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Sport Psychology Article

Exploring the Influence and Practical Development of Coaches' Psychosocial Behaviors in Strength and Conditioning

Szedlak, Christoph Msc1; Callary, Bettina PhD2; Smith, Matthew J. PhD3

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2019 - Volume 41 - Issue 2 - p 8-17
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000421
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Sports coaching has been described as an activity, which occurs between people, and as such is a psychosocial practice (19,57). Based on a large body of coaching research, Côté and Gilbert (27) provided an integrated definition of effective coaching, as “The consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes' competence, confidence, connection, and character in specific coaching contexts” (p. 316). As such, effective coaching incorporates psychosocial practice, which requires the coach to fulfill a variety of roles, including educating, training, guiding, and providing mental support to athletes (47). The International Sports Coaching Framework, 1.2 (47) further categorizes these coaching roles into these 6 primary functions: setting the vision and strategy, shaping the environment, building relationships, conducting practices, reading and reacting to the field, and learning and reflecting. These functions are to guide and provide coaches with tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective. Notably, elite-level coaches are encouraged to emphasize positive interactions and overall development of athletes rather than simply the win-loss record (34,45). As a result, the strength and conditioning (S&C) coach has the responsibility to consider the personal, emotional, cultural, and social identity of the athlete (19).

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) reflects this psychosocial emphasis on coaching in their mission statement, declaring that “The profession involves the combined competencies of sport/exercise science, administration, management, teaching and coaching” (5). Coaching includes the application of psychosocial behaviors and characteristics, which enables the coach to effectively teach and apply technical knowledge based on sport and exercise science. However, using Cheetham and Chivers' (22) framework to map professional competencies, a recent analysis examining the content of national accreditation bodies' annual conferences (44) has highlighted that the majority of the content focused on the development of professional, scientific, and functional knowledge to enhance the athletes' physical capabilities (Table). In addition, higher education S&C providers have also adopted this science-led or evidence-based focus (20,30,44,59,63). As such, research in functional knowledge is abundant in S&C, whereas research in psychosocial coaching practice has been neglected. Contrary to the mission statements of the accrediting bodies (79), S&C coach education has not provided many opportunities for coaches to develop cognitive competencies (e.g., conceptualization and knowledge transfer skills), as well as personal, behavioral, and ethical competencies (e.g., controlling emotions and listening skills, self-regulation, and environmental sensitivity). For the sake of this review, we define psychosocial behaviors as those that enable the coach to positively and effectively interact with the athlete (interpersonal) and behaviors that allow the coach to reflect and monitor their own progress, thoughts and feelings, strengths and weaknesses (intrapersonal). In summary, although the technical aspects of knowing “what” and “how” have been extensively covered in S&C coach education, the understanding of coaches' effectiveness through developing psychosocial behaviors and characteristics is sparse (86,87).

Using “professional competencies” to map S&C coaching competencies in 2017

Given the need for development of psychosocial behaviors in S&C coaching, another possible connection to develop psychosocial behaviors within coaching may well be the coach's current understanding of his/her level of emotional intelligence (EI), which is proposed to be the ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions within oneself and in others (88,89). To date, much of the research examining EI has taken place outside of the sporting domain and instead has focused on business (107), health (81), and academic environments (80). Little research has been conducted regarding EI within the sporting domain. Thelwell et al. (95) highlighted that coaching efficacy is highly related to coaches' appraisal and regulation of their own emotions. Furthermore, Chan and Mallett (21) used a vignette of a high performance coach to describe how the coach applied elements of EI to a situation where a player thought he let his team down. In response to the vignette, the coach had to identify the player's and his own emotions, and then understand how these emotions impacted the team. Linked with EI, the ICCE framework (47) proposes that coaches should develop their own interpersonal knowledge/skills, as they need to detect the emotional states of their athletes and manage (their own/their athletes') emotions. As such, this research infers the need for the development of psychosocial behaviors in coaching that includes S&C. For example, if S&C coaches are unable to appraise themselves (developing intrapersonal knowledge), then it is unlikely that they would be able to reflect on how best to relate to and/or communicate with their athletes where conflict resolution may be required (applying interpersonal knowledge). Should S&C coaches not be able to regulate their own emotions, the development of their athletes may be compromised due to the possible lack of clarity and appropriateness of communication.

Only a small number of studies have addressed the application of psychosocial behaviors and characteristics within S&C coaching, identifying areas such as being able to counsel (42,72,85), providing social support (15,70), being able to motivate (73), and being an effective leader (99,100) as being important. More recently, Tod et al. (97) explored professional development themes of experienced S&C coaches including how their psychosocial behaviors have changed throughout their careers. Tod et al. found that more experienced S&C coaches demonstrate an increased flexibility and ability to tailor their athletes' programs by being less prescriptive and technique-focused and more athlete-centered. Furthermore, the results highlight that elite coaches show a greater emphasis on enhancing athlete engagement and the quality of relationships between themselves and their athletes, by developing a good rapport based on trust and respect. In addition, experienced S&C coaches engaged in a higher level of self-reflective practice, an essential component of learning from experience. As a result, Tod et al.'s (97) research highlighted the contribution of psychosocial behaviors such as self-reflection, building rapport, and flexibility in becoming a more experienced and effective coach. Szedlak et al. (93) aimed to build upon the research of Tod et al. by examining elite athletes' perceptions of which behaviors are effective in their S&C coaches. The results provide an initial structure that identified psychosocial behaviors build, maintain, and enhance the relationship as well as the underlying values of the coach as fundamental to creating an effective coaching environment.

Although the above studies note the importance of developing psychosocial behaviors and characteristics in S&C coaches, it was still unclear how coaches' psychosocial behaviors impact their athletes. Recent research by Szedlak et al. (94) aimed to address this gap. They used a novel methodological approach as framed by Barter and Renold (6), in which the researchers constructed stories (also known as vignettes) from their research that pertained to “best practice” meaningful experiences of athletes with their S&C coaches. After thematically analyzing the responses from 10 elite athletes including World and Olympic champions, 3 main dimensions were identified. “What influences the athlete,” including coaches being caring, knowledgeable, committed, and understanding of their role. These characteristics initiated, created, and maintained the athlete's trust and respect in the coach. As a result, they influenced “the athletes' cognition and affect,” including enhancing athletes' motivation, confidence, gratitude, and enjoyment and “the athletes' behavior,” enhancing actions such as extra effort and self-regulatory processes (Figure). The athletes noted that these impacts not only helped them develop their physical potential but also further enabled the athletes to develop their character to become a constructive and caring member of their relevant sporting team and a productive member of society (26,91). The most striking result, however, is that the participants focused almost entirely on psychosocial aspects and values of the coach such as trust (Figure 1) and not on the coaches' technical competencies, which further strengthens the need to provide the S&C coach with learning experiences to foster and develop such psychosocial characteristics (50).

Process of how S&C coach's behaviors and characteristics are perceived to influence athlete outcome (reproduced with permission from Szedlak et al., 2017).


In the following sections, we review the literature that has examined psychosocial behaviors and how coaches learn to coach, to provide implications for how coaches can potentially develop psychosocial behaviors. Coaching is characterized by being an idiosyncratic learning process (103), meaning that there are many ways to learn and be an effective coach (18). Research examining the lived and fluid process of coach development is based on a constructivist learning paradigm, which emphasizes human development throughout life and through personal perceptions of experiences (7). Jarvis (48,49) argues that learning is a lifelong process and that any experience is influenced by a person's perceptions of the past and has an influence on future experiences. As a result, a person is transformed cognitively, emotionally, and practically. Callary et al. (18) note that becoming a more experienced coach is characterized by meaningful personal experiences allowing the coach to engage through thoughts, feelings, and actions from which the coach is able to learn. These meaningful experiences enable the coach to subjectively judge how new material of learning relates to past knowledge gained from previous experiences. This learning process is based on the coach's subjective perception of environment, goals, motivation and readiness to learn, emotions, and abilities (18,38).

In relation to S&C coaching, knowledge and practice is constructed through experiences, and thus, it is important to consider effective theories within this constructivist paradigm, such as reflective practice (75–77), communities of practice (65,78), narrative (4,12,14) and situated learning (55,56), and their utility to provide exposure to meaningful experiences to develop effective psychosocial behaviors in S&C (74). Although research has used constructivist approaches to learning or applying theory within the sporting context (21), using such an approach to develop psychosocial behaviors has so far been neglected. As such, the aim of the article is to explore how coaches learn psychosocial behaviors and characteristics through constructivist theories.


In this section, we examine various constructivist learning processes in the current coaching literature and outline practical ways that theories inform these processes of reflection, different forms of narratives, mentorship, and internship, to allow S&C coaches to learn from their experiences to develop psychosocial behaviors to effectively coach their athletes.


Reflection underpins the process of learning from experiences (60,61) by minimizing the knowledge to action gap (41). The process of reflection can be described as meaningful experience made up of thoughts about what the learner already knows and brings to the learning situation (76). Reflection enhances learning by promoting internal dialogue of the meaningfulness and relevance of a situation. As a result, the coach generates thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may initiate change in coaching practice (25,90). Thus, S&C coaches using critical reflection enable more engagement with some of the moral, ethical, and societal issues likely to be intertwined with their practice (43,64,74). As such, self-reflection is a strategy for the S&C coach to explore. Reflective practice is not novel in sports coaching and has been widely encouraged (40). However, research within S&C has highlighted that effective reflective practice is limited to more experienced coaches (97). When encouraging the development of psychosocial behaviors and characteristics of the S&C coach, no matter what level of experience, the S&C coach education provider should offer guidance of how to become a reflective practitioner to ensure an effective lifelong learning process.

Moon's view of reflective practice underpins the idiosyncratic learning process in which the coach gives meaning to the experiences within his or her lifetime (75–77). Moon takes a constructivist approach to learning focusing on the activities of learners, her view of learning is about changing one's frame of reference toward what is known at any particular time by connecting to previous experiences because prior experiences guide our perceptions, responses, or interpretations in the present (76). Moon argues that reflection is involved in meaningful learning when the learner, or the S&C coach, evaluates and modifies his or her knowledge. Reflection occurs when there is new material of learning but may also occur when the person is reorganizing knowledge and emotional orientation to achieve further insights (76). Within this process, reflection can be seen as its own learning situation, developing new ideas to meet the demand of a novel experience (77). Thus, learning about psychosocial behaviors is an outcome of reflection, and it is important to explore how the S&C coach can effectively engage with this process.

There are various practical ways to enhance reflective practice. First, the coach should take time to learn how to reflect on psychosocial behaviors within their own coaching process. Reflection is an important learning strategy linked to active coaching and formal education (18,68). Moon (76) notes that moving from surface learning (e.g., memorizing, noticing, and making sense of experience) to deep learning (e.g., searching for additional understanding and meaning, making meaning, and working with meaning) requires reflection. In general, coaches who have never before engaged in purposeful reflection tend to start by reflecting more descriptively (e.g., this session was good because the athlete did all the repetitions and sets and had good technique throughout). However, critical reflection includes expressing both positive and negative personal emotions and affections (17,60,97). In deepening reflection, there are shifts from descriptive to reflective accounts, from no questions to asking questions of oneself and to answering those questions, and from self-questioning to challenging one's own ideas, and as a result, the coach develops greater effectiveness of psychosocial behaviors. Deep reflection involves recognition of psychosocial behaviors such as emotions and understanding how to handle those increasingly effectively, standing back from the event and taking others' views into account, and reviewing one's own reflective process (76). For example:

The S&C coach (Jess) may reflect on a session with an athlete (Susan), as follows: Susan initially struggled with a particular complex exercise. However, after being reassured by Jess, Susan's trust in Jess's judgement helped her to overcome her struggle and perform well. Jess could evaluate the session with regards to understanding how that trust was developed, and subsequently, how that trust influenced Susan's performance. Jess could ask herself why Susan engaged well in the session. Perhaps it was because Jess was particularly motivating, was feeling positive and committed to the session, but also allowed Susan more autonomy, which affected her trust in Jess and her enjoyment within the session. As a result, Jess can identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that relate to achieving a specific goal such as enhancing the relationship with the athlete (25). Jess could then modify her approach by planning to use and exhibit behaviors that continue to develop trust with Susan. At the end of the week Jess could then set extra time aside to reflect on her daily reflections by reading her journal entries for that week as if they were written by a colleague, and asking herself questions about how effectively she had met her goal of developing trust with Susan. In this way, Jess engages in deeper reflection for the following week as she challenges her own ideas and views of how to develop trust.

Initial reflective practice may need to be guided or shared by either or both an experienced mentor and a semistructured journal with questions aiming to draw the coach into deeper levels of reflection (62). Thus, a coach looking to engage in the reflective process may benefit from being directed by a few basic questions from a framework, focusing on psychosocial behaviors, as underpinned by Moon's view of learning from reflection (77). The following points are reflective questions aimed to stimulate thought about how reflection can help an S&C coach to develop psychosocial behaviors:

  • When coaching my athlete, what relational, social, and ethical elements did I identify to be valuable and impactful?
  • Why are these important to me and why are they important to my athlete?
  • What emotions did I feel throughout the sessions? Why are those emotions important?
  • What have I learned from identifying these psychosocial behaviors? Has the way I think and/or coach been influenced by these psychosocial behaviors? If not, should I consider changes for next week?
  • What would be the first step in making changes?

Narratives, cases, and vignettes

Narrative learning theory refers to a psychosocial approach that focuses on stories. Human beings are meaning makers who, to interpret, show, and direct life, configure and constitute their experiences using narratives that their social and cultural world have passed down (14). Narratives allow us to make sense of the complexity of life experiences and shape what becomes experience (36). As such, narratives shape human conduct; guiding what we pay attention to, affecting what we think, how we behave, and what we imagine is possible (14). Thus, stories can become powerful motivators for change by prompting action (2,13). Narratives can therefore help S&C coaches to engage with scenarios that highlight psychosocial behaviors.

Narratives in forms of pedagogical cases or case studies, vignettes, or stories are examples reflecting this process and are considered a powerful professional development tool (23,24). They can show the complexities of coaching practice and provide an opportunity to reveal and explore the feelings and emotions of experiences within these narratives from multiple perspectives (84). Armour (4) describes a “pedagogical case” as a mechanism for incorporating ideas from multiple (sub)disciplines, using the personal voice and reflecting the emotions of coaching practice. As an example, Gearity and Metzger (37) constructed evocative stories taken from the first author's experience as an elite S&C coach to promote discussion about microaggressions and microaffirmations in sport coaching. Various studies have used the narrative methodology (38,67,71). The NSCA has adopted the use of stories on their certification examinations, encouraging reflection by providing a case example, which allows S&C coaches to decide what they would do, why, and how.

Vignettes present hypothetical scenarios, framed within stories for individuals to read, listen, or watch, and then respond to (10). Smith et al. (92) found that vignettes have the ability to teach, remind, reinvigorate, and reassure, and have the ability to initiate behavior change. Vignettes allow the S&C coach to engage more fully in considering the psychosocial elements of the coaching process by identifying with a story; the end result is that the coach has learned from the meaning and purpose of the vignette and feels motivated to continue learning and coaching (79). As a result, vignettes are a powerful coach development tool. Thus, a coach's responses to vignettes can be considered a social action in its own right (51). By responding to the vignette, the coach may connect relevant or meaningful information from the vignette with past experiences, encouraging reflection on experience. For example, the S&C coach could be presented with a vignette highlighting the importance of challenging the athletes with high expectations for effort in a coaching session. Applying this constructivist approach, Szedlak et al. (94) used vignettes as a way for S&C coaches to learn from “best practice” scenarios and to connect those to their own coaching. The vignettes were constructed by grounding them in previous research, as per Perrier et al.'s (82) recommendations. The following vignette is an example of one that S&C coaches viewed as part of a coach education initiative within Szedlak et al.'s (94) research. The vignette specifically highlights psychosocial behaviors such as the coach's (Pete's) high expectations of his athletes, trust and respect, and the impact of the coach's behaviors on the athlete such as increased enjoyment and gratitude. To ensure and increase authenticity of the vignette, athlete quotes were used from previous qualitative research (93) and corresponded to themes in Figure 1. The quotes are italicized and the themes are listed in brackets.

The S&C coach started the session and let Alex and Taylor continue by themselves as he was called away for a quick meeting with his director of sport, which gave them time to chat about their progress.

Alex: I feel really happy with my progress and I really trust and respect Pete. The program he has set is challenging but has really worked for me. I could have this set up until I retire, I guess I have known him for a long time and we have a good relationship now. For me it is a pleasure to give 100% every time. [coach's high expectations, trust and respect, athlete's gratitude]

Taylor: I agree. Sometimes it is tough but I know that he understands what he can contribute to our performance. For me that is really important. I really appreciate the fact that he understands what he can contribute, for example he makes the training session more fun in an effective and efficient way. Because of that I am always a lot happier in myself and I train a lot harder, and as a result, I want to impress him and do well for him. [athlete's enjoyment]

Presented with such a scenario, the S&C coaches were encouraged to consider and reflect on similar instances in their own practice. As such, the S&C coach might start to consider how these psychosocial behaviors, such as high expectations, could be incorporated in their coaching. To further enhance this process, the S&C coach might use an ongoing reflective journal, to allow them to reflect on how to change coaching practice and monitor whether that change has been effective in developing appropriate athlete outcomes (9).

Initial research has highlighted the preference of a diversity of formats of vignettes, such as written, video, and audio, with video being preferred above the others (92). Practically, to create an effective video story or pedagogical case is time-consuming and requires dedication; however, the impacts on the S&C coach's development outweigh this initial difficulty and should not deter coach developers from creating such educational scenarios. Coach developers could also film interactions of effective S&C coaches with their athletes, whose athletes trust and respect them, and who display the psychosocial behaviors discussed above (e.g., caring, knowledgeable, committed, motivating, understanding of the S&C coach's role, prepared, and good communication). These could then be used as an educational tool. Once created, these stories or cases could be made available at online platforms or blogs and could be used by a wide range of S&C coaches. In summary, using narrative learning strategies through stories and pedagogical cases to disseminate information engages the coach with meaningful episodes to learn and develop their coaching practice.


Mentoring has been widely used in business (58), nursing (46), and education (106). However, despite its use, no consistent definition of mentoring or description of mentoring roles or functions has been found (54). Despite this lack of clarity, mentoring seems to be gaining acceptance as a means of developing high-quality practitioners in various fields including coaching (3,53). A mentorship relationship can be referred to as a relationship in which a person of greater experience teaches, guides, and develops a novice (1). With the relationship built on trust and respect (11,35,52,96), the mentors provide psychosocial support (33), guidance, counsel, facilitation (104), and act as a role model, promoting role socialization, encouraging independence and self-confidence (16). What this means to the S&C coach is that he/she will be able to develop essential psychosocial behaviors (Figure 1), as the mentorship relationship places importance on listening, understanding, and questioning, in contrast to telling, directing, and restricting (104).

Closely linked to mentorships is the concept of Community of Practice (CoP), which underpins a constructivist learning approach from both knowledge and experience (65). CoPs are defined as “people who share concern, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge in this area by interaction on an ongoing basis” (101). Terms that are fundamentally important to CoPs include participants' mutual engagement or the interaction between participants, joint enterprise of the collective goal such as improvement in coaching practice and shared repertoire, which contains an understanding of shared terms and skills (101). As coaches participate in a CoP by meeting together to discuss coaching practice, knowledge about effective psychosocial elements is developed based on behaviors, meanings and beliefs shared between them (shared repertoire), and result in the development of their coaching skills (joint enterprise). By contrast, common practice in personal S&C coach development is actively seeking advice from more experienced coaches aiming to learn from their experience by adopting the apprenticeship model of mentorship (69). Although this is an effective way for new coaches to learn (8), it is generally an uncritical copy of a coaching approach. Learning differs from case to case depending on the environment, program, and mentoring coach, and it presupposes that the experienced coach is an infallible practitioner, suggesting that novice coaches should become clones of the mentor (31,39). Its limitations lie in a simple reproduction of existing coaching culture and practice, a repetitive one-dimensional cycle, as opposed to a more progressive and developmental method such as using the community of practice approach to enhance best practice (28).

Previous research has examined the utility and effectiveness of CoPs in sports coaching; however, this has yet to be fully used in S&C (98,105). Thus, S&C mentorship programs should embrace a more formal structure that aligns the possible outcomes for mentee and mentor at stages and competencies associated with their long-term development (47). Furthermore, the structured mentorship programs should focus not only on technical and physiological aspects of S&C coaching but also on relational aspects, such as how to build trust and respect with athletes, how to show a caring attitude, how to prepare and communicate with athletes, how to show commitment or high expectations, and how to become aware of, and understand, the S&C coach's role (94). For example:

The task for the CoP might involve S&C coaches assessing their relationships and interactions each with one specific athlete during the training session. The S&C coaches would consider what problems they faced during the interaction, and how they could develop a deeper relationship. After the training session, the coaches would engage in the facilitated CoP by describing and problematizing their relationship with the particular athlete. As a result, the S&C coaches would highlight possible changes in their behavior to develop psychosocial behaviors such as showing empathy, compassion, being encouraging, and supportive that enhance the relationship with their athletes.

A guided CoP approach, as outlined by Murray et al. (78) over a 4-month period, would provide the group of S&C coaches with a structured approach in developing effective coaching including psychosocial behaviors through learning and reflecting on relevant and meaningful experiences (83).


Situated learning theory may be useful for S&C coaches to develop social and psychological behaviors through participating in internship programs (32). The premise behind this theory is that the social, physical, and cultural context of S&C coaches has a significant influence on what is learned and how learning takes place (55). Central to the situated learning theory is the process of legitimate peripheral participation (66). Thus, as coaches engage in internships, they gain knowledge of the context of S&C coaching and move from having a marginal understanding of the context (as a novice coach) toward full participation and integration in the context. In internships, learning happens as a result of encouraging the coach to fully participate in activity toward a specific goal such as developing effective coaching influenced by the interactions of people, activity, knowledge, and the social context (65). The S&C coach becomes a full participant of a collective group who together contribute to the development of athletes in a particular context (56). As a result, situated learning through internships provides the coach with meaningful experience to explore the impact and development of psychosocial behaviors in S&C coaching (78).

As the popularity of S&C has been marked by vast growth over the past 10 years, demand for employment opportunities has also significantly increased. Consequently, teams and organizations have considered internships to recruit, develop, and assess future S&C coaches. However, due to the lack of guidance and driven by the need of the employer, internships could be exploitive in nature. As internships facilitate mentorship, it becomes essential for this arrangement to be about the employer's desire to develop the person and their employability rather than to exploit a cheap employment option. Practically, a more structured recruitment and employment process should be adopted to enhance the situated learning process (78), reflecting the company's values and employee's continual personal development process. Internships should focus not only on developing the S&C coaches' knowledge of S&C but also on developing their psychosocial behaviors by allowing the development of a community of practitioners deeply engaged in sharing their knowledge and experience (102), and setting challenging and personal goals that they could not achieve alone (29). Developing skills, such as being motivating and inspiring, as well as developing effective communication and listening, require the coach to experience and learn from a wide range of different athletes' scenarios (78). For example:

A specific goal could be to develop motivational skills with a variety of athletes working in different contexts. Together with their mentors, the S&C coaches would discuss what went well and why (9). They could subsequently develop specific motivational strategies that are effective for each situation.


In summary, this review highlighted the importance of psychosocial coaching behaviors and characteristics and their impact on athletes' development and provided practical examples of how to develop these psychosocial behaviors using a constructivist learning approach. The importance of cognitive, personal, behavioral, and ethical coach development and its impact on the athlete needs more consideration in the applied setting and should be brought to the attention of the S&C coaching community. Practically, annual conferences should include more content on how to develop psychosocial aspects; this could include presentations or workshops to enable S&C coaches to see the value of engaging in some of the practical learning theories outlined in this review.


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coach development; psychosocial behaviors; reflection; stories; mentorship; internship

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