Resident positive psychology expert, Lara Mossman discusses how to create positive sports environments for developing players. In this challenging article Lara discusses what role coaches can play in trying to apply positive psychology to their approach and whether traditional coach education has done enough to arm coaches with the right skills to do so.
Does positive youth development have a place in football coaching?
From coaching, parenting and players there is a growing interest in bringing learnings from positive psychology to the sports field. Before we talk about how to facilitate positive sports environments though, we need to address the issue of why we should do this in the first place. Should coaches even play a role in facilitating positive youth development? Should they build character in their young athletes as well as technical skills? After all, coaches are primarily (and in some cases solely) trained to impart knowledge that leads to game competence (e.g. learning new technical and tactical skills, game awareness and fitness), not psychological and social skills.
A 2011 study from University of Wollongong on the role of coaches in facilitating positive youth development offers insights into why coaches need to move beyond purely developing game competence in young athletes. The study provides an understanding of the challenges coaches face and the complexities of their role, such as:
- Helping players deal with frustration on the field
- Teaching players how to lose well
- Teaching players how to play in the right spirit, e.g. fair and not dirty
- Dealing with interpersonal issues on the team
- Teaching players to respect teammates, the opposition and officials and the importance of mutual respect
- Helping players with core life skills such as goal-setting, communication skills, leadership skills and interpersonal skills
- Ensuring that players enjoy their training and matches
- Building confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, self-belief and self-respect in young players
- Creating a culture that cultivates positive team morale, team harmony and team cohesion
- Teaching optimism, resilience, perseverance and forgiveness
In some instances, these issues were deemed by coaches as more important than dealing with technical aspects. They also relate strongly to key areas of research for positive psychology such as: character strengths, positive relationships, resilience, positive teams, positive emotions, engagement and flow. Character strengths include concepts such as fairness, social intelligence, perseverance, optimism, forgiveness, self-regulation, leadership, teamwork, bravery, creativity and love of learning. These can be used in unique ways to address the challenges coaches face. Therefore, positive psychology can provide a rich ground for coaches wishing to apply a solution-focused approach to complex individual and team issues. So, whether coach education provides training or not, some coaches do see themselves as playing a role in facilitating positive youth development. They want to build character in their young athletes as well as game competence skills.
If we accept there is a need for coaches to manage the psychological and social issues that arise in their teams, it raises the question as to whether this is too onerous a burden to place on them. Coaches, after all, only have limited time with their players and often coach education does not equip coaches with the skills required to navigate these issues. Adolescence is a complicated and sometimes vulnerable stage in a player’s development. Would it not best to leave such issues for parents and positive education programs within schools to deal with?
The current direction that positive psychology is taking points towards a whole systems approach. In other words, the education of character and wellbeing in young people should be addressed by whole communities, parents, schools and anyone involved in the lives of young people. Coaches are, therefore, part of the picture. They are, in a sense, role models for young players and should demonstrate the behaviours they desire in their young athletes through their own behaviours. They should also cultivate these behaviours in their players. Programs such as TOVO training do incorporate character building. The key is clearly defining what the desired behaviours are and the ways to develop them. How should this be approached though?
In an ideal world, the identification, development and nurturance of desired behaviours would occur through formalised training programs for coaches. Where coach education falls short of equipping coaches with these skills, initiatives such as the Player Development Project can provide a rich ground of ideas and strategies for coaches to implement. Evidence-based positive psychology literature, especially around positive education can also be useful. A cautionary note should be made though that the science in this field is emerging and not well established.
Coaches need to become conscientious consumers of the science. They should beware of pop psychology literature that is not supported by scientific evidence. The compliment sandwich would be an example of such practice, whereby feedback is given in positive-negative-positive fashion. A 2013 study in the Advances in Health Sciences Education journal bemoaned the lack of evidence to support this technique. The study indicated that students think feedback sandwiches positively impact future performances when in reality this can be quite the opposite. In a learning environment these sandwiches may even be harmful to students’ ability to critically self-assess their performance. It is prudent to approach any method that espouses ratios or generic formulas with caution. Building human strengths and potential is a person-specific and context-specific endeavour, not a one-size-fits-all venture. In essence this means that coaches need a nuanced understanding of what makes individual players tick.
Beyond written resources, coaches can seek advice from qualified sports psychologists (although admittedly this is not a feasible option for many outside of elite settings). Practitioners who holds a qualification in sports psychology and are registered as sports psychologists should be approached (this is not the same as a regular psychologist from a mental health background working with athletes). Some sports psychologists will run short courses for coaches that draw on positive psychology principles. When applying positive psychology to coaching settings, it is important for coaches to remember that they are not qualified to diagnose or treat mental health conditions in their young players; boundaries should be established.
With all of these points in mind, a coach can proceed in selecting areas to explore. The following list is a summary of some potentially fruitful areas to begin. It is acknowledged that many of these have their origins outside of positive psychology, but that the field has contributed to a scientific understanding of their effectiveness.
Where to Start:
- Start to build a language around strengths. Take the free VIA character strengths survey at https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register (a youth survey is also available). Reflect on how these strengths might help encourage positive behaviours on the sporting field and build performance. For example, forgiveness can be used when a team mate makes mistakes; perseverance can be promoted to remove a player’s focus from failure and mistakes.
- Explore the role of positive emotions. Positive emotions have been shown to broaden peripheral vision. Try building fun and enjoyment into training sessions. Observe whether this leads to any difference in the player’s decision making.
- Get curious about the role mindfulness in sport. Mindfulness plays a role in self-regulation, performance and attention. Phil Jackson’s book, Eleven Rings, is a great resource for anyone wishing to see how mindfulness can be used in a high performance setting. The book also promotes teamwork over individual brilliance. Mindfulness is also attributed to be part of the recent success of the Seattle Seahawks. See more here.
- Learn to write player development goals. Ensure that players always have clear player development goals. These goals should ideally be ones they are intrinsically motivated to achieve, rather than driven by extrinsic rewards such as money, fame, team selection. Clear feedback around these goals should also be given regularly. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness contains information on how to structure goals that we are likely to stick to and are more likely to increase our happiness.
- Explore the concept of flow with players. Help them identify when they are in ‘the zone’? When are their skills and challenge in balance? If the challenge is too great, players may experience anxiety, if it is not enough, they may experience apathy or boredom. When their skill and challenge is just right players may experience flow. Their action and awareness may merge, they’ll lose their sense of self, time may either speed up or slow down. This can lead to peak experiences.
No matter where a coach chooses to start, knowing why they are introducing any strategies aimed at addressing psychological or social issues is an important first step. Ensuring that chosen approaches are evidence-based as well as having clear outcomes and boundaries established is also key, especially in the absence of formalised training. Exploring positive psychology can be energising and lead to personal growth, but like an exotic flower its beauty should be regarded with healthy blend of curiosity and caution.
Martin, N. J. (2014). Keeping it fun in youth sport: What coaches should know and do. Strategies 27(5), 27-32
Vella, S., Oades, L., & Crowe, T. (2011). The role of the coach in facilitating positive youth development: Moving from theory to practice. Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 23(1), 33-48.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting The Life You Want [e-book]. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, c1999.