Coach and young athlete laughing


May 30, 2016

The 10 Commandments of Coaching

Learn about the 10 research-backed techniques coaches can adopt to positively influence a young athlete's development. 

It is amazing to think that Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez were once teammates and close friends when both attended the University of Florida. There could not be two more polarizing figures in terms of positive and negative outcomes in the sporting arena. Tebow is well-known as a moral exemplar who engages in missionary work, philanthropy, and other prosocial activities in his community and around the globe. Hernandez, on the other hand, is currently being held without bail following his indictment on three murder charges. How have these two young men arrived at such disparate locations in their respective lives after sharing similar athletic involvement? More specifically, what about their youth sports participation has contributed to their moral development (or lack thereof) into adulthood?

Moral Development Concerns in Sports

The list of moral failures among athletes is long, and one does not need to look far back into the annals of history to remember the violent crimes (e.g., Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Michael Vick), substance abuse issues (e.g., Josh Brown), and cheating scandals (e.g., the New England Patriots “spygate” and “deflategate;” the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal) among athletes. However, there are plenty of athletes who exemplify the positive attributes of Tim Tebow (e.g., Russell Wilson), but who do not achieve the same level of attention or recognition due to a media slant towards the stories of social failure that sell.

Effective Coaching Techniques

Because of this discrepancy in behavioral outcomes for high profile athletes, it is natural for parents and coaches to wonder what impact sports are having on their children and athletes. Although the factors contributing to the development of young athletes are many and the explanations for outcomes can be complicated, researchers have discovered the role of the coach to be influential for many youth. Below you will find ten characteristics, identified by research, of coaches who are more successful in positively affecting the development of their young athletes.  Coaches are encouraged to adopt these attributes, and parents will do well to keep these findings in mind as they make decisions about their children’s involvement in different sports teams.

1. Promote your athlete’s sense of autonomy.

Hodge and Lonsdale found that an autonomy-supportive coaching style was associated with prosocial behavior toward other athletes.[1] Although coaches who are more restrictive or controlling with athletes may obtain immediate compliance, this way of relating reduces an athlete’s autonomy and appears to prevent athletes from accepting and internalizing moral values in the long run.

2. Avoid a “win-at-all costs” attitude.

Coaches who prioritize “winning at all costs” may view aggressive or other immoral behavior as legitimate if strategic gain is achieved. For example, the Saints bounty scandal and Patriots spy gate/deflate gate scandals.

3. Discourage antisocial/overly aggressive behavior toward opponents.

Chow, Murray, and Feltz found that the coach is the most influential person in determining athletes’ views about aggression.[2] There is a fine line between playing “aggressively” and behaving “antisocially.”

4. Encourage effective goal-setting among athletes.

Researchers found athletic involvement in youth to be linked with greater general psychological well-being through goal attainment.[3] More specifically, goals that are congruent with an athlete’s values and are set with a sense of ownership will motivate effort toward their attainment (even if they are not enjoyable).

5. Embody calm, even-tempered characteristics.

Allan developed the Assessment of Coach Emotions (ACE) instrument and discovered that athletes of “calm, inquisitive” coaches reported higher levels of prosocial behaviors and lower levels of antisocial behaviors than athletes of “intense, hustle” coaches.[4] Think “Zen” style of Phil Jackson over the “chair-throwing” antics of Bobby Knight.

6. Foster team cohesion.

Research has suggested that both task and social cohesion among teams to be associated with greater levels of positive youth development, including increased personal sacrifices, effort, and satisfaction.[5]

7. Praise athletes for effort and striving for goals, not just end result.

Coaches should encourage, praise, and reward behavior that demonstrates skill development or goal achievement rather than highlight behavior that focuses on gaining superiority over an opponent. Praise effort more than performance!

8. Encourage athletes to engage in other activities.

Youth involvement in a variety of different sports in addition to other types of activities offers the most benefits.[6],[7],[8] In short, coaches and parents should encourage athletes to scaffold athletic participation with various types of sports and different extracurricular activities altogether.

9. Model ethical behavior for your athletes.

Guivernau and Duda found that athletes’ moral decisions are strongly based on their perceptions of the coach’s norms for cheating and aggression.[9] Regardless of gender, these researchers discovered that athletes would be more likely to aggress if they thought their coach supported such behavior.

10. Incorporate mindfulness and deep breathing exercises into practice regimen.

Engaging in regular mindfulness and deep breathing exercises has been shown to both boost athletic performance and positively influence one’s health.[10]


[1] Hodge, K., & Lonsdale, C. (2011). Prosocial and antisocial behavior in sport: The role of coaching style, autonomous vs. controlled motivation, and moral disengagement. Journal of sport and exercise psychology33, 527.

[2] Chow, G., Murray, K.E., & Feltz, D. (2009). Individual, team, and coach predictors of players’ likelihood to aggress in youth soccer. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 3(4), 425-443.

[3] Smith, A., Ntoumanis, N., & Duda, J. (2007). Goal striving, goal attainment, and well-being: Adapting and testing the self-concordance model in sport. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology,29(6), 763-782.

[4] Allan, V. (2014). Examining the role of coaches’ emotions in the adolescent team sport environment (Master’s thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada). Available at

[5] Bruner, M. W., Eys, M. A., Wilson, K. S., and Côté, J. (2014). Group cohesion and positive youth development in team sport athletes. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology3, 219.

[6] Denault, A. S., and Poulin, F. (2008). Associations between interpersonal relationships in organized leisure activities and youth adjustment. Journal of Early Adolescence, 28, 477–502.

[7] Linver, M. R., Roth, J. L., and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2009). Patterns of adolescents’ participation in organized activities: Are sports best when combined with other activities. Developmental Psychology45, 354-367. doi:10.1037/a0014133

[8] Zarrett, N., Fay, K., Li, Y. B., Carrano, J., Phelps, E., and Lerner, R. M. (2009). More than child’s play: Variable- and pattern-centered approaches for examining effects of sports participation on youth development. Developmental Psychology, 45, 368–382.

[9] Guivernau, M., and Duda, J.L. (2002). Moral atmoshere and athletic aggressive tendencies in young soccer players. Journal of Moral Education, 31, 67–85.

[10] Kaufman, K.A., Glass, C.R., & Arnkoff, D.B. (2009). Evaluation of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE): A new approach to promote flow in athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3(4), 334-356

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