January 31, 2002
Research finds coaches can
bias athlete performance
When coaching athletes, what you believe
is what you get, says a researcher at California State University,
In several studies of college and high school player-coach
interactions, kinesiology and health science professor Gloria
Solomon found the level of feedback an athlete receives from
his or her coach does have an effect on athletic performance.
And head coaches gave significantly better feedback to athletes
they deemed "high expectancy" players, which led
to higher performance.
More surprisingly, Solomon learned that when athletes were
considered high-expectancy, it wasn't based on athletic ability
or athlete confidence. "The predictor of actual performance
was the coach's perception of the athlete's confidence,"
says Solomon, a certified sport psychology consultant who
has been both a coach and an athlete.
For several years she has been testing expectancy theory,
which looks at the effect of one person's expectations on
another's performance. "I wondered how some coaches could
bring out the best in athletes while others couldn't,"
Expectancy theory had been used in education, but Solomon
is the first to find relationship between expectancy and athletic
performance. Her findings have been published in several professional
journals, mostly recently in the International Journal
of Sports Psychology.
Another revelation came during a study that documented the
actual feedback coaches issued to athletes at practices. "When
you ask coaches to reflect on the feedback they've given,
they see themselves more positively than was the case,"
Solomon says. "The athletes, on the other hand, are very
accurate in remembering what was said. Coaches are a little
disconnected from what they say and what athletes pick up
on and remember."
There was also a tendency for coaches to form an opinion on
athlete confidence early and stick with it, creating a self-fulfilling
prophecy - the coach develops an initial impression of the
athlete's confidence, which affects feedback, which affects
The good news is that Solomon offers workshops to help coaches
change their expectancy tendencies. "We're trying to
circumvent behavior. It's amazing how many coaches weren't
aware of what they were doing," Solomon says. "The
hope is that knowing the phenomenon exists will cause them
to double-check their own behavior."
She encourages coaches to give equitable information to all
of their athletes and to be flexible. "When coaches develop
initial expectations, those first impressions last a long
time," she says. "I was startled to find once a
coach pegs a person - as high, medium or low expectancy -
their opinion won't change. That can limit the amount an athlete
can achieve. As an athlete, if the coach doesn't believe in
you it is very difficult to improve."
Solomon did see positive signs when she looked at interactions
between coaches and athletes in youth sport and between assistant
coaches and athletes in high school and college. There was
not the same type of difference in feedback that head coaches
had with high school and college athletes.
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