New work highlights physical, mental, social benefits of caring climate in sports

LAWRENCE — The story is often told of athletes or coaches who consulted a sports psychologist to help overcome an obstacle to their success on the field. A University of Kansas researcher has contributed to a new edition of a book on psychology in sports detailing years of work showing that when athletes perceive a caring climate in their sport, the benefits show up from the field of play to mental, physical, social and other areas of their lives.

Mary Fry, professor of educational psychology at KU, has long studied a caring, task-involved climate in sport, where the focus is on supporting athletes, caring for them as individuals and encouraging fun and growth instead of placing emphasis on competition and punishing mistakes. She reflects on the research, benefits of a caring environment and how coaches can implement it in a chapter in the new book “Social Psychology in Sport” second edition, edited by Louise David of Umea University in Sweden, Richard Keegan of the University of Canberra in Australia and Sophia Jowett of Loughborough University.

“Writing a review chapter like this gives you a chance to reflect on the work you’ve done, reflect on where we are at, where we’re moving and research directions coming up,” Fry said. “We’ve done almost 20 years of research on caring climates, but it’s still one of the newer areas in motivation. We had a chance here to focus on what we’ve found about the good outcomes when coaches and athletes perceive a caring climate.”

The chapter, written with co-author Lori Gano-Overway of James Madison University, examines those outcomes in detail. Fry and colleagues’ research has shown numerous benefits of a caring climate in social behaviors of athletes, including liking their teammates more, feeling a sense of belonging, compassion for peers, social self-esteem and more prosocial and caring behaviors. In keeping with the book’s theme on sport psychology, Fry’s work has found psychological well-being outcomes such as increased sense of hope and happiness and ability to regulate positive and negative emotional responses.

A big part of any coach’s job is to motivate players, and Fry and Gano-Overway detail findings of increased effort among athletes in the caring climate as well as commitment to continue playing and continued participation in the future. The latter is especially important in youth sports as large numbers of young people decline to continue with a sport at each increase in age ranges, Fry said.

Mental and life skills and physical health have also been positively associated with the caring climate, as studies have shown athletes have improved coping skills, more mindfulness, confidence in their ability to explore future careers after sport, an increased willingness to share concussion symptoms with coaches, increased care for their physical health and returning to play only when fully healed from concussions.

The benefits of a caring sport climate may seem like they should be intuitive, yet an ego-driven climate is often the default, Fry said. And criticism of the approach often claims it is soft or not as likely to be successful in terms or performance or wins and losses. However, study results have shown that when athletes perceive they are in a caring climate, they record more assists, commit fewer turnovers, are more motivated and more likely to feel they reached their full potential during the season.

“It simply makes sense that a climate that makes you feel safe and comfortable in which you’re not afraid of making mistakes enables you to be able to perform better,” Fry said.

In addition to detailing the benefits of a caring climate, the chapter helps detail how coaches can implement the practice with their own teams. By helping coaches understand the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of why the approach works, the authors also share practical advice on how to tailor the approach through personal and situational factors that will vary by sport, team and athletes taking part.

Fry and Gano-Overway’s chapter is one of four in “Social Psychology in Sport” dealing with motivational considerations. The book also has parts dedicated to relationships in sport, leadership, key social and cognitive processes and the athlete in the wider sport environment.

While results have consistently shown benefits for athletes and coaches, the authors close their chapter discussing future directions for research. Much of the work thus far has been done in a laboratory setting, or with a relatively small number of coaches. Upcoming work will detail how a caring climate implemented throughout a school district with all coaches and teams can be done and what benefits it may have. Other research will examine how an individual’s personality type influences benefits of a caring climate and how interventions can be designed to help coaches and athletes.

"Even in the short interventions we’re seeing compelling results,” Fry said. “What’s of greater interest now is focusing on interventions in the ‘real sports world’ to gather data on results with athletes in this environment and connecting it with coaches in pre and post designs.”

Wed, 06/26/2024


Mike Krings

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