The coach-athlete relationship is very important, with a healthy coach-athlete relationship resulting in a myriad of positive outcomes for both individuals and also the team overall. Many college and university athletic departments experience high rates of coach turnover. However, the majority of research on coach turnover has focused on the coach, rather than the athletes involved. Given the importance of the coach-athlete relationship for the athletes, how does coach turnover impact the student-athletes’ affective states and the team dynamics?
We investigated this question by conducting interviews and focus groups with student-athletes, new coaches, and academic department administrators who had recently undergone coach turnover at a small Division 1 NCAA institution in the Midwest. A total of four new coaches, 21 junior or senior student-athletes, and two administrative staff participated in the study. The student-athletes participated in both independent (e.g., swimming) and interdependent (e.g., soccer) sports, and reported having between 10 and 19 years of experience competing in their sports. Six student-athletes held formal leadership roles on their team (e.g., captain). The coaches also represented independent and interdependent teams and reported having between 16 and 20 years of coaching experience in their sport, with between one semester and two years of experience in their current coaching position. The two administrative staff participants from the athletics department reported having eight and ten years of experience working in athletics, respectively.
We conducted four individual coach interviews, two individual interviews with athletics administrative staff, 11 focus groups and interviews with student-athletes, and analyzed one newspaper article. The interviews and focus groups were all led by the same researcher, were audio recorded to ensure accuracy of information, and lasted between 13 and 34 minutes. The interviews began with a few brief demographic questions (e.g., how long have you been playing or coaching your sport?) and then participants were asked two core open-ended questions regarding the focus areas of this study: student-athlete affective states and team dynamics. For example, ‘Describe how it has been like for you and your team since you had a head coaching change.’ Some participants were asked follow-up questions as needed, such as, ‘Can you give an example of how your team became closer through the coaching change?’
So how does coach turnover impact the student-athletes’ affective states and the team dynamics?
Characteristics of the coach matter. Participants described how two specific characteristics of the coach – the new coach’s style of coaching and their gender – impacted the quality of the coach turnover. When the incoming coach’s gender was the same as the athletes’, this seemed to result in a more positive transition. However, when the new coach’s gender was different from the athletes’, this appeared to result in a more negative transition. In addition to gender, the speed at which the new coach implemented changes also played an important role. New coaches who implemented changes at a slower pace experienced a more positive turnover than coaches who more quickly made changes. Similarly, new coaches who seemed to have a coaching style that was dramatically different from the previous coach also experienced a more negative turnover.
Coach turnover impacts athlete confidence and anxiety. Some new coaches are able to foster a climate that results in more positive affect, especially increased confidence and decreased anxiety. Student-athletes reported some new coaches were able to enhance their confidence by emphasizing the importance of success in multiple areas, such as in the classroom and in the community, and not just on the athletic field. Other student-athletes reported their coaches had not yet established strong relationships with each of the players yet, making the athletes feel as if the coaches didn’t know how to build each athlete’s confidence at that time. Some athletes also experienced increased anxiety following the turnover, likely due to the coaching change and the uncertainties that come with a coaching change.
Coach turnover affects important team processes. A number of changes in team dynamics were also noted, some merely due to the team experiencing a coach turnover, and others because of behaviors the new coach did or did not perform. Some student-athletes reported that simply going through a coach turnover brought the team closer together and enhanced cohesion. Others, however, described a decrease in team cohesion if the new coach did not actively work to enhance cohesion by implementing team building activities. Team communication was also impacted by the coach turnover. Some athletes described a positive coach turnover when their new coach was very clear with their expectations and explained the reason behind changes and decisions. On the other hand, those athletes who reported experiencing a more negative turnover experience noted a decrease in team communication. One athlete observed that the new coach would only convey information to a few athletes on the team and expect them to share the information with the entire team, rather than the new coach communicating the information to the entire team herself.
Participants also reported changes in both the coach-athlete relationship dynamic as well as athlete leadership, due to the coach turnover. More specifically, some new coaches made nurturing relationships with their athletes a priority when they first arrived, which resulted in a more positive coach turnover experience. Other new coaches did not devote as much time or effort to fostering meaningful relationships with athletes, resulting in a more negative turnover experience. Participants also described how going through the coach turnover process provided athletes opportunities for athlete leaders to grow and develop. However, if the new coach failed to support the development of athlete leaders, this resulted in a more negative turnover experience.
Coach turnover influences team culture. Finally, participants discussed how the coach turnover influenced the team culture as a whole. Multiple participants reported instances where the new coach was able to implement positive changes to influence the team culture. For example, several student-athletes described how a new coach emphasized the importance of success in multiple areas such as in the classroom, athletic field, and in the community, this created a more positive team culture and resulted in student-athletes pushing themselves to be better in all areas. Alternatively, participants noted that when the search for a new coach took a significant amount of time this resulted in negative changes to the team culture even before the new coach was hired.
In analyzing our data, we identified several practical takeaways for administrators and coaches to minimize potential negative impacts of coach turnover on student-athletes and team dynamics.
Hire a coach who is a good fit for the team. Characteristics of the new coach were reported to be an important contributor to the coach turnover process in this study, and other studies have found coach leadership style to impact athletes and teams as well. Therefore, administrators would benefit from hiring coaches who are a good fit on multiple levels because coaches establish the motivational climate within the team, which in turn influences athletes’ affective states. Furthermore, our results suggest that the gender of the coach likely inﬂuences the success of the turnover process, especially in sports wherein gender stereotypes prevail. Steps to ensure gender equality, particularly educating collegiate athletes on gender topics, might be needed to prevent negative bias in athletes’ perceptions of coaching eﬀectiveness.
Coach turnover benefits the athletes when coaches develop a more positive motivational climate. As mentioned above, the motivational climate created by the coach influences athletes’ affective states. More specifically, participants in our study reported experiencing and observing changes in athletes’ confidence and anxiety. A mastery-oriented motivational climate created by the coach resulted in more positive changes to athletes’ confidence and anxiety. Coaches can create a mastery-oriented motivational climate by prioritizing personal improvement, learning, and skill development over merely defeating others.
Coach behaviors may promote or impede team dynamics. Coach turnover can influence team processes, namely cohesion, communication, coach-athlete relationships, and athlete leadership. Our ﬁndings revealed that some coaches were perceived to be better at promoting social bonding and developing relationships than others. When coaches at least initially focused on team cohesion and relationship development, the turnover process was reported to be more positive. Therefore, even coaches who prioritize the pursuit of instrumental goals over relationships may benefit from spending more time working to enhance social cohesion and relationships when they first begin with a new team.
Communication was also reported to be an important factor in the coach turnover process. New coaches may need to establish a clear procedure for communicating with the team, and coaches who communicate more positively and confidently will likely enhance the morale of their teams. Likewise, new coaches who promote the development of leadership skills in their athletes are likely to create a more positive turnover experience for their athletes.
Athletic departments should involve various representatives of the athletic community in the hiring of new coaches, and should strive to retain good coaches. Coaches who were a good fit were found to impact the athletes individually, the team dynamics, and also the program culture. In other words, new coaches impact not only the individuals and teams they work with, but also local communities. Therefore, various representatives of the athletic community should be included in the hiring of new coaches to increase the likelihood of hiring a coach that is a good fit. In order to be effective, coaches also need to feel secure in their position and be given adequate time to implement new ideas and actions that may result in positive culture change at the community level. Therefore, athletic departments that are satisfied with their coaching staff would benefit from putting in place strategic measures to prevent coach burnout in an effort to retain their coaches.
Limitations and conclusions. Our study was a qualitative case study in collegiate sport. Administrators should note that as a case study, generalizability of our findings is limited. Furthermore, the qualitative nature of the study prevents us from identifying how coach turnover impacts athletes, teams, and communities. However, despite these limitations, our study advances research and practice by contributing knowledge on the dynamic iterative eﬀects of coach turnover in collegiate sports. Furthermore, our research suggests that both hiring and retaining eﬀective coaches carry systemic implications in collegiate sports. Overall, gaining insight from the student-athletes, teams, and the athletic programs at large seems to be essential to ensure a successful coach turnover.