The coach–athlete relationship is a unique interpersonal relationship characterized by mutually and interconnected thoughts, feelings, and emotions between an athlete and a coach. There are different types of coach–athlete relationships, including traditional coach–athlete dyads (the coach and athlete are not related in any way other than their coaching relationship), married coach– athlete dyads, and family coach–athlete dyads.
The coach–athlete relationship is of importance to both the athlete and the coach as an effective coach–athlete relationship is crucial to the achievement of successful performance and interpersonal satisfaction. For example, research has indicated the quality of the coach–athlete relationships can influence coaches’ passion for coaching, coaches’ motivation and the motivational climate they create, athletes’ perceptions of self-concept and self-esteem, levels of intrinsic motivation, and perceptions of performance. Further, the quality of the coach–athlete relationship can influence athletes’ perceptions of fear of failure, and the likelihood of burnout or drop-out.
Understanding Coach–Athlete Relationships
Initial research examining coach–athlete relationships almost exclusively focused upon utilizing models of leadership to illustrate how coaches’ behaviors and actions influence athletes’ actions and behaviors. Packinthan Chelladurai’s Multidimensional Model of Leadership is one theory that has been widely used to examine coach leadership and the subsequent influence it has upon athletes. This model consists of three aspects of coaching behavior: actual leader behavior, preferred leader behavior, and required leader behavior. Actual leader behavior incorporates the behaviors a coach displays based upon his experience, personality, and ability. Preferred behaviors are the behaviors that athletes would prefer the leader to display. Preferred behaviors can be influenced by various factors such as athlete’s age and gender. For example, younger or less experienced athletes may prefer higher levels of relationship oriented behaviors from coaches than older or more experienced athletes. Similarly, although research is not conclusive, male athletes may prefer more autocratic coach behaviors than female athletes. Required behaviors are behaviors that coaches employ due to environmental or situational constraints and demands. This model suggests that athletes’ performance and satisfaction are attributed to the degree of congruence among the three aspects of leader behavior.
Taking a relational perspective to examining coach–athlete relationships, Sophia Jowett developed the 3 + 1C model. This model proposes that effective coach–athlete relationships are characterized by four interrelated dimensions: closeness, commitment, complementarity, and coordination. Closeness accounts for the emotional aspect of the relationship. It refers to the interpersonal feelings between the coach and the athlete, and includes aspects such as trust, respect, and caring for each other. Commitment describes the cognitive component of the relationship and reflects the coach’s and athlete’s thoughts regarding their intentions to maintain a close athletic relationship over time. Complementarity refers to the behaviors part of the relationship. Complementarity reflects the coach’s and athlete’s cooperative interactions during training and competition. Finally, co-orientation accounts for the coach’s and athlete’s shared perspectives, which are developed as a result of open channels of communication. The quality of the relationship is influenced not only by how the coach and athlete directly perceive their relationship but also by how they believe each other perceive the connection.
Conflict in the Coach–Athlete Relationship
Conflict has been defined as experiencing discord between oneself and significant others. Two of the main reasons conflict arises between coaches and athletes are an incompatibility in the relationship and either party breaking the rules of the relationship. Incompatibility can arise within the coach–athlete relationship when differences emerge regarding goals, beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviors. For example, if a coach and an athlete are striving to achieve different goals there is potential for conflict to arise as each party is working toward a different outcome. Similarly, changes in circumstances may contribute to a coach or an athlete breaking the agreed upon rules of their relationship. Such rules are the expectations for behavior each party holds for the other party, themselves, and the overall relationship. Such conflict can arise or be enhanced if the relationship is lacking in terms of open, honest communication.
Coach–Athlete Relationships in Youth Sport
The coach–athlete relationship within youth sport is often complicated by the involvement of parents. When children begin to take part in sport, parents are often heavily involved and coaches play a more marginal role. However, as children progress in sport, they increasingly rely on their coach as more changes as parents assume a more background role. The changing roles between parents and coaches can be associated with conflict or power struggles. If such conflict arises, it can cause tension within the coach–athlete and parent–athlete relationship. Children can also become unhappy or distressed if they become caught in the conflict.