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New Research Shows Effects of Verbally Aggressive Conduct in Coaching

To what extent can coaches use negative tactics to motivate athletes? And what impact does that approach have on coaches’ credibility?

Those questions, which have taken on new meaning in the aftermath of the Mike Rice firing at Rutgers University, are the subject of research to be published this summer in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

The main takeaway: Verbally aggressive language doesn’t work, even in an environment where athletes have been conditioned to expect it, the researchers found.

According to the study, which focused on feedback from 130 Division I college athletes, players who were exposed to a verbally aggressive coach reported significantly less motivation to perform, and viewed such coaches as significantly less competent, than did athletes who played for coaches with a more affirming style.

“This study shows that extra amounts of verbal aggression in the coach-athlete relationship is a negative thing—it’s not productive, and many athletes find it to be unacceptable,” says Joseph P. Mazer, an assistant professor of communication studies at Clemson University and the lead author of a report on the study.

The report, “Coach Verbal Aggression: A Case Study Examining Effects on Athlete Motivation and Perceptions of Coach Credibility,” was also written by Katie Barnes, Alexia Grevious, and Caroline Boger, all Clemson undergraduates.

An ESPN video of Mr. Rice kicking, screaming, and throwing balls at players showed him clearly crossing the line. The Clemson University study asked players about their response to coaches who used profanity and other berating language, and the players said that behavior also went too far, Mr. Mazer says.

“Even this middle-of-the-road example is perceived negatively by athletes,” he says.

The professor hopes that the study’s findings can help raise awareness of the effects of verbally aggressive conduct and lead colleges to look more critically at how athletes are treated.

“Coaches, in many ways, are teachers,” he says. “And if we hold teachers to high standards with respect to communication, we need to do it for coaches as well.”

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