August 30, 2021


Psychology and Coaches’ Self-Awareness in Athlete Learning

By Álvaro Gonzalez and Xavier Damunt.

Coaches are also considered athletes. In the elite world, they are part of the show and cope with pressure as players do. In other categories, their role may not actually be that complicated if they train young athletes, although it is somewhat more special. This is because most of their players’ learning will depend on the coach’s performance, which will influence them throughout their career for better or worse. However, scientific studies on the coaches’ role and characteristics are not common. It is known that the psychological profile of athletes can be trained, but it is rare to find similar studies on coaches.

In 2017, a study conducted by the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science from the Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, examined the psychological attributes that any coach should have to effectively take their role in games. The paper was titled Exploring the Psychological Attributes Underpinning Elite Sports Coaching and was based on the premise that any study must come down to measurable and observable factors, which is in accordance with the scientific method. However, according to this paper, there were many imperceptible events that researchers could not notice in the coaching process.

Before, in the Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions study, it was noted that a coach may negatively influence athletes’ performance if they cannot cope with pressure correctly or block out distractions. Other aspects included poor communication, mood swings, overtraining or unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, the degree of confidence and friendliness towards coaches, good season planning, rational decision-making and feedback were also assessed. Coaches replied considering that the path to success was possible by remaining calm when working under pressure and by effectively reacting in crucial moments. Besides, they maintained that their goals would not be achieved if they did not know how to overcome crisis or deal with athletes’ stress.

In fact, in another study published in 2018 in the Journal of Sports Sciences, and through measurement of salivary cortisol concentration, it was found that the quality of the relationship between a coach and their players was directly related to performance. If both parts were close to each other, less exhaustion was reported.

The British study previously mentioned was carried out by assessing eight male coaches and four female coaches—all of them being elite professionals. The results were useful to state nine desirable psychological attributes for any coach.

Attitude: On the one hand, this attribute is based on having leadership skills, making tough decisions and being responsible for them. On the other hand, it is also based on focusing on the positives. All athletes will make mistakes, but there will always be a reason why. That is why it is not advisable to remind the players of their failure—they are already aware of it indeed. Again, focus should always be on identifying the reasons behind the mistake.

Confidence: This includes confident communication, “clear and safe” dialogues with athletes, trust in both their experience and knowledge and fearless decision-making —both in a real and figurative sense. Some coaches stated that if there was no confidence, they had to pretend the opposite since it is highly contagious.

Resilience: This involves overcoming setbacks, not taking things personally and dealing with criticism—the latter coming not only from journalists but also from members of sports or family organisations whose comments may include having “thick skin” or “broad shoulders”. Additionally, coaches considered that it was essential to persist despite setbacks, especially when the results were unfortunate.

Focus: This implies giving full attention to the next steps to take. The coaches who were interviewed agreed that if they got distracted, they were no longer focused on their athletes. Consequently, they would not be managing their role correctly.

Drive for personal development: This is based on being open-minded, having a strong desire for continuous learning and understanding that there is no perfect or know-it-all coach. When increasing their knowledge, coaches appreciated discussing with other colleagues but also learning from other sports.

Being athlete-centred: This includes understanding the athlete’s personality to suit their needs, and at the same time, helping them take responsibility for their training and development.

Emotional awareness: Being aware of athletes’ emotions imparts valuable information when coaches make decisions and formulate strategies.

Emotional understanding: This is about comprehending how emotions relate to one another as well as how they progress and change over time. However, the key is foreseeing them.

Emotional management: In other words, managing emotions in high pressure situations. Having the ability to remain calm and addressing adversity logically and consistently rather than emotionally.

In 2011, the Coaches’ Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature and Intent of Verbal Instructions to Athletes study looked at analysing how the orders that athletes received influenced them. At the end of the study, four coaches completed a questionnaire in which they were asked if they could recall the type of comments, they had made to athletes during the training session.

Most of them overestimated the times in which they had provided their athletes with positive feedback. They were also asked about the moment in which they had given their athletes instructions. Although coaches admitted doing it at the right time, collected data indicated that most of them had done it at the wrong time. This validated the thesis that Mageau and Vallerand had developed a few years ago in The Coach-Athlete Relationship: Motivational Model. According to them, coaches are not aware of their own control behaviour. Consequently, it is not easy for them to promote their athletes’ autonomy. This is common when feedback comes from their experience or belief, which means that they are not focused on their athletes’ experience. For example, giving instructions or information which always provide solutions to standard contexts and lead to pre-established actions.

This conclusion was particularly relevant since athletes generally perceive feedback and verbal instructions as a type of controlling behaviour, especially because the reasons excessively influencing this verbal behaviour—as shown in the experiment—had nothing to do with athletes; they were external indeed.

In 2006, in Systematic Observation of Elite Youth Football Coaches’ Behaviours: Instrument Development and Validation, G. Morgan pointed out that elite youth coaches had problems bearing their behaviour’s consequences. This result resembles that of the Performance During Performance: Using Goffman to Understand the Behaviours of Elite Youth Football Coaches During Games study, which stated that after observing a group of English elite youth coaches, they tended to take the role of a classic coach rather than to behave according to their players’ psychological needs. Besides, it demanded a greater sense of self-awareness among coaches.

During training, communication with the coach can only modify and encourage learning, so it must be carefully and correctly established. When an athlete is performing an action, obtaining information simultaneously may be confusing. If they focus on receiving instructions, their ability to intrinsically develop skills can be retained. Prescriptive orders or instructions during or prior to actions go against the perception-action cycle through which players collect information on their environment and make decisions to respond to their playing situation. If coaches have a considerable influence over their players, they might operate under an instruction-action cycle which might be detrimental to decision-making since it does not address game context. However, in experienced players, it is frequently reported that they do not carry out the ordered actions because their aware control of movement is just another constraint affecting this perception-action cycle. The convergence of all these constraints—including instructions—may facilitate an action which will lead to the coach’s orders not being taken.

Furthermore, there is scientific evidence demonstrating that those skills acquired after verbal behaviour and then under pressure are not correctly applied. Studies also suggest that there should be sufficient time to understand feedback on any given task. When players are overwhelmed, they can filter the information they receive—a process known as selective attention. Consequences include not profiting from or disrupting the learning process. If instructions are followed, players cannot experience their own feelings at the moment of making a movement or performing a task.

In this regard, besides providing positive feedback enhancing confidence and athletes’ autonomy, there are some recommendations to build coaches’ self-awareness and thus reinforce their verbal instructions at the right time.

  • Managing time when coaches give feedback during a session.
  • Making a report on the number of comments made during a session.
  • Giving athletes time to receive intrinsic information on their learning.
  • Making sure not to give instructions while performing an action.
  • Counting to ten and thinking about whether giving feedback is necessary or not.

In the first chapters of his essay Me gusta el fútbol (RBA, 2002), Johan Cruyff commented on what the youth coaches’ role should be. He was even in favour of children receiving training from young athletes, slightly older than them. However, he generally summarised all current scientific literature in a few passages.

“What is convenient is teaching kids how to enjoy, touch, create, invent and make the most of their attributes, overcoming their weaknesses but maintaining their strengths. This is actually the opposite of what everyone seems to be obsessed with. Since kids are already down-to-earth and they will be the first ones who will want to win (…), it is essential to have coaches spreading joy and love for art. They should not show those game aspects which are not that nice or involve more sacrifice but the brightest and most stimulating ones.”

Nowadays, this is a recurrent point of view and also a piece of advice which is virtually part of every recommendation list for coaches. For example, in the Soccer Drive database for training coaches in Anglo-Saxon football, it is noted that they must set their ego aside and not focus on victory but on the learning process—always as a part of an environment fostering fun in games. In 2016, after Johan Cruyff’s passing, Pep Guardiola’s take on what the world of sports could do in honour of Cruyff was not surprising. “Listen to him”, said Guardiola—one of his most outstanding students.



Exploring the psychological attributes underpinning elite sports coaching (International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, Laura Hodgson, Joanne Butt, Ian Maynard)

The Psychology of Sports Coaching: Research and Practice (Cap: High performance coaching: demands and development, S. Rynne)

Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions (Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Daniel Gould, Kristen Dieffenbach & Aaron Moffett)

Coaches’ Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature and Intent of Verbal Instructions to Athletes (International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, Sarah-Kate Millar, Anthony R.H. Oldham, Mick Donovan)

Performance during performance: using Goffman to understand the behaviours of elite youth football coaches during games (Sports Coaching Review, M. Partington & C.J. Cushion)

The psychological attributes of elite coaches





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