Reframe: Episode 58

The Profound Impact of Coaches

youth hockey

On this episode, we continue the conversation around youth sport. This time, by looking at the role that coaches play. And how their feedback and bias and expectations, can have an overwhelming impact the performance and development of so many young athletes.

Additional Music Used in this Episode:

Lee Rosevere - Under Suspicion
Lee Rosevere -  Swift Wind

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

On our last episode, we looked at how much the culture around youth sport has changed in recent years -- from the hyper-competitive pressure that’s pushing athletes to reach elite levels at younger and younger ages, to the way it’s become a big business that’s stripping away many of the ideals we once associated with sport in general. 

So on this episode, we continue this conversation. But this time, by looking at the role that coaches play. And how their feedback and bias and expectations, can have an overwhelming impact the performance and development of so many young athletes today.

(Music Fade)

Never underestimate the power of a coach to make an impact. Especially in youth sport, where coaches can influence young athletes in ways that can reach far beyond a single game, or even an entire season.

Coaches can make or break sport for children. And, they can also have a profound effect on their physical and psychosocial development.

Here’s Thelma Horn, Miami University professor of sport leadership and management, highlighting just how critical coaches can be, and how influential they quickly become

Thelma Horn:

What we found, from more of a developmental perspective, is parents or guardians or significant adults that have relationships with a child -- that's why it's usually a parent -- their feedback is the most critical up until about eight -- six seven eight. And then, if kids are involved in youth sports settings, gradually the coach’s feedback starts to become more important. And so, we would say, particularly between ages of like eight and 16 or 18, the coach becomes the primary figure. More important than the parents. And that starts at eight. But that increases in importance until kids get into high school. Their parent’s feedback isn't that important.

James Loy:

Thelma Horn has built a prolific career around the scientific study of youth sport. Her research focuses largely on coach feedback, the positive and negative role it plays, as well as just how central it is to most players.

It may be common knowledge to say that good coaching can help build confidence, character, persistence, and pride. But the expectations that coaches set, the biases they hold, and the feedback they give can also determine, accelerate, or completely derail the trajectory of entire athletic careers.

Feedback, in particular is so important is because for children youth in sport settings, coaches serve as a source of competence information. Because until they get to, maybe, 13, 14 or 15 years old, most adolescents are not really able to self-evaluate. So up until they get older, they rely heavy on others help them figure out their abilities and limitations.

Thelma Horn:

And so, adults become a very important source of competence information. And so, that's the importance of feedback. Because, as a parent, as a teacher, as a coach, the kind of feedback that I give kind of has a lasting influence. Because I'm basically telling them: Are you good at this sport? What can you do to get better? How do you fit in with your peers? And things like that. 

James Loy:

Research shows that the amount, type, content, and tone of coach feedback can alter how athletes will perform and develop, mentally and physically. And it can have a big impact not only on athletic performance, but also with on how athletes view themselves in relation to others. It can influence their attitudes and values, their motivation to improve, and even how they will continue to approach new challenges in the future.

(Segue to Q&A)

Dr. Horn, a large part of your research focuses on coach feedback, on both the positive and negative effects it can have, and how coaches can use it to become more effective. And you have four key recommendations for coaches. So could you summarize these four dimensions and talk a bit about what each one entails?

Thelma Horn:

Yeah. So I focus on feedback. And when I look at the last 40 years of research on coach’s feedback, especially in the youth sport setting, for me, the most critical maybe is the content of coach’s feedback. That's the first and primary key.

And, over the years, the research has consistently shown that we need to get positive feedback. But it also needs to be very informationally based. Because we can't get better unless we …. I mean, otherwise it's trial and error. So, if I'm learning a new skill trial-and-error. Fine. I'll get better. But it's much more efficient for me to get specific feedback. This is what you're doing wrong. Or, this is what you're doing right.

Then, the second component is the idea of giving feedback in an autonomy supportive way. Okay, because if I give you corrective feedback: “You're doing this wrong.” That's good. That's content. But I can say that in either a controlling way. Or, I can say that in an autonomy supportive way. And so, same feedback, okay. Because the content is critical. But it's how I say it. And so, if I give it a very controlling way, I yell at you. But I also, say, “I have told you over and over and over again.” Versus saying, “Okay, you seem to continually be missing that layup. Here's what we need to talk about.” And so, it's more the way I give the feedback.

And then, the third feedback looks a little bit more, again, at the way in which I'm evaluating their performance. And so, if I'm evaluating their performance in a very fixed way, like, “You keep missing that that free-throw because you're not really strong enough.” Versus, “You keep missing that free-throw because you don't extend your wrist.” Two totally different ideas with regard to their competencies. And so, the emphasis there on, again, providing process-oriented feedback. But creating this climate that anybody can get better. We call it a growth … a growth, or an incremental, mindset. Where they believe that if they work hard, they can achieve something. 

And then, the fourth is the stereotypes. And that's become a big issue in our field. Rightfully so. And so, that's why I included that. Because in the youth sports setting, there's still an awful lot of bias that goes on.

James Loy:

One of the things I found really interesting was you point out the difference between process praise and person praise. Now, it seems like on the surface, person praise, it seems like a good idea to point out how a player or an athlete is a really fast runner, or a great hitter, or they can really catch the ball. But you say it can backfire, correct?

Thelma Horn:

That’s exactly right.

James Loy:

So, what is the difference between person praise and process praise? And why is process praise better?

Thelma Horn:

Yeah. You know, two and three year olds -- I have a grandchild -- two and three year olds. We tell them, oh, you're such a big girl. Wow, big strong boy. And so, we use very much person praise, which is okay.

But once kids get to eight, or seven or eight, or whatever, then they begin to have some idea of peer comparison. And so, they see other kids being able to hit the ball beyond the infield. Well, they process that, and then they look at what you say, “Oh, you're such a big strong girl, you can really hit the ball hard.” And it's like, no, this isn't working for me. And so, the more we just give them process-oriented praise, the better off they're going to be. And so, again early childhood years, that that kind of person oriented praise may be okay. But the recommendation is we start with process oriented right from the start. It just provides them with the idea that being good at anything is malleable. I can get better.

Person focus praise basically says you either have it you don't. And that's the problem. And so, even if like at three, four and five, we're giving a lot of person oriented praise. We're not really giving them this idea that competence is learned. Or, you can be good at reading. You can be good at math.

James Loy:

So an example, like in baseball, if someone is getting a lot of base hits. You could say, “Wow, you’re such a great hitter.” Versus, process praise would be more like saying, “Wow, you have great eye contact and your balanced footing is really helping the follow-through of your swing and you are really making contact because of these great techniques. 

Thelma Horn:

That's exactly the distinguishing thing. And, again, part of problem in youth sports is we don't really know yet who's going to be an NBA person. Or, who's going to be in the WNBA. Or, who's going to reach the finals in the Olympics, or whatever. We don't really know. Kids are at such variable levels. And so, the most important thing, then, is to get across the idea of this incremental, like ability is achievable if you do these kinds of things.

And so, even if you are destined for the WNBA, you're destined for the Olympics, or whatever, you still need to have that growth mindset. You still need to believe that you have to work hard. And that's the problem, too, with kids who get all this person oriented praise, which often they get from their parents as well, they get to college, and they don't know. They really get stuck. Because they … all of a sudden, everybody else is just as good as them. Or maybe better. And I can't … I don't know how to adjust to that.

And, so from the get-go …. I actually … I used to do some youth sport parent kind of sessions, or whatever, and what I would always try to tell them is: Even if your child inherited this wonderful genetic potential to be a great athlete, pretend they're not. Pretend that they need to work like everybody else. Because that's the important mindset to get across. And when I was coaching college, we would see that.

We would recruit these … I’ll never forget. We recruited this woman. She was the MVP. State of Michigan in high school volleyball. And everybody wanted her. We got her. And she came in and the first year she could not adapt. And I, assistant coach, talked to her a lot. And she just said, everybody else is better than me. And she was so used to being the best player on the team that …. And so, I would say she did not have that growth mindset. Because she looked at it, well, I'm never going to be any good. As opposed to: When I started at high school, I had to work hard to be good. Start college, I’ve worked hard to be good at college too. So that's the importance of that growth mindset from the get-go.

(Transition Music)

James Loy:

This growth mindset, and whether or not athletes have it or how successfully they are able to develop it, can also be influenced by another phenomenon. It happens when coach expectations affect experiences, or when their biases and initial judgments dictate athletic development and achievement.

It is called the self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s another area of coaching that Thelma Horn studies.

Often, it forms a loop.

First, a coach forms an expectation, which influences their treatment of athletes, including the type and frequency of the feedback they receive. This can then affect athlete performance, rate of learning, their sense of self, and motivation - all of which tend to conform to the coach’s original expectations, which then, of course, only confirms coach’s belief that he or she made the right judgment call all along. 

And then the process repeats.

For coaches, this phenomenon can be tricky to navigate because forming initial expectations is part of the job. A good coach needs to evaluate players, assess their skills, identify strengths and weaknesses, and then form a game plan and appropriate practice drills according.

However, problems occur when these initial expectations are based on person cues, or on stereotypes, such as race, gender, height, weight, and body shape.

(Segue to Q&A)

So, Dr. Horn, the self-fulfilling prophecy seems to be connected to, in a way, to your fourth feedback recommendation, which, again is to create an environment free from bias and one that avoids stereotypes.

Because those biases and stereotypes can also take the form of these expectations that can lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy. So can you describe, in more detail, how this phenomenon occurs in youth sport?

Thelma Horn:

Yeah, we, as coaches or parents or teachers, or whatever, the problem always comes when we look at our kids, or we look at athletes, and we develop expectations. Or we evaluate them, especially like in the youth sports setting, like, my team comes in. Okay. First practice. I'm already assessing them. I mean, that's part of what we do in an achievement context, as a teacher. And you do have to do that. That's the thing. Developing those expectations is not necessarily wrong. Because when my team comes in, I need to look at them and see where they're at, and see what their weaker in, and see what their stronger in, or whatever. And then design my practices corresponding to that. 

The problem becomes, as I form these expectations, and I form them based on person cues. And so, color. Gender. Height. Body shape. I form them based on that. That's where the problem comes in. And then, the second problem is, when those expectations - I don't change them as I see things being different. I look back at my coaching career, especially when I was coaching in high school. Because I hadn't read all this stuff. But I look back, and it's like there were selected athletes that -- based on their body shape -- I’d be like, she's not going to be very fast. I'm gonna have to put her at the net. Because she's not gonna be able to move in the back row very. Well, then she surprised me and she's very fast. Okay. And I made that assumption based on body shape. But hopefully, my expectation, my initial expectation, is flexible. Because that’s the biggest thing.

We make these initial judgments, which we do need to do in order to develop practice plans, and whatever. But hopefully, when we get information to the contrary, We can change them. And we don't want to make those expectations based on person cues.   

James Loy:

I think one of the most interesting aspects of this part of your research is when you talk about high-expectancy vs low-expectancy players. And you write about how the self-fulfilling prophecy can influence coaches to put players into one of these two categories, which can really have some dramatic outcomes. You talk about how it can affect player’s performance and psychological growth, even the way they start to see the world.

Because when an athlete achieves success, for example, out in the field a high expectance player would say, well, that was because of my ability and, therefore, I am more likely to achieve success again in the future. Whereas a low expectancy player, even when they are successful, they attribute it to maybe the other team made a mistake, or maybe they just got lucky. So therefore, they are not likely to achieve similar success in the future. 

So can you talk about this high-expectancy vs low-expectancy? And It sounds like it can have some pretty profound and far reaching effects.

Thelma Horn:

It absolutely does. The research … This started out in education. And there's ways to document the size of the effect. And it's pretty big. Especially in like elementary school. And that's why we worry about it in youth sports. Because, okay, we know very well that there are college coaches that are gender stereotyped. And that are race stereotyped. And body shape stereotyped, and whatever. But our real concern is with the youth sport coaches because that can have profound effects.

Developmentally, that's why the course I teach, I think, is really important at the graduate level. Because developmentally kids are very vulnerable. Once they get past like 18, and they pretty much reach full physical growth, do coaches have an impact on them? Yes.

But the bigger impact may be during these developmental periods. And there are times, in the early adolescent years, kids are very developmentally vulnerable. Because, first of all, their bodies are changing. And then, also, their brains. The final phase of brain development is occurring. And so, again, they're extremely vulnerable to adult feedback. But, yeah, the expectations effect has been demonstrated to be pretty significant. 

James Loy:

What are some examples of high expectancy versus low expectancy, or maybe how coaches may not even realize that they are behaving in one way or another toward young athletes?

Thelma Horn:

I think one of the things that we see a lot in youth sports is: Kids mature at different rates. And so, there's late maturing kids, average, and early maturing kids. Now, in the school setting, that's not as important. Okay. But in the sports setting, it's huge. Because early maturing kids, from the get-go, I mean, almost maybe from conception, they're growing and developing faster. And so, if they are boys, they're gonna reach full physical maturation at like 16 years. Full. I mean, they're going to look like adults. For girls, they may reach that at thirteen or fourteen. Late maturing kids are kind of way the opposite. They're not going to reach full physical maturation until 22 or 24. Something like that.

There's a kid in Cincinnati, Jackson Haze, he just declared Pro. He didn't even start basketball until he was senior in high school, and he grew like seven inches in a very short period of time, typical, like, late mature. He was lucky in that he survived the system. But that's the problem. In the youth sport settings, starting already around eight, we separate kids into recreational and select. Okay. And the select kids - it's mostly early matures then that get to go. The late matures stay at the recreational level. And so, often they don't get the coaching. They don't get the opportunities. Early maturing kids get those opportunities that get put on those competitive, like, our elite teams.

But the problem is, sometimes, everybody else catches up to them. Because they reach full physical maturation early, and then they don't stand out as much as they did before. And so, those expectations that we have do have a big impact on what teams kids get assigned to. And, again, those aren't permanent. Okay. Because if I'm always going to be a short person. Okay. I'm not going to play post in basketball ever! But if I'm short right now, just because I'm a late mature, I'm not going to get the opportunities to develop those skills.

James Loy:

So even if it is beneficial in the beginning, or under certain circumstances, it can turn out bad. It can be detrimental.

Thelma Horn:

That’s exactly right. We see that in volleyball a lot. These tall kids like at 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. There are put at the net. And as long as they're good at hitting and blocking, people don't care if they can pass or set or play defense ,or whatever. The problem becomes the tallest they get are 5 foot 8, which is fine. 5 foot 8. But I'm probably not gonna play the net in Division 1 college volleyball. Because, 5 foot 8, unless I have a stupendous jump, I'm not gonna be competitive. Well, then, too bad I never learned to the back row skills. Because I have no other place to go.

(Transition Music)

James Loy:

So offering effective feedback, creating an environment that is free from bias, avoiding stereotypes, setting proper expectations that are flexible -- these are all factors that good coaches should keep in mind.

But there is one final consideration, or caveat, maybe, that you may be wondering about. What about those players who simply do have more natural talent? Those children who will inevitably be better athletes? Do we have to treat all children the same?

No, says Horn, we really don’t. Because there will always be differences among players. And that’s okay. 

Skill levels will vary. Progression rates will be uneven. Some players will want feedback that reduces their anxiety. While others will thrive on information that drives performance. And so on.

But, overall, she says, regardless of where players are or how well they currently perform, she does have two final important pieces of advice that all youth sort coaches can follow.

Thelma Horn:

I think you have to start out with the expectation that everybody can get better. Because I think a lot of coaches start out with the expectation, well, I’ve got some kids here who are pretty athletic, and some kids who are not athletic. That leads me then to believe that no matter what these kids do, they're probably not going to be any good. And so, if I just start out with the idea that everybody can learn -- that's that growth oriented mindset -- so everybody can learn, and everybody can improve, and everybody can able be able to exhibit these skills. So that's one thing, is I start out with that assumption that everybody can improve.

And then, I think the second thing is to make sure that it's my job to teach them these skills. And so, again, that leads to the idea that I'm going to structure practices in a way that they get better. A lot of coaches don't structure their practices to make sure everybody gets a chance to play. Like, a lot of their practices is structured so that the starting players get three quarters of the practice, and the subs just stand there. Shag balls. Whatever. So structure your practices so that every kid gets equal opportunities to learn. Give everybody feedback that's informational. Because, again, that just reflects the idea everybody can improve. They just need to get this kind of feedback.

And then, let the chips fall where they may. Some kids are going to develop and make the select teams and make high school teams. And others aren't. But as long as I don't predestine that, but I provide the opportunity for everybody to learn skills.

James Loy:

Thelma Horn is a Miami University professor of sport leadership and management.

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