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Can coaches use 'tough love' to boost athlete performance?

Can coaches use ‘tough love’ to boost athlete performance?

3 min read
  • Sport psychology

As a coach, how do you create the best environment for your athletes to perform at their absolute best?

Some interesting new sport psychology research has allowed us to come up with 4 top tips for coaches who want to create a high-performance setting to push their athletes to perform to their full potential with ‘tough love’…

What does the research say?

The researchers interviewed male rugby union players who had signed a professional contract with a senior elite English Premiership team – some had made it, and some had later been released.

Here’s what they found:

  • Players described an overall lack of psychological safety, caused by constant judgment, scrutiny, peer comparison and selection pressure.
  • However, a certain level of psychological unsafety seemed to be critical to help the player progress.
  • The players in the group that had made it showed better ability to adapt and respond positively to a lack of safety in their position, and work hard to show their coach that they deserve their spot.
  • The most enabling coaching approach was described as “tough love”, with players describing a need for both hard and soft approaches to help them fulfil their potential.
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So, what can coaches do to show ‘tough love’?

Use both a hard and soft approach

Use a range of both hard and soft approaches with your athletes. Sticking to just one will not be the most beneficial.

At the right moment, hard approaches offer direction, motivation and robust feedback, helping guide an athlete through performance development.

Soft approaches help ensure them that they can express thoughts and concerns. These include offering genuine concern for an athlete’s welfare and performance and showing an openness that will allow your athletes to approach you when they have issues to discuss. Research suggests that in the absence of these softer approaches, a barrier may appear between you and your athletes, and you may struggle to understand their psycho-emotional state

Ensure role clarity

You have a critical role to play as a coach in minimising role ambiguity. As your athletes work through a variety of challenging career experiences, ensure they know what their role is in the team, what you expect of them, and what they will be judged on.

You can also help your athletes develop and best understand their role by spending time to explain the “why” behind your coaching decisions. This should nip any potentially wrong judgements they may come up with in the bud. Doing this is particularly important with those difficult you sometimes have to make, such as leaving a player out of a match.

Make an element of care a core feature

The most important way to emphasise an element of care is to engage in open dialogue with your athletes. At times, this may be uncomfortable, but without it, you run the risk of losing your athletes’ trust in you to help them improve.

Psychological safety

The research shows many athletes lack psychological safety in their career. However, as we touched on earlier, this doesn’t have to be entirely harmful – coupled with role clarity, it can actually help athletes push through the more challenging parts of their career.

Because of this, it might be helpful for you to see psychological safety as being on a continuum rather than set characteristics. You can dial it down when players need a challenge, but create a specific set of circumstances that increase their feeling of safety when your athletes are struggling with demands such as constant judgement or high competitiveness.

If you want to read more about this, check out our top 10 tips to develop psychological safety in sport.

Final thoughts

Creating the right environment for your athletes is vital for high performance, but it’s also a fine balance to achieve.

Focus on using a good mix of hard and soft approaches, making sure all your athletes know what is required of them, and finding the right level of psychological safety for the task at hand – you should get the best out of your athletes and their development that way.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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