Creating the Caring Climate to Promote Sports Participation

In competitive athletics, caring appears to have a negative connotation. We are not looking for caring coaches, but competitive coaches who can advance a child’s athletic career. Caring tends to be associated with soft, and everyone knows that the tough teams win. Over and over, I witness coaches screaming at children for mistakes, while parents sit idly by in the stands, shaking their heads up and down because their son did make a bad turnover. 

Joe Keller was vilified in Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. I watched Keller coach, and I use that term with the loosest possible meaning, one game. Demetrius Walker, Keller’s famed prodigy, was an 8th grader and his team of southern California All-Stars was playing a local team from Sacramento in a tournament in Portland. Keller stalked the sideline, ranting and raving, yelling at players from his team and the other teams, and turning to talk trash to the crowd. I was astonished. At one point, with the game well in hand, he called a timeout, stormed on the court, grabbed a player around the shoulders and proceeded to scream at him for a bad pass or a missed screen. At another moment, as future UCLA forward Brandon Lane dribbled down court, he yelled at his player to “do him, take the ball from him, he can’t play with you.” When the Sacramento team’s coach, assisted by a California state-championship winning high-school coach, called timeout, Keller turned to the crowd and said, “Who does this guy think he is trying to coach with me?”

I looked around in the stands at the parents of these players on his team. I could not believe that anyone would allow their child to play for a guy like this. I was shocked, but not too surprised, as I had to hold back my assistant coach one time when we were coaching U9s because he wanted to go after the opposing coach who had screamed and belittled his own son so much that he was in tears on the sideline. This coach who had his son in tears is a well-respected AAU coach.

This is the environment that many appear to accept, tolerate, and even embrace. Caring is not an overwhelming concern for most parents caught up in the advancement of their child’s career. However, nothing about caring has to be uncompetitive. Caring includes “the ability to reduce anxiety, willingness to listen, rewarding good behavior, being a friend, and appropriate use of criticism” (Newton et al., 2007). The caring climate was defined as “the extent to which individuals perceive a particular setting to be interpersonally inviting, safe, supportive, and able to provide the experience of being valued and respected” (Newton et al., 2007). Is this climate uncompetitive? Would seeking a coach who creates such a climate negatively impact one’s athletic aspirations? Is such a climate soft?

Our first goal in youth sports should be to create an environment that maintains the child’s interest and enjoyment in the activity. According to Ryan and Deci, the more amateur the level of sport, the more likely it was that the motives for engaging in it were intrinsic. Therefore, young children begin to play with an intrinsic motivation – they participate for their own interest, enjoyment, and the inherent satisfaction from participating (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, a “controlling coaching climate, contingent reward motivators, and evaluative pressures are all environmental factors that are at serious risk for undermining sports participation” (Ryan & Deci, p. 4).

A caring climate, however, has been shown to correlate positively to a positive attitude toward the coach and teammates, caring behaviors, enjoyment, and commitment in youth soccer players (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010). Therefore, if the goal is to increase enjoyment and commitment to the sport, a caring climate has a positive effect on the goal. In terms of competitive aspirations, few players will ascend to a high level of sports participation if they do not enjoy the activity, and nobody excels without a commitment to the activity.

According to Fry and Gano-Overway (2010), a coach who emphasizes positive reinforcement, provides appropriate feedback and creates a task-involving climate is more more likely to have players who enjoy the experience and continue participation. A task-involving climate means that success is defined as improvement, value is placed on effort and learning, satisfaction comes from working hard, errors are part of the learning process, and evaluations are absolute and based on progress rather than normative to peers (Ames & Archer, 1988).

Caring is characterized by engrossment and motivational displacement (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010). One attends to the needs of others by listening and sympathizing. To create a safe, supportive environment, coaches should make every player feel important in some way. This involves talking to the player as a person, and not just a basketball player. It may involve giving lesser players a certain role to give them a feel of belonging with the team rather than feeling like an outcast or afterthought. This means that coaches need to set the tone for acceptable behavior and not allow any negative banter between players. Coaches must create a team where there is mutual trust and respect between coaches and players and players and players.

The easiest way to create this climate is to model it and set the expectations early. To model it, a coach can arrive early and give every player a high five as he or she arrives. While a simple gesture, this shows a sense of caring on the part of the coach. To set the expectations, a coach can discuss respect for others and the environment that he desires (demands).

When coaches scream and yell at players and leave them in tears, the players do not feel safe. This is not a learning experience in toughness or tough love. This is a poor environment for children. Instead, coaches should emphasize a safe, respectful, supportive for all players to enhance feelings of enjoyment and intentions to continue participation. Before a player can excel, he or she must enjoy the activity and commit to it. A caring climate increases these feelings.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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