On a warm May evening in 1995, Christian Brinton and his high-school soccer teammates gathered for a half-time pep talk during the quarterfinals of the state tournament. Their team was losing, and their coach was not happy about it. Through the course of the half-time speech, their coach quickly escalated from being unhappy to outraged, punctuating his profanity-laced verbal assault by smashing his clipboard on the ground.
Completely uninspired, Brinton’s team went on to lose the game, and Brinton’s interest in soccer began to wane. Fortunately for the young freshman, Brinton didn’t crash out of youth sports altogether. In fact, the best possible antidote happened just two years later, when the now-rugby player found himself in a similar team meeting, this time with legendary coach Larry Gelwix (subject of the movie Forever Strong).
“Coach Gelwix felt sports were meant to lift rather than mar athletes,” recalls Brinton, a 2015 BYU Marriott alum in youth and family recreation. “He exuded a sense of love and concern for players that was absent in coaches I had previously encountered. Listening to him brought a renewed enthusiasm for sports.”
Playing for Gelwix and the Highland High School rugby team restored Brinton’s lost confidence and taught him things about character, love, and integrity that he had missed under previous coaches. Those motivational experiences with Gelwix—combined with his discouraging involvement with other youth coaches—inspired Brinton to investigate which coaching attributes and methods spark the maximum motivation for youth athletes to stay in the game. That research, which started as a graduate thesis and was coauthored by experience design and management professors Brian Hill and Peter Ward, was recently published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.
The researchers were not surprised to learn that players who are held to a high standard of performance and coached with love and understanding are more likely to perform better, play sports for more years, and enjoy playing more than those who play under tough-love coaches.
To the youth coaches out there
Every year more than forty million youth strap on shin guards, wiggle into helmets, or lace up cleats to play competitive sports in the United States. Some of the coaches leading those youth have years of experience and training, while others have no formal training at all and are perhaps coaching only because their children needed someone to volunteer.
What many of these youth coaches come to learn, but sometimes don’t fully grasp, is how their actions may influence their players’ life choices. Coaches’ expectations for their players, the relationships they build with their players, and the way they speak to them—in giving both encouragement and constructive criticism—all have measurable impact. Studies have shown that coaches often serve as more than just teachers of sports skills; they are teachers of life skills, and their lessons can remain with athletes throughout their lives.
“Certain characteristics of coaches have more of a long-term impact on youth and their desires to continue playing sports,” says Hill, who for nearly twenty years has taught courses at BYU on the role of recreation in strengthening families. “What you want to find as a coach is a magic combination that helps youth athletes develop the most intrinsic motivation to keep playing. That combination, we’ve learned, includes a high level of love and a high level of expectations.”
This style of coaching is derived from a type of parenting identified by famed clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in her foundational parenting typology research. Developed in 1966, Baumrind’s parenting typology describes three parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative.
In simple terms, permissive parents have low expectations but high responsiveness, meaning they are overly reactive to a child’s demands. (Spoiled kids, anyone?) Authoritarian parents have high expectations but low responsiveness, for more of a tough-love approach. And finally, authoritative parents have both high expectations and high responsiveness and show love toward their children.
It makes sense, then, that two of those three styles are equally ineffective when used in coaching. Coaches who use the authoritarian, tough-love style of coaching—often glamorized by NFL teams and some college-level teams—are usually yellers or screamers. They criticize players in front of their peers, use unkind or even obscene language, and put winning above all other priorities. Unfortunately, this type of coaching exists even at the elementary-school-aged level of youth athletics.
“There are better ways to motivate than through fear,” says Brinton, now general manager of indoor recreation at Provo Beach. “Love is always a stronger motivator than fear. But being loving does not mean being permissive or weak, as it is sometimes viewed.”
The game plan on paper
What Brinton, Hill, and Ward wanted to find through their research was whether there was a relationship between three key components: one, having a yeller (or non-yeller) coach; two, the number of years an adolescent athlete stays with a sport; and three, that athlete’s inner motivation to play. To see if anecdotal evidence held up under statistical analysis, the researchers surveyed 194 BYU students who had participated in either club or high-school-level sports for at least one year while in high school.
In setting up their study, Brinton, Hill, and Ward decided to marry the parenting typology work of Baumrind with something many other researchers have used to better understand the effect of coaching styles on athlete motivation: self-determination theory. Self-determination theory is the idea that there is a continuum of several levels of motivation, the highest of which is intrinsic motivation. To achieve this highest level, individuals need to be immersed in environments that meet three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (a feeling of connectedness to others, including caring for or being cared for by others).
Given that meeting the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness leads to intrinsic motivation for an athlete, the researchers set out to analyze what relationship—if any—that permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative coaching styles have with those three needs. “All coaches are trying to get the most out of their players, but we wanted to know if it’s possible for coaches to do that in a way that isn’t harsh or manipulative,” Hill says.
The answer was a clear yes.
As they predicted, there was a significant positive relationship between the ideal authoritative coaching style and two of the basic needs that lead to intrinsic motivation in athletes: autonomy and competence. In other words, coaches who have high expectations but also teach with a high level of love and responsiveness produce players who feel respected and listened to; those players also believe their skills have improved. Furthermore, the researchers found that those who have increased levels of competence are also more likely to continue to play sports.
As Hill thinks about the research, his mind harks back to the bestselling book The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. In the book, the Heath brothers talk about the bonds human beings make with each other and how important it is to be responsive to one another. The authors conclude that people need to feel understood, validated (that is, feel that what they are doing or saying is good), and cared about.
“Coaches need to pay attention to what matters to their players and let their players pursue their own goals,” Hill says. “Be the type of coach who asks players what they want to accomplish in life. These are simple things coaches can do to improve the experience for kids so they want to play throughout their lives.”
One legendary coach's outline for success
Jennifer Rockwood has been coaching the BYU women’s soccer team for the past twenty-three years. On her office wall hang plaques recognizing conference championships (fourteen total), coach of the year awards (five across three conferences), and NCAA tournament appearances (seventeen). Rockwood has produced twenty-two All-Americans, has reached the Sweet 16 five times and the Elite 8 twice, and is fourth in the NCAA in active winning percentage, having won 369 games over her career.
There are multiple reasons why Rockwood is one of the most decorated college soccer coaches in the nation, but according to her, the atmosphere she and her assistants strive to create for their players is near the top of the list.
“You have to provide players with a solid, safe environment where they know that they’re cared for and are more than just a soccer player,” says Rockwood, a graduate of BYU Marriott’s finance program. “Providing players with that safe environment allows them to develop. Part of developing athletes is pushing them to do more than they think they can do, but as a coach, you have to provide a setting that is safe for them to do that.”
Everything Rockwood says and does fits perfectly into the authoritative coaching profile Hill, Brinton, and Ward found to be the most effective, the style that includes setting high expectations but also providing caring, love, and high responsiveness. With a roster of more than two dozen players each year, walking that line is a tall task, especially when it comes to shaping athletes who have been coached differently through their youth years.
Rockwood says some players come to her having been coached in a more direct, vocal style, while others show up having been coached in a “rah-rah” style that is low on criticism and high on praise. The challenge for Rockwood is to figure out how each player needs to be coached in order to continue to experience success. Sometimes that means an increase of love, sometimes it means being a little more direct, and sometimes it means coaching an athlete just as she was coached before.
Rockwood—who is not a yeller, by the way—says keeping the environment safe and a player’s confidence and motivation strong are especially important when you know that some players, despite your best individual coaching efforts on their behalf, just won’t see the field as much as others. After all, you can only have eleven players on the field, and her full roster includes twenty-eight women.
“When you’re not a starter or playing significant minutes, it’s easy to think that a coach doesn’t care about you,” Rockwood says. “Coaches have to spend a lot of time making sure players understand they are a big part of what we are all doing, even when they aren’t on the field. Teams that do the best are those who buy into what is best for everyone.”
A positive movement for coaches
Brinton set out to study coaching styles because he wanted coaches to understand how limiting and potentially damaging authoritarian coaching can be—and how motivating and enabling authoritative coaching is. He hopes his research helps shift the culture of adolescent athletics from one often riddled with intimidation to one full of love and support. And although it is too early to say, Brinton thinks the movement has already kicked off.
“It feels like there is an increasing focus on seeing athletes as individuals rather than objects, and there is now a decent amount of research in the academic world about love-based styles of coaching,” he says, noting that his thesis has been downloaded more than a hundred times by people in more than fifty countries. “I hope people see the value of authoritative coaching as a method for building athletes and people.”
Brinton, Hill, and Ward also hope their research prompts parents to be more selective about the individuals they trust to coach their children.
For her part, Rockwood says there appear to be tangible improvements being made in youth soccer, which she follows closely. Part of that is because the growing popularity of the sport has also increased the amount of money available at the youth level. That, in turn, has increased the quality of coaching. Parents who are weekend coaches are giving way to more professional coaches, even for younger age groups. In addition, coaches are recognizing better ways to produce both wins and winning individuals.
“So much of a coach’s job is to remind players how good they are and what they’re capable of, while at the same time pushing those players more than they would naturally push themselves,” Rockwood says. “Coaches will always do this more effectively when they genuinely care for each player as a person.”
In the words of Larry Gelwix himself, “It’s not about building a championship team—it’s about building championship players.”
Article written by Todd Hollingshead
Photography by Bradley Slade
about the author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications office. A former journalist, Hollingshead holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications from BYU. He lives in Springville, Utah, with his wife, Natalie; their four children; and a dog and cat. The jury’s still out on how long the cat stays.