LAWRENCE — Contrary to stereotypes, the hypermasculine world of football can be one in which coaches focus on creating a positive experience, reinforcing good efforts and helping players grow, instead of punishing mistakes. Researchers from the University of Kansas have authored a study in which they helped coaches at a Native American university implement a motivational climate program, which proved a boon to both players and coaches.
Joseph Claunch, doctoral student, was the head football coach at Zuni High School on the Zuni Pueblo Reservation in Zuni, New Mexico. Like any coach, he wondered how to get the best efforts out of his players.
“I had questions about why my athletes at times lacked motivation,” Claunch said. “I wanted to come back to school and learn about the science of motivation.”
Claunch was a running back at Haskell Indian Nations University in 2002 and had read the work of Mary Fry, associate professor of health, sport and exercise sciences at nearby KU. As a research team they decided to test a motivational climate program based on Achievement Goal Perspective Theory and a caring framework at Haskell. Fry had researched and written about both topics. However, there was little research into developing a positive motivational climate in the hyperaggressive, hypermasculine world of college football and none at an institution as diverse as Haskell. Claunch and Fry presented the study at the Association of Applied Sport Psychology conference, and it will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching.
Claunch had a natural connection with the Haskell football program as an alumnus, former player, former coach and member of the Puyallup Tribe.
“Each one of us had played there, each one of us had coached there, and the coaches were all committed to the program. We had a strong association,” Claunch said of himself and the eight-person coaching staff, only one of whom was in a paid position.
Haskell represented the only all-Native American college football team in the United States at the time of the study in 2012 and 2013. The program has since been discontinued. One of the greatest challenges the team faced was student retention. At the beginning of the first season of the study, the team consisted of three seniors, zero juniors, 24 sophomores and 68 incoming freshmen. Retention of Native American college students is a problem nationwide and hit Haskell’s football program especially hard.
The program’s head coach indicated a willingness to try a caring, task-centered approach to coaching:
- Athletes are praised for their high effort and improvement and cooperation with teammates
- Athletes are made to feel like they play an important role on the team
- Mistakes are considered part of learning and growing as an athlete.
This caring and task-focused climate is in contrast to a more common ego-driven environment, in which mistakes are punished, top players are favored, interteam rivalry is encouraged, and players are made to fear any action that could result in lost playing time.
“This staff had worked very hard to recruit students, and they were dedicated to keeping them there,” Claunch said. “These coaches really wanted to do right by their athletes. Even in the previous approach, some of the coaches used fear and the power of their position to motivate because they thought it was the best way. It was the way their coaches treated them as players. But in experimenting with the caring and task-involving coaching approach, the coaches had these ‘aha moments’ as the season went along.”
Those “aha moments” led not only to an understanding of positive motivation, but the team’s best ever retention rate and increased satisfaction from the players and coaches.
Given football’s aggressive nature, some coaches showed initial resistance to using a caring, task-focused approach.
“They asked questions like, ‘We’re not going to punish mistakes now? That seems crazy,’” Fry said of the initial introduction. “What that thinking misses is understanding why a mistake happened in the first place and how it can be corrected. Research shows that when people are having fun and are allowed to learn from their mistakes in a constructive manner, they try harder and feel more connected.”
During the initial introduction to the program, the researchers shared previous studies on positive climates in sport, quotes from famous coaches on using a positive approach and clips of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden on his philosophy of focusing on the growth of the athlete first and outcomes second. Three coaches who showed initial resistance to the approach were interviewed at the end of the season, and all three realized the value by season’s end.
“I recall screaming at a kid one time because I felt like he wasn’t giving me his best effort, he was kind of, kind of giving me a little bit of attitude as well," one coach said in an interview. "And I came back with a little bit of aggression in my voice, maybe my body language, and I totally changed from that spring and summer to this school year to the football season to someone who is actually seeing the same person, same kid, maybe have the same kind of action like he was kind of down, he wasn’t giving his full, his best effort. And instead of yelling at him, I asked him what was going on.
"I asked, ‘You all right, you know? You OK?,’ and no he wasn’t, he wasn’t doing OK. He was sick and he lost a relative, you know. It made me think back ... well maybe if I would have done that this summer, I could have pinpointed if something was wrong with him and I could have done a better job. I feel like I have become more of a nurturing mentor other than just someone who will just yell at you, and I feel good about that.”
The staff agreed to a “coaches' pact,” an agreement that they would all commit to creating a positive environment throughout the year and posted it in the locker room so the entire team was aware of and committed to the new approach.
“After we put everything on the table, the coaching staff agreed this approach of putting the student-athlete first was more in line with the mission of Haskell and the traditional ways of many tribes,” Claunch said. “They realized the ego-driven approach is common in football, but it’s not the only way.”
The coaches reported that not only did they have their best retention rate ever in a positive environment, but that they felt more connected to their fellow coaches, more connected with their players and that they were even better husbands, fathers and family members. Being in a caring environment simply made it easier to get up every day and look forward to work, Fry said.
Previous studies have shown that youth who take part in sporting leagues in which their coaches had 90 minutes of training in positive, task-focused environments dropped out at only about 5 percent, while their peers dropped out at roughly 25 percent.
“We’re seeing that at all levels of sport,” Fry said. “What that tells us is we need to do a better job of training coaches early to create positive environments in sport.”
Claunch, who plans to graduate in May and has accepted a position back in Zuni with their Zuni Youth Enrichment Program, said the approach could mean not only better personal relationships and more fun, but better performance outcomes as well.
“I think, in sport, a lot of people are looking for the edge. And in my mind, this is the edge,” he said. “Better performance, better relationships with players are all benefits. It requires effort, but we see these results in coaches and players.”