Communication Currents

Enduring Impact of Coach Messages

August 1, 2007
Sports Communication

Sport culture is abounding with opportunities for sport fans to observe coach-athlete interaction during competitive situations. As a spectator or through the media, we are given open access to the interaction on the sidelines, in the huddle, or practices as coaches guide athlete performance. One might observe the on- and off-court behaviors of coaching legends like Bobby Knight Woody Hayes , and Vince Lombardi and wonder how they are able to instruct, motivate, and guide players to perform at high levels. What types of performance feedback does a coach provide behind the scenes in the confines of the locker room when afforded the opportunity for more intimate, and often private, interaction with players? Does the interaction in these contexts have immediate and long-term implications for players? In a study of high school athletes and their coaches, the messages coaches use were found to predict how athletes evaluate their experience, or even produce feelings of regret as they reflect upon what could have or should have happened.

Regret is an emotion that emerges as people experience hardships, misfortunes, or mistakes, and can emerge in two different ways. As one anticipates what might happen as a result of their actions, the regret they anticipate causes them to reflect upon consequences that can be avoided by selecting a more appropriate course of action. Counterfactual regret, on the other hand, occurs after an event or crisis as people consider what could have been if the circumstances had changed. The more control athletes have over their actions, the more heightened sense of regret they will experience. Recently in the NBA playoffs, LeBron James was highly criticized by the press and Cleveland Caviler fans for passing the ball to a teammate who eventually missed the last second shot. The emotional turmoil he or any player in this situation would experience is a form of counterfactual regret. Internally answering the questions like “Why did I pass the ball,” “Would I have had a better chance to make it,” “Why did it end up in my hands at the end of the game?” are questions players are likely to contemplate. When coaches communicate how an antecedent (event, actions, behaviors) is tied to an outcome (a last second loss, the end of an athlete's career), they are employing messages that are prone to invoke feelings of regret for athletes.

Coaches have a tendency to rely upon a range of regret messages during the pre-game, halftime, and post-game speeches for high school teams. Most recently, coaches for boys' and girls' high school basketball were found to employ six different types of regret messages. The most commonly used regret messages include Individual Performance Regret used during the pre-game and post-game speeches. Coaches often described how things like playing hard, listening to their direction, hustling on the court, communicating with teammates were connected to a team's ability to win. Most important, coaches often tied these individual performance qualities to an athlete's playing status. For many young athletes, playing status is an important outcome they strive to achieve and maintain, and girls' coaches especially had a tendency to focus athlete attention to this important sport outcome. Accountability Regret was used almost exclusively during the post-game speech as coaches reflected upon the causes for team successes and failures. Coaches often discussed how a lack of individual focus, ineffective communication, and performance by substitutes resulted in a loss for the team. The coaches' account for the team's performance represents an important coach-focused narrative for how players performed.

Social Significance Regret messages were exemplified primarily during pre-game speeches when coaches focused on framing the game as a socially significant event for their players. Playing a team rival, conference opponent, the last home game, or the last game for seniors represented instances for how the game had meaning beyond the simple act of playing. The heightened sense of importance adds value for the players, and poor performance would invoke a stronger sense of regret because of the social significance of the game. During halftime speeches, coaches had a tendency to rely upon Collective Failure Regret messages as they discussed how the lack of individual or team performance was linked to the level of disappointment or embarrassment the coach was experiencing. “You are making me look bad as a coach,” “I will not associate myself with losers,” or “I thought I coached you better than this,” were statements coaches made to connect poor performance to the coach. The regret these statements provoked would conceivably be stronger in those situations where a strong coach-athlete relationship existed.

The final two types of regret messages represented coaches' attempts at Regret Reduction or a focus on Future Regret during post-game interactions with players. After a team loss, many coaches used regret reduction to soften the impact from the conclusion of the season. Also an emphasis on the importance of learning from mistakes and leaving them in the past allowed the team to improve and play better in the games to come. Future regret messages were used as coaches reflected on the events from the game or season and then discussed future implications for the team's performance. This served as a time for the coach to frame the long-term or lasting sense of regret a team might experience, and was used to their advantage to increase athlete preparation for upcoming events. “When you don't practice hard during the week, this is how you are going to feel when you get beat next week,” or “The time you put in during the off-season will define our success next year,” are examples of coach statements of future regret messages.

Examining coaches' messages provides an important tool for evaluating the underlying and subtle nuances for how coaches tie together the causes for athletic outcomes. Coaches had a tendency to describe player effort as an important antecedent for a team's outcome (“Lose your edge and you lose the game,” or “Step-up and take the initiative to help the team get over the top”). Importantly, athlete effort is one variable that coaches can successfully manipulate by emphasizing the level of regret athletes may attribute to their lack of effort at the end of the game. A second point to consider is that athletes may experience various levels of regret after interpreting these regret messages. The severity of their regret depends largely on athlete characteristics (starting status, sex, point in one's playing career) that coaches should consider as they use these messages with their players. This is especially true for messages that reduce regret or foster future regret as a technique for encouraging development in the off-season. Pointing to increased effort in the off-season would do more to increase regret for senior athletes who have played their last game. Such messages are more suitable for returning players, where a separate more intimate discussion with players to reduce regret would be most beneficial for those athletes at the end of their career.