J. Bartholomew, N. Ntoumanis, and C. Ntoumanis

The Big Idea

Let’s begin this research review with an illustration.  In sports, there is a difference between players who are merely involved and players who are fully committed.  (You will have to play along here.)  There is an old American illustration pointing out this difference, the difference between being involved and being committed.  Think of a ham and eggs breakfast.  You will notice a real difference between the contributions of the two barn animals.  The chicken is involved.  But the pig?  The pig is committed.

The illustration is useful in understanding the big idea of this research discussion.  The publication, from the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2009), is an implicit review of what positive youth development means in the coaching of sports.  And it has to do with how coaches can find themselves at some distance from the spirit of positive youth development.  In other words, we find here an important research document on how not to coach.  It is a tutorial on six ways a coach can negatively impact youngsters, and why these players may be involved in sport, but not positively committed to it.


  • Positive youth sport participation at its best is defined by children who are exercising self-determination and are motivated intrinsically.
  • Most coaches respect and promote these two values.
  • But there are many coaches who operate far and wide from these ideals.
  • These coaches typically can be identified when their coaching mantras are defined by one or more of six maladaptive and controlling strategies.
  • At their worst, the climate produced by way of these strategies can severely damage children’s self-worth, self-esteem, competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

The Research

At one time or another, most adolescent sports participants have come across a coach who lives by the adage, “My way or the highway!”  One of the darker aspects of sports participation is having to cope with a controlling coach.  Even if well-intentioned, coaches who use maladaptive strategies and techniques can indeed be a negative influence on the sporting experiences of youngsters.

This research paper shines light on six kinds of controlling (coercive) strategies some coaches use to pressure athletes to behave in ways that compromise youth autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  In the process, self-determined (volition and choice) motivation for sport participation is undermined.  And the psychological consequences for the young athlete are often serious: damaged self-esteem, anxiety, depression, overtraining, body image, eating disorders, and burnout.

Two coaching styles

Over the years researchers have identified two kinds of interpersonal coaching styles:  1) self-determined, and 2) controlling.  While both styles do result in athlete motivation, they differ on the extent to which the motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic.

The first coaching style supports and facilitates a positive youth sporting experience.  The coach extends an invitation.  The mark of a self-determined athlete is satisfaction.  That is, the athlete wants to be engaged in sport; endorses expressive opportunities in their sport; feels responsible for setting and achieving goals; willingly pursues athletic competence; and enjoys the social belongingness of the entire sporting experience.

The second coaching style designs and controls the youth sporting experience.  The coach gives orders.  The mark of a controlled athlete is compliance.  That is, the athlete’s locus of control is external; the sporting environment is largely coach-determined; pressure is imposed to satisfy the coach’s desires and expectations; and the social environment is essentially contrived.

In the social psychology literature of coaching behaviors, research on the first coaching style predominates.  Consequently, we know a good deal more about how to be a positively motivating coach.  But learning how to be a coach of the first sort also means learning how not to be a coach of the second sort.  Hence, these researchers are primarily concerned with helping improve the coaching profession by exposing six common controlling coaching strategies.  Given how little sport science researchers have attended to the negative side of coaching behaviors, the authors of this study also included parental and educational research literature.  And in their words, “each strategy has the potential to undermine athletes’ feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.”

How not to coach

  1. On using tangible rewards

Tangible rewards include extrinsic reinforcements such as money, gold stars, medals, and so on.  In most cases, inducing a preferred behavior by way of such rewards often is detrimental to intrinsic motivation.  This is especially so when rewards are expected or even become entitlements.

To the extent that extrinsic rewards become incentive for completing a certain task, or for meeting performance objectives, or for beating opponents, the young athlete can become less intrinsically motivated to play.  However, some research on motivation points out that if a player perceives their coach to be autocratic and controlling, the youngster demonstrates less intrinsic motivation.  In other words, it may not be the reward itself that undermines intrinsic motivation.  It may be the way in which the coach presents and uses the reward—if the reward is presented gratuitously or in a controlling manner.

  1. On controlling-feedback

In the coaching literature, the type of feedback given by a coach can influence a player’s perception of competence, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation.  Even positive feedback can be perceived as pressuring the athlete to change behavior by conveying expectations undermining a player’s feeling of autonomy (“Good job Mary but try to be more like Isla”).

Criticism and praise are complicated.  Both are capable of inspiring or killing off a player’s intrinsic motivation depending on how they are delivered or perceived.  Generally, it is known that critical feedback can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation, especially if that’s all the feedback the athlete hears.  Such criticisms not only impact negatively perceived motivation and competence, but also diminish enjoyment and effort.

  1. On excessive personal control

Much like what controlling parents do, a controlling coach can inhibit the normal psychological and emotional development of the young athlete.  This they do by way of forcing a value system on the child instead of allowing the child to grow into what is personally comfortable and meaningful.  A coach may become a positive role model but only if the child discovers the model.  Otherwise a coach becomes little more than a task master all too often resented by the young athlete.

If a coach tries to think for their athletes, the coach is likely never to find their athletes thinking with them.   Subtle controlling practices can induce in children low self-esteem, anger, and anxiety, such as “not letting children to work at their own pace, monopolizing the conversation, using orders, directives, and commands, asking controlling questions, and using deadline statements.”

In sport, both coaches and athletes do need to express strong levels of commitment.  But if a coach believes that his or her own self-worth and reputation depends on the performance of their athletes, then a pressurized and controlling climate often results.  A winning performance is not a winning coach if the win comes by way of driving their team by commands, demands, and reprimands.  At best such a team may be involved, but rarely committed.

  1. On intimidation behaviors

Let’s be clear on the maladaptive use of intimidation behaviors by coaches.  (Moving now from research-speak to common-speak): Listen up!  Bullying is not a preferred behavior for a coach.  Mean-coaching doesn’t work.  Yelling and screaming are counterproductive.  Verbal abuse is inexcusable.  Humiliating and belittling behaviors are never appropriate.  Physical punishment as a means is unjustified no matter the end.  You got that?

In research-speak: “Behaviors obtained via these compliance techniques are problematic in the sense that they occur in the absence of any internalization of the underlying values of the activity.”

Nothing positive comes from these coaching strategies.  The negatives from the player standpoint can be devastating: depression, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, loneliness, sport anxiety, isolation.  In the end, if these fear-based coaching behaviors are witnessed at any level and in any circumstances, it is player abuse, plain and simple.  Coaches relying on these intimidating “strategies” need rehabilitation if possible or removal if necessary—and no matter the “winning” record, no one wins.  Bullying kills hope.

  1. On promoting ego-involvement

Ego-involvement is a kind of impression management.  Instead of being focused on the task at hand, the athlete becomes preoccupied with the impression they make on others, whether teammates or a coach.  In sport the youngster evaluates his or her own competence or performance in reference to others instead of self-referenced criteria.

What happens in sport is that the child begins to judge their own self-worth in terms of how well they are performing.  Hence, self-esteem is constantly threatened.  If performance quality is equated with self-esteem, the child puts added pressure on themselves in the sport setting.  They see only the quality of their play as proof of their value.  The performance becomes the measure—maybe the only measure—of self-worth.

A coach who doesn’t understand this possibility, or who doesn’t care, is a coach who uses ego-involving environments.  These environments are heavy with competitive stress, public evaluations, normative comparisons, and externally-referenced criteria for success.  These competitive environments are extrinsic-based motivations.  Intrinsic motivation, so closely associated with genuine feelings of self-worth, is stymied.  In its place a young competitor is more susceptible to using perceived performance practices or aids to sustain quality play.  Such practices might become over time disordered eating or using performance aids such as steroids or drugs.

  1. On conditional regard

In the parental research literature, the phrase “conditional regard” refers to the provision of love, attention, and affection intermittently given or withdrawn.  If a child disregards a parent’s desired attributes or behaviors, the regard is withdrawn (negative regard); if a child complies, the regard is provided (positive regard).

The flip-flop of conditional regard promotes contingent self-esteem, compromises personal growth, and frustrates psychological health and well-being.  More specifically, a to-and-fro family life predicts: “shame and guilt after failure, poor coping skills, feelings of perceived parental disapproval, and feelings of resentment toward parents.”

There is little question conditional regard permeates the sporting world.  Far too many coaches use negative regard.  The young athlete loses a competition; the coach turns his back.  Or, the coach uses the guilt-trip: “You really let me down.”  These kinds of coaching maneuvers, whether withdrawing caring or shaming are apparently used to promote better performances.

But by using such negative messages, a coach can force players to withhold their own performance evaluation and opinion.  In the process of exclusion athletes are almost forced to give up their own autonomy in order to maintain an emotional bond with their coach.  Again, children suffer when their own self-worth is reduced to how well they do on the playing field.

Closing thought

What matters in the end is for positive youth sport to thrive for coaches and players and communities alike.  Its promise is based on mutual commitments to aspirations, inspirations, celebrations, and from time to time, revelations.

Above all, what it must be protected from is ignorance, exploitation, and cruelty.  To that end, maybe well worth remembering is the warning the theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, offered to future generations:

“One cannot in the nature of things Expect a little tree When turned into a club To put forth leaves.”

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