It has long been said in the media that different coaches have different styles of coaching. The question is, what does this really mean?
There are two main types of coaching style outlined in the literature. These are autonomy-supportive and controlling (Bartholomew et al., 2009 & Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012). An autonomy-supportive coaching style is recognised by a coach offering explanations and justifications for their decisions, whilst allowing the sense of autonomy over decisions. Furthermore, an autonomy-supportive coaching style is considered optimal when reducing pressure athletes have to deal with, whether that is internal or external (Bartholomew et al., 2009; Hodge et al., 2011 & Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012).
The second style, considered in the literature, is that of a controlling coaching style. A controlling coaching style is in some aspects the opposite of an autonomy-supportive style. Rather than allowing the athlete to have autonomy over the session or their training, a controlling coach has a more authoritarian approach. This lack of choice when coupled with a more coercive attitude and style, results in the athlete or individual feeling even less in control of their actions, almost becoming a ‘puppet on a string’. As a consequence, there can be seen to be an increase in pressure, or desire to please as well as shifting the locus of causality (Bartholomew et al., 2009 & Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012). This means that instead of accepting responsibility for defeat or their actions they are more likely to blame conditions or others. This is obviously a negative trait which if allowed to foster can damage the athlete’s attitude long-term.
A further concern associated with a controlling coaching style is its impact on an athlete’s standing within a team (Matosic et al., 2014). In their research they found that those with a scholarship and a controlling coach looked negatively upon the scholarship. This negative view on the scholarship could be seen to be a negative view of their standing in the team, the added pressure which comes from having a scholarship may be heightened by the controlling style of the coach.
Although a lot of negativity surrounds the controlling coaching style there is evidence to suggest that it may improve the perception of competence, one of the 3 key aspects of the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan et al., 2000 & Matosic et al., 2014).
Ryan and colleagues’ theory (2000) is based upon the notion that intrinsic motivation is optimal for performance and psychological well-being and as such should be promoted. Intrinsic motivation refers to the inherent desire to learn and according to SDT has 3 key antecedents. These are autonomy, competence and relatedness. Ryan et al. (2000) suggested that to foster intrinsic motivation there must be supportive conditions, something that is often lacking from a controlling coaching style. This is supported by Matosic et al. (2014) who countered their claim that although a controlling style may improve perception of competence, the negatives greatly outweigh the positive, resulting in intrinsic motivation being undermined.
Hodge et al. (2011) highlight the importance of understanding and incorporating both styles depending on the situational demands. They highlight how the supportive style, offering free choice to the athlete may not benefit them in the long term and may be counterproductive. As a result, under this situation it would be beneficial to employ a more controlling style, on the basis that the interests of the athlete are being put first. It is essential to emphasise that the use of a controlling coaching style is only promoted when the athlete’s free choice could have a detrimental effect on either themselves or those around them. On the whole, as evidenced already, the supportive coaching style is favoured for assisting in promoting psychological well-being and fostering positive attitudes.
The correct coaching style is exceptionally important when dealing with young children as they are more impressionable and often require greater support to maintain their development through a particular sport. Isoard-Gauther et al. (2012), suggest that burnout, the reason most people and in particular children dropout of sport, is due to motivation. They mention the requirement of autonomy in order to prevent burnout. Hodge et al. (2011) states that an autonomy-supportive style has a positive relationship with autonomous motivation. As a result it can be seen that when dealing with children and those vulnerable to potential dropout, it may be of benefit to employ an autonomous-supportive coaching style to prevent burnout.
The literature favours an autonomy-supportive coaching style, however it is imperative to understand that there may be situations whereby a controlling approach may be required for the benefit of the individual or the benefit of the team. On the whole the optimal coaching style may vary from person to person and situation to situation. Nonetheless it is important as a coach to understand and accept that your behaviour and style can have a direct impact on those you are coaching whether that be positive or negative.