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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, Sacramento.

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," she says.

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 performance.

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.

More information is available by contacting the CSUS public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.


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