The Challenge to Care: A Sports Perspective

We are proud to introduce our new international guest author Nathan Smith. Read about Nathan after the article.

An image from the recent Walker Cup (golf) has, for some reason, stuck in my mind.  Stiggy Hodgson, a member of the victorious Great Britain and Ireland squad left the course distraught after failing to contribute a single point. On camera, Stiggy was shown in tears. After a short while his captain, Nigel Edwards, joined him. What I saw over the next few seconds hit home the importance of feeling cared for. Edwards simply put his arm round his young player and I imagine what came next was something along the lines of “you tried your best, that’s all anyone can ask”. His affection, interest and respect for his player did not appear at all conditional on his performance.

This anecdote nicely compliments current research into caring sports climates. We know that climates, which encourage athletes’ feelings of care, inclusion, trust and acceptance, associate with positive outcomes and a heightened sense of well-being. Less clear, is how coaches can facilitate these feelings via the behaviors they adopt. A nice reflective exercise is to consider when you have had a particularly positive experience in sport yourself. Think about the interactions you had with you peers and the coach. How did they communicate a sense of acceptance, trust, and respect to you?

It may seem obvious, but one way in which you can show care is by simply taking an interest in your athletes’ lives outside of sport. Sports coaches often indicate that they don’t have time to speak to every player on their team during every session. This may be so. However, there will almost certainly be occasions where you can ask about the athlete’s day. In the case of youth sport, this might be as simple as asking about their day at school?

Satisfying individuals’ feelings of care, relatedness and belonging, are consistently cited in scientific literature, but still remain understudied. One such example is in self-determination theory. The gargantuan framework applied across varied domains, identifies ‘relatedness’ as a basic psychological need. Similar to a human’s need for water, food and shelter, these psychological needs, if satisfied, contribute towards positive psychosocial development. Having said this, relatedness support has tended to be overlooked in sports psychology research in favor of the needs for autonomy and competence.

To me, it is obvious. You are unlikely to achieve ‘buy-in’ from your athletes if they don’t think you ‘care’. It could be argued that satisfying the need for relatedness is as important, if not more, important than the other needs. For instance, I recall a particularly negative experience I had in sport, whereby my coach at the time didn’t make me feel cared for. As a young golfer I would go for lessons fortnightly. It came to the point where I needed a change to develop my game further, so, I decided to seek the help of a different coach. After three or four lessons, it was clear that the coach was only interested in his £20 per half hour rate. I’m pretty sure by week four he still didn’t even know my name! To me, it didn’t matter how skilled the coach was, how competent I felt, or how much autonomy I had, if the person I was visiting took no interest in my development.

To finish, I would like you to think about the some of the famous sporting movies. Remember the Titans, Coach Carter and The Mighty Ducks are some great examples, but there are no doubt many others. These fictitious movies carry the same underlying message. The coach cares. He may seem to be a hard-nosed ‘son of a bitch’, but if you watch carefully, the performance of the team relies heavily on the investment, time and commitment of the coach. In the Mighty Ducks, when Gordon Bombay neglects his athletes to chase the pretty Icelandic blonde their performance suffers. Only when he shows them true care and attention do they prosper.

This piece was inspired by Nel Noddings’ book The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education (1992). Its sole purpose is to raise the agenda of care, and encourage readers to reflect on how they can purvey care to their athletes, colleagues and clients.

Nathan Smith is a currently studying for a PhD in the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Birmingham. Specifically, his research relates to the development and testing of an objective measure of the coach created motivational climate in sport. Prior to his PhD, Nathan worked at the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) as a Training Executive in sports science and golf coaching. He is currently a tutor and marker on the PGA’s foundation degree program, which educates over 300 aspiring professionals each year.

Read other texts by Nathan on: http://www.psyched4sport.co.uk

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  1. Pingback: New interesting text by a guest author! | Fredrikweibull's Blog

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