Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2021

Ground Rules: Studying Development in the Coaching Profession

by Adam Revelette and Johannes Raabe, Ph.D., CMPC Assistant Professor of Sport & Exercise Psychology at West Virginia University
Baseball Coach in Athletics uniform talking to two of his playersCoaching is a slippery slope that requires managing a variety of personalities in a complex and dynamic environment. It is largely dependent on wins and losses, and more specifically how athletes perform, which is a largely uncontrollable venture. The pressure to compete, to win, to keep a job or get a new one can result in tremendous stress and burnout. 

A great many studies have focused on how to develop athletes both on and off the field, but what about the physical and psychological development of the coaches themselves? Are there any particular meaningful factors and relationships that can benefit young coaches that we’re missing?

Johannes Raabe, Ph. D., CMPC and Assistant Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at West Virginia University has set out to find some answers to questions like these. Along with the help of Kim Tolentino (West Virginia University), Dr. Tucker Readdy (University of Wyoming), and Dr. Erika Van Dyke (West Virginia University), the group is working on a project intended to address essential empirical gaps regarding the antecedents, mediators, and consequences of optimal cognitive, affective, and behavioral functioning among coaches.

What appears particularly relevant to the coaching profession is that “when individuals feel autonomous, competent, and related in a particular stressful encounter, they are more likely to appraise demands or constraints on goals as challenges that have to be overcome, as opposed to threats or losses” (Ntoumanis et al., 2009, p. 255)

Conversely, however, most scholars have traditionally focused on the effects of positive coach experiences rather than negative ones. Raabe and his cohorts have noted that cultivating circumstances that positively contribute to coaches’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior is much easier said than done, literally. Other aspects of the study include the strong work ethic versus workaholism concept, and the effect that daily interactions can have on coaches (particularly relationships between assistants and their head coaches). 

Just over 1,000 NCAA Division I coaches (about 60% male and 40% female) participated in the research (online survey). This sample consists of about 35% head coaches, 12% associate head coaches, and 53% assistant coaches working within a wide variety of sports. 

Raabe’s findings suggest that compared to coaches in different settings, those in NCAA Division I appear to feel particularly effective in completing the responsibilities of their job and meeting the respective expectations, but they may not perceive as much of a connection with other people in their sport environment. 

It was also reported that coaches indicated high levels of perfectionistic strivings and focus on the desire for competitive excellence than worries about failing to reach those standards. These strivings were particularly associated with the level of competence the coaches perceived. 

Although a strong work ethic can be considered desirable among coaches, it is important to distinguish a constructive attitude from possible workaholism. Many coaches in this study reported working compulsively and excessively—indicating workaholic tendencies—fairly frequently, and at a slightly higher level than in some of the previous research assessing workaholism in athletic department employees. These tendencies to work beyond what can reasonably be expected is significantly associated with their perceived autonomy and competence; specifically, the more their sense of autonomy and competence are frustrated, the more excessively they tend to work.

This knowledge can offer a foundation that can cultivate coaches’ abilities to cope with the challenges, experience well-being, and perform at a high level. Without this focus on psychological functioning, it becomes more difficult for coaches (and therefore players) to perform optimally. In fact, only when “sport organizations care for the motivation and well-being of high-performance coaches, then this increases the probability of coaches staying longer in their jobs, adding important experiences and skills…and provide them with necessary energy to be excellent coaches” (Bentzen et al., 2016b, p. 10).

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