In sport, and sport coaching more specifically, the connection between coach and athlete is instrumental for optimal functioning, be it physical, psychological, mental, or social. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that success in sport is the product of the combined interrelating between the coach and the athlete. Athletes are unlikely to produce top-level performances without the direction and encouragement of their coaches, and coaches are unlikely to be successful without their athletes’ hard work, commitment, and enthusiasm. Thus, coaches and athletes who are locked into a relationship that is harmonious and stable are also more likely to achieve sport success (e.g., skill development, tactical awareness, trophies, medals) and make the journey to success more pleasurable, satisfying, and personally fulfilling.
Interdependence theory (IT) is an important framework for understanding the processes of personal and social relationships including a central relationship in sport—namely, the coach–athlete relationship. It focuses on how those in relationships, such as coaches and athletes, cause one another to experience positive versus negative outcomes. Positive outcomes are reflected in the rewards the relationship and its members experience such as happiness, gratification, and pleasure while negative outcomes are reflected in the costs the relationship and its members experience, such as anxiety, conflict, and antagonism. Interdependence is a fundamental element because it can affect how, for example, a coach and an athlete influence one another’s outcomes through the processes of exchanging, communicating, and interacting. Moreover, these processes allow relationship members to understand themselves and one another.
Interdependence in the Coach–Athlete Relationship
The notion of interdependence in the coach– athlete relationship was recently captured by the constructs of closeness, commitment, complementarity, and co-orientation, known in the literature as the 3 + 1 Cs model. Closeness represents coaches’ and athletes’ affective bond and is reflected in such relational properties as mutual trust, respect, appreciation, interpersonal liking, as well as emotionally caring and supporting one another. Commitment represents coaches’ and athletes’ thoughts of maintaining an athletic partnership that is close over a long period of time (e.g., the emphasis is on staying near to each other physically or symbolically; to want to coach the athlete or be coached by the coach now and in the future). Complementarity represents coaches and athletes’ behavioral exchanges that are (a) affiliative and corresponding, such as members being friendly, responsive, and comfortable in each other’s presence, and (b) organized and reciprocal, such as members assuming their specific and respective roles in a suitably and effective manner (e.g., coach instructs and athlete executes). Finally, co-orientation reflects the degree to which athletes and coaches are perceptually similar (i.e., have a similar understanding as this may relate to the relationship and its outcomes). The 3 + 1 Cs model provides a conceptual and operational model to study the degree to which relationship members are interdependent.
According to IT, the interdependence structure in dyadic relationships such as the coach–athlete relationship can be defined by examining the main effects and interaction of each relationship member’s behaviors, including (a) actor control (e.g., a main effect of athlete’s actions on athlete’s outcomes), (b) partner control (e.g., a main effect of coach’s actions on athlete’s outcomes), and (c) joint control (e.g., an interaction of coach’s and athlete’s outcomes). Interdependence structure is composed of four properties known as degree of dependence, mutuality of dependence, basis of dependence, and correspondence of interests.
Degree of dependence reflects the extent to which an athlete depends on his or her coach and, thus, the degree to which an athlete’s outcomes depend on his or her coach’s actions. Dependence is a psychological significant relational characteristic that can exert positive and negative effects on the coach and the athlete as well as their relationship. Research has shown that, for example, coaches’ and athletes’ dependence on each other in terms of the 3 + 1 Cs can promote open channels of communication and self-disclosure, skill and performance development, physical self-concept, motivation, passion, team cohesion, collective efficacy (CE), and well-being, to name a few. However, coach– athlete dependence can also have negative consequences. For example, low levels of dependence in terms of the 3 + 1 Cs have been found to be detrimental to athletes’ morale, performance, satisfaction of basic psychological needs, and well-being. In this case, athletes and coaches would appear to be uncomfortably dependent on one another and more often than not they perceive one-sided dependence (caused by situational factors such as power struggles and/or individual difference factors such as personality, age, maturity).
Mutuality of dependence describes the extent to which a coach and an athlete are mutually rather than separately dependent on one another for generating enjoyable or fulfilling outcomes. Healthy, harmonious, and stable coach–athlete relationships as characterized by the 3 + 1 Cs are expected to involve a considerable degree of mutual dependence (e.g., we support each other) rather than one-sided dependence (e.g., I support him, but he doesn’t support me). Mutually dependent relationships and interactions tend to yield rewards. There is evidence in the literature that when coaches and athletes are mutually dependent (both relationship members experience and perceive mutually high levels of 3 + 1 Cs), personal and interpersonal rewards are yielded. However, when coaches and athletes have been found to be nonmutually dependent, upset and discomfort were more readily experienced. In one study, it was found that athletes feel less dependent and satisfied with the relationship (while coaches may continue to feel highly dependent and satisfied), when they perceive that their coaches’ resources (e.g., experience, skills, knowledge) are depleting or their self-interests lie elsewhere (e.g., more emphasis is given to other athletes in the team or squad).
Basis of dependence describes the way in which coaches and athletes influence one another’s outcomes or whether dependence results from, for example, one’s member control (e.g., coach). There are many empirical and anecdotal examples that highlight coaches’ power to have control over their athletes, but there are also examples whereby both coaches and athletes have joint control over each other’s outcomes. Coordinated forms of interaction whereby, for example, the coach orchestrates the proceedings of training, instructs, and supplies advice while the athlete receives the instructions and advice positively and responsively are indicators of relationship members’ comfort with the basis of dependence. If discomfort was experienced due to a member being unwilling to interact in a coordinated fashion (instead interacted in a one-sided or competitive fashion) the likely result would be poor individual and relationship outcomes. Finally, correspondence of interests describes the extent to which an athlete’s and a coach’s actions yield rewards for both members in a corresponding fashion. While interaction is relatively easy when both a coach and an athlete’s interests correspond (e.g., we want to win an Olympic title; we want to maintain an effective and successful partnership), interaction is relatively tricky when their interests conflict (e.g., Coach wants me to go to a summer camp but I don’t; athlete never talks, opens up, shares news). Correspondence of interests may range from perfectly correspondent to perfectly noncorrespondent and may be reflected by the degree to which coaches and athletes perceive high or low and corresponding or noncorresponding levels of the 3 + 1 Cs. An open channel of communication has been viewed as a major factor that leads to correspondence of interests and has been found to be a major contributor to enhancing interdependent coach–athlete relationships.
Comparison Level and Comparison Level for Alternatives
IT posits that relationship members’ evaluations of their relationships are influenced by two standards: comparison level (CL) and comparison level for alternatives (CL-alt). CL is a criterion against which coaches and athletes evaluate how satisfactory the relationship is whereas CL-alt is a criterion coaches and athletes are likely to use to decide whether to stay in or leave the relationship. Within IT, satisfaction with a relationship per se is a function of comparing the rewards and costs of that relationship with some type of internal standard (CL). In contrast, deciding whether to stay in a relationship is a function of comparing the rewards and costs of that relationship with the rewards and costs of other relationships that are available (CL-alt). For example, someone may remain in a dissatisfying relationship (below his or her CL) because the satisfaction available in other relationships (CL-alt) is less. Alternatively, someone may leave a satisfying relationship (above his or her CL) because the satisfaction available in other relationships (CL-alt) is greater. Research that focuses on the links between interdependence and satisfaction has found that a coach’s and an athlete’s interdependence as measured by the 3 +1 Cs are positively related to satisfaction with training, instruction, and performance accomplishments, as well as satisfaction with personal treatment and athletic relationship. Moreover, it has been found that interdependence (as defined by the 3 + 1 Cs) and satisfaction with training, instruction, and personal treatment were weaker for lower-level (i.e., club) competitors than for higher-level competitors (i.e., regional, national, and international). Finally, associations between interdependence and satisfaction were stronger for longer relationships and same-gender dyads (all male and all female coach–athlete dyads) than mixed-gender dyads (female coach–male athlete and male coach–female athlete). Collectively the findings of these studies underline that coaches and athletes depend on each other for obtaining valued outcomes; this is reflected in their evaluations of developing a positive relationship and in their beliefs that the other relationship member meets important outcomes.
From an IT point of view, coaches and athletes are likely to be both attracted to a relationship and satisfied with it as the rewards associated with the relationship increase and costs decrease. The research evidence to date suggests that more interdependent relationships (defined by the 3 + 1 C) may be more satisfying because they fulfill basic human needs, heighten positive affect, and enhance self. The application of IT can provide a framework to understand and explain important research questions that relate to complex processes within the phenomenon of the coach–athlete relationship.
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