Attachment Theory And Coaching

The aim of attachment theory has largely been to explain  how  relationships  with  parents  in  childhood  have  such  a  persistent  effect  on  personality development. The focus of attachment theory has subsequently been extended from child to adolescent  and  adult  development  and  social  relationships  within  the  context  of  both  contemporary personality and social psychology. Attachment has been  viewed  as  a  natural  phenomenon  sought  by all human beings. Subsequently, the theory postulates  that,  whereas  successful  bids  for  proximity and  connectedness  with  warm,  kind,  dependable, and encouraging attachment figures are important for optimal functioning, the loss of such proximity and connection can be a natural source of distress and psychosocial dysfunction.

In  sport  and  exercise  psychology,  attachment theory  has  recently  been  used  to  understand (a)  how  athletes  and  coaches  perceive  and  cope with  fears  and  anxieties,  injuries,  and  performance slumps; and (b) how personal relationships (parent–athlete  or  parent–child)  and  social  relationships (coach–athlete, athlete–athlete) help their members to either flourish or diminish. The appeal of  attachment  theory  to  explain  a  whole  host  of research  questions  has  sparked  research  within sport and exercise psychology that has the potential to advance theory, measurement, and practice, as seen in work by Sam Carr and Neil Fitzpatrick and by Louise Davis and Sophia Jowett.

Attachment Figures, Interactions, and Relationships

Attachment figures are not just any close relationship member. Attachment figures are special individuals  to  whom,  for  example,  an  athlete  turns when assistance, encouragement, and cooperation are needed. In the context of sport, coaches serve as  attachment  figures  when  they  allow  their  athletes to act independently. Athletes, in these cases, are encouraged to explore and discover new techniques,  skills,  or  competition  in  the  knowledge that  their  coaches  are  near  and  they  can  reliably provide  protection,  comfort,  encouragement,  or relief should the athletes need it (failing to execute the  technique  or  the  skill,  failing  to  qualify,  losing a major championship, getting injured during a  task).  While  there  are  numerous  interpersonal behaviors  that  cannot  be  characterized  as  attachment  interactions,  such  as  organizing  a  training session or providing feedback and criticism, there are other interpersonal behaviors that can be characterized as attachment interactions. In such interactions,  the  expectation  is  that  the  athlete  would feel a degree of threat or distress, thus compelling that athlete to seek comfort and support from the coach.  In  competitive  sport  especially  where  the stakes are high, athletes undergo numerous stressful situations, including dealing with complicated technical routines, serious injuries, team selections, career transitions, or personal circumstances such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems, and social pressures—all of which could require them to  seek  comfort  and  support  from  people  they trust.  The  attachment  bond  becomes  apparent when coaches are shown to be available, sensitive to the needs of their athletes, and responsive to the athletes’ feelings of threat, worries, distress, hurt, or bids for proximity when in need.

Attachment Working Models

According  to  attachment  theory,  variations  in attachment  figure  responses  to  an  attached  individual’s  bids  for  proximity,  connectedness,  and protection are capable of progressively producing lasting changes in how attached individuals function  personally  and  interpersonally.  For  example, over  time,  athletes  (attached  individuals)  have  a host of interactions with their coaches (attachment figures)  and  the  quality  and  type  of  responses  of these interactions are stored in athletes’ long-term memories.  This  stored  knowledge  takes  the  form of  internal  working  models  (IWMs)  and  allows, for example, athletes to predict future interactions with their coaches and guide their behavior, cognitions, and feelings. Specifically, IWMs are capable of  orienting  individuals  in  specific  ways  toward their  own  self  and  toward  their  close  others.  On one hand, IWM of the self reflects how worthy one feels in obtaining assistance when in need (I am a valued member), and on the other hand, IWM of others  refer  to  whether  an  individual  can  expect assistance, including responsive and caring behavior,  from  an  attachment  figure  in  times  of  stress (I  expect  or  don’t  doubt  coaches’  understanding and help). According to attachment theory, IWMs are thought to account for the long-term effects on individuals’ personality functioning as this relates to  attachment  interactions  during  infancy,  childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. An individual’s attachment style reflects the most constantly accessible  IWM,  and  thus  how  typically  an  individual functions within one’s attachment system at a local level  and  within  a  specific  relationship  like  the coach–athlete relationship or at a global level and across a number of relationships in general attachment style.

Attachment Styles

There   are   three   most   commonly   referred   to attachment  styles:  secure,  anxious,  and  avoidant. Individuals  with  a  secure  attachment  style  display confidence in the availability of close others like  a  coach  for  comfort  and  support  in  times  of need.  Those  who  display  an  anxious  attachment style  have  a  desire  for  proximity  and  intimacy to  an  attachment  figure  even  in  nondistressing conditions.  Under  stressful  situations,  they  can display  excessive  distress  and  may  withdraw  in anger  even  if  support  is  offered  from  the  close other on the basis that the support offered is not good  enough.  Finally,  individuals  with  an  avoidant  attachment  style  display  little  distress  during stressful  events  and  few  attempts  at  maintaining contact with an attachment figure. As mentioned earlier, attachment styles are thought to be determined  by  an  individual’s  IWM  of  both  the  self and  others.  Individuals  with  a  secure  attachment style typically have an expectation that assistance should be available in times of need and that they

are  worthy  of  such  assistance;  this  helps  them develop  and  maintain  a  positive  IWM  of  themselves  and  others.  Conversely,  individuals  with insecure  attachment  styles  typically  expect  either inconsistent assistance (anxious), or no assistance at  all  (avoidant),  in  times  of  need;  this  results  in the  development  and  maintenance  of  feelings  of unworthiness  regarding  others’  care  and  affection while also becoming suspicious of any affection they may receive. This leads individuals with anxious attachment to display a negative IWM of themselves, and for those with an avoidant attachment style to display negative IWMs of others.

Lifespan Perspective of Attachment

It  is  important  to  note  that  although  an  individual’s  attachment  style  could  remain  stable  over time, this can be dependent on the caregiving environment or attachment figure. If, for example, an individual’s attachment bond with the coach supports  and  reinforces  one’s  dominant  or  currently most  active  IWM,  the  stability  of  an  attachment style  would  be  expected.  However,  if  an  individual  develops  an  attachment  bond  (e.g.,  with  the coach)  that  is  substantially  different  from  attachment bonds formed in the past (predominantly by the primary caregiver, such as a parent or indeed a previous coach), then there is a chance of altering IWMs  (tendencies  to  anticipate,  attend  to,  interpret, and recall behavior) and, in turn, attachment style. For example, an athlete who has constantly received  inconsistent  support  and  responsiveness from previous attachment figures, such as parents, teachers, or coaches, is likely to develop a negative IWM of self and thereby bring about an anxious attachment style. However, the intense and enduring  support,  responsiveness,  and  encouragement demonstrated  by  a  new  coach  over  a  period  of time can foster a much more positive intrapersonal outlook,  which  can  potentially  lead  to  an  alteration  of  the  athlete’s  IWM  and  consequently  the adoption  of  a  secure  attachment  style  within  the coach–athlete relationship.

Attachment Theory in Sport

Research  within  the  broader  discipline  of  social psychology on adult attachment has demonstrated the importance of secure attachments for relationship  quality  and  functioning  as  well  as  psychological  well-being  (for  a  comprehensive  review, see  Mikulincer  &  Shaver,  2007).  In  sport  and exercise psychology, research is gathering momentum  in  this  area.  At  present,  the  findings  suggest that athletes displaying insecure attachment (anxious  or  avoidant  attachment)  are  likely  to  report poor relationship quality with the coach, less sport satisfaction,  greater  risk  of  developing  an  eating disorder,  low  perceptions  of  basic  psychological need satisfaction, and ill-being (e.g., lack of vitality, negative affect, depression) when compared to more securely attached athletes. Moreover, findings highlight that the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, such as connectedness, competence, and autonomy, can potentially explain the association between insecure attachment and well or ill-being. It would appear that while security attachment can satisfy basic needs and thus lead to athletes’ wellbeing, insecure attachment can thwart basic needs and lead to athletes’ ill-being. These studies started to underline the significance of attachment theory in  understanding  important  research  questions  of practical  significance  for  effective  coaching  and successful athletic performance.

Coaching Practice

Given  that  coaching  is  an  interpersonal  affair revolving  primarily  around  the  coach  and  the athlete,  it  is  important  that  both  coach  and  athlete  have  an  appreciation  of  the  potential  impact that their attachment styles can have on their own and  the  other’s  behaviors,  thoughts,  and  feelings. As  described  earlier,  an  avoidant  attachment  style is  reflected  in  an  individual’s  being  heavily  self-reliant  and  uninterested  and  unwilling  to  connect with others. If an athlete appears to be distant to the coach when interacting in training or competitions,  it  does  not  mean  that  that  athlete  is  being indifferent  toward  sport  or  dislikes  the  coach; it  may  simply  be  a  reflection  of  the  athlete’s  personality.  Athletes  with  insecure  attachment  styles may be misunderstood by their coaches, and thus coaches may decide to write them off or not give them the time and attention they require to progress. Coaches who recognize their athletes as insecure  can,  instead  of  adopting  a  similar  pattern  of behavior (e.g., less connection, responsiveness) that only  serves  to  strengthen  the  athlete’s  IWM  and further  reinforces  the  athlete’s  negative  IWM,  try creating a positive, caring, and nurturing environment that is consistently unambiguous. Ultimately, coaches’  persistent  positive  interpersonal  behaviors  are  more  likely  to  help  athletes  satisfy  basic

psychological needs and promote their well-being. Happy  and  satisfied  athletes  are  more  likely  to persist  and  achieve  in  their  chosen  sports.  Thus, coaches who (a) behave in an autonomy-supportive  manner,  while  avoiding  controlling  behaviors, allow the athlete to take on a more integral role in their training and competition; and (b) develop positive  relationships  characterized  by  trust,  respect, appreciation, commitment, readiness, reassurance, and  security  are  more  likely  to  help  their  athletes recognize that they are being valued and cared for. Such enduring, supportive, responsive, and encouraging interactions may begin to lay the foundations for  a  substantial  change  in  the  insecure  athletes’ IWMs,  leading  to  a  more  secure  attachment  style for that athlete within the coaching context. Theory  and  research  suggest  that  secure  attachment styles are more advantageous for optimal functioning at both intrapersonal and interpersonal levels. Given  that  sporting  success  is  the  product  of  the combined  interrelation  between  the  coach  and the  athlete,  as  typically  neither  of  them  can  do  it alone,  understanding  their  personalities  can  make the journey to achieving performance success much happier, easier, and rewarding.


  1. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: Assessed in the strange situation and at home. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  3. Carr, S., & Fitzpatrick, N. (2011). Experiences of dyadic sport friendships as a function of self and partner attachment characteristics. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 383–391.
  4. Davis, L., & Jowett, S. (2010). Investigating the interpersonal dynamics between coaches and athletes based on fundamental principles of attachment. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 112–132.
  5. Felton, L., & Jowett, S. (2013). Attachment and wellbeing: The mediating effects of psychological needs satisfaction within the coach-athlete and parent-athlete relational contexts. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 57–65.
  1. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Shanmugam, V., Jowett, S., & Meyer, C. (2011). Application of the transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral model of eating disorders to the athletic population. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5, 166–191.

See also: