UW Today

This is an archived article.

March 8, 2007

Having fun, mastering skills outscore ‘winning at all costs’ for young athletes

Boys and girls who played basketball for coaches trained to emphasize personal improvement, giving maximum effort, having fun and supporting their teammates reported lower levels of sport anxiety compared with athletes playing for untrained coaches. Further, athletes playing for trained coaches showed positive changes in their personal achievement goals, according to a pair of companion studies by University of Washington sport psychologists.


The research is the first to show that a coaching intervention is as effective with girls as it is with boys, said Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll, the UW psychology professors who headed the project. In addition, the new studies also indicate that the positive effects of what they call a “Mastery Approach to Coaching” may extend beyond athletic arena and into the classroom.


The mastery approach was developed by the UW researchers as a way to promote positive and supportive communication between coaches and athletes. It was created to counteract what sport psychologists term an “ego climate” where success is defined as being better than others and the main goal is winning at all costs. The intervention was offered as a 75-minute educational workshop for these studies.


The UW researcher team compared the different coaching approaches by working with two separate youth basketball leagues in Seattle run by the Catholic Youth Organization and Seattle Parks and Recreation. More than 200 athletes 10 to 14 years of age and 37 coaches were involved in the studies. The number of boys slightly exceeded the girls.


All of the coaches in one of the leagues attended the mastery workshop prior to the season. Coaches in the other league were not given the intervention. All of the athletes were given a battery of questionnaires twice, 12 weeks apart. These tests included one that measured their level of competitive anxiety and another that charted their personal achievement goals in sports. The measures were administered the week before the coaches attended the mastery workshop and later near the end of the season when teams were still competing for spots in each league’s playoffs. A questionnaire measuring the athletes’ achievement goals in academics was also included in the second battery of tests.


The pre-season round of measures showed little difference among the two groups of athletes in their levels of anxiety or in their sports achievement goals. But 12 weeks later, it was a different story. Athletes playing under trained coaches reported decreased levels of physical anxiety (such as queasy stomach, feeling tense and tight muscles), mental anxiety (worrying about performing poorly) and concentration problems (inability to focus on what they were supposed to do while playing). In contrast, the level of anxiety increased for the athletes playing for the untrained coaches.


In addition, the athletic goals of the two groups of children were different. As the season progressed, girls and boys playing for the trained coaches were more likely to score higher on questions such as “I feel successful when I play as well as I can” while those playing for untrained coaches scored higher on questions such as “I feel successful when my team wins.”


Similarly, the mastery approach seemed to transfer to school, with the children who played for trained coaches placing more value on effort and doing one’s best in the classroom.


The program also reduced the dropout rate, a major problem in youth sports. Just 11 percent of the athletes playing for trained coaches quit during the basketball season compared to 26 percent from the other group of players.


“This is consistent with our previous research,” said Smith. “With an ego climate you lose youngsters who are not successful or very good at a sport because their coach tends to focus on the talented athletes. With the mastery approach more kids hang in there, even if the team is losing because personal improvement makes them feel successful… However, the effects we found can’t be attributed to winning or losing. We controlled for team won-lost records.”


“Winning is important,” added Smoll, “but coaches need to focus on other desirable aspects of sports. Winning will take care of itself if you adopt the mastery approach. Other studies have shown that it actually leads to more winning because it decreases anxiety and increases enjoyment.”


The two studies are being published this month in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology and the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. Co-author of the papers is Sean Cumming, a former UW research associate who is now at the University of Bath in England. The research was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.


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For more information, contact Smith at (206) 543-8817 or resmith@u.washington.edu  or Smoll at (206) 543-4612 or smoll@u.washington.edu