In this article, resident positive psychology expert Lara Mossman looks at good character through a strengths lens, focussing specifically on two strengths, courage and caution, and looking at how these can be overused or underused in coaching.

We often hear calls for good character in our young football players, but what about our coaches? After all, coaches influence their players in a multitude of ways (Lorimer & Jowett, 2014). Viewed positively, they can be great role models for their players and leave a lasting legacy. Coaches should never underestimate the power they have in shaping their players’ youth sport experience. They can demonstrate that self-control can tame anger, that forgiveness can lead to team cohesion, and that leadership is about eliciting the best in others rather than controlling others. Good character is made up of a collection of personality traits. In positive psychology, these are defined as ‘character strengths’, and include such things as creativity, open-mindedness, teamwork, optimism and leadership. Individuals are high in some of these strengths and lower in others (Peterson, 2006).

Echoes Beyond the Game: The Lasting Power of a Coach’s Words – Changing the Game Project/TEDx

There is no magic formula for the character of a person (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004), let alone a coach, as by definition, character strengths are about individual differences that can help us to reach our fullest potential (Peterson, 2006). Coaches each have their own unique combinations of strengths, and by drawing on these they can role model good character in sport. But how can they discover what their own personal strengths are?

In positive psychology, there are three main measures, or surveys, that look at strengths. These are the Values in Action (VIA) Survey of Character Strengths, Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 and CAPP Strengths Profiler. These surveys can be taken online, and they generate a report listing an individual’s top strengths. Whilst there are differences in these surveys, there is general agreement that strengths are personality traits that have some genetic or naturally occurring components to them. Strengths are central to the idea of the pursuit of human excellence.

A strength in one area of a coach’s life would be present in other areas of that coach’s life, too. So, someone whose top strength was social intelligence would use it when coaching his players, when negotiating with his Technical Director and when spending time with his family. Although our top strengths are not likely to change much over time, we can develop specific strengths if we invest in them (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, & Lyubchik, 2016). The VIA is the only survey that can be taken for free, and the only one that specifically looks at character, rather than talents or skills (see “figure 1” below). It’s also the most widely researched measure in the academic literature.

 

While the VIA is the only strengths measure that specifically looks at character, it’s worth taking a quick look at strengths in general in sport. Given that our strengths appear across many domains of our lives, the surveys listed above should all tease out the strengths we draw on in our sports pursuits. However, specific research on strengths in sports is still in its infancy, so more evidence is required to support this.

Currently, there is an interest in the role that strengths can play in the mental skills training of athletes. The CAPP Strengths Profiler has been used in an attempt to develop mental toughness in male professional cricketers. Amongst athletes, this measure is seen to tap into performance more, because it is the only one that looks at weaknesses (Gordon & Gucciardi, 2011). Work has also been undertaken by applied sports psychology practitioners in the UK looking at super-strengths in elite sport (Ludlam, Butt, Bawden, Lindsay, & Maynard, 2016).

Over time, it is likely that well-researched strengths measures specific to sports contexts will be available based on research such as this. For now, however, we will take a look at strengths of character that are identified in the VIA survey, to see how character strengths might apply to coaching.

We’ll start with honesty as an example. A coach particularly high in honesty might value giving constructive feedback to her players, although she might also need to draw on kindness to temper her feedback so as not to be hurtful. A coach high in gratitude may embed rituals into his training, such as encouraging players to shake hands at the end of training sessions. Creativity is another strength. A creative coach might encourage players to try out new skills and tricks in training and match settings. A coach high in self-regulation might be fantastic at role modelling self-control to her players when faced with a string of seemingly unfair decisions by the referee.

Each coach will combine these strengths with other strengths, such as teamwork, humour, perseverance, fairness or leadership to create his or her own unique combination of strengths. A person’s top 5-7 strengths are often termed ‘signature strengths’. Coaches can use their signature strengths in their coaching and seek out novel ways to apply them.

It is possible, however, to overplay or underplay our strengths. Those familiar with Aristotle’s work on virtues may have come across the ‘Golden Mean’. This is where courage sits perfectly between the deficiency of cowardice and the excess of being overly rash. It speaks to the idea that strengths should be used in just the right amount, not too much, not too little. Coaches can ask how they might be underplaying or overplaying their top strengths. To explore this idea further, we will look at two specific strengths, courage and caution (prudence), to see how they might be underused and overused in coaching. We will do this by looking at relative age effect (RAE).

Relative age is defined as the age differences between athletes participating in the same annual age band (e.g., in Australia the selection year runs from January to December, whereas in the UK it runs from September to August). Relative age effect is where relatively older athletes (in relation to the selection cut-off date) have greater participation and performance advantages compared to relatively younger athletes.

These advantages, which are well documented, are thought to be due to coaches favouring relatively older players who tend to be bigger, faster and stronger than their younger counterparts (Hancock & Cote, 2014). Coaches know that these attributes will win them games in youth sports. This preference for older players is especially prevalent amongst boys’ teams, where squads can be dominated by players from the first two quarters of the selection year (Gonzalez-Villora, Pastor-Vicedo, & Cordente, 2015).

Is it possible that this preference for older players is driven by the overuse of the strength of caution in coaching? Does caution drive the decision to not take a risk on players who are less physically developed? Could an antidote to this possibly be dialling-up the strength of courage? After all, it takes courage to invest in the relatively younger players; to invest those who might not win the games in the short term. To persevere through loses, in spite of pressure from parents and clubs to win. Coaches can reflect on their own team selection and ask if they might need to dial-down courage and dial-up caution. They can also reflect on their other strengths to see if they might be overusing or underusing them.

As well as combining strengths, and choosing when to dial up or dial down a certain strength, we sometimes also need to weigh strengths up against each other, selecting the most appropriate one for a situation. This can be highlighted by thinking about caution and courage again, but this time with growth mindset. Growth mindset in sport is the belief that abilities can be developed. It’s a perspective that sees mistakes as learning opportunities. A growth mindset coach would allow his players to make mistakes, as mistakes would be framed as learning opportunities. Success for a growth mindset coach would be in learning and improving, not just in winning.

Growth mindset stands in contrast to fixed mindset, which subscribes to the view of talent that says, “you’ve either got it or you haven’t!” (Dweck, 2006). This perspective views mistakes as evidence of a lack of talent. In a match scenario, a fixed-mindset coach is likely to substitute a player immediately after he makes a mistake, which sends the message to the team that it’s not OK to make mistakes. Success for a fixed mindset coach is in winning alone. The fixed mindset coach may even pay less attention to the player and/or withdraw attention from him for his mistake. It is a controlling coaching style which has been linked to lower quality player motivation, lower wellbeing, and burnout (Amorose & Anderson-Butcher, 2015).

Armed with knowledge of fixed and growth mindsets, a coach may decide to strive to be a growth mindset coach. It’s one thing to desire a growth mindset though, and another to carry it out under pressure, when faced with setbacks. Sustaining a growth mindset during setbacks takes courage. It might mean the team copping a goal or two in order for the players to improve their defensive skills; short-term losses, but with vision towards long-term gains in player development. It could require standing up to club, parent or player expectations around winning.

In the face of setbacks, a growth mindset coach would need to pitch caution (giving into expectations) against courage (maintaining a growth mindset) and use her coaching wisdom to decide which one to draw on. Coaching with courage would mean she measures her worth, not by her wins or how well she develops her strongest players, but rather, by how she develops all of her players, regardless of results. It would mean re-defining success to be about breadth of development first and foremost.

Potential shifts in the coaching environment could take place then if coaches consciously choose to focus on their strengths. Coaches can think about how to use their top strengths; whether they are overusing or underusing any of their top strengths in their coaching; and when to choose certain strengths over others. This article has focused on courage and caution, but this thinking can be applied to all of the strengths. For example, what if the underuse of humour and playfulness are creating an environment for players that simply aren’t fun, potentially turning players off the sport in the long term? What if overuse of perseverance is leading to burnout?

 

Remember, too, though, that there will be strengths that hit the sweet spot. Perhaps the perfect amounts of teamwork and fairness are creating a team culture that is respectful and inclusive. Coaches can start by identifying their character strengths using the VIA survey. The survey will generate a report that list the 24 strengths in order. Coaches can then reflect on how they use these strengths in their coaching (the strengths-based coaching questions in “figure 2” below can be used to reflect on the application of strengths in coaching).

In reality, most coaches will be using their strengths in their coaching already. After all, they are their strengths. However, using the VIA measure to name them, and thinking about how to apply them, ultimately affords coaches more opportunities to role model good character to their players. Consciously questioning which strengths are influencing coaching behaviours, and which ones to draw on, will grow a coach’s strengths knowledge and use. Hopefully, a strengths-based approach to coaching might just shake the player development environment up for the players, too.

References

Amorose, A. J., & Anderson-Butcher, D. (2015). Exploring the independent and interactive effects of autonomy-supportive and controlling coaching behaviours on adolescent athletes’ motivation for sport. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4(3), 206-218. doi:10.1037/spy0000038

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Lyubchik, N. (2016). Psychological Strengths at Work. In L. Oades, M. Steger, A. Delle Fave & J. Passmore (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work (pp. 34-47). Somerset: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Incorporated.

Gonzalez-Villora, S., Pastor-Vicedo, J., & Cordente, D. (2015). Relative Age Effect in UEFA Championship Soccer Players. Journal Of Human Kinetics, 47(1), 237-248.

Gordon, S., & Gucciardi, D. F. (2011). A strengths-based approach to coaching mental toughness. Journal of sport psychology in action, 2(3), 143-155.

Hancock, D. J., & Cote, J. (2014). Birth Advantages, Social Agents, and Talent Development in Youth Sport. In A. R. Gomes, R. Resende, & A. Albuquerque (Eds.) Positive Human Functioning from a Multidimensional Perspective (vol. 3): Promoting High Performance. (pp. 15-32). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Lorimer, R., & Jowett, S. (2014). Coaches. In A. G. Papaioannou & D. Hackfort (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Sport and Exercise Psychology, 171-185. Abingdon: Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315880198. doi:10.4324/9781315880198

Ludlam, K. E., Butt, J., Bawden, M., Lindsay, P., & Maynard, I. W. (2016). A Strengths-Based Consultancy Approach in Elite Sport: Exploring Super-Strengths. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28(2), 216-233.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Strengths of character and Well-Being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. Oxford University Press, 137-164.

VIA Character Strengths. https://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register

Header Image: Yasar Kocal.