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The Psychology of Coaching

The good coach is described by LeUnes and Nation (1996) as having these characteristics:

-Knowledgeable. "All coaching is nothing more than teaching" and any teacher must be "knowledgeable about the activity being taught."

What are characteristics of the "good coach"?

–Methodical in the teaching of skills. All popular sports have been analyzed into component skills that, along with conditioning, are necessary precursors to expert performance. A good coach covers all the basics and does so in a logical, consistent way that builds up expertise in athletes.

–Expert in the proper application of positive reinforcement. Sport psych­ologists are unanimous in recom­mending timely positive reinforcement of athletes for desired behavior. More subtle factors include the good sense not to "lay it on too thick" or come across as manipulative or insincere.

–A good student. Coaches, like other professionals, must grow and improve by learning about new developments in the game.

–A motivator. LeUnes and Nation (1996) point out, "Successful coaches are successful wherever they go. Programs in the doldrums are continually given new life by coaches who have been success­ful elsewhere. The ability to motivate is part and parcel of this success formula."

How do some football coaches use secondary reinforcement?

Some coaches borrow directly from prin­ciples of behavioral psychology. For example, some coaches used stickers on football helmets as secondary reinforcers to acknowledge outstanding plays or performances. They become points of pride; a helmet full of stickers was an unmistakable sign of an outstanding player.

Helmet stickers reportedly started in the 1960s with Woody Hayes, who put little Buckeye stickers on the helmets of Ohio State players. The use of helmet stickers percolated down to the high school level, and some college coaches stopped using them (or never started). Fashions come and go in sports as in other areas of life.

What is "mentoring" by a coach?

Mentoring is crucial to motivation in teaching and coaching relationships of all varieties. A mentor is an older person who guides, in­spires, and supports a student. Fortunately, athletes are quite open about coaches who have this sort of impact upon them, so people hear about inspiring coaches.

Salminen and Liukkonen (1996) studied the "emotional atmosphere of training sessions." They asked 68 coaches to rate their own coaching styles, and they asked athletes who worked under the coaches to describe the coaches' behaviors. They also gathered data directly by attending training sessions.

In general, college-level coaches were accu­rate in their self-perceptions. Those who rated themselves high on the dimensions of "train­ing instruction" and "rewarding behavior" did engage in those behaviors more often.

They also "appeared to have more positive interactions with athletes." In a few cases, the coaches and athletes had different percep­tions of the coach's behavior. In those cases, independent observers found the coach's behavior more emotional and negative than the coach realized. This style produced less satisfaction among players.

What did Salminen and Liukkonen find out, in their study of coaching styles?

In the U.S., over 30 million children participate in sports, and most of them are coached by amateurs. Coaches who specialize in dealing with younger people may not be quite as insightful about their own behavior as college coaches.

Smith and Smoll (1997) studied youth coaches for two decades. They used an observational coding system so they could measure coaching behaviors during practices and games. They also measured psycho­social outcomes for the athletes, such as enjoyment, self-esteem, and how players felt about the coach.

The researchers found that the most popular coaches were the ones who used positive reinforcement, emphasized personal improve­ment over winning, and responded to mis­takes with encouragement and instruction. However, they also observed some patterns that had not been previously reported in the coaching literature:

–Although only 1.5% of the coaching behaviors observed were punitive or angry, they had a tremendous impact. Displays of anger were correlated more strongly (and negatively) with student's attitudes than any other variable.

–There was such a thing as too much praise. Both very low and very high levels of general encouragement were correlated with negative views of the coach.

–"Finally, we found that coaches were, for the most part, blissfully unaware of how they behaved." In almost all the behavioral categories measured, youth coaches were less accurate in rating themselves than the children they were coaching, when compared to ratings of independent observers. (p.47)

What did researchers find out about youth coaches, in two decades of research?

The last finding "clearly indicated the need to increase coaches' self-awareness," the researchers concluded. The mismatch between coach's self-perceptions and the perceptions of their players was found again in a 2014 study by Broodryk, Van Den Berg, Kruger, and Ellis (2014).

Coaches at the Puk Rugby Institute in South Africa were asked to fill out a "coaching efficacy scale" rating themselves on a variety of dimensions. Players filled out the same forms, evaluating their coaches.

The ratings differed greatly on all four dimensions measured by the scale. "Clubs need to be more aware of...players' per­ceptions," concluded the authors, especially with youth coaches lacking college or professional coaching experience.

Weinberg and Gould (1995) point out that not every athlete likes the same type of coach. Some prefer a coach who emphasizes training and instruction, giving specific help with technical skills rather than more general factors such as motivation. Others prefer a coach who emphasizes social support and motivation.

Some prefer the autocratic coach who tells athletes what to do. Others prefer the democratic type who involves the athletes in decision-making. Weinberg and Gould summarize the results of many research studies:

What are differences in preferred styles of coaching?

–Males tend to prefer an autocratic style more than do females. Females tend to prefer democratic and participatory coaching.

–Preference for social support such as empathy and understanding increases throughout high school and into college, then preference for an autocratic style increases, as athletes get older.

–Highly skilled athletes prefer a democratic style, emphasizing positive reinforcement.

–Athletes from the United States, Canada, and Britain do not differ in their coaching preferences. Japanese athletes prefer a more autocratic style.

–Athletes in highly interactive team sports tend to prefer an autocratic style, while athletes in individualized sports such as bowling or track and field tend to prefer a democratic style.

Most researchers agree on the characteristics of a good coach. A good coach will share passion about the sport. He or she will give specific and competent instruction on technical skills, and a good coach will stand ready to recognize and acknowledge positive gains by athletes.

The most highly regarded coaches are praised for more winning teams. They are perceived as "building character" in their athletes and helping them to become better people overall, not just better athletes.

Gould, Collins, Lauer, and Chung (2007) examined award winning high school coaches. "It was clear these coaches did not view the coaching of life skills as separate from their general coaching strategies." While winning was a top priority (the coaches had an average winning percentage of 76.6%) so was personal development of their players.

Kim, Bloom, and Bennie (2016) investigated "eight highly successful and experienced university coaches" and how they impacted first year players. The coaches were found to "create a supportive team environment" and be engaged in "building trusting relationships" with athletes.

What were characteristics of the most highly successful university coaches?

The coaches showed patience with their first-year athletes and encouraged leadership from senior athletes to help them and mentor them. These coaches also monitored academic progress and urged student athletes to use resources such as tutors and support programs.


Broodryk, R., Van Den Berg, P. H., Kruger, A., & Ellis, S. M. (2014) Comparing club level rugby coaches and players' perceptions of coaching effectiveness. African Journal for Physical Health, 20, 780-792.

Gould, D., Collins, K., Lauer, L., & Chung, Y. (2007) Coaching life skills through football: A study of award winning high school coaches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19. Retrieved from:

Kim, J., Bloom, G.A., & Bennie, A. (2016) Intercollegiate coaches' experiences and strategies for coaching first-year athletes. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, 8.. Retrieved from:

LeUnes, A.D., & Nation, J.R. (1996) Sport Psychology: An Introduction (2nd Ed.). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Salminen, S., & Liukkonen, J. (1996). Coach-athlete relationship and coaching behavior in training sessions. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 27, 59-67.

Smith, R.E. & Smoll, F.L. (1997) Coaching the coaches: Youth sports as a scientific and applied behavioral setting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6, 16-21.

Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (1995). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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