Social Cognitive Approaches in Sport Leadership

The  core  tenets  of  social  cognitive  theory  (SCT) focus  on  the  interrelationship  among  three  sets of  factors—namely  personal,  environmental,  and behavioral.  These  factors  are  often  described  as being part of a reciprocal causal network whereby environmental,  personal,  and  behavioral  factors interact  to  determine  a  range  of  attitudinal  and behavioral  consequences.  One  of  the  key  underpinning factors of the SCT approach is that it recognizes  that  human  interactions  do  not  occur  in a  vacuum;  rather,  they  occur  in  an  ever-changing environmental context, and this context influences the nature and outcomes of these interactions. For example, an identical set of interactions may produce  one  set  of  outcomes  in  a  particular  context (e.g.,  elite  level  sport)  but  different  outcomes  in another  context  (e.g.,  a  youth  physical  education [PE]  setting).  Another  key  underpinning  assumption  of  SCT  is  that  humans  are  all  different  and that  these  differences  will  influence  the  nature and  outcomes  of  their  interactions  with  others. That  is,  an  identical  set  of  interactions  will  have a different impact depending on the personality of the  individuals  involved.  For  example,  individuals high in self-esteem may respond differently to coach criticism than individuals low in self-esteem. SCT  models  of  leadership  that  have  been  developed in the context of sport delineate the complex social and cognitive processes that influence coach behavior  as  well  as  the  effectiveness  of  those behaviors  on  athlete  and  team  outcomes.  The major SCT models included in this entry are mediational model of leadership (MML), the coaching effectiveness  model  (CEM)  of  leadership,  motivational  model  of  the  coach–athlete  relationship (MMCAR),  and  coach-created  motivational  climate (CCMC).

Mediational Model of Leadership

The  MML—developed  by  Ronald  Smith,  Frank Smoll,  and  their  colleagues—delineates  the  complex interaction between person, environment, and behavior that typifies an SCT approach. The core of the model specifies that coach behaviors influence athlete perceptions and recall, which, in turn, influences athlete’s evaluative reactions. One of the underlying principles of the MML is that the effects of coach behaviors is mediated through the meaning that athlete’s give to their coaches’ behaviors. That is, an athlete’s appraisal of his or her coach’s behaviors serves as the mechanism through which a  coach  influences  that  athlete’s  attitudes  toward the  coach  and  their  sporting  experience  in  general. For example, if an athlete perceives a coach to be supportive and helpful, he or she will likely have  a  positive  attitude  toward  their  coach  and their  sporting  experience  in  general.  These  positive  experiences  will  then  likely  lead  to  enhanced psychological well-being (PWB) (e.g., self-esteem), enhanced  performance,  and  continued  participation in their sport. Conversely, if an athlete views his or her coach as being overly critical and unsupportive, they are likely to form negative attitudes toward  their  coach  and  their  sporting  experience in general. This is likely to lead to a reduction in self-esteem,  performance  and  reduced  participation in their sport.

As a core tenet of this model, an understanding of the variables that can influence coach behaviors, athletes’ perceptions and recall of these behaviors, and athlete evaluative reactions to these behaviors is critical. To this end, the MML identifies factors that  are  theorized  to  influence  coach  behaviors, athlete  perception  and  recall  of  coach  behaviors, and also factors that are theorized to influence the athlete’s  evaluative  reactions  to  coach  behaviors. Coach behavior is hypothesized to be determined by three sets of factors including coach individual difference variables, situational factors, and coach perceptions  of  athletes’  attitudes.  For  example, the  MML  hypothesizes  that  a  coach’s  normative beliefs  impact  the  way  in  which  they  behave. Coach  normative  beliefs  refer  to  what  the  coach believes  is  his  or  her  primary  role.  For  example, one  coach  may  believe  that  her  primary  role is  to  win,  whilst  another  coach  may  believe  her primary  role  is  to  promote  personal  growth  and enjoyment.  The  MML  hypothesizes  that  coaches with  a  normative  belief  of  winning  will  display more  punitive,  authoritarian  behaviors,  and  will be more regimented in their approach than those coaches  who  see  their  role  as  promoting  athlete growth. The second broad factor that is theorized to  impact  coach  behavior  is  situational  factors. For  example,  current  game  status  (i.e.,  winning, losing or tied) is theorized to impact coach behaviors  such  that  coaches  will  tend  to  display  more punitive  behaviors  when  losing.  The  third  broad factor that is proposed to influence coach behavior corresponds to coaches’ perceptions of player attitudes. For example, a coach will likely behave differently  toward  an  athlete  who  he  believes has a contentious maladaptive attitude compared to  an  athlete  who  they  believe  has  a  positive attitude.

Athletes’ perception and recall of coach behaviors  are  primarily  determined  by  how  coaches actually  behave  but  also  by  a  range  of  athlete individual difference variables and situational factors.  For  example,  trait  anxiety  (TA)  experienced by  an  athlete  is  an  individual  difference  variable that reflects a dispositional tendency to selectively attend  to  threat-related  information  in  the  environment.  Because  of  this  attentional  bias  toward threatening  stimuli  it  is  likely  that  athletes  with high TA will interpret a coach’s behavior as being more  threatening  in  nature  (e.g.,  more  punitive and less reinforcing behaviors) than those athletes with low TA. An example of a situational variable that might impact athlete perception and recall of coach  behaviors  is  the  pressure  of  the  situation (e.g.,  practice  vs.  competition  vs.  championship finals). In highly pressured situations, athletes may become  more  aware  of  pressure-relevant  cues  in the  environment,  such  as  critical  and  controlling coach  behaviors.  As  such,  athletes  are  likely  to report experiencing more of these types of behaviors in highly pressured situations.

Athletes’   evaluative   reactions   of   their   perceptions  and  recall  of  coach  behaviors  are  also proposed  to  be  influenced  by  athlete  individual difference  variables  and  situational  factors.  For example, following on from the previous rationale regarding  the  influence  of  TA  on  perception  and recall  of  coach  behavior  (i.e.,  perceive  that  her coach  is  displaying  more  threatening  behaviors), TA is also theorized to impact evaluative reactions to  these  coach  behaviors.  That  is,  athletes  with high  TA  perceive  punitive  coach  behaviors  to  be more  threatening  than  those  with  low  TA.  Thus, not only will TA influence the amount of punitive coach  behavior  that  they  perceive  themselves  as receiving but will also influence the magnitude of the effect of these behaviors.

Studies that have tested the tenets of the MML have  found  that  coaches  who  display  more  reinforcement   of   desirable   behaviors   and   effort combined   with   encouragement   and   technical instruction  toward  mistakes  are  liked  by  their athletes;  the  athletes  have  more  fun,  and  athletes like their teammates more. Coaches’ self-ratings of their  own  behavior  tend  to  be  uncorrelated  with athletes’ ratings of those same behaviors. However, athletes’  ratings  of  their  coaches’  behavior  are often  correlated  with  expert  observers’  ratings  of coach  behaviors.  Furthermore,  supportive  coach behaviors  are  generally  associated  with  positive attitudes toward the coach, and punitive behaviors are  generally  related  to  negative  attitudes  toward the  coach.  Finally,  team  win–loss  records  have been  found  to  be  unrelated  to  athletes’  liking  of the coach. However, athletes’ perceptions of their parents liking of the coach are related to win–loss records (athletes on winning teams perceived that their parents liked their coach more than athletes on losing teams).

The  MML  formed  the  basis  for  the  development of a prominent coaching effectiveness training program by Smith and Smoll that was designed to  enable  coaches  to  relate  more  effectively  to their  athletes.  This  training  program  involves targeting  (and  modifying)  coaches’  behaviors  in order to enhance the sport experience of their athletes.  Five  guidelines  underpinning  this  coaching effectiveness training program are to (1) focus on effort  and  enjoyment  rather  than  winning  at all  costs,  (2)  emphasize  a  positive  approach  to coaching, (3) establish norms around interpersonal helping behaviors, (4) involve athletes in decision making  (DM),  and  (5)  enhance  self-awareness of  coaches.  This  program  has  been  shown  to  be effective  in  modifying  coach  behaviors,  developing  athlete  self-esteem  and  enjoyment,  liking  of the  coach  and  teammates,  and  reducing  attrition rates in sport.

Coaching Effectiveness Model

The  CEM,  which  was  developed  by  Thelma  S. Horn, is one of the most recent models of coaching  that  has  emerged  from  a  social  cognitive perspective.  The  CEM,  in  some  respects,  can  be considered an extension of the MML. Many of the predictions  and  pathways  specified  in  the  CEM are  consistent  with  those  specified  in  the  MML. For  example,  both  models  highlight  the  importance  of  coach  behaviors  and  athletes’  evaluative reactions of these coach behaviors. However, the  CEM  also  extended  the  MML  by  identifying and  adding  more  explicit  mediational  pathways to the coaching process. These mediational pathways have been added to both the antecedents of coach behavior and the effects of coach behavior. For example, where the MML specifies that coach individual difference variables and situational factors  can  combine  to  impact  coach  behavior  the CEM  posits  that  the  effects  of  these  factors  on coach  behaviors  is  mediated  by  coaches’  expectancies,  values,  beliefs,  and  goals.  Furthermore, the  CEM  identifies  that  coach  behavior  directly impacting  athlete  performance  has  an  indirect effect  on  athlete  performance  via  athlete  self-perceptions,  beliefs,  and  attitudes.  These  in  turn impact athlete motivation and performance.

The  various  linkages  and  relationships  specified  in  the  CEM  are  based  on  a  wide  range  of theoretical models. For example, the link between coach  expectations  and  coach  behaviors  is  supported  by  principles  of  self-fulfilling  prophecy theory.  Achievement  goal  theory  (AGT)  is  also used  to  provide  a  rationale  for  identifying  factors that impact coach behaviors. Specifically, the CEM  hypothesizes  that  coaches  who  have  more of  a  task  orientation  display  behaviors  that  are consistent  with  that  task  orientation  and,  for example,  emphasize  self-referent  goals  rather than  goals  that  involve  comparisons  with  others.  Given  that  the  core  principles  of  the  CEM are largely similar to the MML, the research that supports  the  main  tenets  of  the  MML  also  support the CEM.

Motivational Model of the Coach–Athlete Relationship

Genevieve  Mageau  and  Robert  J.  Vallerand’s MMCAR is premised upon self-determination theory (SDT) contentions. Similar to the other models discussed in this entry, the MMCAR specifies antecedents and consequences of coach behavior. The main  difference  of  the  MMCAR  from  the  other models is that the MMCAR is almost exclusively grounded  in  SDT.  In  line  with  the  principles  of SDT,  the  MMCAR  hypothesizes  that  the  impact of coach behaviors on athlete motivation is mediated by the satisfaction of the three basic needs for autonomy,  relatedness  and  competence.  That  is, the  more  coaches  satisfy  these  three  basic  needs, the greater the athlete’s self-determined motivation will be.

The  MMCAR  also  identifies  the  coach’s  personal  orientation  (either  autonomy  supportive  or controlling),  coaching  context,  coach  perception of  athlete  behavior,  and  motivation  as  determinants  of  coach  behavior.  For  example,  coaches’ expectations of their athletes’ ability are likely to influence  the  behavior  that  they  display  toward athletes.  Specifically,  according  to  the  MMCAR, a  coach  who  has  low  performance  expectations of  an  athlete  is  likely  to  send  messages  of  mistrust,  emphasize  mistakes,  and  ignore  success  in that  athlete  (i.e.,  exhibit  behaviors  that  are  likely to  thwart  need  satisfaction).  The  MMCAR  also identifies structure that a coach provides as being important in forming athlete perceptions of competence. Namely, structure in the form of specific instructions  from  the  coach  provides  athletes with  information  by  which  to  gauge  their  progress.  Without  sufficient  feedback,  athletes  cannot experience progress, thus thwarting their need for competence. Lastly, coaches’ involvement with the athlete  (i.e.,  demonstrating  care  for  the  athlete’s welfare) is theorized to make the athlete feel more related to the coach and thus satisfy their need for relatedness.

The  MMCAR  posits  eight  key  indicators  that are theorized to be consistent with the satisfaction of the three basic needs in athletes: provide a rationale for tasks, acknowledge athletes’ feelings and perspectives,  provide  athletes  with  opportunities for initiative taking and independent work, provide Non-controlling  competence  feedback,  avoid  overt control,  avoid  criticisms  and  controlling  statements, avoid tangible rewards for interesting tasks, and prevent ego involvement in athletes. There is a large body of evidence that supports the core principle of the MMCAR that satisfaction of the basic needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence is positively associated with the internalization of motivation.  There  is  also  research  evidence  that supports  the  notion  that  coaches  who  display  an autonomy  supportive  style  of  leadership  have positive  effects  on  athletes,  whereas  coaches  that display  more  controlling  behaviors  tend  to  have negative effects on their athletes.

Coach-Created Motivational Climate

Developed by Joan Duda and Isabel Balaguer, the CCMC approach to examining leadership in sport is  grounded  in  the  principles  articulated  in  AGT. Consistent  with  the  other  models  of  leadership described  in  this  entry  the  CCMC  specifies  antecedents  of  coach  behavior  (e.g.,  coach  individual difference variables, situational characteristics, and coaches’ perceptions of athletes’ attitudes), and it also delineates the consequences of coach behavior via  specific  mediating  mechanisms.  However,  the CCMC diverges from the other models in that all the effects of coach behavior are proposed to operate  predominately  through  the  creation  of  task-involving and ego-involving climates. Based on the work of John Nicholls, AGT posits that there are two fundamental higher-order goals—namely, task and  ego  goals.  Task  goals  refer  to  goals  that  are primarily  articulated  around  self-referent  criteria and  involve  factors  such  as  effort  and  improving skill level, whereas ego goals are primarily articulated  around  the  demonstration  of  superior  competence  in  relation  to  others.  The  CCMC  model posits  that  coaches  create  climates  that  promote either task-involvement or ego-involvement, which in turn impact the types of goals that athletes set. The  types  of  goals  that  athletes  set  (or  the  reference  by  which  they  evaluate  their  performance) have an impact on their own attitudes, motivation, and behavior.

A   substantial   body   of   research   has   generally  supported  the  predictions  of  the  CCMC. For  example,  task-oriented  climates  have  been found to be related to a large number of positive outcomes,  such  as  self-determined  motivation, satisfaction,  effort,  enjoyment,  persistence,  team cohesion, collective efficacy (CE), and sportsmanship  behavior  among  athletes.  Furthermore,  ego-oriented  climates  have  been  found  to  be  related to  maladaptive  coping  strategies,  anxiety,  worry, tension, and amoral sport behaviors.


The social cognitive approaches to leadership that have been developed within the field of sport psychology provide strong evidence that coaches play a significant role in shaping athletes’ experiences. The models and theories of coach leadership that have  emerged  from  the  social  cognitive  perspective have identified in excess of 20 factors that are theorized to influence coach behaviors. These factors can be subsumed under the broad headings of coach  individual  difference  variables,  situational variables,  and  contextual  variables.  In  excess  of15 coach behaviors have been identified with three different methodologies of measurement (observer rating,  coach  self-report,  and  athlete  rating).  The main findings to emerge from the social cognitive paradigm  of  sport  leadership  can  be  summarized as follows:

  1. The coach plays a central role in influencing the athlete experience.
  2. Athlete cognitive evaluations of coach behaviors are the primary mediator of the impact of coaches’ behavior.
  3. Coaches who provide their athletes with autonomy supportive environments provide positive reinforcement and structure, demonstrate care for their athletes, create task-oriented environments, and avoid controlling behaviors tend to engender positive outcomes in their athletes.
  4. Coaches’ individual differences, situation, and context play a major role in determining coach behavior.
  5. Athletes’ individual difference variables influence their perceptions and evaluations of their coaches’ behaviors.
  6. Athletes’ individual difference variables moderate the effectiveness of coach behaviors.
  7. Coaches’ self-perceptions of their behaviors often appear to be incongruent with athlete perceptions and observer ratings of those same coach behaviors.

In  sum,  it  is  apparent  that  the  social  cognitive approach   has   been   very   influential   in   helping researchers and coaches understand the process of influence in a sport context. It is also apparent that the different models that have been proposed share similar  features  at  a  general  level  (e.g.,  they  all specify antecedents of coach behavior and propose outcomes  of  coach  behaviors)  but  differ  substantively at a specific level (e.g., the specific antecedents  of  coach  behavior  that  are  identified,  the specific  variables  involved  in  the  coach  behavior influence   process,   and   the   primary   theoretical grounding  employed).  Finally,  it  appears  that  the coach has an incredibly difficult yet very important job in developing his or her athletes toward both optimal performance and PWB.


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