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date: 23 September 2017

Strength Training and Sport Psychology

Summary and Keywords

Strength training sessions are developed and overseen by strength and conditioning coaches, whose primary responsibilities are to maximize individuals’ athletic performance and minimize their injury risk. As the majority of education and certification for being a strength and conditioning coach focuses on physiology and physiological adaptations, biomechanics, and related scientific areas of study, there has been less emphasis on coaching behaviors, motivational techniques, pedagogical approaches, or psychological skills. These are important areas because to accomplish both long-term and short-term training goals, strength and conditioning coaches should use and train their athletes in the use of these techniques.

Motivation of training session participants is essential to being an effective strength and conditioning coach. Coaches motivate their athletes through their behaviors, design and organization of the training sessions, teaching techniques, role modeling, relationships with the athletes, and the psychological skills they incorporate within and outside of the training sessions. Coaches also often teach athletes about psychological skills not to motivate the athlete but to assist the athlete in their performance, mental health, or general well-being. Some of these psychological skills are so ingrained in the strength and conditioning discipline that coaches do not recognize or categorize them as psychological skills. Because of the relationship built between strength coach and athlete, the strength and conditioning coach often provides informal knowledge of advice on topics regarding general life lessons or skills that can actually be categorized under psychological skills. However, the lack of formal education and training in sport psychology techniques also means that strength and conditioning coaches do not take full advantage of many behaviors, motivational techniques, and other psychological skills. These areas remain an area for further professional development and research within the strength and conditioning field.

Keywords: leadership, motivation, psychological skills, strength and conditioning coach, coach:athlete ratio, strength and conditioning coaches’, role, feedback behaviors, sport psychology, self-efficacy, feedback

Athletes and coaches make use of sport psychology techniques during strength and conditioning training. They would categorize some of these techniques as sport psychology techniques, whereas other techniques are so inherent to the setting that they may not be specifically or consciously recognized as sport psychology techniques (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013, 2015). Strength and conditioning coaches (SCCs) work at all levels of sports and exercise from youth to masters. However, the majority of research on the role, tools, and relationships of SCCs has focused on the collegiate level (Duehring & Ebben, 2010). Unlike a sport coach, a SCC has the opportunity to work with athletes from a wide spectrum of sports (e.g., football, swimming and diving, skiing, and equestrian). They also get to consistently work with athletes on a year-round basis. The SCC is the leader of strength and conditioning training done in and out of the weight room. As such, the SCC’s primary responsibility is “establishing and maintaining the physical well-being of the entire student-athlete population [and potentially others, as well]” (Sartore-Baldwin, 2013, p. 831). However, SCCs report being involved in the overall development of each athlete as an individual because the athlete learns life skills from the SCCs, including patience, emotional control, focus, respect, and time management. Therefore, this article focuses on three areas of intersection for the strength and conditioning professional and sport psychology: SCC’s sport psychology knowledge development, SCCs incorporation of sport psychology techniques into their athlete training sessions, and SCCs use of leadership and motivational techniques.

SCC’s Sport Psychology Knowledge Development

Training with an educated and certified SCC results in greater athletic performance gains (Hoff & Helgerud, 2004; Mazzetti et al., 2000). For example, Hoff and Helgerud (2004) conducted a study comparing the athletic performance of elite young adult male soccer players over 10 weeks, who completed either a training program under a SCC’s supervision, the same program without supervision, or no strength and conditioning training. At the end of the 10 weeks, those in the supervised training group showed significant improvement in their lower body strength, power, and 40 m sprint time. Their improvements in sprinting and lower body strength were significantly greater than those of the group that did no training. In addition, the supervised group had significantly greater improvements in their lower body power and strength compared to the unsupervised training group. Researchers, when comparing supervised and unsupervised training, have explained these results as being due to the SCCs ability to provide regular technical and motivational feedback (Dorgo, 2009; Enoksen et al., 2013; Gallo & De Marco, 2008).

When examining the effect of supervision on nonathlete populations, similar results are seen. For example, Ratamess and colleagues (2008) had trained women to complete 1RM (1 repetition maximum) tests and then select a weight they would use for a 10-repetition set. Women who trained without supervision self-selected intensities that were approximately 42% of their 1RM, whereas those who trained with supervision self-selected intensities that averaged approximately 51% of their 1RM. Although both groups’ self-selections were lower than the intensity level suggested for a 10-repetition set, those who trained with supervision selected significantly higher intensities than their counterparts who trained without supervision (Ratamess, Faigenbaum, Hoffman, & Kang, 2008). Similar research has shown that untrained men and women self-select intensities below the recommended levels for moderate strength training (Elsangedy, Krause, Krinski, Alves, Chao, & da Silva, 2013; Elsandgedy et al., 2016)

To design training programs that are appropriately challenging and safe for those they train, the majority of SCCs earn master’s degrees in the exercise sciences (e.g., kinesiology, exercise physiology, strength and conditioning) or physical education, and hold one or more certifications from respected national or international organizations. In the United States, these certifications are primarily from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), USA Weightlifting (USAW), and/or Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa) (Duehring & Ebben, 2010; Hanratty & O’Connor, 2012; Judge, Petersen, Bellar, Craig, Cottingham, & Gilreath, 2013 Massey, Schwind, Andrews, & Maneval, 2009). The focus of this educational route and certification is on the proper development and implementation of training programs to maximize performance benefits, while minimizing injury and overtraining rates (Dorgo, 2009; Gallo & De Marco, 2008; Grant & Dorgo, 2014; Massey & Vincent, 2013). The education and certification requirements for most SCCs have included a small focus on psychology. For example, the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2000, 2008, & 2016) textbook has historically dedicated one 19-page chapter to the Psychology of Athletic Preparation and Performance, which makes up about 3% of the book’s total content pages and typically includes two pages devoted to motivation. To be an effective coach, two types of knowledge are necessary: content and pedagogical (Dorgo, 2009; Jeffreys, 2014). As certification preparation materials do not emphasize pedagogical knowledge, this knowledge on how to motivate, engage, and educate athletes is often developed over time through less official or organized routes, including personal experience, mentorship, conference and professional development sessions, and self-selected readings from a variety of sources as individual coaches move from novice to competent, and potentially expert.

Novice/beginner coaches have the requisite knowledge from their master’s degree and certification to design programs (Dorgo, 2009; Grant & Dorgo, 2014; Jeffreys, 2014). The foundational content knowledge may include knowledge from the different sciences on which strength and conditioning is based, including anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, motor learning, psychology, periodization and training principles, program design, athleticism testing, exercises, facility management, injury prevention, and injury treatment (Dorgo, 2009). However, it is the hands-on experience that coaches need to develop at this stage to increase their ability to move beyond simply managing their athletes’ training experience to educating and building relationships with them (Grant & Dorgo, 2014). Beginner coaches tend to develop their own coaching style by drawing on their own experiences (i.e., coaches’ styles from when they were athletes), observation of other coaches, and personal experimentation. Therefore, it has been recommended that beginner SCCs have regular access to a quality mentor, who can assist and guide them through the development of their coaching style (Kuklick & Gearity, 2015; Murray, Zakrajsek, & Gearity, 2014).

As SCCs’ experience increases and they move to the competent stage, they are better able to interact with their athletes, prioritize in order to be more effective, and be flexible in their training to attain the most important, prioritized goals (Grant & Dorgo, 2014). Competent coaches also continue to build their knowledge through reading and engaging with professional organization activities. Finally, those few coaches who reach an expert level do so by having a continuing desire to learn and expand their knowledge beyond their original content area knowledge, to include new training modalities and pedagogical approaches (Grant & Dorgo, 2014). This engagement in learning by expert coaches includes an overall engagement and desire to positively influence the profession. Taking advantage of this engagement, beginner and competent coaches may develop valuable relationships with expert coaches as their coaching style mentors. These mentors can use their knowledge base to provide the beginner and competent coaches with feedback that they can incorporate into their deliberate and consistent coaching style practice to improve their coaching effectiveness (Grant & Dorgo, 2014; Murray, Zakrajsek, & Gearity, 2014).

An intensive study of an expert coach further highlighted the types of knowledge ideally used by SCCs and how they use that knowledge (Dorgo, 2009). In addition to the foundational content knowledge, the expert SCC’s foundational knowledge also included knowledge about the athletes, such as their backgrounds, attitudes, and goals. This knowledge interacted with the SCC’s applied practical or pedagogical knowledge to set the expert coach apart from his peers. The coach’s additional knowledge comprised four components: plan modification, supervision, coaching pedagogical strategies, and professional development (Dorgo, 2009). Through this knowledge about the athletes and a constant awareness the bigger picture (e.g., season goals, travel schedules, upcoming competitions), was prepared to adjust the planned training program to meet the current state of the team and individual athletes. The expert coach’s supervision was predominated by observing his athletes to assess their motivation and exercise technique to inform and tailor his feedback for each individual athlete (Dorgo, 2009). The expert SCC also had developed a specific training environment to maximize his athletes’ motivation and effort by setting basic rules for the gym to ensure safety, while maintaining a relaxed atmosphere during training and holding high expectations of the athletes’ performance. This promoted the development of relationships with all his athletes and the ability to tailor his motivational techniques to each athlete’s needs and personality (Dorgo, 2009). In the sport psychology literature, this tailored approach, including building relationships with the athletes as individuals and emphasizing learning and improvement over comparative performance, is referred to as a caring and task-involving motivational climate (Moore, 2010, 2013; Newton et al., 2007; Nicholls, 1989).

SCC’s Use of Sport Psychology Techniques

SCCs incorporate sport psychology techniques into their training sessions (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013, 2015). Initial research has highlighted the preferential use of some psychological technique types over others. When asked to rank psychological factors by importance, current SCCs rated athletes’ motivation, confidence, and commitment as the top three psychological factors (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013), and the sport psychology techniques used by SCCs were related to these factors. Specifically, SCCs reported using sport psychology techniques with their athletes to build confidence, acquire skills, and manage arousal levels (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2015). Moreover, coaches reported using goal-setting techniques significantly more often than any other sport psychology technique (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013). A primary purpose of goal setting was to increase athletes’ confidence and motivation by setting proximal, process goals for the athletes to focus on during training. Although, long-term goals were developed and framed the athletes’ training, the SCCs used the shorter-term goals more frequently to provide attainable challenges for the athletes. By regularly attaining these short-term goals, athletes’ confidence in their abilities and motivation regarding strength and conditioning training increased. SCCs also used these short-term process goals to focus the athletes on mastery of the exercise technique rather than the outcome result (i.e., external weight lifted or box height used).

After goal setting, SCCs reported that the sport psychology techniques they used most frequently with athletes were adherence, self-talk, activation, and stress management (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013). Imagery was the sport psychology technique they reported using the least frequently, at a moderate rate (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2013). Interviews with SCCs revealed that the SCCs primarily encouraged athletes to use imagery for arousal regulation and skill acquisition (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2015). Specifically, SCCs suggested that their athletes use pre-performance, relaxation routines prior to competitions to regulate their arousal level (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2015). SCCs reported having athletes visualize themselves executing an exercise prior to attempting it, so they could both see and kinesthetically feel the proper execution of the exercise to assist with skill acquisition (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2015). However, more SCCs reported using visual focused imagery than kinesthetic-focused imagery. These uses of imagery reflect the education and training foci for becoming a SCC.

An interesting and important trend regarding the use of sport psychology techniques within the strength and conditioning training environment was that the more experienced SCCs reported more frequent use of sport psychology techniques (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2015). One potential reason is that as SCCs gain experience, they are better able to add to their interactions with athletes above and beyond that necessary to simply implement the training program (Dorgo, 2009; Grant & Dorgo, 2014; Hanratty & O’Connor, 2012). It may also reflect the additional personal time experienced SCCs have dedicated to increasing their knowledge of sport psychology techniques and their implementation as SCCs move from the novice to competent and potentially expert level (Dorgo, 2009; Grant & Dorgo, 2014; Hanratty & O’Connor, 2012).

Recently, researchers from sport psychology and strength and conditioning have suggested that SCCs use reflective practice to help increase their effectiveness, particularly through the development of their applied or pedagogical knowledge (Handcock & Cassidy, 2014; Kuklick & Gearity, 2015; Murray, Zakrajsek, & Gearity, 2014; Tod, Bond, & Lavallee, 2012). Through the regular practice of reflecting back on their training sessions to examine what went well, what could be improved, what were challenges they faced, and how they wish to address these aspects in the future, SCCs are able to identify ways to improve their approaches to training and coaching (Dorgo, 2009; Kuklick & Gearity, 2015; Tod, Bond, & Lavallee, 2012). Researchers in the SCC domain have suggested implementing deliberate, reflective practice to develop SCCs’ pedagogical, social context, and technique assessment skills (Kuklick & Gearity, 2015). The expert SCC studied by Dorgo (2009) reported using consistent self-reflection as a tool to help him reach perfection in these same areas. SCCs’ self-reflection could be enhanced by videotaping training sessions, using self-assessment tools, or having a mentor coach observe training sessions (Gallo & De Marco, 2008). This could also be incorporated into mentor–mentee relationships and internships to increase individuals’ comfort with performing reflective practices and sharing with other coaches their challenges and areas of improvement (Kuklick & Gearity, 2015; Murray, Zakrajsek, & Gearity, 2014).

SCC’s Leadership Styles

Specific research on the pedagogical or coaching style of SCCs began recently(Duehring & Ebben, 2010; Massey et al., 2002; Sartore-Baldwin, 2013). SCCs have the unique opportunity to build their athlete–coach relationships consistently, year-round (Sartore-Baldwin, 2013). This athlete–coach relationship has the potential to maximize the individual athlete’s and the overall team’s outcomes when the SCC successfully minimizes conflict (Sartore-Baldwin, 2013). SCCs, who recognize this possibility, have emphasized the importance of building strong athlete–coach relationships in order to maximize the athletes’ commitment and the effectiveness of the training programs (Massey & Vincent, 2013 Sartore-Baldwin, 2013). In 2013, SCCs reported to Massey and Vincent that it is the coaching style and relationships with the athletes that determines the effectiveness of the training programs they design and implement. These coaches highlighted the importance of the following components for effective coaching: (1) building relationships with their athletes, (2) explaining the purpose behind the training, and (3) adjusting the approach taken to match the athlete(s) being trained. SCCs consistently report that it is their ability to motivate athletes that is the most important aspect of their job; conversely, SCCs report their top challenge is lack of commitment from athletes (Duehring & Ebben, 2010; Massey & Vincent, 2013; Sartore-Baldwin, 2013). Therefore, the rest of this article focuses on the research about how SCCs are able to successfully develop relationships and a training environment that maximize the effectiveness of their training programs.

Expert coaches have been observed, and also self-report, that although they provide technical feedback to develop their athletes’ skills, they actually spend more of their time with their athletes on developing educational environments that emphasize mastery and the athletes’ overall personal development (Gallo & De Marco, 2008; Massey et al., 2002; Massey & Vincent, 2013; Shuman, & Appleby, 2016). This finding aligns with sport psychology research in sport and physical education settings that have examined coaches’ and teachers’ development of the motivational climate, which supported that when coaches promote a caring and task-involving climate, the participants’ positive adaptations—high effort, performance improvement, sportpersonship, and commitment—are maximized (Harwood, Keegan, Smith, & Raine, 2015; Magyar et al., 2007; Newton et al., 2007). A caring climate is a safe, inviting environment where individuals feel respected and valued (Newton et al., 2007). A task-involving climate is characterized by an emphasis on all individuals giving high effort, improving their performance, and cooperating with each other to attain those improvements (Nicholls, 1989). Overall, initial research into athletes’ perceptions of SCCs’ behaviors align with the concepts of a caring and task-involving motivational climate and transformational leadership (Dorgo, 2009; Lee, Magnusen, & Cho, 2013; Massey, 2010; Szedlak, Smith, Day, & Greenlees, 2015).

Interviews of elite athletes regarding their SCC’s approaches to coaching revealed two themes that align with fostering a caring climate: relationship and coaches’ values. The athletes reported a relatedness and closeness to their SCC because their coach provided encouragement and support, caring, understanding, and comforting, as well as utilizing a sense of humor and being approachable (Szedlak et al., 2015). Male and female Division-I athletes reported feeling greater closeness with their SCC when they perceived that their coach provided constructive criticism, supported them after mistakes, and remained composed, relaxed, and in control of their emotions during training (Lee et al., 2013). The elite athletes also reported that their relationship with their SCCs was because the coaches were authentic and sincere through their consistency, optimism, and commitment to training, while also being balanced and flexible in recognizing the other demands placed on the athlete and being creative in determining a variety of ways to attain training goals (Szedlak et al., 2015). In addition, those SCCs became role models by serving as authority and parental figures who practiced what they coached. The elite athletes also reported that, through their passion and joy for training, the SCCs were able to motivate, inspire, and build confidence in their athletes. Finally, the athletes’ perceived that the SCCs expressed that they valued the athletes for who they were as individuals, not just as athletes (Szedlak et al., 2015). These characteristics illustrate the emotional intelligence that has previously been associated with coaches who foster a caring climate (Magyar et al., 2007).

In addition to aligning with the characteristics of a caring climate, the existing research on SCCs also supports their promotion of a task-involving climate. The third theme from Szedlak and colleagues’ (2015) interviews of elite athletes about their SCCs’ approaches to coaching was the coaches’ actions. This theme comprised four subthemes: feedback, instruction, communication skills, and planning/organization. The effectiveness of the coaches’ actions was built on a foundation of scientific knowledge requisite to training the athletes, which was expressed through the SCC’s feedback and instruction, including praise, corrective information, demonstrations, and their ability to explain and relate the training exercises to each athlete’s sport performance. In addition, the coaches’ values theme included high-performance expectations, belief, and confidence. These values were expressed to the athletes both explicitly and implicitly, such that the athletes’ own confidence and self-efficacy increased as a result of their SCC’s persistent focus and belief in their ability to accomplish training goals and their full athletic potential. Importantly, the SCCs provided athletes with challenges that were attainable, while at the edge of the athletes’ current ability level. Thus, as the athletes met these challenges, they grew to trust their coaches’ judgment regarding the athlete’s ability and potential. Prior research has shown that coaches’ promotion of a task-involving climate is associated with their provision of constructive criticism and support after mistakes (Smith, Fry, Ethington, & Li, 2005). Such a climate more focused on mastering the exercise than their performance compared to others (Nicholls, 1989; Moore, 2013).

SCCs’ behaviors have also been associated with their compatibility with their athletes. Division I athletes reported perceiving that positive (supportive/emotional composure) behaviors were descriptive of their SCC’s behaviors rather than negative behaviors (negative activation) (Lee et al., 2013). In addition, coach–athlete compatibility was not related to the athletes’ report of the SCC’s use of negative coaching behaviors. At the same time, the athletes’ report of the SCC’s use of positive coaching behaviors was significantly, positively related to coach–athlete compatibility. Further, males’ and females’ perceptions of their SCCs behaviors were not significantly different. However, the relationship between positive coaching behaviors and coach–athlete compatibility was stronger for female than male athletes. In addition, the SCC’s gender and the sport type did not significantly influence any of these results. Similarly, researchers found that individuals did not report a significant preference for the gender of their personal trainer (Fisher, Platts, & Stopforth, 2013). Overall, athletes’ reported SCC’s use of positive coaching behaviors was positively associated with athletes’ view of compatibility with their SCC.

When SCCs were asked about their own leadership style, their responses were less distinct than their responses about their specific behaviors (Brooks, Ziatz, Johnson, & Hollander, 2000). Traditionally, sport coaches are either more autocratic (coach-centered) or democratic (athlete-centered), whereas Division-I SCCs reported using these two leadership types with relatively the same frequency (Brooks et al., 2000). The positive and strong correlation of their occasional use of democratic behaviors with their reported use of social support behaviors was not surprising because democratic behaviors are aligned with fostering a task-involving and caring climate. Given that this first study with SCCs did not reveal distinct differences in the use of democratic or autocratic behaviors, further research into the SCC’s coaching style is needed. Similarly, education is needed on how to use democratic behaviors effectively in strength and conditioning training sessions so that athletes feel they are involved and active decision makers in their weight room training experience, while maintaining the SCC’s sense of order, control, and safety.

SCC’s Use of Feedback

Coaches’ leadership style is made up of their feedback behaviors and qualities (Cote & Wade, 2009). To date, more research has been focused on the types of feedback behaviors SCCs utilize than on their overall leadership style or motivational climate development. The feedback behaviors are typically separated into categories. These categories can be overarching (e.g., reactive, spontaneous, training and instructional) and often comprise more specific categories (e.g., rewarding/praise, hustle, preinstruction, constructive criticism, constructive criticism with reinstruction). Depending on the research tool, the specific categories can vary, as can if they are grouped into larger overarching categories as well. Despite this variability in how the data may be recorded, many of the categories do overlap; though further refinement of these measures for the SCC specifically has been suggested (Massey et al., 2002).

The research examining SCCs behaviors has focused on the objective observation of elite Division I-A SCCs (Massey et al., 2002; Gallo & De Marco, 2008). Massey and colleagues (2002) videotaped three, 40-minute training sessions for each of the six elite Division IA football SCCs studied to objectively assess the frequency of their coaching behaviors. Gallo and De Marco (2008) videotaped four 50-minute training sessions by one Division IA Head SCC to inform the suggestions provided to these SCC during the intervention phase of the study. These suggestions included strategies to continue desired behavior and strategies to modify other behaviors. Following the intervention phase, four more training sessions were videotaped to determine the postintervention frequency of his coaching behaviors. In addition, over the course of this study, the SCC maintained a journal about the experience and completed interviews with the researchers (Gallo & De Marco, 2008).

Importantly, but not surprisingly, Massey and colleagues (2002) found significant variability in the observed coaches’ behaviors. Despite this variability, three behaviors stood out as the most commonly used across the six elite SCCs. First, coaches’ silent monitoring of their athletes during training averaged 22% of their behaviors (range: 14–35%). Second, management of the training sessions averaged 14% of the coaches’ behaviors (range: 6–35%). Third, the coaches’ verbally motivating the athletes to hustle (i.e., give high or more effort) averaged 11% of their behaviors (range: 4–21%). Taken together, these coaches spent approximately half of their training sessions managing, silently monitoring, and motivating their athletes.

These SCCs’ most frequent behaviors were different from those of team sport coaches who have been observed with the same or similar instruments. The majority of team sport coaches have used the combined category of instructional behaviors—preinstruction, concurrent instruction, postinstruction, questioning, manual manipulation, positive modeling, and negative modeling—much more frequently than these SCCs. This could be for a number of reasons. First, the type of activity that SCCs oversee consists of more closed (i.e., consistent and predictable) skills than open (i.e., reactive and unpredictable) skills (Massey et al., 2002). Second, SCCs typically have a shorter training time (in this case, 40-minute training sessions) than sport coaches to accomplish multiple training goals (e.g., full body strength, power, agility, endurance, and flexibility). In this light, spending 14% (5.6 minutes) ensuring that athletes are safe, on task, and know where and what they should be doing is understandable. In addition, their silent monitoring is often done prior to being able to give athletes any of the other instructive behaviors, feedback behaviors—hustle, praise, scold—or modeling of the exercise for the athletes. When their time was spent silently monitoring the athletes and verbally motivating them to give more effort, the coaches spent over 20 minutes of each session observing and providing feedback to the athletes that was either instructional, motivational, or praise. This shows that, despite the busy and active atmosphere of a strength and conditioning training session, SCCs can find numerous opportunities to observe and provide feedback to athletes during a training session.

Interestingly, when Gallo and De Marco (2008) observed an elite collegiate SCC, they did find that instructional behavior during the athletes’ performance was his most common behavior, comprising 38% of his total behaviors. On average, this coach gave more than one instruction during athletes’ performance each minute of the training session (Gallo & De Marco, 2008). This SCC’s second most common behavior (18%), asking athletes questions, was used primarily as a motivational technique. Interestingly, this was followed by acceptance (13%) as the SCC’s third most common technique, which supports the importance of putting effort into the coach–athlete relationship. Also highlighting the personal interaction of the SCC with the athletes was how frequently he used an individual athlete’s name during training. Over the course of the study, he averaged using an athletes’ name every 2 to 4 minutes of training. Given the low frequency of other motivational behaviors, such as praise or hustle behaviors, these were two of the behaviors targeted for improvement by the intervention techniques with the SCC (Gallo & De Marco, 2008). After the intervention phase, the SCC increased the frequency of giving instruction during performance up to 42% of his behaviors, as well as increased the frequency of the other three targeted behaviors: praise with instruction (2% of the behaviors), hustle behavior (3%), and extended information/instructions (15%). It is important that SCCs typically provide more frequent instruction during performance than a sport coach because of the nature of strength and conditioning training. The SCC is providing the athletes with technique cues, support, and motivation to assist the athletes in successfully completing an exercise safely, and without injury.

In addition to the objective observations of his training and intervention feedback, the SCC also kept a journal and was interviewed about his experience. This SCC reported that he felt he had become a better coach because he was able to engage more actively with the athletes, and through that engagement the athletes were giving more effort in training because their perception of his caring about them and their performance had increased. Overall, the SCC reported that through his experience in this study his ability to accurately self-assess his coaching behaviors increased. This is an important consideration, as the time available for SCCs to reflect on their coaching behaviors is minimal. Thus, the more accurateness and efficiency with which SCCs can self-assess and modify their coaching techniques, the more effective and successful they can become.

Providing regular feedback to athletes regarding their performance in strength and conditioning training sessions is important for developing the athletes’ self-efficacy with respect to the exercises they are executing. Research has shown that increasing individuals’ self-efficacy for an activity or exercise results in increased performance upon their next attempt (Fitzsimmons, Landers, Thomas, & Van Der Mars, 1991; Wells, Collins, & Hale, 1993). Individuals’ self-efficacy can be increased through four processes: role model demonstration; verbal feedback from a knowledgeable and competent other; personal experience; and interpretation of physiological signals (Wells et al., 1993; Wise et al., 2004). Previously, when researchers told participants that they had lifted more weight (i.e., 10 pounds more) for their maximal attempt than they actually had, the participants reported increased self-efficacy and lifted significantly more weight at the follow-up session (Fitzsimmons et al., 1991). Wise and colleagues (2004) followed up these results by examining the impact of scripted feedback from a SCC (i.e., knowledgeable and competent other) on a novice lifter’s self-efficacy upon completion of a bench press set. The lifters reported significantly greater self-efficacy after receiving the SCC’s feedback. The knowledge of the SCC was more important than the specificity of the scripted message regarding the individuals’ bench press ability. This finding supports the importance of SCCs providing immediate feedback and of SCCs building athletes’ trust and belief in the SCC’s training knowledge.

Providing encouraging feedback has also been shown to have additional positive effects for participants’ performance. For example, researchers found that regularly providing praise feedback (e.g., “Way to go!” and “Almost there!”) during completion of a multistage 20-m cardiovascular fitness assessment resulted in greater performance by the participants compared to when no praise feedback was provided (Neto et al., 2015). Specifically, the participants went significantly farther into the test, attained a higher VO2max, and a higher ending heart rate. In addition, researchers have shown that simply providing athletes with feedback regarding their performance (i.e., peak power output of their countermovement jump) significantly increases the athletes’ performance in subsequent sets (Staub et al., 2013). In this study, the collegiate athletes increased their overall mean power output and overall peak power output, as well as in each of the next two subsequent sets’ peak and mean power output values. These studies illustrate the significant performance impact a minimal amount of feedback can have on individuals’ athletic performance during training and testing. When informative and praise feedback is combined with technique instructions or personalized recognition of improvement by a SCC who has a relationship with the athlete, greater performance gains would be expected. The qualitative research with athletes describing their SCC’s ability to increase their belief in themselves and attain goals greater than expected illustrates the impact SCC’s feedback can have on their athletes (Szedlak et al., 2015).

The impact of feedback is also related to the ratio of positive to negative/punishing feedback provided. For decades, it has been recommended by researchers from teaching (Kirkhart & Kirkhart, 1972) to relationships (Gottman, 1994) to management (Losada & Heaphy, 2004) that positive feedback be used at least five times more frequently than negative feedback (e.g., criticism, scolding, sarcasm, and negative modeling). Researchers’ observations of Hall of Fame Basketball Coaches John Wooden (10 national NCAA championships, and Pat Summitt (most career wins by an NCAA basketball coach; supported this ratio (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008; Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). Wooden and Summit also served as real-life examples of highly successful collegiate sport coaches who spent 80 to 85% of his behaviors providing positive and instructional feedback and scolding just 7% of the time, with the remaining behaviors being criticism with reinstruction and management (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008; Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). Therefore, for all the SCCs observed by researchers (Gallo & De Marco, 2008; Massey et al., 2002), criticism averaged less than 1% of their behaviors. In fact, the range of criticism use was 0–1.4% of all behaviors (Massey et al., 2002). This is clearly better than the general recommendation of 5:1. More research into strength and conditioning is needed to determine if this is unique to the context of strength and conditioning or if this a behavior pattern of only elite/expert level SCCs.

Providing discipline within strength and conditioning training specifically, and to athletes for sport coaches in general, may present a challenge for some SCCs achieving the positive to negative feedback recommendation of 5:1 introduced above. This is particularly true when one or more sport coaches view overseeing disciplinary action through physical punishments as a role of the SCC (Gearity & Mills, 2012; Massey & Vincent, 2013). In such cases, SCCs have to balance being a formal or informal disciplinarian with being an individual to whom athletes can positively relate and trust (Gearity & Mills, 2012; Massey & Vincent, 2013). Such disciplinary behavior is in addition to behaviors SCCs may use during regular strength and conditioning training. Strength and conditioning training has a high level of discipline naturally built into it for the athletes’ safety and performance gains (Gearity & Mills, 2012). This discipline includes the organization of time and the efficient utilization of space and equipment. It can also be expressed in ways that can be detrimental to athletes’ performance gains. An example was provided by Gearity and Mills’s (2012) description of the typical interactions between SCC and athletes during a training session. Some of the presented interactions illustrated an SCC “trying to obtain compliance through fear” (p. 128) and “restricted consideration of alternatives” (p. 129) for the individualization of athletes’ training. These descriptions are in contrast to Dorgo’s (2009) observation and description of an expert coach, and highlight the wide variety of leadership styles, behaviors, and motivational climates that are currently employed by collegiate-level SCCs.

Finally, an important aspect that has only started to be investigated in the strength and conditioning training context is the optimal SCC:athlete ratio. Initial research by Gentil and Bottaro (2010) showed that the SCC:athlete ratio influenced athletes’ intensity of training during sessions and their subsequent performance gains. Specifically, when the SCC:athlete ratio was 1:5, the novice lifters completed their exercises at a significantly higher intensity than when the SCC:athlete ratio was 1:25. These results are similar to those seen in education regarding preferable teacher:student ratios for academic success (Mayer, Wiley, Wiley, Dees, & Raiford, 2016; Smith & Glass, 1980). This may also reflect the beneficial effect of being able to provide more feedback to novice lifters. As many SCCs work at ratios greater than 1:25, the ability to efficiently provide appropriate feedback and motivation to all participants by expert coaches has been observed (Gallo & De Marco, 2008; Massey et al., , 2002).


The SCC’s primary job responsibility is to increase athletes’ performance by designing training sessions that can include flexibility, power, strength, endurance, agility, reaction time, and injury prevention. In addition to designing these training sessions, SCCs also implement them with one or more athletes at time. SCCs report that the ability to motivate their athletes is critical to athletes experiencing the training benefits of the training programs. SCCs use a variety of different psychological stills and strategies to maximize their athletes’ performance. Some of these psychological skills are used informally, such as when SCCs suggest that the athlete image how to execute an exercise or drill before performing it. Other psychological skills are formally used, and some are inherent to the field of strength and conditioning, including goal setting and providing technical feedback (i.e., cuing). Providing such feedback increases athletes’ self-efficacy and performance. The frequency of SCCs’ feedback, behaviors, and interactions with athletes comprises their leadership style. Generally, there is a high variability in SCC’s use of different types of feedback and behaviors. However, they are consistent in predominantly giving instructional-based feedback and minimal criticism, scolding, or punishments. An additional important aspect of the SCC’s leadership style from both the coaches’ and the athletes’ perspective is the coach:athlete relationship. Although further research is needed into the use of psychological skills within the strength and conditioning training context, the consistent information across research methodologies and sources supports the consistent use and promotion of a variety of psychological skills by SCCs.


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