How coaches can improve their well-being

Guide All Ages

Coaching researcher, Juliette Stebbings, investigates the issue of well-being for coaches and the impact on players and teams.

A significant portion of research within the sport context focuses on the player, and the stress, anxiety, and worries that they face.

Whilst this is clearly important, research is now starting to identify that coaches experience lots of stressors too (Olusoga et al., 2009). With the typical “blame the coach” culture evident in many sports, together with the current economic crisis and lack of funding, coaches often have to deal with worries about their job security.

Coaches can also feel that they do not have opportunities for professional development. They may not be able to attain further qualifications or gain experience working with older/more experienced players. The frequent long days, early mornings, weekend matches, and travelling away from home also means that coaches often have to sacrifice a lot of their personal time. This can result in an unhealthy work-life balance for a number of coaches, impacting negatively on their family commitments or other employment responsibilities.

How might these issues affect coaches?

Human needs

Research from many life domains has shown that we need three key things from our environment: (1) To feel competent (i.e. that we possess enough knowledge and experience to feel capable in what we are doing); (2) To feel autonomous (i.e. that we have the freedom to make decisions about what we do), and (3) To feel related (i.e. to experience a sense of belonging and connectedness with other people).

Sometimes, however, our needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are thwarted, or undermined, (for example, we are made to feel incompetent, we are pressured into doing things, or we feel rejected by other people).

We believe that coaches who experience a strong sense of job security, opportunities for professional development, and a healthy work-life balance, are more likely to experience satisfaction of their needs.

On the other hand, those coaches who lack job security, opportunities to develop, and experience work-life conflict, may feel that their needs are being undermined. The table below gives some examples as to how these issues may affect coaches’ sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

  Competence   Autonomy  Relatedness
Job security  Coaches with a strong sense of job security may feel that this is due to their skills and effectiveness as a coach. A secure position may allow coaches the freedom to go about their work as they wish. If coaches perceive a strong sense of job security from their employer or organisation, they may feel as if they belong within it. A lack of job security may make coaches feel rejected or not part of the organisation.
Opportunities for professional development Coaching courses may develop coaches’ practical knowledge. If coaches do not have access to such courses they may feel as if they cannot be a good coach. Developing skills and experience may lead coaches to value coaching as a profession to a greater extent. If coaches cannot see a clear pathway to progress, they may not value coaching as a profession. Coaching courses enable coaches to meet and engage with other coaches.
Work-life Balance A healthy work-life balance will allow coaches to put in enough time and energy into coaching. Conflicting demands for coaches’ time and energy, may lead coaches to feel as if they cannot perform to the best of their ability in their coaching role. If the demands of coaching impact upon coaches’ family life and other responsibilities, coaches may start to feel as if coaching ‘isn’t for them’, and value it less. If coaches do not experience a clear balance between coaching and their other responsibilities, this may impact negatively on coaches’ relationships with their players, employers and organisations.

Human needs and psychological well/ill-being

When we feel competent, autonomous, and related in our environment, we enjoy a sense of psychological wellbeing. To be psychologically well is to experience happiness, enjoyment, and other positive emotions in the coaching role. Psychological well-being also relates to a sense of vitality (positive energy), and a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential.

When our needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are undermined, this can lead to psychological ill-being. This is the experience of negative emotions such as frustration, nervousness, and distress, and is also the experience of emotional exhaustion.

Psychological well/ill-being and coach behaviour

The ways in which coaches behave towards their players can have a large impact on players’ experiences within sport. Research has shown that some coach behaviours, such as offering opportunities for athlete input and encouraging players to ask questions, can increase players’ motivation, enjoyment, and sport performance.

On the other hand, some coach behaviours, including: using controlling criticism and embarrassing players as punishment, can lead to poor quality motivation in players, and cause players to drop out of sport. Research has shown that coaches who are psychologically well will use more positive behaviours towards their players. Coaches who do not feel psychologically well, however, will use more negative behaviours towards their players (Stebbings, et al., 2011).

Our study

Our study aimed to explore how the issues of job security, opportunities for professional development, and work-life balance affect coaches’ human needs and, in turn, their psychological health and their behaviours towards their players. 418 voluntary and paid coaches from 32 different sports completed an online questionnaire. Results are summarised below.

Our study revealed that coaches who experienced a strong sense of job security, opportunities for professional development, and a healthy work-life balance, were more likely to experience competence, autonomy, and relatedness and, therefore, a sense of psychological well-being whilst coaching. On the other hand, those coaches who lacked opportunities to develop and who experienced work-life conflict felt that their needs were not being met, and reported psychological ill-being in their coaching role.

Our study also revealed that coaches who experienced psychological well-being were more likely to engage in positive interactions with their players. Coaches who felt psychological ill-being whilst coaching, however, were more likely to use negative behaviours towards their players.

A coach 'high-fives' a player as she runs onto the pitch.
Coaches who have improved well-being create a positive environment for their players.

What does this mean for me as a coach?

As a coach, it is important to feel secure in your role, that you have opportunities for professional development, and that you have a healthy work-life balance. So how do you go about this? The table below shows some ideas to increase your awareness surrounding these issues. These are also good strategies to consider even if you are not currently experiencing any problems. This will ensure you remain supported in your coaching role.

Job security Discuss with your employer/organisation the future plans of the organisation, and how your role integrates with these. Discuss with them how you see yourself fitting in with what the employer/organisation is trying to achieve in the next few years. 
Opportunities for personal development

Discuss with your employer/organisation whether there are any chances for you to participate in further coaching awards, qualifications and workshops . If the cost of the courses is an issue, discuss with them if any funding could be made available to you, or negotiate to split the cost.

Work-life balance

Discuss with the organisation the idea of coaching partnerships. This is where two or more coaches are responsible for a team, and these coaches share the responsibilities, therefore allowing each coach to negotiate which duties each will perform, at which times are convenient for each coach.

If your coaching role interferes with your family life, discuss with your employer/organisation whether any childcare facilities are available, or whether there are any opportunities to bring children and/or partners along to matches/competitions especially when these matches/competitions require you to be away from home. Learn to delegate. Empower the people around you – assistant coaches, volunteers, and your players. They may be able to do some of the more mundane and administrative tasks leaving you more time to focus on the actual coaching.

Two coaches discuss their plans for the next activity in their training session whilst their players are playing in a game.
Working with another coach will provide you with more support as it will allow you to share responsibilities. 

Of course, we recognise that it isn’t always possible to enjoy a secure position, professional development opportunities and a healthy work-life balance. In this case, it is still important that your needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are satisfied in your coaching role, so that you can still experience psychological well-being, and interact positively with your players.

Dr Juliette Stebbings is a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. 

This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in September 2012.

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