Why coaches matter: Implications for mentoring


Editor’s Note: Ronald E. Smith and Frank L. Smoll are Professors of Psychology at the University of Washington and co-directors of the Youth Enrichment in Sports Project. The y-e-sports.com website contains descriptions of the coach and parent interventions and of their underlying scientific studies. Their book, Sports Psychology for Youth Coaches: Developing Champions in Youth and Life is a must-read for anyone interested in this important topic.

Why coaches matter: Implications for mentoring By Ronald E. Smith and Frank L. Smoll

Today, approximately 68 million children and youth between the ages of 6 and 16 participate in athletic programs in the United States. There is strong scientific evidence that an important determinant of youth sport outcomes (which are not always positive) lies in the relationship between coach and athlete, and that a relatively brief and economical educational intervention can enhance the experiences of both athletes and coaches alike. In our Youth Enrichment in Sport Project, we have done research over the past three decades to determine the effects of coaching behaviors on children. In one series of studies, trained observers coded more than 100,000 coaching behaviors during practices and games to create behavioral profiles of numerous coaches, then assessed the attitudes of their athletes after the season. Clear behavior-outcome relations emerged, and we then applied this information to create an evidence-based intervention for coaches

Because we know from our research the kind of sport environment that has the most positive effects on youngsters, we can communicate clear behavioral guidelines (coaching and parenting “do’s” and “don’t’s”) in a workshop format. In a series of experimental program evaluation studies, we and other sport psychologists have shown that our Mastery Approach to Coaching intervention (a) fosters positive coach-athlete relations and greater mutual respect. (b) increases the amount of fun that athletes experience; (c) creates greater team cohesion and a more supportive athletic setting; (d) promotes higher mastery-oriented achievement goals in sports and in school; (e) increases athletes’ self-esteem; (f) reduces performance-destroying anxiety and fear of failure; (g) decreases athlete dropout rates from approximately 30% to 5% regardless of won/lost records, and (h) has equally positive effects on male and female athletes. Consistently, we find that the coach-athlete relationship is far more important than winning records in determining children’s liking and desire to play for the coach in the future. Moreover, the 75-minute Mastery Approach workshops, far from being perceived as burdensome, are very well received by coaches who later report that applying the principles not only created a more enjoyable season for their athletes and themselves, but also positively influenced their own parenting practices. More recently, in an effort to get coaches and parents on the same page, we have developed a companion Mastery Approach program for parents of young athletes.

Given the success of these brief evidence-based interventions, we have entered the dissemination phase of our work. With the support of the William T. Grant Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting children’s welfare, we have transformed the coach and parent workshops into 60-minute DVDs and have recently published “how-to” books on the Mastery Approach to assist coaches and parents in promoting children’s growth through sports. Information on these materials is available on our project website (y-e-sports.com). We would be happy if every sport program in the country profited from what we have learned and produced.

We are convinced that any program disseminated to coaches and parents should have a sound scientific basis and evidence for its effectiveness. If we want sport participation to have its desired positive impact on the lives and development of young athletes, coach (and parent) education is not only feasible, but essential.


9 Comments on "Why coaches matter: Implications for mentoring"

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  1. Thanks for this wonderful Post. Every young athlete need info like this,keep the good work and continuing success in coaching young athletes!

  2. Anna says:

    It varies each month. If you go to our wesitbe and scroll over US Youth Soccer TV on the top right header, then click on the US Youth Soccer Show link you? will see all the times for? the coming month.

  3. Evan Cutler says:

    Thank you for a wonderfully relevant Research Corner blog post! I’ve worked as a part-time athletic coach in the sport of rowing for the better part of a decade. Your publication, Smith & Smoll (1997) in Current Directions in Psychological Science, continues to inspire me and guide how I coach adolescents as well as adults. I’ve also been able to take your core CET principles and apply them in pretty much any other structured setting where I’m working with groups. I’m thrilled to learn you have DVDs available and will be recommending that the organization I currently work for, Community Rowing, Inc(CRI) of Boston, MA, invest in some copies.

    • Frank Smoll says:

      Thank you for your positive feedback–much appreciated! As you will discover, the core CET principles and techniques have been adapted to fit the framework of achievement goal theory. This occurred in 2003 when we modified/updated the program and appropriately re-named it the Mastery Approach to Coaching. Like CET, the Mastery Approach workshop was scientifically validated in field experiments. Abstracts of the research articles (and journal references)are posted on our YESports website. At this point, some 26,000 coaches have participated in over 500 CET/Mastery Approach workshops conducted in the USA and Canada. Best wishes for continuing success in coaching young athletes!

  4. This is another fascinating article. I don’t know much about this topic, but to expand the conversation and reach, I have encouraged Positive Coaching Alliance to check out this article and site – think they might have some additional thoughts to add to it and more people to join the conversation.

    • Frank Smoll says:

      Thanks for your supportive comment and expression of interest in coaching education. As indicated in the blog, more comprehensive coverage of our work is posted on our Youth Enrichment in Sports website (y-e-sports.com). This includes (a) descriptions of our Mastery Approach training programs for coaches and parents, (b) video previews of the DVD versions of the programs, (c) abstracts of research articles on the efficacy of the programs, and (d) information about our books for coaches and parents that emanated from the research. Relative to PCA, please see my reply to Evan Cutler’s October 4 comment (posted below).

    • Evan Cutler says:

      I attended a Positive Coaching Alliance workshop for youth coaches this past year. The presenter offered some great advice and PCA has all their tools available free for anyone to download on their website, which is wonderful. However, I’m not sure how many of their findings are research-based, which for me is potentially troubling. As a coach, I would love to hear from PCA to get their input on the above conversation, and also to learn more about how they created and evaluated their own models. Thanks for reaching out to PCA!

      • Frank Smoll says:

        PCA has done a fantastic job of packaging and disseminating their program and materials. Kudos for that! Unfortunately, PCA has not taken a socially-responsible approach — one that includes providing sound evidence for the effectivness of its program. In essence, PCA is guilty of “putting the cart before the horse.” For many years, my colleague (Ron Smith) and I have encouraged PCA folks to empirically evaluate their program, which they have failed to do. PCA has good intentions and deserves credit for increasing awareness of the importance of coaching education. In regard to this, PCA has obtained endorsements/testimonials from well-known professional coaches and athletes. But PCA has absolutely no scientific evidence to support CLAIMS of the beneficial effects of its program. Rather than providing coaches with pseudo-education (armchair psychology), they deserve high-quality, evidence-based training.

        • Jean Rhodes says:

          Thanks Frank. Far too often, that’s the case. The approach that Professors Smith and Smoll take (The Mastery Approach to Coaching) really is a an exception. I’d encourage readers to visit their y-e-sports.com website but, in essence, they have focused on the micro interactions between coaches and young athletes, painstakingly coding nearly all of their behaviors, and identifying practices that increase players’ enjoyment, build their competence and keep them playing the sport. Their program rests on a very solid base of peer-reviewed research, and is one of the best examples of evidence-based practice.

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