This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

The Psychology of Coaching

The good coach as described by LeUnes and Nation (1996) has these characteristics:

-Knowledgeable. "All coaching is nothing more than teaching" LeUnes and Nation assert, and any teacher must be "knowledgeable about the activity being taught."

What are characteristics of the "good coach"?

—Methodical in the teaching of skills. At this point in history, all popular sports have been analyzed into component skills that, along with conditioning, are necessary precursors to expert performance. A good coach covers all the bases and does so in a logical, consistent way that builds up expertise in athletes.

—Expert in the proper application of positive reinforcement. Sport psychologists are unanimous in recommending timely positive reinforcement of athletes for desired behavior. More subtle factors include the good sense not to "lay it on too thick" or come across as manipulative or insincere.

—A good student. Coaches, like other professionals, must grow and improve by learning about new developments in the game.

—A motivator. LeUnes and Nation (1996) point out, "Successful coaches are successful wherever they go. Programs in the doldrums are continually given new life by coaches who have been successful elsewhere. The ability to motivate is part and parcel of this success formula."

How do some football coaches use secondary reinforcement?

Some coaches borrow directly from principles of behavioral psychology. For example, the stickers often seen on football helmets are secondary reinforcers that serve to acknowledge outstanding plays. They become points of pride, and a helmet full of stickers is an unmistakable sign of an outstanding player. The use of helmet stickers has percolated down to the high school level, and some college coaches have stopped using them. Fashions come and go in sports as in other areas of life. Helmet stickers have been around since the 1960s when Woody Hayes started putting little Buckeyes on the helmets of Ohio State players.

What is "mentoring" by a coach?

Mentoring is crucial to motivation in teaching and coaching relationships of all varieties. A mentor is an older person who guides, inspires, and supports a student. If a student "catches" the enthusiasm of a teacher, researcher, or coach, the student will be more likely to focus on the task and give it the sustained attention it requires.

Salminen and Liukkonen (1996) studied the "emotional atmosphere of training sessions." They asked 68 coaches to rate their own coaching styles, and they asked athletes who worked under the coaches to describe the coaches' behaviors. They also gathered data directly by attending training sessions.

What did Salminen and Liukkonen find out, in their study of coaching styles?

In general, college-level coaches were accurate in their self-perceptions. Those who rated themselves high on the dimensions of "training instruction" and "rewarding behavior" did engage in those behaviors more often. They also "appeared to have more positive interactions with athletes." In a few cases, the coaches and athletes had different perceptions of the coach's behavior; in those cases, the independent observers tended to find the coach's behavior emotional and negative. This style also produced less satisfaction among the players.

What did researchers find out about youth coaches, in two decades of research?

Coaches who specialize in dealing with younger people may not be quite as insightful about their own behavior as college coaches. Smith and Smoll (1997) studied youth coaches for two decades. They used an observational coding system so they could measure coaching behaviors during practices and games, and they also measured psychosocial outcomes for the athletes, such as enjoyment, self-esteem, and how players felt about the coach. The researchers found that the most popular coaches were the ones who used positive reinforcement, emphasized personal improvement over winning, and responded to mistakes with encouragement and instruction. However, they also observed some patterns that had not been previously reported in the coaching literature:

What were some surprises in Smith and Smoll's data?

-Although only 1.5% of the coaching behaviors observed were punitive or angry, they had a tremendous impact. They were correlated more strongly (and negatively) with student's attitudes than any other variable.

-There was such a thing as too much praise. Both very low and very high levels of general encouragement were correlated with negative views of the coach.

-"Finally, we found that coaches were, for the most part, blissfully unaware of how they behaved." In almost all the behavioral categories measured, children were more accurate in evaluating the coaches than the coaches were on their self-report measures. (p.47)

The last finding "clearly indicated the need to increase coaches' self-awareness," the researchers concluded.

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