Psychology in action! Socio-motivational dynamics in sports

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2017 was to improve my work/life balance.  To my surprise, it has been going pretty well — in the past, work has had a nasty habit of creeping into the rest of my life (I have regularly had emails and reports plaguing my evenings and weekends!), but 2017 has been good so far.

Yet over the past week, I’ve had the odd experience of the work/life balance going in the opposite direction:  the rest of my life creeping into my work!  I don’t mean the usual story of developmental psychologists sometimes learning more about child development from their everyday experience of family life than from their academic research.   That’s a familiar experience and fairly standard stuff (though probably worth another blog post at some point)!

No, actually, this was quite different. It started last weekend, when I attended the Baseball Softball UK Coach Summit 2017.  I grew up playing baseball in Japan and over the last five years have been coaching youth baseball in Sussex as part of the growing community of baseball clubs in the UK.  Last weekend brought an opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced baseball and softball coaches in the world, and to watch them running a session with the youth players in the High Performance Academy.

I went in expecting a weekend of top-notch baseball, and I certainly got that. But what surprised me, as I took notes throughout the weekend, was the gradual recognition that what I spend most of my time researching in my work is linked — not just in general terms, but specifically and directly — to the dynamics of sports teams.  And I mean sports at every level, from fun team sports activities with the youngest children right through to professional sports where teams draw enormous crowds and TV audiences.

Of course, I shouldn’t really be surprised.  After all, sport and exercise psychology is a well-established field with prominent researchers and applied practitioners who have worked for decades at the interface of motivation and athletic performance.  But during the Coach Summit, I just kept finding close connections between the specific things I work on and what these visiting coaches operating at the top level of their sports were saying.

Some of the links were very explicit.  “Psychology” must have been one of the most frequently heard words that weekend, as coaches talked about how the mental game was as important, if not more important, than the physical or technical game.  There was also a strong emphasis (as in so many other domains, like schools) on grit and growth mindsets.

But that was the first point where I began to realise I was getting more from talking about this in sports than I have done from the innumerable meetings I’ve been to on these topics in schools. And that’s because it was just so obvious that the coaches were talking about changing the environment, rather than the players themselves.

I’ve been frustrated by the way that so much I hear about ‘character’ these days treats it as an attribute of the person in a vacuum, like it’s just a property of the individual.  And of course it’s not – it’s actually something that develops in a particular set of social contexts, or more specifically in a particular network of relationships.

So, ironically, we often adopt a ‘fixed’ view of things like character, resilience, and even the growth mindset itself.  But what the coaches were talking about last weekend was how all of these come out of the environments that are created for and with players:  the way coaches behave, the way they give feedback, and the way they respond to mistakes and poor performances as well as the big wins.

I love the fact that it was so obvious to everyone that we can’t just tell kids to develop a growth mindset, have more grit, or be resilient.  We need to create the conditions to support those things, even when — or maybe especially when — there is unbelievable pressure on performance outcomes.

When it comes to professional athletes looking to advance to or stay in the big leagues, the personal stakes are so high — more even than, dare I say it, school league tables. Yet what I heard time and time again was an emphasis on the process, not on the outcome. The mantra was effort, learning, and progress — not showing that you are better than others:  “stop trying to prove yourself, start trying to improve yourself”.  That should sound strikingly familiar to those of us working in educational psychology – anyone for a bit of achievement goal theory?

And there were so many other connections that weren’t highlighted explicitly, but came through implicitly in everything the coaches were saying.  The emphasis on how players can be supported to take ‘ownership’, on strategies to build team cohesion, and on ‘hunting the good’…?  It could almost be a step-by-step guide to supporting the needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence in self-determination theory.

I was also surprised to find many references to the challenges of coaching children, teens, and young adults in a rapidly changing world.  My notes include lots of scribbled arrows linking what the coaches were saying to our work on consumer culture, mental health and well-being in youths, and even mindfulness (there was a deceptively simple emphasis on mindful breathing at the highest level of sports).

I was really struck by the key messages with which the coaches ended the event.  The recap drew my attention to the importance of effort, respecting individuals’ autonomy, and self-improvement (including the Pirates’ translation of the Japanese concept of ‘kaizen’ into a continuous cycle of improvement, even if it’s one-tenth of one percent every day).  But one of the final interactions at the Coach Summit triggered another connection with our ongoing work with young people:  when asked what really makes the difference in coaching athletes, one of the coaches responded, simply, be kind.


With thanks for a great weekend to all at BaseballSoftballUK, and the fantastic coaches who shared their experience and wisdom:

  • Dave Turgeon, coordinator of coaching for the Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Pat Doyle, former coordinator of the MLB international coach envoy program
  • Cynthia Bristow, director of national teams for USA Softball
  • Jessica Moore, university coach and pitcher in Team USA fastpitch softball
  • Steve Shortland, head coach of Team USA slowpitch softball




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