Athletics has become a prominent and central force in higher education in Canada and other countries. For universities or colleges involved, it is important to achieve desired performance goals. Thus, understanding factors that contribute to the success of student-athletes is essential for the management of interuniversity sport. In the sport management literature, factors such as Human Resources Management (HRM) practices and their contribution to the management of sport has received some research attention (Doherty 1998). Individual level HRM literature examines the relationship between characteristics of individual employees, their work perceptions and behavioural outcomes such as employee satisfaction, motivation, intention to leave, and citizenship behaviours (Rousseau and Greller 1994). Such studies have contributed to the development of HRM practices that help organizations manage expectation of their employees.
Managing student-athlete expectations is an important task for the universities as they sponsor and organize competitive sport in which student-athletes are participants. In addition, sport participation is an important educational element in the broader educational experience of students (Light and Dixon 2007). Much of the responsibility is placed on the coach to set the desired tone through policies and practices. To further understand the interpersonal dynamic between the coach and the player, it is important to understand the perceptions of the players with respect to effective coaching behaviours and practices (Garland and Barry 1988). It is important to understand how players interpret coaching practices and how those practices affect student-athlete performance (Shields et al. 1997).
Historically, coaching in sport has focused on developing athletes’ physical, technical and strategic skills by placing a great deal of time and energy on the technical and administrative aspects of coaching because these components were better defined and more controllable (Miller and Kerr 2002). Coach-athlete research has often focused on interpersonal dynamics between the coach and the athletes from a leadership approach (Salminen and Liukkonen 1996). More recently, research has evolved to investigate the effect of coaching behaviours on the coach-athlete relationships and the impact on outcomes, such as satisfaction (Poczwardowski et al. 2006).
This paper provides a conceptual framework for examining the impact of coach-athlete relationships on coaching outcomes of role behaviour and performance, and the influence of coaching practices on building and maintaining the relationships. We use the concept of commitment as the construct against which to evaluate coach-athlete relationships. In terms of coaching behaviours, we consider coaching roles of training and development, information sharing, and encouraging participative decision-making. We explore the relationship between these constructs and student-athlete role-behaviour and performance. Figure 1 presents this research model.
This study is in line with Poczwardowski, Barott, and Jowett’s (2006) call to diversify research approaches to understanding coach-athlete relationships and contributes to the literature in two distinct but important ways. First, this study contributes to the literature on coach-athlete relationships by applying the concept of commitment to the coach. This extends the current research that considers how social exchange theory shapes the relationship between the coach and athlete. Second, this study extends prior research on commitment in educational settings by looking at the context of student-athletes and their relationship with their coach.
Theoretical model and hypothesis development
Coach-athlete relationships have been defined as an interconnection of emotions, thoughts and behaviours (Jowett and Ntoumanis 2003). The coach-athlete relationship is intentionally developed through appreciation and respect for each other (Potrac et al. 2002), is both dynamic and complex (Jones and Wallace 2005), and requires discovering and fulfilling needs of both the coach and athlete (Jowett and Cockerill 2003). Numerous authors suggest that an effective coach-athlete relationship is necessary for a successful coaching outcome (Lafrenière et al. 2011; Shields et al. 1997). Factors that contribute to the coach-athlete relationship include, but are not limited to: planning and designing the coaching engagement, building and maintaining rapport, establishing and maintaining trust, building credibility (Mageau and Vallerand 2003, Rezania and Lingham 2009a)
Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory is often used to study a leader’s individual relationship interaction with their followers. LMX is a process theory of leadership that combines exchange and role theory (Graen and Uhl-Bien 1995), and is often used to account for development of high quality relationships between the leader and the subordinates (Bass 1990). The theory emphasizes that when leaders offer the opportunity for high-quality relationships, the performance of in-group members would increase (Graen et al. 1982). Developing a high quality relationship is a process that starts with the leader offering a membership in the in-group, followed by a period of “acquaintance” phase. Finally the “partner” phase is reached based on exchanges and development of trust and mutual respect (Graen and Uhl-Bien 1995). An outcome of high quality relationship is commitment (Meyer and Allen 1991).
In formulation of a theoretical model for the study of coach-athlete relationship, commitment provides a useful prototype. Meyer and Allen (1991) conceptualize commitment as a construct with three related dimensions. The affective dimension reflects the emotional aspect and encapsulates identification and involvement in the relationship; the continuance dimension relates to the perceived cost to leave the relationship, and finally; the normative dimension relates to the feeling of obligation to the relationship based on the congruence in values and norms.
Recent research into commitment has focused on investigating different targets of commitment within the organization. Commitment has been conceptualized to study a person’s relationship to another person in a social exchange (Cook and Emerson 1978), a person’s relationship to a group (Ellemers et al. 1997, Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005), a person’s relationship to an organization (Allen and Meyer 1990, Tzafrir and Enosh 2011), or person’s relationship to his/her supervisor (Stinglhamber and Vandenberghe 2003). Commitment to the supervisor has been studied as a factor that motivates citizenship behaviours (Redman and Snape 2005) or reduce employee turnover (Maertz et al. 2007).
Recently, the construct has been used to explain behavioural outcomes in educational contexts (McNally and Irving 2010). Considering the extant commitment literature in traditional workplace contexts, the educational institutions context, and the supervisory relationship context, it is reasonable to use the construct of commitment to the coach to evaluate coach-athlete relationship.
In line with the extant commitment literature, we conceptualize commitment to the coach as a strong belief in the goals and values (normative); a willingness to exert considerable effort on behalf of the coach (affective); and a strong desire to continue working (continuance) with the coach (Mowday et al. 1979; Sturges et al. 2005). In this manner, commitment refers to a sense of duty that a student-athlete feels to achieve the coach’s goals and to the willingness to do what is needed to perform well (Kline and Peters 1991). Such cohesion and identification with the coach emerges, for instance, when the coach properly demonstrates leadership in leading the team to success (Carron et al. 2002).
Consequences of commitment to the coach
In the field of organization behaviour, commitment has been widely studied because it is predictive of work-related attitudes and behaviours such as motivation, engagement, retention, citizenship behaviours, or its relationship with the organizational effectiveness (Bishop et al. 2005, Williams and Anderson 1991). Meyer and Allen (1991) posit that when the affective, normative, or continuance commitment are high, behaviours will be more positive. The value of commitment to the organizational goals is recognized in the strategic approaches to human resources management that consider employee engagement as a means of enhancing performance (Green et al. 2006).
The relationship between a coach and athlete has similarities wit the relationship between a supervisor and an employee in an organizational setting. Similar to a supervisor, a coach has formal authority and may utilize both influence without authority and influence with authority when engaging with the athlete (Dansereau et al. 1975). This ability to employ both formal contractual and informal influence gives that the coach and the athlete some degrees of control over the type of relationship, or exchange that will exist between them. In the process of organizing their roles, the type of influence the coach employs affect the interpersonal exchange relationship between a coach and his/her athlete (Dansereau et al. 1975). The norm of reciprocity indicates that when the coach offers the athlete more latitude in things like decision making and signals the coach’s trust, respect, and support for the athlete, the athlete may then feel obligated to reciprocate with behaviours that would fulfill the coach’s expectation (Gouldner 1960). This belief in coach’s values and willingness to exert effort on his/her behalf is the basis for commitment to the coach. We therefore expect that commitment to the coach to be associated with student-athlete in-role behaviour.
Predictors of commitment to the coach
Training (T&D) student-athletes to attain high levels of performance is one of the most important responsibilities of a coach (Oliver et al. 2010). Training has the potential to draw a desired set of athlete’s attitudes and behaviours, and provides student-athletes the context to learn knowledge and skills for a specific purpose (Stein 2001). Training is an intentional activity to transfer the expertise, information, and also modify the attitude and behaviours aligned with the organizational goals (Brown and McCracken 2010).
In the organizational work settings, training is expected to influence job safety, self-importance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment (Bartlett 2001). Training could be formal or informal. Formal training has a structured mode of delivery, is planned, and has a pre-set objective. Informal training, on the other hand, is less structured and is delivered on an ad-hoc basis. Whether formal or informal, training has a positive connection with organizational commitment (Owoyemi et al. 2011).
The effect of training on student-athlete’s role-behaviour and performance could be mediated by commitment. Student-athlete’s perception of the training she/he receives may contribute to the commitment to the coach. In addition, training may empower the student-athlete to work independently, participate in decision-making with other team members and work in the team. A coach who emphasizes training, may also emphasize enabling the student-athlete to take decisions in a decentralized manner and share with the team. Bishop et al. (2005) assert that the “level of support employees receive from an entity predicts the level of commitment they have for that same entity” (p. 175).
We therefore expect such training to be associated with commitment.
Information sharing is another responsibility of the coach (Lyle 2002). Leadership literature indicates that follower performance, satisfaction, and retention are all influenced by relation with his/her immediate supervisor (Goleman et al. 2002). Student-athletes look to their coach for cues and information regarding what to do and how to do it. Coaching skills are firmly grounded in communication abilities including listening, feedback, and information sharing (Goleman et al. 2002). Communication is necessary for establishing and sustaining trust, and establishment of psychological contracts (Rousseau and Greller 1994). Information sharing reflects the extent to which coaches participate in the mentoring/coaching role to foster each student-athlete’s learning and development. At the heart of this facilitative coaching is an approachable communication style that fosters learning and development through clarifying expectations, providing relevant and up-to-date information, and enabling the student-athlete to obtain the relevant information (Sullivan and Gee 2007).
The effect of information sharing on student-athletes’ role-behaviour could be mediated by commitment to the coach. Student-athletes’ perception of the way the coach shares the necessary information may contribute to the commitment to the coach. In addition, information sharing should empower the student-athlete to participate in decentralized participative decision-making and work in the team (Kellett 1999). A coach, who emphasizes information sharing, may also emphasize enabling the student-athlete to participate in decision-making. We therefore expect information sharing to be associated with the commitment to the coach, and role behaviour.
Leadership behaviours that lead to sharing power or giving more responsibility and autonomy to the followers have been the subject of many studies (Kirkman and Rosen 1999). Empowerment is considered an important mechanism for motivating and encouraging performance (Seibert et al. 2004). The effect of leadership behaviours on organizational commitment is indirectly affected by empowerment (Avolio et al. 2004). In this paper we consider promoting teamwork as coaches’ empowering behaviours that encourage student-athletes to participate in decentralized and participative decision-making and work as a team (Zimmerman 1990). This behaviour provides the student-athlete the skills and freedom to decide. We expect commitment to the coach to mediate the effect of promoting-teamwork on student athletes’ role behaviour