Coaching the Coaches

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Dramatic results have been obtained in a research program to study factors that enhance the benefit of sports for youngsters. The study has been conducted by UW psychology professors Ronald E. Smith and Frank L. Smoll over the past two decades. Methods developed by the researchers, incorporated into a set of guidelines and an educational program called the Coach Effectiveness Training (CET) program, reduced the dropout rate from a sport program in the Seattle region from 30-40%--the national average--to only 5%. And since the program was initiated, more than 11,000 youth sport coaches in Washington State and around the nation have been trained in the techniques.footnote 1

Many people automatically assume that playing sports is good for youngsters. But Smith and Smoll point out that although sports are firmly entrenched in our social and cultural milieu, their benefits are not necessarily guaranteed.

Sport programs provide children and youths with the opportunity to learn how to cope with important aspects of life. Through sports, youths compete and cooperate with others; they learn risk-taking and self-control; they deal with success and failure. Sport programs help shape character, teaching much about achievement and persistence in the face of adversity, for example. But critics charge that excessive physical and psychological demands are sometimes placed on young people by coaches and parents, creating excessive anxiety, or fear of failure. Smith and Smoll point out that most youngsters have their first sport experiences in programs staffed by volunteer coaches who lack formal training in creating a healthy psychological environment for youngsters. Such coaches may model their coaching style after the media image of the professional coach with a "winning is everything" philosophy.

The UW researchers designed a scientific study to investigate how specific coaching behaviors influenced athletes' attitudes toward their coach, toward themselves, and toward other aspects of sports. The results of the study were incorporated into a set of guidelines and a training program for coaches. In a second phase of the project, the researchers evaluated the effects of the training on coaches and compared the results to groups of coaches who did not receive the training.

Despite the fact that the average won-lost records were similar between the groups, the CET coaches were liked better and were rated as better teachers by their players than were nontrained coaches. And not only did the players like their teammates more, they showed significant increases in self-esteem, a reduction in sport performance anxiety, and most notably, they had more fun.

The guidelines emphasize a commitment to personal effort and skill improvement rather than a preoccupation with winning. CET coaches use a positive approach that includes reinforcement for effort as well as for performance, giving encouragement after mistakes, and giving technical instruction in an encouraging and supportive fashion. Moreover, coaches are urged to decrease punitive behaviors which produce stress and decrease enjoyment of sports.

CET has been adopted by one organization in the region as its coach certification program. Its principles also have been applied in high school, college, and professional staff development projects. "We believe they apply to a wide range of nonathletic leadership situations," write Smith and Smoll, who are planning further work on such extensions of the approach.

  1. "The Youth Sport Enrichment Project: Coaching Behaviors and Their Effects on Psychosocial Development," R. E. Smith and F. L Smoll, Dept. of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195.
  2. "Hey Coach!" The Columbian, April 28, 1994, p. B1.
  3. Information on providing educational workshops for youth coaches may be obtained from Frank L. Smoll, (206) 543-4612.

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