Coaches may have playbooks spanning multiple binders or dry erase boards stained from years of use, but the ultimate measure of their performance may come down to two potent tools at their disposal: acceptance and challenge.
Greg Cranmer, assistant professor in the Clemson University Department of Communication, believes most coaching interactions boil down to these two avenues of communication. Acceptance can come in the form of verbal praise while reviewing film of a game or positive feedback delivered during a one-on-one session. Challenge, while harder to nail down, can be found in a good-natured call to improve or a fiery halftime speech that endorses the potential of athletes to succeed.
Cranmer said that all coaches use these tools, but his research suggests that coaches’ use of confirming behavior with athletes—and their effectiveness in communicating that confirmation—may be one of the keys to not only good relationship and team building, but to winning as well.
“Previous communication research in this area has traditionally ignored task performance in terms of winning,” Cranmer said. “For coaches who work at competitive levels, ignoring winning is problematic because it coincides with their job security, an organization’s stability and financial viability, and the community’s involvement or economy.”
While Cranmer warns that coaches shouldn’t overprioritize winning—doing so with young children can set dangerous precedents—it can arguably be a greater focus at higher levels of competition. Cranmer said that winning is often a natural byproduct of the positive benefits of effective confirmation. As coaches effectively accept and challenge their players, they build player skills and team cohesion, which are vital components of a successful team of any kind.
Cranmer explained that his research suggests that confirmation’s impact on winning is fully based upon its ability to create task cohesion. In other words, when a coach gets those core concepts correct and brings a team together, the use of acceptance and challenge can be shown to lead to winning.
“The tricky thing about challenge is a coach can’t just say ‘do better,’” Cranmer said. “The communication must validate an individual’s worth and who they can become. I’m not sure a lot of coaches we would point to are hitting upon that as much as we’d like them to. It’s an art as much as it is a science.”
Cranmer’s research surveyed 117 student-athletes across five universities and multiple team sports including football, soccer, baseball, basketball, crew, rowing, softball and volleyball. Survey results were quantified so that Cranmer could attempt to make some generalizations across all athletes and sports represented, although even he admits that he’s just beginning to scratch the surface of a truly complex, multi-faceted topic.
He said the research suggests that at the collegiate level, head coaches have been shown to have less of a direct impact on player performance, but where their true power lies is in the way they influence team climate and culture and through the people they bring on staff.
Cranmer explains that the different variables and motivations in play among teams can truly complicate the matters under investigation. For example, starters want to be praised for what they do on the field, and backups want to be praised for their efforts in general. The very nature of competition within a team muddies the research waters.
“A team works together, but internally the players compete for resources,” Cranmer said. “A coach may offer pro-social attention to one athlete, but that attention may have an unintended detrimental effect on another. There are many grey areas, but this is a relatively new area of research in communication so it’s research that begins to frame the question.”
Cranmer, who wrestled from a young age through high school, has always been interested in different coaches’ approaches. His research into confirmation has caused him to look back on the work of some of his own coaches in the past under a different light. It has revealed to him that the dynamics in team sports versus something more singular—tennis, wrestling, track and field—create an entirely different set of circumstances and variables to consider in the area of confirmation.
“This may explain why in a sport such as track and field or gymnastics, you don’t often see as many aggressive coaching styles,” Cranmer said. “Those coaches tend to be more laid back and personal, offering advice to players instead of overt challenge.”
The Department of Communication is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.
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