How Can Control Be a Positive Function in the Coaching Equation?

In Episode 37 of The Freshman Foundation Podcast (https://michaelvhuber.com/podcasts/), my guest is Laurence Halsted, who is a two-time Olympian fencer. Laurence spoke about his experiences as a young athlete in England. 

He glowingly spoke about his first fencing coach who provided him a great deal of autonomy to explore his sport. This led to a great deal of enjoyment and cultivated a true love for a sport that led Laurence to the highest level of athletics.

However, Laurence mentioned something that I’ve largely overlooked in my writings about positive coaching behaviors. “Sometimes, athletes also just want a bit of structure.” Hmm.

So much of the coaching literature talks about autonomy supportive behaviors versus controlling behaviors with autonomy supportive behaviors being highly preferred. Yet, Laurence is onto something. Athletes who are given full autonomy without any structure may not be exposed to the conditions to build the competence and relatedness required to create a “need supportive” environment.

Need supportive coaching has been characterized by combining autonomy support, structure, and relatedness support (Van Puyenbroeck, Stouten, & Vande Brock, 2018). In other words, effective coaches give athletes choices within certain confines that generate the conditions for positive teamwork. 

I haven’t given much thought to the role of structure in good coaching, but it makes sense. It would be like expecting a young soccer player to make it to the World Cup simply by juggling a soccer ball on his own. At some point, the player needs to learn tactics and teamwork within the team structure in order to get to that level. Coaching provides the framework to improve competency.

I think this sums up the importance of structure. “When coaches are highly structured, they support athletes’ skill development by creating a predictable, safe, and progress-oriented environment” (Reynders et al., 2020, p. 452). 

I love it. Effective coaches give young athletes a sense of choice and freedom, but also provide a clear structure that helps them feel like there is a positive return on their investment of time and energy. I’ve witnessed plenty of youth sport practices lacking in structure where you get the sense that the kids think it’s a waste of time.

However, as I continue to develop my understanding of (youth sport) coaching, I’ve come to realize how much that I don’t know. To this point, I’ve simply compared autonomy-supportive coaches to controlling coaches. Autonomy support? Good. Controlling? Bad. However, like most things in life, coaching isn’t that black and white.

I’ll use a personal story to illustrate. 

This past weekend I was helping to coach my daughter’s soccer game. Towards the end of what seemed to be a pretty good game for the girls, I noticed a lot of grumbling about playing time and substitutions despite what I perceived to be a very conscious effort by the head coaches to share playing time across the group. (I usually help keep time and manage the girls on the sideline.) 

As the final whistle blew on a 2-0 victory, I noticed a lot of unhappy faces on the bench. It ticked me off and after shaking hands, I asked the girls to sit down and listen up. I let them know in a pretty stern way that their complaints were unacceptable. The coaches did their best to get everyone on the field and their attention would have been better served by cheering on their teammates rather than complaining about playing time.

After the game, my daughter called me and said it was pretty funny that I “yelled” at the team. When I asked why, she said that I never yell. In that moment, I wondered whether I did the right thing by scolding them for their behavior even though the other coaches backed me up on it. Was I being the coach that I typically would frown upon?

It turns out that maybe my instincts were on-point according to the coaching research. Coaching can be evaluated on multiple dimensions and one way is comparing demanding coaching to domineering coaching. I had never thought about this distinction before reading about it. Demanding coaches “use a variety of strategies to correct athlete misbehavior and push the athlete toward desired behaviors” (Reynders et al., p. 453).

Demanding coaches target the behavior, not the person. Domineering coaches “exert power through the use of intimidation, guilt and anxiety induction, and personal attack” (Reynders et al., p. 453).

While both demanding and domineering coaches can attempt to control athletes through their behavior, demanding ones are doing it to shift behavior and not make a young athlete feel bad about themselves. 

Reflecting on my behavior this past weekend, I made it a point to reinforce the fact they played a great game after giving my little speech and making sure I smiled at them. I’m not sure all of the players appreciated the scolding, but I also feel as though I have shown them a tremendous amount of respect and trust as a coach up to this point to help put my disappointment in perspective. Like my daughter said, my behavior this weekend was out of character and it probably carried some weight with them (I hope…).

To bring it back to the beginning, providing young athletes with structure can include demanding certain behaviors from them. As a sport psychology professional, I believe that coaches’ demands should be focused on things athletes can control like their attitude and effort, rather than performance and results. Demanding specific results can induce anxiety and feel like a personal attack on the athlete ala the domineering coach.

Demanding a certain type of controllable behavior can motivate the athlete to do better going forward. Before doing the research for this post, I don’t think I would have equated any type of controlling behavior with being positive.

So, what can youth sports coaches (and parents) do to provide greater structure for their athletes?

Here are three suggestions:

  • Set clear expectations. Establish a clear understanding of the types of behavior that are acceptable and not acceptable at the start of the season. That way, it doesn’t seem as though demanding a certain type of behavior in a given moment is arbitrary.
  • Provide rationale. Explain to kids WHY a rule exists or WHY you are trying to correct the behavior rather than saying something like, “because I am the coach” or “because I said so.” Giving a rationale for your coaching behavior will help develop the trust and respect necessary for a positive, two-way relationship.
  • Have a plan. Failure to plan practices – and I have been guilty of this at times – can often lead to chaos or boredom. Kids, especially tweens and teens, go to practice to learn and get better while having fun. A well-structured practice with a developmentally appropriate duration (i.e., long enough to maintain focus) is a great way to keep kids motivated to practice hard.

If this article was helpful, then please share it with a friend.

Thank you for reading!

References

Reynders, B., Van Puyenbroeck, S., Ceulemans, E., Vansteenkiste, M., & Vande Broek, G. (2020). How do profiles of need-supportive and controlling coaching relate to team athletes’ motivational outcomes? A person-centered approach. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 42, 452-462.

Van Puyenbroeck, S., Stouten, J., & Vande Brock, G. (2018). Coaching is teamwork! The role of need-supportive coaching and the motivational climate in stimulating proactivity in volleyball teams. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(1), 319-328.

1 thought on “How Can Control Be a Positive Function in the Coaching Equation?”

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