Why coaches should give players choices: Communication research on coaching youth athletes
Posted by Dean Holden at March 13th, 2013
by Drew Lipsky, 4 July 2013
Note: This is the 3rd installment in a 4-part series on coaching youth athletes.
To make the NFL, great players such as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots or Aaron Rodgers of the Packers obviously needed a great deal of God-given talent. But, they may not have reached their full potential without effective coaching starting from a young age. So how should coaches of youth athletes teach and interact with their players to maximize their potential and put them in the best position to succeed? Read on to see what research has shown in the third part of this four part series on coaching youth athletes (Part 1: Introduction, Part 2: How Not to Coach).
If coaches are to help players improve, how can they do so without criticizing the players when they make mistakes? The answer is simple: through correcting the players without criticizing them. An oft-forgotten downside of communicating mistakes to players through criticism is that criticism fails to provide the person being criticized with feedback on how they can improve. Simply telling someone they are doing something wrong neglects to inform him or her on what the correct alternative is. By communicating to players by correcting them rather than criticizing them, coaches can better help the young athletes learn the correct techniques or methods to play the game the right way.
Moreover, the logical connection of avoiding criticism and instead using correction is that children are more likely to enjoy playing the sport and to continue participating in it. One study of children’s reactions to different coaching communication techniques showed that children with low self-esteem responded most positively to coaches that were encouraging and supportive and least positively to blunt or hostile coaching communication behaviors. The results also showed that players on teams with the highest-rated coaches in the encouraging and supportive categories rated their experience as more enjoyable than players coached by coaches exhibiting less of those traits did.
Thus far, only coaching communication techniques used after a player makes a mistake have been discussed. However, coaching communication involves much more than just correcting players after they make mistakes. Through communication coaches must also accomplish objectives such as motivating the team, devising strategies and team goals, and attempting to make playing the sport fun for the youth athletes. Coaches need to consider techniques outside of the realm of correction for these areas of coaching communication.
To better communicate in these contexts, coaches should adopt a communication style called the “autonomy supportive” communication technique that previously rarely has been used outside of classroom teaching situations. Research has consistently shown that using the autonomy supportive communication style, or fostering choice and giving children room to grow rather than giving inflexible instructions, is the most effective way to teach. When children are constantly communicated strict directions by teachers, they are more likely to doubt their own abilities and feel hostile towards their teacher. On the flipside, when teachers communicate choices to children in the classroom, the children become more independent, responsible, and most importantly motivated to see their choice lead to success.
This research on the autonomy supportive communication technique for teaching can easily be adapted to youth sports coaches, who are nothing more than teachers of the game. For example, instead of a basketball coach telling a player which play to run, he should communicate to the player the choice of three plays to pick from. This allows the player to assess the situation on the court and choose which alternative he thinks will work the best based on what he sees. Even if the play he chooses does not work, the player will have gained experience on reading the defense and will be more skilled at independent making decisions on plays in the future. More importantly, when coaches communicate to players choices on things ranging from strategy to team goals to uses of practice time, the players feel as though their opinions matter and are valued. As often as possible, coaches should communicate choices to youth athletes as opposed to giving inflexible directions.
Outside of the previously mentioned positives of utilizing autonomy supportive communication, the implications of coaches fostering choice in youth athletes can have an even more important impact on the motivation of the athletes. Studies show that when teachers use autonomy supportive communication, the learners are “motivated to internalize the regulation of important activities,” meaning the learner takes on more responsibility in the learning process since he or she feels more independent and powerful, and in the process the learner has a stronger motivation to master the skill.
Thus, when taught by a teacher or coach who uses autonomy supportive communication, the learner is more likely to be motivated intrinsically. Intrinsic motivation means that the athlete is driven to succeed because of personal goals, not for outside reasons such as to please observers or to avoid being admonished by a coach. It makes sense then that athletes who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to seek to improve and more willing to put forth effort to achieve said improvement than extrinsically motivated athletes. Therefore, coaches of youth athletes are not only fostering choice by using the autonomy supportive technique but also fostering the ever-important intrinsic motivation in the youth athletes.
Check back soon for the final installment in this series on coaching youth athletes.