By Josh Fletcher
Adolescence is an important stage for developing both athletic foundations and life skills (Hansen, Larson & Dworkin, 2003). Literature supports the notion that sports coaches can have a positive impact upon youth development. This can encompass development of physical and sport specific skills as well as morals and values that can be transferred outside the sporting arena (Gould & Carson., 2008; Jones & Lavallee., 2008; Larson., 2000; Watson, Cannolea & Kadushina., 2011).
It has been suggested in the literature that encouraging the development of life skills as part of coaching could improve performance through increased application in training, developing confidence and building communication skills (Gould & Carson, 2008). Life skills incorporates a vast array of concepts and to consider them all would be beyond the scope of this essay, it will therefore focus on the strength & conditioning (S&C) coach’s role in fostering feelings of self-worth amongst adolescent athletes. Self-worth is considered to be a synonym of self-esteem which is defined by psychologists as the evaluative aspect of one’s self-concept (Bee & Boyd, 2007). Researchers generally agree that it is adaptive for individuals to have a positive sense of self (Carlson, Martin & Buskist, 2004) and there is interest in the field of S & C around the relationships between coaching, self-worth of athletes and performance. This essay will seek to review current literature and consider professional experience in order to make practical recommendations for the S&C coach with a view to improving self-worth and therefore athletic performance.
Literature and experience suggest that adolescent athletes regard the coach as a role model and figure of authority (Conroy & Coatsworth., 2004; Cote & Fraser-Thomas., 2009; Kane, Marks, Zaccaro & Blair., 1996; Langan, Blake & Lonsdale., 2012). Long term relationships and regular contact mean that the S&C coach is ideally placed and responsible for nurturing life skills and in particular self-worth. This is reflected by findings by Vella, Oades & Crowe (2011) that youth coaches and athletes share the belief that the coach is responsible for the athletes’ overall sense of positive self-worth. The personal benefits to the athletes as a result of improved self-worth are numerous (Haugen, Säfvenbom & Ommundsen, 2011) however; nurturing self-worth also has the potential to improve performance (Gould, Collins, Lauer & Chung, 2007a) which is the main outcome goal of S&C coaching.
Studies suggest that self-worth is not merely a by-product of participation but an area that needs targeting and nurturing (Gould & Carson, 2008). Furthermore the impact on performance is likely to be greater if methods to improve self-worth are applied strategically. This was demonstrated in studies by Gould, Chung, Smith and White (2006a) and Gould et al. (2007a) who investigated coaches that prioritised life skills development as part of their coaching and found that all of the teams were highly successful. These studies highlight that developing self-worth in athletes requires both skill and consideration from the S&C coach. It is for this reason that practical guidelines will be presented for the S&C coach to enable them to engineer a learning environment which develops feelings of self-worth.
Despite supporting the notion that building self-worth should be a focus for coaches, the research identified varies considerably in terms of methodology used and therefore validity of findings. This means that a firm conclusion cannot be drawn about the role of S & C coaches in building self-worth in adolescents and how this links to athletic performance. The greatest flaw, however is the lack of research that directly addresses the question identified in this essay. This highlights the need for good quality studies in this field with potential for specific focus on elite adolescent athletes.
The research highlights this importance of two major focusses for the coach when attempting to build self-worth, the coach-athlete relationship and building self-confidence in the athlete. These points will be explored in the following paragraphs. Strong relationships between athlete and coach can build trust, mutual respect and rapport (Cote & Fraser-Thomas., 2009; Gilbert & Cote., 2009; Vella et al. 2011). In order to build a strong relationship it is vital to break down the barriers of fear and intimidation that can be associated with adult leaders by being approachable, compassionate and using open body language (Cote & Fraser-Thomas, 2009).
Literature suggests that coaches can build strong relationships and a positive training environment by using active listening and demonstrating interest and investment in development of adolescents beyond their roles as athletes (Cote & Fraser-Thomas, 2009). This encourages optimal engagement in the coaching process which allows greater potential for physical development in S&C sessions (Jones & Spooner, 2006). Therefore the ability of the S&C coach to build a connection with adolescent athletes can be considered a corner stone for developing self-worth.
Research suggests that the S&C coach can build self-worth by goal setting, focussing on process rather than outcome and creating leadership opportunities for athletes (Cote & Fraser-Thomas., 2009; Gearity & Murray., 2011; Gould & Carson., 2008). The coach can improve the athlete’s self-concept and their long term learning and skill development by involving them in programming and imparting responsibility and independence to the athlete to lead their programme as appropriate to their skill level and age (Dworkin, Larson & Hansen, 2003). This can be achieved by allowing the athlete to train independently, only providing coaching and guidance when required and encouraging athletes to make their own technical alterations in sessions. These techniques also allow the coach to instil in the athlete a confidence in their own knowledge (Martin, Dale & Jackson, 2001) whilst making them feel that they are a valued member of the team which is a key component of self-worth (Cote & Fraser-Thomas, 2009).
This essay has explored the importance of building self-worth in adolescent athletes. The literature reviewed suggests that improved self-worth can be beneficial to the adolescent on a personal level whilst also improving athletic performance (Gould & Carson, 2008). These findings point to the necessity of incorporating specific strategies into training sessions to build this vital aspect of self-concept and suggestions are given as to how to do this. The quality of literature in this field is highly varied and there is relatively little research addressing self-worth in sport. This highlights the need for good quality, reliable studies in the future.
About the author:
Josh Fletcher is an enthusiastic up and coming S&C coach currently working with a range of sports at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) in Manchester. Having graduated though an EIS internship he now works on a full time basis with GB Taekwondo, England Womens’ Rugby League, England Netball and a range of other sports. Josh was also the lead S&C coach for GB Water Polo for the 2 years prior to the London Olympic Games.