Coaching athletes to the top: Final thoughts on grassroots coaching communication
Posted by Dean Holden at March 14th, 2013
by Drew Lipsky, 4 July 2013
Note: This is the last installment in a 4-part series on coaching youth athletes.
To make the NFL, it takes a combination of innate talent, a tireless work ethic, and the “it” factor that guys like Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys possess. Although these qualities cannot be quantified easily, one factor that also is necessary is good coaching. Without proper coaching from a young age, a player’s development can be stunted and they may even quit the sport without knowing just how good they could have been had they received better coaching. Read on to see what research has shown in the fourth and final part of this series on coaching youth athletes (Part 1: Introduction, Part 2: How Not to Coach, Part 3: Creating Choices Is Essential).
The importance of intrinsic motivation in youth athletes is twofold. As stated in the previous section, intrinsic motivation leads to a stronger willingness to put in the hard work and long hours to improve, but it also leads to a higher likelihood of continued participation in the sport as compared to extrinsic motivation. When athletes are intrinsically motivated, they participate in sports simply for the enjoyment or satisfaction it provides them. For example, a young intrinsically motivated soccer player will want to learn new moves because of the pleasure they derive from mastering difficult skills.
No research has been done concerning autonomy supportive coaching communication and the effects it has specifically on youth athletes’ persistence in sports, but one study that looked at a Canadian competitive swimming club showed that autonomy supportive coaching can increase persistence in sports in adults. The 18-month study involved an intervention program in which coaches were trained to nurture more choice in their aspiring Olympic athletes and to be less restrictive. The results of the study were impressive: annual dropout rates dropped from 35% to 4.5% at the club while remaining around 35% at other swimming clubs that were monitored as control groups. Additionally, before the program was implemented, an average of 12.6 out of the 22 swimmers on the team showed up for practice; by the end of the program, 19.7 of the 22 swimmers came to practice on average. This study is powerful evidence to prove that autonomy supportive coaching causes athletes to be more likely to continue participating in the sport.
In summary, coaches of youth athletes need to reevaluate how they communicate with their players. For one thing, coaches should strive to avoid criticizing youth athletes, especially harshly. By changing the way they communicate with players after mistakes are made, coaches could have a decidedly positive impact on the development of the players athletically. Moreover, avoiding criticism will lower the probability that the players develop problems such as self-fulfilling prophecies, inferiority complexes, or other interpersonal troubles.
Arguably of even greater importance, coaches should make every effort to communicate to their players in ways that afford the youth athletes choices. By doing so, youth athletes will be more intrinsically motivated and as a result will want to continue to participate in sports. As mentioned previously, the benefits of participating in sports as a child are voluminous and valuable. It is imperative that every conceivable effort is made to get as many kids participating in sports as possible. While it may be impossible to say exactly how big of a role poor coaching communication plays in causing kids to quit sports, one thing is certain: if more coaches communicate to their youth athletes by correcting and by fostering choice, a sizable dent could be put into the current “70 percent by age 13” youth sports quit rate.