By Benjamin Snyder, Ph.D.
In the field of psychology, self-determination theory states that environments that promote autonomy, competence, and relatedness are necessary for the development of adaptive functioning and psychological growth. This means that individuals who are taught that they are in control of their own actions, are confident in their abilities, and have healthy connections within their social context typically have greater life satisfaction. These attributes can be fostered in many avenues in life, including participation in competitive athletics.
To demonstrate the connection between competitive sport and self-determination theory, a group of researchers published a study in the journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise that highlighted the developmental experiences of players in elite youth soccer programs. Within this study, the researchers were primarily focused on coaching behaviors that help players develop autonomy, competence, and social connectedness. Specifically, the researchers hypothesized that healthy player development would be enhanced by coaches who facilitate opportunities for player leadership, teach emotional regulation, promote team over individual goals, and promote a positive social environment. To test this hypothesis, the researchers surveyed 133 soccer players, ranging in age from 11-18 years (average age was 14.23 years). Results of the study supported the hypothesis, and showed that players overall life satisfaction, as defined by self-determination theory, was enhanced by coaching interactions that promote leadership, emotional regulation, goal setting, and positive player interactions.
While the above study specifically focused on elite soccer teams, the results can be easily generalized to other sports and highlight the responsibility of the coach beyond simply teaching the sport. Experiences in sport have impact on all areas of life. If autonomy, competence, and social connectedness are fostered in children and adolescents, these characteristics remain with the individual and are predictive of increased life satisfaction. Coaches in youth athletics need to recognize and embrace their role in youth development, and seek opportunities to promote a healthy environment for their teams. But, how is this achieved?
Initially, coaches should seek to develop relationships with each player. Player confidence is positively related to a feeling of connection and rapport with the coach. This relationship will also help the coach determine each player’s areas of strength, and will promote player leadership opportunities (such as player lead drills). Coaches should also include training in emotional regulation throughout practices. This may include drills or exercises intended to place players in difficult or unfair situations; such as 2 on 1 drills. Additionally, coaches focused team based goals help to create a sense of connectedness within the team that promotes an environment of social inclusion. This may be one of greater challenges facing coaches, however, due to the competitive nature of sport. Each player has individualized goals for performance, positioning, and playing time. Often, these goals may seem in contrast to the notion of team cohesion. It is incumbent upon the coach to help players develop and achieve their individual goals, while simultaneously focusing on the goals for the team. This can be achieved through practice activities and discussions that highlight the connection between individual performance and effort and team performance.
It is no doubt that effective coaching can have a positive impact on “on field” performance. However, there is far less discussion regarding the effects of coaching on life satisfaction that will translate outside the realm of sport. If coaches can also focus on developing autonomy, competence, and social relatedness, they will have a tremendous impact on life outside of sport as well.
For more information related to sports/performance psychology, please check out FPA Performance. FPA Performance is a subsidiary of Family Psychology Associates. Our psychologists use evidence-based treatments to deal with a wide variety of sport and performance-related issues including stress management, self-confidence, performance anxiety, team building, body image issues and more. Individual and group consultation services for athletes and performers of all ages are available. We have two offices in Trinity (727) 203-3770 and Safety Harbor (727) 725-8820 that can provide assistance in your area. Call us today to talk to our caring and compassionate staff to schedule an appointment.