PDP Lead Researcher James Vaughan and Research Associate Hanna Eggestrand explore the basic human values that shape coaching sessions and discuss some practical implications for coaches and clubs.

Behind everything we do in life, there is a why. Why do people hold certain attitudes and behave in certain ways? Research shows a consistent but often overlooked factor at play here: our values. Essentially, when you ask yourself “why do I coach?” or “why do I coach like that?”, the answer comes from what you value deep down.

Values are representations of what we believe is important in life and they are connected to our aspirations and motivation. In the most recent issue of Player Development Project Magazine, we discuss values theory (Schwartz, 1994, 2012) and its importance in relation to coaching. In this post, we’ll look at some practical implications and explore the ways values are spread within coaching sessions.

Even though values are not necessarily classified as good or bad, we argue that some values lead to better performance, healthier motivation and a recognition of social and environmental responsibility. In line with the research, we also recognise that strengthening one value means strengthening similar, compatible, values whilst suppressing opposing, incompatible, values – illustrated by the circumplex below (and described more here). Values next to each other on the circumplex strengthen each other, while opposite values suppress each other.

Values Circumplex, adapted from Schwartz 1994
Values Circumplex, adapted from Schwartz 1994

Since the aim of this post is to provide some food for thought rather than to explain all the ins and outs of the research, we’ll limit our discussion to some key value groups in the circumplex model above, keeping in mind that this is a simplification (e.g. Schwartz, 1994; Schwartz et al., 2012).

So, what does each group of values mean? The following definitions (in bold) are from Schwartz (2012). To be clear, we are not suggesting that these fairly simple definitions capture the complex and intricate ways we relate to and interpret values. The idea is to give you a broad sense of how each value group could be understood.

Self-direction: Independent thought and action – choosing, creating, exploring.

Exemplary values: Creativity, curiosity, freedom

To promote self-direction coaches should work with players to create a shared vision for the team on and off the pitch. Coaches demonstrating self-direction are willing to adapt, meet the changing needs of their players and respond to feedback. For example these coaches adapt (or sometimes throw out) their meticulously organised session plans to meet the needs of their players.

Using a constraints led approach is one way of framing a task with no one ‘right’ answer, allowing and encouraging players to think for themselves. You could even design adaptable sessions that players can progress by adding a rule or constraint of their choice. Coaches embodying self-direction values will be curious to see what solutions their players come up with. In turn, players showing self-direction will solve problems in an unexpected (potentially creative) ways.

Broadly speaking, the following questions can give you an idea about whether self-direction values are something you put forward in your session.

  1. Are your players willing to think for themselves and solve problems?
  2. When you ask your players a question, do they give a real answer or do they tell you what they think you want to hear?
  3. When you ask your players a question, are you interested in what they actually say or are you waiting for them to give what popular opinion might consider the right answer?

Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.

Exemplary values: Broad-minded, social justice, equality, protecting the environment

How can universalism values be embodied within a coaching session and club environment? There are of course some fairly straightforward measures that can be taken. For example, not tolerating name-calling and being aware of the language you use when talking about the opposition. Looking after the environment around you, not littering. As an example, do your players know why you’ve brought a Kleen Kanteen bottle instead of one made of plastic?

Going beyond on pitch behaviour, can your club and your players take an initiative to reach people of different socio-economic backgrounds and physical ability? This could for instance be in the form of a informal, open access kick-around for new arrivals in your community.

At an organisational level, are the different teams (girls, boys, women and men) getting equal funding? Are they fairly sharing the best pitches and the more favourable times to access these?

Demonstrating that you recognise the different competencies of people with a variety of backgrounds, sex, age and ethnicity could also add value to your organisation. Here’s an innovative example from AIK in Stockholm, Sweden.

Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact.

Exemplary values: Helpful, honest, forgiving

If universalism is ‘big picture thinking’ and concerns society at large, benevolence has to do with smooth group functioning (Schwartz, 2012). For this reason, benevolence is perhaps extra relevant to and directly present within a coaching session.

To start with, you need to think about whether you are designing sessions to build co-operation rather than just competition. Are you talking about team achievements or focusing on individual excellence or failure? Do you listen to all sides of the story leading up to the penalty?

Recognising that players will most likely perceive the situation differently (and listening to these different opinions) may demonstrate a form of benevolence in your coaching.

Moreover, consider whether you immediately accuse the opposition of a deliberate foul or presume that it was an accident and part of the game. Do we first check that someone is ok after a fall or do we assume they are faking?

Think about the way people talk to referees; do they talk to them as fellow humans that unavoidably make mistakes or are referees shamed and hated for their mistakes?

Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide.

Exemplary values: Humble, devout, accepting my portion in life

If you cannot explain why you are doing something for any other reason than that it is the way you have always done it, you are probably overly concerned with the tradition values. This can be problematic because the more concerned we are with tradition values the more we undermine self-direction values like creativity.

Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.

Exemplary values: Politeness, obedient, honouring parents and elders

Conformity is similar to benevolence in that it promotes cooperation and support (Schwartz, 2012), which is clearly desirable within a team environment and for society at large. However, conformity values encourage us to pursue relationships in order to avoid negative outcomes for ourselves, not because they are truly enjoyable or beneficial for others (Schwartz, 2012). For this reason, we would argue for conformity to be less desirable within a coaching session and in life in general.

Do you encourage your players to question norms in both discussions and actions? Do you question the way you do things? Are you always sticking to the rules or can you sometimes allow for exceptions?

Emphasising conformity and displaying controlling behaviours will come at the expense of self-direction and creativity. Conversely, encouraging creativity will likely diminish the perceived importance of tradition and conformity.

Finding the balance

A balance is crucial and values have been show to act like a seesaw: Too much emphasis placed on one end (tradition and conformity) and we never get any action at the other (self-direction, creativity).

In this post we’ve outlined how certain coach behaviours and attitudes may promote some values and limit the expression of others. However, this does not tell the full story. Every day players are exposed to values in many different contexts and sub cultures. The challenge is to bring balance and ensure our players don’t become overly concerned with some values, like tradition and conformity, at the expense of others, like self-direction.


Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are There Universal Aspects in the Structure and Contents of Human Values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19–45. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb01196.x

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1), 1–20.

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