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Coaches can improve athletes' lives by being authentic leaders 

Athletes face a lot of pressure to perform, which can take a toll on their mental health. A new study from the University of Birmingham suggests that coaches can help the overall well-being of athletes by being authentic leaders.

According to the research, when coaches display authentic leadership qualities, their athletes are less likely to act aggressively towards competitors. 

Authentic leadership and mental health

The researchers looked at how coaches who are genuine and honest (authentic leaders) may influence the mental health of athletes. They wanted to see if this leadership style could boost the mental well-being of athletes.

The team surveyed 751 athletes of various ages, genders, and sports – from local teams to international competitors. The athletes answered questions about how they saw their coaches’ leadership, their own confidence and outlook (psychological capital), how their teammates treated them (supportive or mean), and their own mental health.

The findings suggest that authentic coaches can significantly improve the mental health of their athletes, both directly and indirectly. Athletes under authentic leaders felt happier, dealt with problems more easily, and experienced fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Key characteristics of authentic leaders

The study demonstrates that a coach’s job is about more than just winning games. Some of the key factors include:

Openness and transparency

Honest and straightforward coaches create a safe and trusting environment for their athletes. When coaches share information freely and clearly explain what’s expected, athletes feel more secure and less worried about their responsibilities. 

This openness also helps build respect between the coach and the athletes, which is a strong foundation for a positive team spirit.

Understanding strengths and weaknesses

Great coaches are skilled at figuring out what each athlete does well and where they might struggle. This lets them adjust their coaching style for each person, giving them the exact kind of help they need. 

When athletes feel like their coach sees their strengths and weaknesses, it can make them feel good about themselves and more confident. This directly helps their mental state and overall well-being.

Listening to different perspectives

When coaches actively listen to their athletes’ ideas and consider different viewpoints, it sends a strong message: the athletes’ voices and opinions are important. This creates a more inclusive environment where athletes feel empowered. 

Athletes gain a sense of control and involvement in how the team functions. Knowing their input is valued can significantly improve their mental well-being. It also fosters a strong team spirit built on mutual respect and a sense of belonging.

Increasing athletes’ trust and commitment

“Coaches are vital in influencing athletes’ development and must be encouraged to show high authentic leadership – being open with their athletes and including them in decision making, whilst behaving ethically, admitting to their mistakes, and speaking honestly,” noted Professor Kavussanu.

“Our study demonstrates that if a coach displays the attributes of an authentic leader this could have a positive impact on their athletes – increasing athletes’ trust, commitment, and enjoyment, and decreasing aggression.”

“Sport enjoyment is particularly important for continued participation in sport, which tends to decline with age. As such, coaches who display authentic behaviors can increase their athletes’ enjoyment, with significant positive implications for athletes’ physical and mental well-being.”

Coaches create a positive team atmosphere

Authentic leaders set a good example for how team members should treat each other. The experts found several ways that authentic leadership creates a positive team atmosphere. 

First, coaches who lead authentically tend to create an environment where teammates encourage and support each other more. This is probably because the coach themself acts this way towards the athletes, making it normal for the team to be positive and respectful. 

Moreover, coaches who are authentic leaders seem to make team members act more kindly towards each other. This includes things like helping each other out, giving compliments, and celebrating each other’s successes. 

These behaviors make the team feel more united. Importantly, authentic leadership also reduces negative behaviors like jealousy.

Less aggression, more focus

By showing the importance of fairness and good behavior, the coach helps the team have fewer conflicts and problems with each other. This makes the team more focused on working together towards their goals.

“Higher level athletes tend to train together for longer hours and have the opportunity for more frequent social interaction with each other,” said study lead author Professor Maria Kavussanu.

“The relationships that develop within the team become important, as do experiencing positive behaviors such as support and encouragement from their teammates, which can be promoted by coaches adopting an authentic leadership style.”

Key takeaways for coaches

This study offers a valuable lesson to coaches, showing that their influence goes beyond just teaching skills and winning games. 

By creating a supportive environment, they help athletes feel valued as people, not just for their performance. This leads to a positive team atmosphere where everyone feels encouraged and respected. 

“This may have greater potential to strengthen the athletes’ psychological capital making them more resilient, confident, and optimistic with subsequent beneficial effects on their positive mental health,” noted Professor Kavussanu.

“The stronger effect of authentic leadership on athletes’ competing at higher levels is a unique finding that is worth exploring further in future research.”

The study is published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.


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