Do we actually know or understand fully what adolescent athletes want or need?

So, why did I start this research with this age grade within rugby union….?

Being a father first and having a son whom has picked up and fallen out of love for rugby union now three times, we sat down and discussed reasons why he became disenchanted with the game I cherished so much. A lot of this stemmed from coaching ideas and practices, non-harmonious coaching practices and lack of enjoyment through intensive, regimented practices with less play or game-based environments. Therefore, I started to consider ideas how I as a coach, parent, practitioner and research student could offer new ideas or perspectives for age grade players coming through and the environments they are learning and developing in, having been involved in Rugby Australia age grade programs and Colts programs across Brisbane rugby for 10 years.

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I started looking at elite age grade athletes and adolescent behaviours in general. Erikson (1968) recognised that adolescents are entering a stage of development where they are strengthening their views towards their identity; who they are, what they are about and where they are going in life. Psychologists such as Cote (2009) and Arnett (2006) disputed this extended into early adulthood yet both ages were applicable to my research and the players involved in the programs I was investigating. Arnett also looked at the instability through changing circumstances and greater levels of self-focus due to increased autonomy as areas within early adulthood, starting around 18 years of age. However, if these ideas of identity exploration are discovered in a healthy manner and arrive at a positive path to follow, they shall more likely achieve a positive identity. Therefore, why do we as sports coaches think this doesn’t extend to between the white lines of our sports pitches?

Adolescents unsurprisingly experience many cognitive changes at this stage; Kuhn (2009) believes one of the most important is the improvement in executive functioning, which involves higher order cognitive activities such as reasoning, decision making and monitoring progress improvements to permit more effective learning and engage in critical thinking. Schaie and Willis (200) also believed early adults (18+ year olds) progress in their use of intellect and Commons and Bresette’s research (2006) seen a switch from acquiring knowledge to applying knowledge and move to postformal thought, where more reflective thinking is needed to answer problems when emotions and subjective factors effect decisions. Again, why do we as sports coaches think this doesn’t extend to between the white lines of our sports pitches?? Us as coaches, parents or mentors offering opportunity for adolescents to improve critical thinking could assist increased breadth of knowledge in adopted areas of interest, greater range and more spontaneous use of strategies for applying or obtaining knowledge and increased speed and capacity of information processing, freeing cognitive resources for other purposes. I believe in all sports, yet especially dynamic team sports, the development of these skills would be important as part of sports and personal development and highly desired in elite levels.

Piaget addressed that adolescents develop images of ideal circumstances as they move beyond concrete experiences and think about abstract and more logical terms, solving problems in systematic fashion and testing developed hypotheses. People and players in this example start to have thoughts towards idealism and ideal characteristics in themselves and others, creating largely healthy comparisons against these standards. This supports some of my previous writing where I believe sports coaching has become overly prescriptive at this age grade level as opposed to creating competitive yet creative atmospheres where players drive the discovery and tone of development. Most psychologists acknowledge the increased push for autonomy and responsibility amongst adolescents. We as coaches, parents or practitioners should relinquish some control in areas where players can make reasonable or safe decisions yet recognise minor disputes and negotiations by players or adolescents in general serve as positive developmental functions from being dependent to an autonomous individual.  However, this age of athletes also experiences rapid changes to social development neuroscience proven by research such as Nelson (2003) whom explained regarding brain development where adolescents are capable of strong emotions, yet their prefrontal cortex hasn’t developed a point of controlling emotions; combined with mismatch of developing physical body structures, this can heighten the identity crisis as researched by Erikson.

Another area of importance is acknowledging social media has a big part to play within adolescents and early adults’ lives, shaping their friendship circles and personal view on themselves and people around them. Research by Bukowski, Motzoi and Meyer (2009) found that adolescents depend more of friends to satisfy needs for companionship, reassurance of worth and intimacy. However, boys with more or higher number of online friends showed lower self-esteem and increased loneliness (Donchi and Moore, 2004) while face to face friendships had a greater effect and improvement on wellbeing with males; this shall be highlighted when looking at intimacy strivings, which are typical goals that express desire for close, reciprocal relationships, in my research details. Within social media, Valkenburg and Peter (2009) found that approximately 1 in 3 adolescents self-disclose their thoughts and feeling better online than in person, with boys reported as more comfortable and probably larger ratio. However, I believe social media is also one of the causes for increased adolescent egocentrism; Elkind (1976) looked at heightened self-conscious of adolescents through key components of imaginary audience and personal fable. Personal fable looks at the part of egocentrism that involves an adolescent’s sense of uniqueness invincibility or invulnerability while, more prevalent, looks at imaginary audience where adolescents believe that others are interested in them as they see themselves, increasing a desire to be noticed, visible and on stage.

This area of imaginary audience come back to areas I’ve previously discussed of mindset (whether players have or are encouraged to develop growth mindset over fixed) and their goal alignment. Players aligned with task involvement goals, whom judge their competency through self-referenced targets or goals, are recognised as evoking high effort to obtain mastery and continually improve personal performance. Their ability and effort are not differentiated by others and the perceived ability is self-determined and success only realised when mastery is achieved. Ego involvement or orientation shows athletes more concerned with their evaluation against normative standards and recognise success as measurement against others, which is now infinity more conman in the world of social media, when performing as equal as others with less effort; therefore, not displaying striving for mastery or being focused on task. These players have ego-based goals and they differentiate their effort and perceived ability, based on social aspects surrounding them, again displaying the lack the patience and effort required to find these desired emotions like suggested by Simon Sinek when talking about Millennials.



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.

What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act to these adolescent athletes? Meaningful connections are key here. Engage on a significant and sincere level and teach our young athletes or leaders to do likewise. To look at relatedness, leaders and coaches should start by raising expectations for what is needed and expected from connections to others. In sport specific research, Chan and Mallett recognised that high performing coaches require additional skills including ability to facilitate functioning leader-follower relationships, revolving around emotional intelligence and empathy, beyond the standard technical and tactical skills (Chan, 2011). Jowett’s research into coach-athlete relationships looked at the interrelated emotions and behaviours captured through constructs of commitment, closeness and complimentary, tied in later studies with coordination (Jowett, 2004). In this sports research, commitment within coach-athlete relationships is recognised as intention to maintain a loyal, long term relationship while showing closeness as mutual trust, respect and appreciation for roles played in partnership. The coach’s and athlete’s ability to have mutual relatedness, common ground in beliefs and actions while having stress-free interpersonal behaviours displays coordination and complimentary aspects for successful coach-athlete relationships, something apparently missing during my discussions with my son prior to starting research.

The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognised as an educational dynamic relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionally are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships. The role of performance coach for specialising late adolescent athlete is highly important. At this stage, coaches shall be “preparing athletes for consistent high-level competitive performance” (Côté, 2009a) through effective tactics such as integration of professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and developing player’s specific competence, confidence, connection, and character needs on regular basis. Therefore, understanding player personal strivings shall have positive impact on learning and development relationship.

So again, do we actually know or understand fully what these young athletes want or need? Exactly what we want in return; passion, commitment, meaningful communications and relationships, support to choose and make decisions, following instinct while offering honest feedback on performance and support for a growth mindset; all things we must educate, support and train to others.

 I would like to thank my advisors Steven Rynne and Cliff Mallet from UQ for their patience, guidance and assistance in constructing, performing and presenting this investigation, Tristan Coulter from QUT for his advice and feedback on certain areas of study’s execution and involvement in milestones and Rugby Australia for their interest in this study, and the access and support they provided that allowed it to occur.