With all this information, other research including Cote and colleagues’ developmental model of sport participation, self-determination theory and positive youth development, personal desire to research and offer perspectives in mind, I began my research into why elite age grade rugby union players play their sport and what they look for from their environments and coaches, by ways of motivation, emotional support and learning assistance throughout these critical years of development. Additional to my background within the sport, I wanted to investigate players who are entering both a perceived period of sport specialisation and new stage of personality development, combining a period of high commitment and increased stress towards sport participation.
With Rugby Australia’s support, this led me to constructing a personal strivings research project amongst the strategically important cohort of players for Rugby Australia involved in Super 20 Championship of 2017, which shall provide a better understanding of what motivates, engages and drives these current young, elite Australian rugby players through investigating what players typically or characteristically trying to achieve on regular basis within the sport and on a personal level. These markers would be considered important remembering athlete burnout can result from chronically frustrated or unfulfilled basic physiological needs and previous research has shown the possession of and progression towards important life goals such as personal strivings are linked to long term well-being.
The data was collected at two different stages; the first was during the high competition stage in last 3 weeks of Super 20 competition in March and second was on return to club environment in September after completion of U20 WC and Super Rugby commitments for some. In the first or highly competitive period of the season, it was shown that most involved players are more concerned with success, continuous improvement and setting or achieving identified levels of excellence within rugby, more so than improving personal well-being, happiness and avoiding challenges faced in sport. It is suggested from this research these players portray themselves as highly driven individuals, focused on perceived success within rugby and there was a substantially significant increase in answers mentioning personal health, happiness, appreciation and well-being when looking at identified non-sport specific goals, away from the rugby environment.
Interestingly, players from all states involved displayed reduced numbers of intimacy and affiliation strivings in global/non-rugby specific strivings, suggesting once away from the goal focused atmosphere of rugby, their focus is less on approval, acceptance or concern for others around them and more driven for personal happiness, well-being and improving aspects of themselves. Around 80% of involved players intimacy strivings, which are goals that express desire for close, reciprocal relationships, were found in non-rugby specific daily activities, suggesting they seek stronger interpersonal relations away from their sport and have greater loyalty and responsibility to those involved in different areas of their lives when involved in high performance section of rugby season.
An example of this was displayed in the answers offered from players aged 18 year old (some of the youngest in the programs), the term “respect” is used more frequently (15 x) than “fun” (4) and “enjoy” (8) across all strivings, which could be seen as the building of relationships and growing appreciation towards other coaches and players involved within the program or could be seen as failure of the program to combine enjoyment as part of ethos and environment alongside the development of players as individuals and success of states and programs. Psychologists such as Erikson support the belief that a key developmental trait of adolescents and early adults is forming intimate relationships and therefore, we as sports coaches and practitioners could be supporting this area of development within our practices and should be responding to the athlete’s expectations.
The second data collection collected during return to club environment echoed trends found in the high competition phase; while these players are highly motivated and show high levels of achievement strivings, particularly in sports settings, intimacy and personal growth strivings such as happiness, meaningful, quality relationships and appreciation are heavily displayed away from rugby settings. Their achievement goals within rugby at both stages of the season were very much individualised and personally focused, looking to improve themselves and their capabilities as opposed to “winning” or collaborative success.
Both data collections displayed the players recognising the coaches as a resource more than part of relationship, using affiliation terms and goals when mentioning coaches. It appears players relationships with coaches are concerned with seeking approval or generalising statements where players appear to be concerned with social group or playing squad acceptance. This works with previous research suggesting the importance of coach-athlete harmonious relationships and coach acting as a supportive element to player driven development and athlete autonomy. However, are we as coaches being too prescriptive in our approach as opposed to supporting player driven environments to help support these age grade player’s curiosity and imagination? Suggestions from collected data indicate that players in this elite participation mindset are looking for or requiring Vygotskian approach akin to Zone of Proximal Development approach like outlined below. However, previous research has shown high quality coach-athlete relationships, which are optimised by harmonious passion, result in higher subjective well-being within player (Lafrenière, 2008), an area which is critical for age grade player retention and development of self-determined motivations and mastery mindset. We need to ascertain what the player wants and expects from us to create an optimal learning and performance atmosphere.
Coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Therefore, coaches within age grade sports programs could adopt ideas from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where this theory has the coach standing as a recognised more capable other to the athlete with their requirement being to engage in contextual collaborative and learning relationship with athletes to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance. Zone of proximal development (ZPD) as defined by Vygotsky, is an area I believe would be successfully applicable to PYD promotion and specialising athletes in team sports such as rugby union. This theory encourages players to ask questions and adopt sub routines; therefore, the players are taking over the structure of tasks and practice while acquiring performance or transfer of performance. This again allows coaches to act as mentors, supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies. This supports the ideas of learning being a series of episodes; scaffolding, where players identify and build knowledge, offering guidance through development by focused questions and positive interactions and allowing players to explore.
These studied theories could be supported by Entwistle and Smith’s research (2002); this allows an athlete to explore personal understanding of subject or sport in question, assisted with relevant, timely and challenging feedback from coach or mentor. These theories promote the ideas of both learner/athlete and educator/coach to act, reflect, evaluate, plan and experiment prior to acting and starting the cycle over again. These processes offer both players and coaches security to adopt and test skills in preparation for competitive environment, understanding that all involved parties can reflect and plan new strategies if required. As opposed to a coach led or directive approach, it offers players autonomy to internally understand sport expectations and how they may offer new solutions or scenarios to develop mastery approach or elite status.
Studies have shown that athlete satisfaction is related to the degree to which athletes understand their role and responsibilities within interactive sports teams. (Eys, 2007). The main aspects of influential and successful coach-athlete relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship. Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply ingrained within the coach-athlete relationship. Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognitions, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Therefore, a coach’s ability to acknowledge and develop positive interpersonal connections, driven by interpersonal skills and united sense of purpose and achievement, can offer solid base for positive group climate. As in Positive Youth Development models, a coach should look to offer opportunities to continually develop strengths, improve performance and increase positive emotional states.