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A Pilot Test of Transformational Leadership Training for Sports Coaches: Impact on the Developmental Experiences of Adolescent Athletes

Stewart A. Vella, Lindsay G. Oades, and Trevor P. Crowe

The Big Idea 

This study continues the line of research by these authors into the stubborn problem of improving coach education programs. They believe that transformational leadership is a promising partial solution. Historically, transformational leadership and its modern extensions is an approach to create positive change in individuals and social systems. As a leadership concept it has been around since the late 1970s. Over time the approach has been used by government, the military, and corporations.

What helps this leadership model gain traction in youth sports is its link with positive youth development. These authors refer to other scholars who see positive youth development as a way for youngsters to function in the so-called “real world.” If helped to become agents of their own lives in spite of the chaos around them, children are more likely to work with well with others, improve cognitive skills, self-regulate their emotions, and become highly motivated to be goal-driven. When this vision is both clear and shared, setting up a transformational climate for coach education is a potentially inspiring undertaking.

Takeaways

  • Yes, many contemporary coach education programs are essentially preoccupied with techniques, tactics, drills, strategies, and high performance octane.
  • No, this is not the only way to help coaches coach successfully.
  • In this study we are presented with another alternative. It is called transformational leadership coach education.
  • In this paper the authors do an intervention study with two soccer clubs, both with nine teams, where one is largely left to itself to function normally (two seasons in 12 months). The intervention club includes transformational leadership for its coaches, also for 12 months, two seasons.
  • The intention is to see if the coaches with the transformational leadership program actually show those behaviours to their teams, but also whether or not their players show positive developmental outcomes in the course of the two seasons.
  • The upshot is that coach leadership training was associated with higher rates of perceived leadership behaviours when compared to baseline scores.
  • These increases were associated with higher rates of self-reported developmental experiences.
  • And finally, coach training resulted in predictability and reliability to athlete outcomes not evident in the comparison group (no coach training).

The Research

In this study the researchers aimed to create a pilot test of this transformational leadership training program for youth sport coaches on adolescent athletes’ perceptions of both transformational leadership and positive development experiences. There are many youth sport research studies that point to the coach/athlete/environment relationships as a predictor for athlete outcomes at both the individual and team level. The key components of positive transformational leadership coaching behaviour in this study are: appropriate role modeling; intellectual stimulation; individual consideration; inspirational motivation; fostering acceptance of group goals; and contingent behaviour (positive reinforcement).

What is unique in this study is the researchers’ decision to create an intervention. This means that they developed a pilot transformational leadership coach education program with a direct intention to produce an impact on the positive developmental experiences of young athletes. They had two questions for the study: 1) Will this leadership training program lead to higher rates of perceived transformational leadership coach behaviour? 2) Do higher rates of perceived coach transformational leadership behaviour lead to higher rates of positive youth development for the athletes?

To figure this out, the researchers gave all the coaches of one youth soccer club (called the Active Group) a transformational leadership program. They then used a second club (called the Comparison Group) whose coaches did not receive the leadership training. Each of the two clubs had nine teams and approximately the same number of players (116 and 127 respectively). They used two testing survey measures given to both Groups: Perceived Transformational Leadership Behaviour and Athletes’ Developmental Experiences. The measures were completed 12 months part, at the end of season one and at the end of season two. The Coach Transformational Leadership Training Program consisted of one group session two hours long. Monthly phone calls followed up the training during the entire sporting season. In the workshop they covered: athlete outcomes in youth sport; the idea of transformational leadership; common scenarios; goal setting; and ways to increase coaches’ self-awareness.

In the results report, both of the hypotheses in this study were partially supported. For the first hypothesis, the Active Group athletes did perceive higher rates of transformational leadership over baseline (following training), and higher also than the Comparison Group. The higher ratings from the Active Group) were reported in the areas of intellectual stimulation and role modeling. The second hypothesis was simply that higher rates of coach transformational leadership behaviours would be associated with higher rates of positive developmental experiences for athletes. Two of the five components were higher than baseline at the beginning of the study: cognitive skill and goal setting. The Comparison Group reported fewer positive development experiences at follow-up, namely in personal and social skills, goal setting, and initiative.

In their discussion, the researchers explain that these results do help us gain some idea of why and how it is that the research evidence consistently points to positive youth development in sport. In particular, there is an association between positive athlete outcomes and using a transformational leadership coaching education model. They point out that there is nothing inherently present in sport that guarantees positive youth development. Instead, they conclude that when coaches are appropriately trained to coach with an eye to positive youth development, they are more likely to see openings for teachable moments. Without such training, developmental outcomes for children are quite varied and at times even negative. Consequently, these researchers believe that this “real world” study with a large number coaches and athletes does add to the literature pointing the way to improving coach education by way of this transformational leadership model.