Better coaches teach character, not ego, to kids

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Underserved youth athletes benefit more when their coaches emphasize self-improvement and caring over competition.

Playing in an atmosphere that focuses on player self-improvement versus player competition creates a sense of teamwork and develops initiative, social skills, and a sense of identity, report the authors of the study from Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.

The study, led by Daniel Gould and Larry Lauer, is published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.


“The research adds to the growing body of knowledge that shows coaching actions and the team climates they create have important influences on the personal development of youth,” Gould says.

“Our data suggests if coaches want to develop life skills and character in youth, it is important to focus on player self-improvement more so than winning.”

The study surveyed 239 young urban athletes who completed the Youth Experiences Scale-2, which measures both positive and negative youth development experiences. The athletes, ages 10-19, came from underserved communities with a shortage of personal services and economic, cultural, or linguistic barriers.

They also completed a caring climate scale, a sport motivation climate scale, and measures of the importance their coaches place on psychosocial development.

The results clearly show that the more coaches create caring and task-oriented climates, the more likely important positive developmental gains will occur. Creating an “ego climate” was found to be the single most powerful predictor of negative youth experiences.

“Coaches should create a climate or atmosphere where kids feel cared about, valued, safe, and supported,” Gould says. “These positive things should occur while at the same time avoiding the creation of an ego-oriented climate focusing primary attention on comparing themselves to others.”

Conversely, creating an ego-oriented climate that focuses primarily on beating others was associated with negative developmental outcomes such as negative peer influences and inappropriate adult behaviors.

Coaches must balance the challenge of motivating players to be better with more important developmental goals, Lauer says. To achieve that balance, coaches need to accept positions in environments where they have support for their philosophy.

“If you want to focus on youth development and being positive, make sure you have your athletic director’s and principal’s backing,” he says. “Then, make this expectation clear from the beginning of the season with parents and players.”

Lauer adds that improving performance and character do not need to be mutually exclusive.

“By teaching players to be responsible, communicate, lead, and control their emotions, you will likely improve their performance,” he says. “Coaches always talk about performing and having good character; the two ideals can co-exist.”

Ryan Flett, a former doctoral student at MSU now with West Virginia University, also took part in the research.

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