you and that you can use them repeatedly with consistent results. We also work directly with individual athletics administrators, coaches, and other leaders to enhance their mental tool kits and improve performance. If you would like to discuss how we can support you, please contact us one of the ways below or leave us a note on our contact page:
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Cote, J. & Sedgwick, W. A. (2003). Effective behaviors of expert rowing coaches: A qualitative investigation of Canadian athletes and coaches. International Sport Journal, 7(1), 62-77. Retrieved from https://wmcmacki23.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/mentalarticle.pdf
Dosil, J. (2006). The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook: A Guide to Sport-specific Performance
Enhancement. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Mallett, C. & Cote, J. (2006). Beyond winning and losing: Guidelines for evaluating high
performance coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 213-221. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43453314_Beyond_Winning_and_Losing_Gui delines_for_Evaluating_High_Performance_Coaches
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi-org.proxy-library.ashford.edu/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68