One person we probably spend most of our time with during our whole life as an active athlete, who knows us really well and therefore can also influences us in many ways, is our coach. They support us when we need it, they motivate us when we don’t know how to push ourselves, they might give us autonomy. But most importantly, they’re (hopefully) always there. It’s fact that through their social support, autonomy support and motivational climate they have an impact on our motivation, well-being and possibly even our performance.
The relationships between coaches and athletes are very unique, denoted by all the emotions, thoughts and behaviours that they share during competitions and training. The sport psychologist Jowett and her colleagues defined coach-athlete relationships with the “3C model”: closeness, commitment and complementary. When we feel emotionally close in our coach-athlete relationship we mutually trust, respect and appreciate each other. Being committed means we both share long-term athletic goals and working together. Complementarity is defined as working complementary and cooperative during training and competitions. As you might have already guessed, a positive relationship between coaches and athletes can have a positive impact on both the athletes’ performance, satisfaction and collective efficacy. Having a high self-efficacy is our belief in our abilities to complete a particular task or solve a future problem (Bandura). “Collective efficacy”, however, means that both the coaches’ and the athletes’ shared belief in their mutual abilities to solve a problem or complete a task. The 3Cs – such as commitment, closeness and complementary – have motivational, affective and behavioural impact. Athletes who reported a good relationship with their coaches in terms of closeness, commitment and complementarity, reported higher personal accomplishment, lower emotional and physical exhaustion, and diminished negative feelings toward their sport (less risk for burnout) than athletes who reported a negative relationship with their coaches. The athletes perception of a good cooperation with their coach and their intention to work together in the long-term also have an impact on their perception of their competencies.
Attachment leads to a modification of the athletes’ training efforts (like for example, avoiding excessive or insufficient training) in order to foster positive assessment by their coach. Athletes who experience trust, commitment, and complementarity with their coach, have a more positive attitude towards their sport.
Obviously, things don’t always go the way we want and some of us might have made negative experiences with their coaches, such as being given negative feedback regularly, no feedback at all or only very occasionally. Being given no structure and clear line by coaches can lead to the development of negative attitudes towards the coaches, further low perceived self-competence, higher anxiety levels or a reduction of motivation. In fact, a negative interaction between coaches and their athletes can even be a risk factor for developing burnout.
Luckily, I personally don’t know any athletes with burnout. Doesn’t mean, it doesn’t exist. What even is burnout exactly? Athletes with burnout suffer from emotional and physical exhaustion coming from psychosocial and physical demands associated with training and competing. They have a reduced sense of accomplishment, they feel inefficient and tend to evaluate themselves negatively when it comes to their sport performance and accomplishments. They devaluate sport, have a negative attitude towards and a lack of concern about their sport.
Low social support, high levels of control or low autonomy support by coaches are risk factors for burnout. Another influencing factor is the athletes’ perception of the coaching style. Perceptions of high pressure, high expectations, low social support and a lack of empathy from the coach, as well as conflict and dissatisfaction with the coaches are also associated with burnout. Other predictors for burnout are negative social interactions such as unwanted advice or intrusion, failure to provide help when requested, unsympathetic or insensitive behaviour, and rejection or neglect from individuals.
All in all, knowing how harming – on a personal and athletic level – burnout can be it is only wise to prevent it – and of course its risk factors. Both athletes and coaches are advised to actively reflect and consequently work on their relationship in order to make the best of it for both. Coaches are advised to regularly reflect their leadership behaviour and coach-athlete relationship – with or without professional support.