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date: 14 August 2018

Psychological Considerations for Children and Adolescents in Sport and Performance

Summary and Keywords

There is a large literature base within the field of sport psychology that provides tremendous direction to coaches and parents on how to structure youth sport so that young athletes develop sport skills and concurrently reap psychological benefits from their sport participation. Much of this research has employed Nicholls’ Achievement Goal Perspective Theory and a Caring Framework to (a) identity the processes children undergo as their cognitive development matures across the elementary years, allowing them to accurately judge their ability by adolescence, (b) formulate their personal definitions of success in sport (develop their goal orientations), and (c) note features of the team and overall sport climate created by coaches and parents. Of particular importance is athletes’ perceptions of the motivational climate prevailing on their teams. Athletes can perceive a caring and task-involving climate where coaches reward effort, improvement, and cooperation among teammates, make everyone feel they play an important role on the team, and treat mistakes as part of the learning process. In contrast, athletes can also perceive an ego-involving climate where the coach rewards ability and performance outcome, fosters rivalry among teammates, punishes mistakes, and gives most of the recognition to a few “stars.”

When athletes perceive a caring and task-involving climate on their teams, they are more likely to have fun, exert high effort, experience intrinsic motivation, have better interpersonal relationships with coaches and athletes, display better sportsperson-like values and behaviors, have better psychological well-being, and even perform better. In contrast, when athletes perceive an ego-involving climate on their teams they experience fewer adaptive and positive motivational outcomes and greater problematic outcomes (e.g., increased cortisol; greater endorsement of unsportsperson-like behaviors). Research has clearly identified the benefits of coaches and parents creating a caring and task-involving climate for young athletes, yet there are still many ego-involving climates in the youth sport world. A number of organizations are committed to helping coaches and parents transform youth sport culture into a positive arena where young people can develop their athletic skills and have a rewarding sport experience.

Keywords: motivational climate, achievement goal perspective theory, caring, goal orientations

I felt like I must have done something right because the day after the season ended, my athletes were right back out on the field getting ready for the next season.

— Darren Erpelding, high school soccer coach

Recently, we were teaching an undergraduate sport psychology class and had a panel of coaches share their experiences about how they approach motivation with their athletes. A student asked the coaches how they define success for their teams, and one coach’s response, quoted above, stood out. He expressed such pleasure in noting that his athletes did not want the season to end. They had suffered a tough loss to end the season. Instead of feeling beat up, exhausted, and ready for time off, they were excited to continue their efforts to prepare for the next season. Coach Erpelding and coaches like him are definitely doing something right when their athletes have zest for their sport over time. We are surprised and sad at how often we talk to young athletes who are ready for the season to be over. In fact, a recent conversation with several adolescent athletes went something like this:

MDF Hi ladies, how’s your volleyball season going?

Athlete 1 It’s going okay . . . but I’m kind of ready for it to be over.

MDF Really? Aren’t you just three weeks into the season?

Athlete 1 Yeah

MDF What about you two?

Athlete 2 and 3 [Both nod and indicate that they, too, are ready for the season to be over.]

MDF What’s up with that?

Athlete 1 I don’t know . . . it’s just not that fun.

Athlete 2 Our team isn’t that good.

Athlete 3 (shrugs) It will just be nice not to have to go to practice all the time.

MDF Hmmmmm. That’s kind of a bummer, huh?

Athlete 1, 2, and 3 Yeah.

How unfortunate for athletes to be in situations where the season has barely started, yet it cannot be over soon enough for them. It stands out when coaches have athletes who end a season like Coach Erpelding’s athletes and lament the finale. Coach Erpelding’s description of this team reminds me (MDF) of one of the first data collections I was involved with as a graduate student years ago. We were surveying youth sport teams who were competing in the state games, and within seconds of teams losing and being ousted from the tournament, we had them circle up to complete a survey. One of the survey items was, “I can’t wait to get back on the field again to play my sport,” and athletes indicated how much they agreed or disagreed with that statement. There was huge variability in responses across teams, with some indicating they were not eager to get back to playing their sport (i.e., strongly disagreed), while others strongly agreed with the statement. I remember being struck at the glaring differences among these athletes and how the athletes who were excited to continue playing (even seconds after a major loss) seemed like they were in a position to thrive in their sport over time.

Young athletes, no doubt, can have very distinct sport experiences. While there is nothing wrong (and something probably healthy) about young athletes taking a break at the end of a season, having a desire to continue one’s sport is a marker of positive motivation. Clearly, a goal of youth sport is to help young athletes have positive experiences across sport seasons where they have fun, develop skills, make friends, increase their levels of physical activity, continue their participation over time, and learn valuable life lessons (Thompson, 2010). A large body of research in sport psychology, and specifically youth sport, supports that sport can be structured to help young athletes reap many physical, psychological, and social benefits from their participation in sport and physical activities (Duda, 2013; Fry & Moore, in press; Harwood, Keegan, Smith, & Raine, 2015; Roberts, 2012). This research, unfortunately, has not trickled down to practice in a timely manner, and there are still too many athletes like these young volleyball players who are not maximizing their potential for growth and development within the physical domain.

The purpose of this essay is to provide a summary of sport psychology research pertaining to optimizing young athletes’ sport experiences. In particular, research employing achievement goal perspective theory (AGPT) and a caring framework (C) will be included. Further, within the athlete triad are three key groups: athletes, coaches, and parents. The essay has three main sections, and each section provides a summary of research specific to that group.

Defining Motivation and Introducing Theory

In simple terms, motivation is the desire to do activities. In more formal terms, it is defined as “the process that influences initiation, direction, magnitude, perseverance, continuation, and quality of goal-directed behavior” (p. 77; Maehr & Zusho, 2009). Maehr and Meyer (1997) also suggest that it may be helpful to think of motivation in terms of personal investment. Every individual has resources, and motivation is about why, how, when, and in what circumstances each person employs those resources.

One motivational theory that has been prevalent in sport is AGPT, as developed and championed by John Nicholls (1984, 1989). Nicholls was an educational psychology researcher concerned with the decline in motivation observed in students as they reached adolescence and that continued into adulthood for many individuals. He developed AGPT to address how motivation could be heightened and sustained over time, and how it could be maximized for each individual within a group (i.e., classroom, school, athletic team). His theory included three components that together provide direction for optimizing motivation among all individuals: (a) a cognitive developmental element that describes the processes children undergo as they obtain a mature understanding of ability; (b) goal orientations, or individuals’ personal definitions of success; and (c) individuals’ perceptions of the motivational climate in their specific setting. Each of these components will be briefly explained.

AGPT Component 1: Cognitive Development

Nicholls’ AGPT is unique among theories of motivation because it includes a developmental component that describes how children come to understand ability in normative terms. Young children are incapable of accurately comparing their ability to others and instead display an egocentric view of ability (i.e., If I can accomplish a task, I must have high ability and have also tried hard).

While the concepts of effort, luck, and ability are not clearly differentiated across the elementary years, Nicholls comprehensively described how most children acquire the cognitive capacity to fully distinguish these concepts by the time they enter adolescence. Specifically, children with a mature conception of ability recognize ability as a capacity that individuals have, and effort allows them to maximize their current capacity. However, exerting maximal effort does not ensure that one individual can outperform another who has greater current ability. Nicholls declares that this natural incomplete conception of ability displayed by young children serves them (and humanity, in general) well because it operates as a protective mechanism. Young children overestimate their ability and are naturally focused on their effort as a marker of success. As a result, they are less likely to experience distractions that plague adolescents and adults with regard to their normative standing in comparison to valued others. Nicholls work on children’s cognitive development of a mature conception of ability provided a strong contribution to education. Researchers have replicated his work, finding the levels of cognitive development relevant in the physical as well as educational domain (Fry & Duda, 1997; Fry, 2000a, 2000b).

AGPT Component 2: Goal Orientations

According to Nicholls, as children acquire a mature conception of ability around 12 years of age, they are then able to adopt goal orientations or personal definitions of success. Nicholls identifies two goal orientations: task and ego. Individuals with a high task orientation define success based on their effort, improvement, and mastery of tasks over time, whereas a high ego orientation is displayed when individuals define success in normative terms, only feeling successful when they outperform others. Nicholls affirmed these goal orientations are orthogonal, or independent, so that individuals can hold any magnitude of the two orientations (i.e., be high or low in one or both orientations).

However, Nicholls maintained that a high task orientation was likely the key to optimizing motivation over time. He reasoned that defining success based on effort and improvement are variables individuals can more easily control. In turn, Nicholls recognized high ego orientation, or construing success only in terms of normative standings, as problematic. He predicted that individuals who display a high task orientation are more likely to seek challenge, exert high effort, and persist over time. With ego orientation, however, the situation is more complicated because perceptions of ability are key. Logically, if athletes are high in ego orientation and have high perceptions of ability, they may still display strong motivational features. However, if athletes are high in ego orientation and have low perceptions of ability, Nicholls predicts more problematic responses such as not seeking challenge, giving low effort, and not persisting in the face of challenge. Subsequent research in sport settings has provided empirical support for Nicholls’ contentions, illustrating how young athletes’ goal orientations have predictive capacity with respect to psychological and behavioral outcomes, with a high task orientation corresponding to advantageous responses irrespective of the individual athlete’s confidence or ability level (Maehr & Zusho, 2009).

AGPT Component 3: Motivational Climate

The third and final component of achievement goal perspective theory involves athletes’ perceptions of the environment that is created by coaches, but can also be influenced by parents and teammates (Ames, 1992a, 1992b; Nicholls, 1984, 1989). Two climates have been identified: a task and an ego-involving climate. In a task-involving climate, the coach is emphasizing that athletes’ effort, personal improvement, and cooperation with teammates and coaches are the most highly valued commodities, mistakes are considered part of the learning process, and every athlete plays an important role on the team. In contrast, in an ego-involving climate, athletes perceive that coaches place the highest value on performance outcomes and normative standings, elicit rivalry among teammates, punish mistakes, and give primary recognition to only a few athletes (see Figure 1).

Psychological Considerations for Children and Adolescents in Sport and PerformanceClick to view larger

Figure 1. Features of the Motivational Climate.

In addition to the task- and ego-involving features of the climate, Newton et al. (2007) called for an additional feature to be included when assessing athletes’ perceptions of the climate: caring. This work stemmed from Noddings (2005, 2006), an educational philosopher, who has written extensively on the importance of helping young people both feel cared for and in turn develop the capacity to have empathy and display care for others. She argues that creating a caring culture for young people should be the most important aim of any educational system. Battistich, Schaps, Watson, Solomon, and Lewis (2000) applied the philosophical principles of Noddings (2005, 2006) in work they conducted in schools, finding that enhancing a caring climate in schools results in enhanced physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. In transferring Noddings concepts related to a caring culture from the academic to physical domain, Newton et al. (2007) defined a caring climate as one where athletes feel welcome, comfortable, valued, and are treated with kindness and respect by all in the sport setting. Together, athletes’ perceptions of a caring and task-involving climate have been associated with numerous positive and adaptive motivational responses. Conversely, perceptions of an ego-involving climate give rise to concern for athletes’ physical and psychological well-being (Fry & Moore, in press). A summary of the research on motivational climate will follow.

From a research perspective, strengths of AGPT, and in particular the climate component, are its simplicity and strong research support. AGPT theoretical tenets are well defined, straightforward, and easy for athletes, coaches, and parents to grasp. These tenets are also user friendly for educational endeavors aimed at helping coaches, parents, and athletes foster more adaptive psychosocial sporting environments for youth (Ommundsen & Pedersen, 1999).

Summary of AGPT

Nicholls’ AGPT outlines the process whereby individuals develop their goal perspectives. Across the childhood years, youngsters’ cognitive development is advancing, culminating in a mature understanding of ability as they approach adolescence. At this time they formulate and adopt their personal definitions of success (i.e., goal orientations), and along the way they are influenced by the motivational climate on their sport teams. At any point in time, athletes can be task- or ego-involved, and Nicholls identified this state of involvement as individuals’ goal perspectives. Individuals’ cognitive developmental levels, goal orientations, and perceptions of the motivational climate all contribute to athletes’ goal perspectives. Next, a summary of research employing AGPT will be highlighted with regard to findings relative to athletes, coaches, and parents. This research supports the benefits of fostering task-involvement and deemphasizing ego-involvement among young athletes.

Summary of Research on Athletes

Researchers have revealed associations between young athletes’ goal orientations to a wide variety of personal and team variables including their motivational responses (e.g., effort, enjoyment), team dynamics and interpersonal relationships, confidence and perceived ability, practice strategies and mental skills, anxiety, and beliefs about success in sport. Overall, task orientation has been linked to more positive outcomes and ego orientation with more negative outcomes within this literature (Fry & Moore, in press; Roberts, 1992).

Perhaps the strongest finding within the goal orientation research links a task orientation with high enjoyment. Throughout childhood and adolescence, and across a range of sports (e.g., basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball), athletes who define success based on their personal effort and improvement (i.e., have a high task orientation), have more fun playing their sport (Seifriz, Duda, & Chi, 1992; Stephens, 1998; Stuntz & Weiss, 2009; van de Pol & Kavussanu, 2011). Importantly, goal orientations are also associated with the sources of enjoyment athletes identify. For example, youth athletes with a high task orientation report experiencing enjoyment from learning and having positive team interactions. In contrast, athletes high in ego orientation report experiencing enjoyment as a result of winning and having high perceived competence (Lochbaum & Roberts, 1993).

It follows that because young athletes have much control over learning and their relationships with teammates and coaches, having a high task orientation should more readily allow for continuous sport enjoyment. However, fun may be at risk for athletes who only experience enjoyment in circumstances where favorable normative outcomes are achieved. In one such example, Stephens (1998) found that athletes with high ego orientation/low task orientation and low perceived ability reported low enjoyment in their sport. In fact, across the literature the findings have been consistent with AGPT, with a strong positive relationship between task orientation and sport enjoyment, and a negative relationship between high ego orientation and sport enjoyment reported by youth (Fry & Moore, in press; Lochbaum, Kazak Çetinkalp, Graham, Wright, & Zazo, 2016; Roberts, 2012).

A high task orientation has proved adaptive with respect to a range of important motivational outcomes. In addition to enjoyment, task orientation is consistently positively and significantly correlated with effort and a preference for more challenging tasks. This has not been the case for ego orientation (Stuntz & Weiss, 2009; van de Pol & Kavussanu, 2011). Specifically, this research has revealed that young athletes with a high task orientation prefer to try more difficult skills and put forth greater effort in sport settings compared to youth with a high ego orientation. Because effort and enjoyment are two principal outcomes within youth sport, these findings suggest that fostering task orientation is critical for achieving positive outcomes.

Another benefit of young athletes displaying high task orientation is the strong and positive association with interpersonal and team dynamics (Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo, 1999; Ommundsen, Roberts, Lemyre, & Miller, 2005). Task orientation is positively correlated with peer acceptance, less conflict with peers, and greater satisfaction with the coach. Athletes high in ego orientation seem to have a very different experience with important others in sporting contexts. These athletes report lower companionship and greater conflict with teammates (Balaguer et al., 1999), and there is no evidence to suggest they reap the benefits of enhanced social relationships that youth with high task orientation do (Ommundsen et al., 2005).

In addition to psychosocial benefits that accompany task orientation, researchers have also identified a strong association to behaviors consistent with positive character development. Multiple studies link a high task orientation to more prosocial behaviors and beliefs and notably less antisocial behavior in youth. In contrast, a high ego orientation has consistently been associated with youth engaging in and approving of more antisocial behaviors in sport settings, and inversely related to prosocial behavior and beliefs. Further, athletes with a high ego orientation report lower levels of moral functioning and are more likely to approve of unsportsperson-like conduct (Kavussanu & Roberts, 2001; Stephens & Kavanagh, 2003). These findings suggest that having an ego orientation is not simply neutral in terms of the effect it has on the character development of young athletes; rather, an ego orientation can undermine the quality of the sport experience if youngsters are engaging in antisocial behavior with their coaches and peers.

Notwithstanding the affective and behavioral responses already noted, athletes high in task orientation also report greater confidence and perceived ability. Across sports (e.g., basketball, soccer) and levels of sport (e.g., middle and high school), task orientation has been correlated with both self and team efficacy and greater perceived competence (Magyar & Feltz, 2003; Seifriz et al., 1992; Stuntz & Weiss, 2009). Ego orientation, in contrast, is not correlated with perceived ability in general, although Stephens (1998) found that athletes with high ego and low task orientation had lower perceptions of ability. Also of interest was Magyar and Feltz’ (2003), study that examined the sources of information athletes use to derive confidence. Confidence of athletes high in ego orientation was more often based on their perceptions of ability and having a strong physical presence, whereas athletes high in task orientation based their perceptions of confidence on their sense of feeling well prepared and mentally strong.

Athletes with higher task orientation may report greater confidence and perceived ability because they have better practice strategies and mental skills. For example, high task orientation has been associated with athletes concentrating better than athletes with a high ego orientation and using more goal setting and positive self-talk in both training and competition (Harwood, Cumming, & Fletcher, 2004; Papaioannou & Kouli, 1999). These findings are consistent with Nicholls predictions that defining success based on one’s effort and improvement will lead to more adaptive outcomes.

While athletes high in ego orientation are less likely to profit from the benefits of high task orientation, there are some definite disadvantages, most notably a consistently significant relationship between ego orientation and anxiety (Lochbaum et al., 2016). Young athletes participating in a variety of sports (e.g., basketball, fencing, figure skating, track) have reported higher trait and state cognitive and somatic anxiety, as well as greater concentration disruption, maladaptive perfectionism, and concern over making mistakes (Grossbard, Cumming, Standage, Smith, & Smoll, 2007; Hall, Kerr, & Matthews, 1998; Ommundsen & Pedersen, 1999; Ommundsen et al., 2005; White & Zellner, 1996). In a study with high school runners, Hall et al. (1998) found that athletes with a high ego orientation not only experienced higher state cognitive anxiety but also sensed higher criticism and expectations for performance by their parents. Taken together, these results suggest that a high ego orientation can bring with it a pressure and distraction where athletes can no longer enjoy a carefree approach to their sport, and must be concerned with the implications of losing, performing poorly, and demonstrating low normative ability.

A final finding in the goal orientation literature, is that young athletes’ goal orientations are associated with their beliefs about success in sport (Newton & Duda, 1993; Seifriz et al., 1992). Athletes with a high task orientation are more likely to indicate that success in sport is achieved due to individuals’ high effort, whereas highly ego-oriented athletes are more inclined to identify ability as the primary cause of success. While both ability and effort are clearly important causes of success, coaches would likely prefer young athletes to attribute their success to effort rather than ability. If success comes via hard work, there is much to feel good about, but in the case of attributing success to ability, young athletes might underestimate the contribution of effort (and not work as hard in the future) or be discouraged that their ability at times is inadequate.

In addition to identifying ability as the primary cause of success, athletes high in ego orientation more often indicate that success is achieved due to external factors such as having the best equipment or via illegal means (e.g., using performance-enhancing drugs; White & Zellner, 1996). These results collectively demonstrate how goal orientations reflect individuals’ views about the world, how it works, and what gives sport meaning to them personally. These views are distinctly different based on athletes’ goal orientations.

In summary, research on young athletes’ goal orientations highlight how sport can be a powerful venue for youngsters to grow socially, emotionally, and psychologically., Clearly, young athletes should be encouraged to foster a high task orientation. When athletes adopt a high task orientation, the stage is set for them to have fun, try hard, make friends, have solid adult role models, have opportunities to display strong character, and develop a belief system that reaffirms their high effort. Research findings with high ego orientation have not displayed compelling results for achieving positive outcomes such as those; moreover, high ego orientation may be detrimental for young athletes, particularly with its capacity to focus athletes on factors that are distracting and outside their control (e.g., performance outcome). While research on young athletes has resulted in significant findings that inform adults about how to help young athletes adopt a high task orientation, the AGPT research on the climate coaches create is even more persuasive (Fry & Moore, in press; Roberts, 2012), and is addressed in the next section.

Summary of Research on Coaches

Positive Motivational Responses Immediate to the Sport Experience

Climate researchers have consistently revealed that young athletes have positive sport experiences when they are in a climate where they are encouraged to work together, the focus is on personal markers of effort and improvement, and they are treated with kindness and respect. First and foremost, they have more fun participating in sport. These results have been found consistently across sports (e.g., basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball) and ability levels (e.g., youth sport, varsity high school; Appleton & Duda, 2016; Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010; Iwasaki & Fry, 2013; MacDonald, Côté, Eys, & Deakin, 2011; Seifriz et al., 1992). Creating a caring and task-involving climate appears to be a key ingredient at the core of positive youth sport experiences.

In addition to enjoyment, effort and intrinsic motivation play an important role in young athletes’ sport involvement. If youngsters are not exerting high effort and focused on the process of developing sport skills, their improvement will be minimal. Athletes who perceive a caring and task-involving climate on their teams report greater effort and intrinsic motivation in their sport (Duda & Nicholls, 1992; Iwasaki & Fry, 2013; Newton, Duda, & Yin, 2000).

Athletes also report greater commitment to their sport when they perceive a caring and task-involving climate (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010; Hall, Newland, Newton, Podlog, & Baucom, 2017; Leo, Sánchez, Sánchez, Amado, & Calvo, 2009; Olympiou, Jowett, & Duda, 2008). For example, Hall, Newland, Newton, Podlog, and Baucom (2017) recently found that high school athletes’ commitment was greater at both the individual and team levels when they perceived a caring and task-involving climate. Athletes have also expressed greater commitment to attending practice as well as off-season conditioning programs (Chamberlin, Fry, & Iwasaki, 2017; Miller, Roberts, & Ommundsen, 2004).

In addition to athletes’ commitment within their current sport season, their longer-term commitment to their team and sport have also been observed. For example, youngsters’ perceptions of a caring and task-involving climate in a summer sport skills camp were positively associated with their desire to come back to the camp the following summer (Newton et al., 2007). In an intervention study, Barnett, Smoll, and Smith (1992) conducted coaching education training for half the coaches in the league, providing strategies to assist them in enhancing the task-involving features of the climate. The researchers reported that only 5% of young athletes who played on teams where the coach had received instruction on how to create a task-involving climate dropped out the following season, compared to the 29% dropout rate for athletes whose coaches did not receive the intervention (Barnett, Smoll, & Smith, 1992).

In sum, the literature underscores the value of young athletes’ experiencing sport within a climate that accentuates effort, improvement, cooperation, and respectful treatment of teammates. Athletes who experience such a climate are very likely to report having fun, exerting high effort, being intrinsically motivated, and demonstrating high commitment and persistence. An ego-involving climate runs counter to these expected positive outcomes and can even be directly detrimental as in the case of the higher dropout rate.

Interpersonal Relationships

A prominent finding within the current research on young athletes is that when athletes experience a caring and task-involving climate they have better interpersonal relationships with their teammates and coaches. Smith, Smoll, and Curtis (1978, 1979) and Smith, Smoll, and Hunt (1977) were among the first to present these findings. They found that when coaches gave young athletes a great deal of technical instruction and positive reinforcement, and used punishment sparingly, (i.e., behaviors consistent with fostering a caring and task-involving climate) the players reported liking their coaches and teammates more, regardless of win-loss records,. These players also reported liking the sport more and wanting to play for their teams the following year. The positive outcomes were not revealed when coaches’ behaviors reflected more ego-involving behaviors. These researchers and their colleagues have moved toward employing AGPT as a theoretical framework and have confirmed these findings over the years (Cumming, Smoll, Smith, & Grossbard, 2007; Cumming, Smith, Smoll, Standage, & Grossbard, 2008).

In a similar manner, young tennis players who perceived a task-involving climate within their program liked their teammates and tennis professionals better, whereas their perceptions of an ego-involving climate were associated with negative feelings toward the coach and teammates (Fry & Newton, 2003). Like tennis players, dancers feel a greater sense of relatedness to their peers and perceive they have more friends in a caring and task-involving climate (and less so in an ego-involving climate) (Quested & Duda, 2010; Stark & Newton, 2014).

Olympiou, Jowett, and Duda (2008) reported that athletes’ perceptions of a task-involving climate within their teams was associated with athletes feeling closer to and more comfortable with their coaches, and more committed to their sport. Finally, athletes report greater cohesion across the season and teamwork when they perceive a caring and task-involving climate on their teams (Gould, Flett, & Lauer, 2012; McLaren, Newland, Eys, & Newton, 2017; Olympiou et al., 2008). Fry and Gano-Overway (2010) and Iwasaki and Fry (2013) provided support that these enhanced relationships may lead athletes to be more active and intentional in fostering the positive features of the climate on their teams. These researchers found a positive relationship between athletes’ perceptions of a caring climate in youth sport and their personal engagement in caring behaviors with both their coaches and teammates. Together, these findings suggest that a caring and task-involving climate is critical for helping develop positive relationships among and between athletes and coaches in the youth sport setting, and clearly, perceptions of an ego-involving climate are not helpful in this regard and are even associated with greater bullying behaviors in the physical domain (Gano-Overway, 2013).

Sportspersonship/Character Development

While the quality of relationships among teammates and coaches is linked as predicted to the motivational climate operating within teams, it is also the case that athletes’ perceptions of the climate are associated with their moral functioning and treatment of opponents (Kavussanu, 2006; Miller, Roberts, & Ommundsen, 2005). Young soccer and tennis athletes endorse greater sportspersonship behaviors and were more likely to demonstrate respect for officials, opponents, rules, and accepted standards of behavior within the sport (Fry & Newton, 2003; Kavussanu & Spray, 2006; Miller et al., 2004) when they perceive a task-involving climate on their teams. In contrast, athletes perceiving an ego-involving climate were more accepting of rough play, cheating, and aggressive behaviors in their sport (Boixados, Cruz, Torregrosa, & Valiente, 2004), and less likely to report engaging in appropriate, more desirable, and respectful behaviors within sport (e.g., not questioning calls and being honest about the score in tennis; Fry & Newton, 2003). Perceptions of a task-involving climate also predicted athletes’ expectations that their coach would disapprove of unsportsperson-like behavior by their team (Miller et al., 2005). Finally, Sage and Kavussanu (2006) found that antisocial behavior at the beginning of the season predicted athletes perceiving an ego-involving climate at the end of the season. Germane to understanding these sport team dynamics, Guivernau and Duda (2002) reported that adolescent soccer players identified their coaches (i.e., over parents, best friends, team captains, etc.) as the most significant individuals influencing their likelihood to display aggressive behaviors in their sport. Further, these athletes’ perceptions of their team norms with regard to their personal engagement in aggressive behavior were best predicted by their pro-aggressive team norms. Researchers have demonstrated that coaches play a key role in how their athletes approach fair play and the degree that they display exemplary behavior in sport.

Together, these results highlight the value of creating a task-involving climate within sport for young athletes, when the goal is to promote positive behaviors that hold teammates and coaches, opponents, officials, and the game in high regard. An ego-involving climate is counter to this aim and leaves young athletes believing that sport performance and winning contests are the most important goals of sport, and sportsperson-like behavior can be disregarded in pursuit of these aims.

Practice Strategies, Mental Skills, and Performance Outcomes

In addition to the many benefits relating to athletes’ motivation and exemplary behavior within sport that occur when athletes perceive a supportive climate that focuses them on personal effort and being respectful of everyone in the sport, researchers have presented evidence that perceptions of the climate may also be linked to higher quality training and better performance outcomes. Specifically, when youngsters perceive a caring and task-involving climate, they have reported more effective practice strategies in sport and physical education settings (Boyce, Gano-Overway, & Campbell, 2009; Iwasaki & Fry, 2016; Lochbaum et al., 2016). These practice strategies can best be described by athletes’ intentionally creating a high-quality competition-like environment within drills that require attentional focus and consistent effort. Further, these adaptive practice strategies include the use of mental skills such as goal setting and mental imagery. In a sample of high school soccer players, practice strategies and mindful engagement mediated the relationship between perceptions of a task-involving climate and the ability to perform well under pressure (Iwasaki & Fry, 2016). These results suggest that a task-involving (and not ego-involving) climate is key to helping young athletes maximize their experience and performance both in practice and competition.

A limited number of studies have revealed a direct association between perceptions of a task-involving climate to objective performance. Specifically, youngsters perceiving a task-involving climate on their team have demonstrated better juggling skills in an experimental study, greater motor skills in a sport skills camp, and ran more laps and faster times in a running club across the school year than youngsters who perceived an ego-involving climate (Hogue, Fry, & Fry, 2017; Theeboom, De Knop, & Weiss, 1995; Xiang, Bruene, & McBride, 2004). Young athletes have also had higher winning percentages on their basketball teams and performed better on a climbing task when they perceived a task-involving (rather than ego-involving) climate (Cumming et al., 2007; Sarrazin, Roberts, Cury, Biddle, & Famose, 2002). Results across studies suggest that the benefits of a task-involving climate may have a direct impact on athletic performance, although future research in this area will be necessary. However, no evidence currently points to an ego-involving climate leading to greater performance outcomes with young athletes.

Psychological Well and Ill Being

The amassed findings from the climate literature in youth sport suggests ego-involving climates compromise the psychological well-being of young athletes, while caring, task-involving climates facilitate positive youth development and more adaptive psychological functioning. To begin, researchers found positive and significant associations between perceptions of a caring climate in sport settings and the hope and happiness of youth, and negative relationships with depression and sadness (Fry et al., 2012). Similar associations have been found between caring climates and the ability of youth athletes to monitor and control their affective responses. This self-regulation was found to contribute to athlete empathy, indicating that fostering more caring climates in sport settings may facilitate positive social interactions and character development (Gano-Overway et al., 2009). Lastly, more direct measures of mental and physical well-being have yielded a positive association between socially supportive, task-involving climates and positive affect, while ego-involving climates have been associated with negative affect and exhaustion (Quested & Duda, 2010). These results seem to hold true in a range of physical activity settings. For instance, Stark and Newton (2014) linked positive motivational climates in dance settings with greater body esteem, having more friends, and less negative affect.

Physiological Responses

During education workshops and climate interventions, coaches and parents will often inquire about how the motivational climate impacts their athletes physically. While this literature is still in its infancy, the available research is in line with AGPT predictions. To begin, researchers have shown that the more adaptive motivational responses and greater sport enjoyment experienced by youth in more supportive, task-involving sporting contexts translates to higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (i.e., as measured by an accelerometer) and lower body fat percentage (Fenton, Duda, Appleton, & Barrett, 2016). The benefits of a caring, task-involving climate can also materialize as adaptive behavioral patterns that are psychologically and physiologically protective for youth. For instance, in a recent study, young soccer players who perceived a caring and task-involving climate were more likely to report that they would tell their coach if they had symptoms of a concussion, and they were more likely to believe that their coaches and teammates genuinely care about their well-being (Brown, Fry, Wilkinson, Breske, & Iwasaki, 2018).

Ego-involving climates, in contrast, have been shown to trigger more troubling psychophysiological stress responses known to have an adverse impact on mental and physical health. In an experimental investigation, ego-involving climates were causally linked to elevated stress responses in middle school students, including striking elevations in salivary cortisol, shame, humiliation, and self-consciousness. Youth in the caring, task-involving group, however, reported experiencing minimal psychosocial stress (i.e., average response of “not true at all”) and a decrease in cortisol levels, relative to baseline (Hogue et al., 2017). These findings suggest that creating ego-involving climates in youth sport settings not only put youth at a disadvantage psychologically, but physically as well. Collectively, this research illustrates how caring, task-involving climates elicit responses more likely to coincide with positive coaching philosophies and the mission of youth sport, particularly with respect to the motivation, psychological well-being, and overall health of young athletes.


Although the research is limited, the literature suggests a meaningful relationship between parent-initiated motivational climates and youth sport experiences. The psychological support provided by caring parents who create more task-involving climates in youth sport settings can facilitate the psychosocial development of participating youth, while also providing athletes a more optimal experience. More specifically, the motivational climate fostered by parents has proven capable of impacting the belief systems, moral functioning, and psychological responses of young athletes.

For instance, as expected parents are strong socializing agents for the moral decision making and beliefs of youth in sport contexts. When parents reinforce the importance of learning and having fun in sport, their children are more likely to report prosocial moral beliefs (e.g., placing greater value on winning fairly than winning by cheating), whereas the reinforcement of ego-involving features by parents yields more favorable attitudes toward cheating and gamesmanship in youth, including outright violating the rules or psychologically destabilizing an opponent in order to gain an advantage (Wagnsson, Stenling, Gustafsson, & Augustsson, 2016). Parent-initiated task-involving behaviors have also been linked to player graciousness and concern for opponents while players with parents who reinforce ego-involving characteristics are more likely to intentionally injure their opponents or engage in other poor sportsperson-like conduct (Lavoi & Stellino, 2008).

The parent motivational climate can also affect the psychological experience of young athletes. For example, youth with task-involving parents report higher self-esteem and lower performance anxiety, while athletes with ego-involving parental climates report greater performance anxiety and lower self-esteem (Lewthwaite & Scanlan, 1989; O’Rourke, Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2011; Schwebel, Smith, & Smoll, 2016). One relevant example that speaks to the efficacy of parent and coaching education is a brief motivational climate intervention, with both parents and coaches, conducted by Smoll, Smith, and Cumming (2007). They were able to demonstrate marked differences in youth anxiety and concentration disruption between teams whose parents and coaches took part in a short motivational climate workshop (i.e., the experimental group) and a matched control group of youth sport teams. Specifically, the cognitive and somatic anxiety as well as concentration disruption of the experimental group decreased significantly over the course of the season, while the somatic anxiety and concentration disruption of the control group increased significantly (Smoll, Smith, & Cumming, 2007b).

There is also research to suggest that parent-initiated motivational climate influences the goal orientation adopted by youth athletes and may also contribute to optimizing their children’s athletic potential when task-involving. While parental ego-involving climates are linked to extrinsic or less adaptive forms of motivation, when parents are reinforcing the importance of trying hard and having fun in sport, youth report significantly higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, these motivational patterns may become even more salient over time (O’Rourke, Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2013). Lastly, when comparing elite versus recreational youth athletes, researchers found that elite players have greater task orientation and mothers who value learning and having fun in sport (Kavussanu, White, Jowett, & England, 2011).

It is important to note that the dispositional goal orientations of youth tend to mirror the motivational climates reinforced by their parents (McArdle & Duda, 2002; White, 1996, 1998), thus underscoring the significance of positive parental support and parent education in sporting contexts. There is, it should be noted, some evidence to suggest that this parental influence diminishes with age (Keegan, Harwood, Spray, & Lavallee, 2014).

The vital role that parents play in the experience and development of youth in sport is quickly becoming a burgeoning area of interest for sport and exercise psychology researchers. However, it is important to highlight that the extant research does strongly suggest that the tenants of AGPT hold true for parents, as well as coaches and athletes. A variety of materials and resources are available that provide helpful educational information to guide parents in their children’s sport activities (see Table 1). Richards and Winters (2013) described a parent intervention they conducted to guide parents in creating a task-involving climate for their daughters in a gymnastics program. In a recent position paper, Harwood and Knight (2015) offered advice for parents who seek to optimize their child’s sport experience and performance potential. They offered strategies for applying 21st-century research by calling on parents to help their children have fun playing youth sport and to participate in a wide range of physical activities. In addition, they suggest parents should provide extensive caring behaviors in the form of emotional and tangible support. Finally, they encourage parents to help children stay focused on their personal effort and improvement within sport and to deemphasize ego-involving features of their participation.


While there is still much to learn about how to maximize young athletes’ sport experiences, the early-21st-century body of literature within the field of sport psychology should guide and ensure that all young athletes have coaches and parents who structure the sport environment so that youngsters become, as the Positive Coaching Alliance describes it, “Better Athletes, Better People.” When athletes focus on their personal effort and improvement, cooperate with their peers, are taught that mistakes are part of learning, are made to feel like an important part of the team, and perceive that everyone is treated with kindness and respect, the benefits they reap from their sport involvement will be immeasurable. As described in this essay, youngsters in caring and task-involving climates will become committed to personal and athletic development for themselves and all involved in sport. Organizations such as those highlighted in Table 1 can help researchers disseminate information to help athletes, coaches, and parents maximize the sport experience of youth.

Table 1. Organizations Committed to Providing Educational Resources for Athletes, Coaches, and Parents That Promote Positive Environments Within Youth Sport

(1) Positive Coaching Alliance

Mission: PCA was founded to transform the culture of youth sport into a Developmental Zone, with the goal of developing “Better Athletes, Better People.”

Select the links below to learn more about PCA and to examine the materials they have for parents, coaches, and athletes.

Information about Jim Thompson, Founder and CEO

Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) Website

The Power of the Positive: Brief Video

A recent video released by PCA- Colorado

PCA’s resource center, the Development Zone

The PCA YouTube Station has many videos from top coaches and athletes

PCA’s National Advisory Board

(2) YESports (Youth Enrichment Sports)

Mission: YESports programs are designed to help coaches and parents develop champions in sports and in life. They teach adults how to create a mastery climate—a learning environment that emphasizes skill development, personal and team success, maximum effort, and fun.

Information about Frank Smoll & Ron Smith, YESports founders and developers

(3) Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University (ISYS):

Mission: ISYS provides leadership, scholarship, and outreach that “transforms” the face of youth sports in ways that maximize the beneficial physical, psychological, and social effects of participation for children and youth while minimizing detrimental effects.

(4) American Sport Education Program (ASEP; Human Kinetics Publishing Company) or call 800-747-5698

Mission: Human Kinetics has been training youth coaches for more than 30 years through the American Sport Education Program (ASEP). Emphasizing athlete development and discouraging the win-at-all-costs philosophy, our youth sport coaching education program—delivered through convenient online courses—is the ideal training ground for coaches of athletes aged 14 and under. Numerous national sport organizations, local youth sport organizations, and park districts have partnered with Human Kinetics to bring education to their coaches.


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