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Perceptions of the purpose and role of volunteer coaches in the emerging NCAA sport of women’s triathlon

Authors: 1Sean Phelps PhD.

1Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA

Corresponding Author:
Sean Phelps
Colorado Mesa University
1100 North Avenue
Grand Junction, CO 81501-3122

Sean Phelps, PhD, is an assistant professor of sport management at Colorado Mesa University. His research interests include organizational theory, national governing bodies, and international sports

Perceptions of the purpose and role of volunteer coaches in the emerging NCAA sport of women’s triathlon


Purpose: While the academic research into volunteer coaches in youth sports is robust and prevalent, the same cannot be said for volunteer coaches involved in intercollegiate sports. The NCAA rules/guidelines for incorporating volunteer coaches into various sports range from the previously specific, but no longer allowed, (Division I, particularly football and basketball) to the more general (Division II and III). Using the emerging NCAA sport of women’s triathlon as the case study, this project asked the coaches of the 40 institutions presently sponsoring women’s intercollegiate triathlon about their perceptions regarding volunteer coaches.

Methods: A qualitative interpretive research approach was used to allow each respondent to make sense of their individual situation. A web based open-ended questionnaire was sent to all NCAA women’s triathlon head coaches and paid assistants and selected coaches were also interviewed (representing all three NCAA divisions).

Results: Twelve (30%) coaches responded to the survey. Results indicated that four main themes were derived from the data: gratitude, caution, acceptance, and personal traits.
Conclusions: The perceptions of existing NCAA coaches regarding volunteer coaches may become a gateway or a barrier. A volunteer coach might complement the head coach and fill in the gaps in other areas such as sport specific expertise, fundraising, and social functions. Implications of the study include that volunteering can serve as the apprenticeship before becoming a paid coach.

Application in Sport: USA Triathlon, as the National Governing Body for the sport, has a personal stake in creating highly trained, experienced, and specialized draft legal coaches for its juniors, developmental and Olympic programs. The NCAA emerging sport of women’s draft legal triathlon is one way in which to accomplish these goals.

Keywords: sport coach, college sport, National Governing Body, emerging sport

“There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.”
Jimmy Doolittle

In January 2014, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) approved women’s triathlon as an emerging sport (36). An emerging sport must reach 40 institutions before the NCAA recognizes the sport (and then provides funding for national championships) (14). In 2022, USA Triathlon, as the National Governing Body (NGB) of the sport, reported that 40 schools had adopted women’s triathlon and that the process for full NCAA recognition could begin (T. Yount, personal communication, 8 February 2023). USA Triathlon (USAT) is the driving force behind this initiative (both politically and financially) (36). USA Triathlon has an organizational stake in this because it needs to identify triathletes who can compete on an international level and eventually contend in the Olympic Games as well as developing future high performance coaches. USAT also offers a coaching education and certification program.
Under the USA sports system, colleges and universities are often the training grounds for Olympic athletes (7). Prior to the 2014 initiative by USAT, this training ground did not exist. USAT also wanted to develop the international style of racing domestically. At the Olympic level, triathlons are draft legal, meaning during the cycle portion of the triathlon competitors are allowed to ride behind one another just like bicycle racing. This is different from a traditional non-drafting event where cyclists must be separated from one another by several meters. The NCAA draft legal format is a 750-meter swim, followed by a 20-kilometer bike and ending with a 5-kilometer run, which is the sprint distance under World Triathlon rules (59). World Triathlon is the International Federation for the sport of triathlon.

As the USA had been slow in the adoption of the draft legal format for competitors compared to other countries (38), it also is behind much of the world with triathlon coaches who have draft legal experience. So much so, that USA Triathlon started recruiting interested existing coaches in 2014 to specialize in this format of racing (55). Additionally, the NGB also is developing a mentorship program for college coaches (56). Head coaches may have come from a swimming or running background, have Ironman™ coaching certifications and/or have experience of their own as age group triathletes. Furthermore, college and university athletic departments might only want to pay for a head coach to keep overhead down until full recognition by the NCAA is obtained. Enter the volunteer coach. Volunteer coaches may allow for simple division of labor and tap into expertise or particular skill sets. They may be able to manage administrative duties such as scheduling, team uniforms and/or trouble shooting. Volunteer coaches may allow head coaches to “fill in the gaps” in terms of content expertise (i.e., swim, bike, run, organization, fundraising) as the sport works towards full NCAA recognition as well as operating under the present rules of that organization (33-35).

In November of 2021, USAT presented to the Collegiate Triathlon Coaches Association the “current state of the sport.” At that time, 70% of the institutions sponsoring women’s triathlon used at least one volunteer coach in 2021 (62). A further breakdown showed 50% of volunteer coaches assisted with the swim, 57% assisted with the bike and 47% assisted with the run. “Indicating that some volunteers help with more than one sport” (62). USAT also found that volunteer coaches also assisted “with race management, transportation, bike maintenance, physical therapy and recruiting” (62). This information provided a starting point for the project. Thus, the research question is: what are the perceptions of head coaches as to the purpose and role of volunteer coaches in the emerging NCAA sport of women’s triathlon?

College sports in the USA has long used the apprenticeship-approach to training and educating future coaches. If not a student-athlete, one becomes a manager or intern as an undergraduate, then becomes a graduate assistant, then an assistant coach and, finally, a head coach. Since triathlon is new and classified as an emerging sport, this traditional pathway does not yet formally exist. While it is a time-honored tradition to use playing experience at the beginning of a coaching career rather than specific education pertinent to coaching in general and sport specific (44), draft legal experience for existing triathlon coaches in the USA is still rare. Triathlon is not a high school sport and does not have as structured and formalized club system as USA Swimming or USA Gymnastics. The incorporation of volunteer coaches, particularly those with draft legal experience, might be one way to increase the pool of knowledgeable coaches that then possibly become available to new NCAA programs. Head coaches can be “instrumental in the career development of their head assistant coach, indirectly preparing them for future head coaching positions” (40, p. 11). Volunteering could become the apprenticeship and help train future coaches. Until more student-athletes graduate from the sport, and move into coaching through those traditional pathways, volunteer coaches may be an untapped resource.

Before proceeding, it is important to provide operational definitions of the terms volunteer and perceptions. These definitions are the operational “guardrails” for the study. Volunteers are people, who for a variety of motives, decide to donate their time and, often, their money to a particular group or cause (39). Perception is the “process of integrating, organizing, and interpreting sensations” (26, p. 80) and “…the way you think about or understand someone or something” (51).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (53), about 62.6 million people volunteered between September of 2014 and September of 2015. These same statistics showed the more education one has, the more likely that person is to volunteer. Other statistics included those volunteers provided a median of 52 hours annually and those men and women volunteered at near the same rate (52 hours vs. 50 hours, respectively). Volunteers were “most likely to volunteer for religious organizations, followed by education or youth service organizations,” and those individuals who possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher “were more likely to provide professional or management assistance or to tutor or teach than volunteers with less education” (53). Volunteers can provide an economic benefit for nonprofit organizations (4) by taking on “staff-like roles to control costs” (24, p. 201). Volunteer sports coaches through their social interactions and engagement could become “community assets” (23, p. 322).

Within the academic literature, the topic of volunteering, in general, regarding motivation, meaning, sense of community, and perceptions have been significantly studied (10, 42, 43, 49, 58). Youth sports have also been extensively study: from training (15, 22, 45), education (28), motivation (3), behavior (18, 27, 31), relationships/wellbeing (25, 46, 52) and efficacy (6, 8, 16, 50). Organizations such as the National Alliance of Youth Sports, Positive Coaching Alliance, Good Sports and TrueSport focus on youth sports, youth coaches, and parents. To coach under the auspices of the US National Governing Body system, a coaching certification program is required to include SafeSport certification (54). However, for any coach at the college/university level, there may be no certification requirements. While focusing on career and job coaching, Schimdt-Lellek and Fietze (47) could just as well have been discussing intercollegiate sport coaches as “coaching…is not protected by state laws; there is no state license and no public mandate and thus no defined monopoly for this professional activity” (p.746). Thus, there is no formal governance structure mandating certain education requirements or certifications to become a college coach.

Finally, research focused on assistant coaches is also scarce and not systematic in nature (19, 20). Rathwell et al. (40) looked at the perceptions Canadian university head football coaches had when hiring assistant coaches. Their findings showed that head coaches hired “loyal assistants who possessed extensive football knowledge that complimented their own skill sets” (p. 5). Additionally, they also discovered that head coaches looked at the experience an assistant coach had both as an athlete and as an assistant coach. These head coaches also wanted assistant coaches who “cared about their athletes’ personal growth and development” (p. 12). This finding echoes previous research regarding university head coaches (5, 12, 57).

This project is a basic interpretative qualitative study (32) in that the researcher is “interested in understanding how participants make meaning of a situation or phenomenon, this meaning is mediated through the researcher as instrument, the strategy is inductive, and the outcome is descriptive” (p. 6). The project is designed to “hear the voices of the people, analyse the themes and present a thoughtful overview of the results…[it] describes and interprets, but has no theoretical underpinnings” (48, p. 5). It is also interpretive in nature because it is:
shaped by human experiences and social contexts (ontology), and is therefore best studied within its socio-historic context by reconciling the subjective interpretations of its various participants (epistemology). Because interpretive researchers view social reality as being embedded within and impossible to abstract from their social settings, they “interpret” the reality though a “sense-making” process rather than a hypothesis testing process. (41) This differs from a traditional positivist approach where theories are evaluated and verified, incorporating closed-ended questions using pre-determined approaches and involving some sort of statistical analysis (1).

Using a case study format allows for “an empirical method that investigates a contemporary phenomenon (the ‘case’) in depth and within its real-life context” (61, p. 15). A case study is a research technique “used in sport management to examine (e.g., observe, explore) certain factors of a sport industry subject (e.g., event, person, group, company, organization, system) for a certain time period” (1, p. 139). Simply put, the technique allows for a detailed analysis of a specific activity, situation, or practice (1). The case is NCAA women’s triathlon coaches’ perceptions of the purpose of volunteer coaches.

USA Triathlon has a list on its website of all the NCAA schools presently competing in women’s triathlon as an emerging sport. Each of those institutions has an athletic department website that has triathlon information available in the public domain. Additionally, the Collegiate Triathlon Coaches Association also has a list of all head coaches from these institutions as well as the assistant coaches (paid and volunteer). These two sources comprise the study’s participants. Purposive sampling is the selected technique.

A web based Qualtrics™ survey with some demographic and background questions as well as 13 open-ended questions was emailed to all subjects within the specified sample. A provisional list of 25 open-ended questions were developed by the researcher based on a review of the existing literature within youth sports and input from a representative from USA Triathlon. Questions were then reviewed by two different academics at two different institutions; one responsible for a coaching minor (and a former NCAA coach) and the other responsible for a coaching major (and involved with youth sports). The original list of 25 was reduced to 15 and then two of the questions were combined to create the final 13 questions used in the questionnaire (see Appendix A). The use of open-ended questions allows “the researcher to understand and capture the points of views of others without predetermining those points of view through prior selection of questionnaire categories” (37, p. 21).

After approval from the university’s IRB (Protocol 23-12), an email invitation to complete the qualitative survey was sent by the researcher to all NCAA triathlon coaches that included a link to the web based survey. Informed consent was presented and obtained at the beginning of the survey. Also included in the invitation was information regarding follow-up phone/video interviews. Interested respondents were invited to a phone or internet conferencing (i.e., Zoom, Teams, Skype) interview. Zoom offers an auto-transcription feature that expedites data review. Those respondents who expressed interest in participating in an interview included their email address with their submission of the survey. Additionally, USAT sent out a prompt to the coaches promoting the study. A representative from USAT who is involved with their NCAA women’s triathlon initiative was also invited to participate in the interview.

The interview followed a list of semi-structured questions derived from the original survey to allow for the interviewee to expand upon their thoughts regarding the survey (see Appendix B). A division designation replaced each respondent’s name to maintain anonymity and confidentiality (i.e., DIa, DIIa, DIIIa, NGB). A reminder email was sent six weeks after the initial invitation to the intercollegiate triathlon coaching population to increase the participation rate. For those respondents who agreed to be interviewed, a separate informed consent form was required by the university’s Internal Review Board. This form was signed by the participant and returned to the author.

Results from the surveys and the interviews were then coded by the author. Coding is taking the raw text and “moving you from a lower level to a higher (more abstract) level of understanding” of the data (2, p. 35). The next step is to further reduce the information to smaller pieces is identifying themes, or similarities in the text (2). Similar words and phrases categorize the same feelings/experiences (1). For example, “personality” or “approachability” might be traits a volunteer coach could have. Then the data is triangulated incorporating several types of data collection to focus on the case (21). In this instance, the use of an online survey and interviews were the two data collection methods combined with materials from USA Triathlon.

Finally, trustworthiness, credibility, and rigor (29) involving the researcher and the data must be addressed. The author has 42 years of experience in the sport of triathlon (including draft legal races as an age group athlete, both domestically and internationally), is a former triathlon race director, former NGB employee, former team manager and age group committee member of a foreign triathlon National Sports Federation, a former academic advisor and coach of a university club team, wrote the grant application for another institution that added intercollegiate triathlon, and, at the present time, is a volunteer coach of an NCAA women’s triathlon team.

The survey garnered a 30% response rate (12/40) and eight coaches (one DI, two DII and three DIII) agreed to respond to the interview questions in writing rather than by phone or video. One DI and one DII coach agreed to be interviewed by video. Additionally, the representative from USA Triathlon responded to the questions in writing.

Basic demographic information showed that seven women and five men completed the survey. Five of the women were between the ages of 35-44 and the other two were 45-54. The five men ranged from one in 35-44, three in 45-54, and one in 55-64. Five women hold master’s degrees, one holds a bachelor’s degree, and the other holds an associate degree. For the men, three hold a bachelor’s degree and two hold a master’s degree. Additional coaching certifications (i.e., USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, USA Cycling, USA Track and Field, SafeSport, National Federation of High Schools, or others), were held by all respondents. SafeSport certification is required by all NGBs for their respective coaching certifications. As a result, all individuals possessed this credential. Eight people hold at least the entry level USA Triathlon Level 1 coaching certification. Three hold a USA Swimming certification while two hold an American Swimming Coaches Association credential. Three hold a USA Cycling coaching certification and one also holds a USA Track and Field certification. Additional certifications include Ironman™, Road Runners Club of America™, certified strength and conditioning coach and a coaching certification in the sport of triathlon from another country. For their individual primary sport background, five women and four men indicated triathlon was their primary sport background while two women and one man indicated swimming. All seven women indicated they were the head coach of a program while four men did so. There was one male respondent who listed being a paid assistant coach. Finally, four NCAA DI schools were represented (two women, two men), four DII schools (two women, two men), and one DIII school (male). Three respondents did not indicate their institution’s NCAA participation level.

Four major themes were derived from the raw survey and interview data: gratitude, caution, acceptance, and personal traits. Gratitude was demonstrated by being thankful or appreciative for a volunteer’s assistance. The National Governing Body representative provided this explanation regarding volunteer coaches incorporating gratitude:
I speak to hundreds of administrators and the messaging from me is that I feel many of our teams are underutilizing the volunteer coach. We have some amazing options in every NCAA collegiate community. The volunteer coach cannot only assist with practices, but they are an amazing sounding board for other discussions that coaches desire at various points during a season on so many other topics. Other times they can help administratively or with recruitment. Some are [physical therapists] and can support recovery needs. Others can speak to mental health woes and ways for athletes to combat fears in many areas. The list of ways that volunteer coaches can be leveraged is unnumerable. USAT might need to do a better job of positioning coaches with NCAA programs with those we know who are reliable and ready to support our institutions through the course of a race season.

Similar positive sentiments were provided by other coaches regarding the value of volunteer coaches.
We have been fortunate to have volunteer coaches work with our athletes…and they have contributed greatly to the development and performance of our athletes. Volunteers bring an expertise to designing and overseeing some of our team training objectives. Their passion of the sport of triathlon is evident in that they are giving of their time and talents to the benefit of our team and the sport. (DIIa)
DIIb added:
Volunteer coaches are instrumental in the emerging sport initiative. Without their selfless dedication of time, I would not be able to have a program. They are just unpaid assistant coaches. They do all the same duties, helping out on a daily basis with practices, and on the road. They are imperative to the success of the program.
DIIIb felt that volunteer coaches have “the highest value, not only does it help the athletes, but allow[s] that person an opportunity to pad their resume.” DIIIa stated “volunteers play an integral role in giving out student-athletes a better college experience…they have been a help and blessing to me and my team, throughout my coaching career.” DIIIa also incorporated a volunteer coach in all areas of the team and program:

Up to including every aspect of the team. Assisting the head coach in all areas of recruiting, coaching, practice planning and execution, travel planning, traveling, running practices, etc. The more the volunteer is willing to take on, willing to work on, willing to learn, the more I am willing to give them!

DIb added that a volunteer coach also provides camaraderie and support to the head coach, especially in these early years of the sport because there may be no coaching staff compared to existing NCAA sports. Without the volunteer coach, there might just be the head coach operating alone in an athletic department. “[Your] coaching changes when you have that much help. It literally changes.” DIIc stated:
I could not have done it without the volunteer coaches. It would have been impossible [without them]…and foolish not to take advantage of [their commitment]. [Locally], I have access to a professional triathlete, a woman who is triathlete, is involved with a women’s triathlon group, and a well-respected businessperson in the community…and a faculty member with decades of experience in the sport.

DIIIa felt a sense of obligation to assist the volunteer coaches:
With every volunteer I have, I ask them what area do they want to do the most? What area would they like to learn more? What areas are they interested in most?…Then I focus on those things. My way of “paying them” for their time is to help them learn about themselves and learn skills that will help them with their next position, hopefully a paid one. My point is to train them for their next move.

One survey respondent shared this outlook:
Many volunteer coaches are looking for experience so that they can hopefully get a paying job (head or assistant coach) at a university…the head coach should support them in that and try to educate them and give them hands on experience in all aspects of collegiate coaching so that feel better prepared to take on a paid position.
Comments from the survey were more guarded and highlighted the caution theme. One coach commented on the “lack of qualified draft legal experience” as a reason for not using volunteer coaches. Other coaches restricted the duties of a volunteer coach: “help with leading workouts and travel” and “just for bike sessions or to cover a practice if both the head coach and assistant coach are away.” A few coaches assigned only duties based on a volunteer’s experience or creating social activities for the team. One coach indicated that “I would not leave travel, budget, program writing, [or] compliance to a volunteer. That needs to be done faultlessly.” Another survey respondent replied that “none as of now” regarding incorporating a volunteer coach in their program.

Expectations can be defined as what the head coach wants from a volunteer. That can be a simple as the most identified item: “know the sport.” It can also include time commitments to the program and athletes. An example of what a coach wants is “just hands on coaching” or “mostly hands on coaching” from survey respondents. Another respondent wanted a volunteer coach to specialize in a specific discipline (swim, bike, or run). DIb said, “It’s a combination of administrative and works outs…maybe 60%/40%.” DIIc added:
[The] volunteer coach serves at the discretion of the head coach….They need to support the vision, mission, and philosophy of the head coach…They need to know who we are and believe in it…Our core values are a part of everything. Everyone understands what the program is about.

Responses to the time commitment question were quite varied, ranging from 2-16 hours per week. One coached expected a “minimum of 10 hours a week” and that total would increase “based on their availability and goals as a volunteer.” Other responses were less specific with one coach replying, “just do what you say you’re going to do.”
DIIIb had higher expectations:
I would want the volunteer coaches to know about the sport of triathlon. First, they should be familiar with the amateur divisions and even better if they understand the junior elite model. Also, understanding the periodization aspect behind it will help to develop the tempo through the season. Secondly, a person with experience in swimming in [high school] and a robust running background would be the third option for a volunteer coach.
DIIIa was adamant about one expectation, an area of the program a volunteer would not be responsible for:

Basically, team discipline and athletic department meetings. [As the head coach], I am the face of the program, and I do not want there to be any misconceptions about who is in charge, who is making the decisions, and who ultimately responsible for steering the ship. Also, for a volunteer, I do not think they need to be responsible for every aspect of the team.
Adding to the “off limits” feeling, DIb revealed, “the biggest one…would be some intimate individual meetings that I have” with student-athletes. If “it’s gonna be a more intimate type of meeting, and we need to touch on some hard issues, I won’t have them sit in on those.” DIb would also not use volunteers in the recruiting process because of the turnover at that position. The head coach needs to develop that personal relationship with each recruit. DIIc stated, “[They] should not be communicating with the administration…not handling money or finances…and not be involved in any off campus recruiting.”

Personal traits were the one theme that was consistent across all respondents and interviewees. Terms such as professionalism, honesty, integrity, positivity, personality, and a willingness to learn were highlighted. One respondent stated that volunteer coaches need to be “approachable, care about the student athletes and their success” while another provided a similar comment wanting a volunteer coach to be “approachable, honest, takes time to connect with the athletes, open-minded, supports my vision and the team culture.”
Knowledge, skills, and attributes came through as a component of personal traits. DIIIa said, “Obviously, the higher the knowledge and experience in the sport, the better…I do not expect them to have the greatest experience or knowledge in the sport. But a willingness to learn and help lead our student-athletes in a positive way.”
Experience was emphasized by all those completing the survey. Comments such as “experience and personality are key” and “experience and understanding draft legal” are reflective of this feeling. One coach went more in-depth regarding expectations on experience: “Experience coaching swimming, biking, and/or running at any level; having at least participated in a triathlon; preferably already USAT certified but would like them to have some sort of coaching certification (swimming, biking, running).”

As this project was nearing completion, the NCAA DI Council adopted the recommendations of the NCAA DI Transformation Committee to eliminate the voluntary coach designation across all sports (11). DII and DIII programs can still incorporate volunteer coaches according to information disseminated by USA Triathlon (T. Yount, personal communication, 8 February 2023), but the coach representing institution DIIIc indicated that school is not allowing volunteer coaches; “they must be paid.”

DIa felt:
I do believe volunteer coaches could add great deal of value to a program. Volunteer coaches can add another set of eyes and insight into your team and specific athletes. All coaches have their own way of communicating with athletes. Sometimes when an athlete hears something in a new way it might click…Unfortunately…the use of volunteer coaches [is not]…permitted in the NCAA.

DIb replied:
The volunteer [coach] was a little more challenging because they are a volunteer, and they’re doing for a specific reason, and you’re trying to give them what they are there to learn, but you need them in other ways. [Volunteers are] a little more challenging than when they are paid, because when they are paid you can be more like “these are the things I want done.”…it is a bit challenging trying to manage what they really should do that’s benefitting them and helping you.
This action by the DI Council may eliminate opportunities for volunteer coaches, but with the economic constraints faced by all DII and DIII schools, chances are these institutions may appreciate the assistance. The statements made by DII and DIII coaches provide a welcoming and accepting attitude towards volunteer coaches.

With a 30% response rate (12/40) to the survey, the challenge is to draw any meaningful conclusions from the data collected. Online surveys often have lower response rates compared to other types of surveys (9, 60). However, sample sizes of less than 500 with a response rate of 20%-25% can offer some confident approximations (17). A concerning limitation is that only two coaches chose to be interviewed directly via phone or video call. All others chose only to respond to the questions in writing. This lack of one-on-one interaction eliminated the possibility of follow-up questions and gaining immediate clarifications. An additional limitation to the study, is that not all questions were answered in the survey. No one answered the Question 15 regarding what is needed to plan, lead, organize and evaluate their program. Only half the survey respondents answered Question 17 concerning what protections/services are covered by the institution for volunteer coaches (i.e., insurance, travel, tuition waivers). Those who did respond indicated they were unsure, or that nothing was provided in this area.
Finally, there is a lack of additional member fact checking which can be perceived as a limitation. As there was only one researcher, there was no additional review of the raw data during the coding and thematic analysis. The interpretation of the data is based on only one person’s review. However, “interpretation means attaching significance to what was found, making sense of findings, offering explanations, drawing conclusions, extrapolating lessons, and otherwise imposing order on an unruly but patterned world” (37, p. 480). Thus, one must default back to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author. The reader should feel comfortable that the results are “balanced, fair, and conscientious in taking account of multiple perspectives, multiple interests, and multiple realities” (37, p. 575).

As the National Governing Body for the sport of triathlon, USA Triathlon has a professional stake in both developing future world class triathletes and future national team coaches. Creating highly trained, experienced, and specialized draft legal coaches also impacts the junior and developmental ranks for the NGB. The NCAA emerging sport of women’s draft legal triathlon is one way in which to accomplish these goals. In addition to “the effort is part of a larger strategic initiative by the NCAA to grow female participation through its Emerging Sports for Women program” (30). The inclusion of draft legal triathlon also provides additional opportunities for female student-athletes which may help institutions with Title IX concerns.
The perceptions of existing NCAA coaches regarding these volunteer coaches, therefore, become a gateway or a barrier. Thus, NCAA DII and DIII “programs need to provide infrastructures that foster and support effective volunteering” (24, p. 199). Part of that infrastructure is defining the role of a volunteer coach and providing training as well as protections such as liability insurance (13). Future research could focus on USA Triathlon’s increased involvement in educating and training coaches in draft legal racing as well as developing a post-graduate pathway for women to transition from student-athlete to coach. Additionally, what is not addressed in this project deliberately, are the motivations of volunteer coaches in the sport of NCAA women’s draft legal triathlon. That is a question for future research and as part of the larger research question about volunteer coaches in other NCAA sports.


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Qualtrics survey questions

  1. Gender
  2. Age
  3. Education
  4. Please list your present coaching certifications (i.e., USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, SafeSport)
  5. Primary Sport Background
  6. Your Primary Role
  7. What NCAA Division is your program?
  8. Please answer this question if you do not presently incorporate volunteer coaches into your program. All others please go to Question #9.
    What reasons exist for not using volunteer coaches?
  9. As the head coach (or as a paid assistant), what are your expectations for volunteer coaches?
  10. What are the requirements (if any) and expectations of the institution has for volunteer coaches (i.e., NCAA certification, 1st Aid/CPR/AED, Police/FBI Background Check, SafeSport)?
  11. How do you recruit volunteer coaches?
  12. How do you incorporate volunteer coaches in your program (i.e., leading practices, travel arrangements, PR)?
  13. What is the hourly / weekly commitment expected from the volunteer coach?
  14. What qualifications do you feel are critical to the success of a volunteer coach?
  15. What do you need to plan, lead, organize and evaluate your program?
  16. Where do you need assistance with your program?
  17. What protections are covered by the institution (i.e., insurance)?
  18. What can a volunteer coach receive from the institution and still be considered volunteer (i.e., stipend, travel allowance, team attire)?
  19. What duties are you planning to assign the volunteer coach? Administrative? Hands on coaching? Program writing?
  20. How might the volunteer coach have a part to play in the succession planning around the program?
  21. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so here. We thank you for your participation.  

Qualtrics survey questions

  1. Gender
  2. Age
  3. Education
  4. Please list your present coaching certifications (i.e., USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, SafeSport)
  5. Primary Sport Background
  6. Your Primary Role
  7. What NCAA Division is your program?
  8. Please answer this question if you do not presently incorporate volunteer coaches into your program. All others please go to Question #9.
    What reasons exist for not using volunteer coaches?
  9. As the head coach (or as a paid assistant), what are your expectations for volunteer coaches?
  10. What are the requirements (if any) and expectations of the institution has for volunteer coaches (i.e., NCAA certification, 1st Aid/CPR/AED, Police/FBI Background Check, SafeSport)?
  11. How do you recruit volunteer coaches?
  12. How do you incorporate volunteer coaches in your program (i.e., leading practices, travel arrangements, PR)?
  13. What is the hourly / weekly commitment expected from the volunteer coach?
  14. What qualifications do you feel are critical to the success of a volunteer coach?
  15. What do you need to plan, lead, organize and evaluate your program?
  16. Where do you need assistance with your program?
  17. What protections are covered by the institution (i.e., insurance)?
  18. What can a volunteer coach receive from the institution and still be considered volunteer (i.e., stipend, travel allowance, team attire)?
  19. What duties are you planning to assign the volunteer coach? Administrative? Hands on coaching? Program writing?
  20. How might the volunteer coach have a part to play in the succession planning around the program?
  21. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so here. We thank you for your participation.  

Qualtrics survey questions

  1. Gender
  2. Age
  3. Education
  4. Please list your present coaching certifications (i.e., USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, SafeSport)
  5. Primary Sport Background
  6. Your Primary Role
  7. What NCAA Division is your program?
  8. Please answer this question if you do not presently incorporate volunteer coaches into your program. All others please go to Question #9.
    What reasons exist for not using volunteer coaches?
  9. As the head coach (or as a paid assistant), what are your expectations for volunteer coaches?
  10. What are the requirements (if any) and expectations of the institution has for volunteer coaches (i.e., NCAA certification, 1st Aid/CPR/AED, Police/FBI Background Check, SafeSport)?
  11. How do you recruit volunteer coaches?
  12. How do you incorporate volunteer coaches in your program (i.e., leading practices, travel arrangements, PR)?
  13. What is the hourly / weekly commitment expected from the volunteer coach?
  14. What qualifications do you feel are critical to the success of a volunteer coach?
  15. What do you need to plan, lead, organize and evaluate your program?
  16. Where do you need assistance with your program?
  17. What protections are covered by the institution (i.e., insurance)?
  18. What can a volunteer coach receive from the institution and still be considered volunteer (i.e., stipend, travel allowance, team attire)?
  19. What duties are you planning to assign the volunteer coach? Administrative? Hands on coaching? Program writing?
  20. How might the volunteer coach have a part to play in the succession planning around the program?
  21. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so here. We thank you for your participation.  


Qualtrics survey questions

  1. Gender
  2. Age
  3. Education
  4. Please list your present coaching certifications (i.e., USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, SafeSport)  
  5. Primary Sport Background
  6. Your Primary Role
  7. What NCAA Division is your program? 
  8. Please answer this question if you do not presently incorporate volunteer coaches into your program. All others please go to Question #9.
    What reasons exist for not using volunteer coaches?  
  9. As the head coach (or as a paid assistant), what are your expectations for volunteer coaches?
  10. What are the requirements (if any) and expectations of the institution has for volunteer coaches (i.e., NCAA certification, 1st Aid/CPR/AED, Police/FBI Background Check, SafeSport)?  
  11. How do you recruit volunteer coaches?
  12. How do you incorporate volunteer coaches in your program (i.e., leading practices, travel arrangements, PR)?
  13. What is the hourly / weekly commitment expected from the volunteer coach? 
  14. What qualifications do you feel are critical to the success of a volunteer coach?
  15. What do you need to plan, lead, organize and evaluate your program? 
  16. Where do you need assistance with your program? 
  17. What protections are covered by the institution (i.e., insurance)? 
  18. What can a volunteer coach receive from the institution and still be considered volunteer (i.e., stipend, travel allowance, team attire)? 
  19. What duties are you planning to assign the volunteer coach? Administrative?  Hands on coaching?  Program writing?
  20. How might the volunteer coach have a part to play in the succession planning around the program?
  21. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so here. We thank you for your participation.


Semi-structured interview questions

  1. In general, what are your overall perceptions of the role(s) that volunteer coaches play in your program?
  2. What specific knowledge, skills and attributes do you want your volunteer coaches to possess?
  3. What areas do volunteer coaches cover in your program (i.e., writing workouts, supervising practices, fundraising)?
  4. What areas do you not allow volunteer coaches in your program to be involved with?
  5. What value do you place on having volunteer coaches?
  6. How do you incorporate your volunteer coaches into the overall team culture?
  7. Is there anything else you would like to add?

2024-07-18T10:40:06-05:00July 19th, 2024|Sports Coaching|Comments Off on Perceptions of the purpose and role of volunteer coaches in the emerging NCAA sport of women’s triathlon

Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education

Authors: Anthony Battaglia1, Ph.D., Gretchen Kerr2, Ph.D., and Stephanie Buono2, Ph.D.

Corresponding Author:

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC 

Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education 

University of Toronto 

55 Harbord Street, ON, Canada, M5S 2W6 

Email: anthony.battaglia@mail.utoronto.ca 

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC is a Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on youth athletes’ sport experiences, relational dynamics in sport, athlete maltreatment, and strategies for advancing developmentally appropriate and safe sport.  

Gretchen Kerr, Ph.D. is a Full Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. She is also a co-Director of E-Alliance, the Canadian Gender Equity in Sport Research Hub.

Stephanie Buono, Ph.D. is a research associate in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto and an instructor in the Department of Applied Psychology & Human Development at the University of Toronto.

Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education 


To combat growing concerns of sport being unsafe for athletes, compulsory safe sport education has been developed worldwide. Much of this education has focused on the role of the coach, largely due to their position of power, prevalence rates that highlight coaches as common perpetrators of harm, and their direct contact with athletes. However, there is a lack of research examining the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes. The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. In an online survey, 1365 coaches reported completion of any of 12 possible safe sport training courses and their knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Regression analyses indicated that completing any of the 12 safe sport-related training courses was related to perceived increased efficacy to support others. Completing a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to perceived increases in efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, but not stress related to safe sport or athlete well-being. All 12 courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence, and several courses were related to increased efficacy to support others and reduced safe sport stress, while one course was related to reduced stress about athlete-well-being. Future research is needed to examine whether improvements in coaching outcomes associated with safe sport training translate into practice.

Key Words: Safe Sport; Coaches; Education; Coaching Outcomes;

Over the last several years, numerous reports of concerning behaviors in sport, such as maltreatment have emerged worldwide (15, 25). Maltreatment, which refers to “volitional acts that result in or have the potential to result in physical injuries and/or psychological harm” (12, p. 3), which include psychological, sexual, physical abuse, and neglect, harassment, bullying, and discrimination. To combat such concerns, policies and educational initiatives have been developed and implemented under the term ‘safe sport’ (26). The term safe sport initially emerged in response to scandals involving sexual abuse but has since expanded to refer to participation in sport free from all forms of violence, abuse, discrimination, and harassment (21, 39). More recently, broader conceptualizations of safe sport have also considered issues of environmental and physical safety (e.g., dysfunctional equipment, performance enhancing drugs), and the optimization of the sport experience (i.e., inclusive, accessible, growth-enhancing, and rights-based participation for all) (18). To advance safe sport, compulsory education has been developed; examples of existing safe sport education programmes include Australia’s Play by the Rules, U.S. Center for SafeSport Training, and the UK’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (24, 26).

Although safe sport education is needed for all sport stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, parents, administrators, officials and support staff, to-date, education has focused largely on coach-athlete dynamics, addressing issues such as harmful coaching practices, power relations, and duty to report harm (24, 26). There is a strong rationale for safe sport training focused on coaches. Consistent across many bodies of research in sport is acknowledgement of the presence and effects of the position of power and authority held by coaches over stakeholders in the sport ecosystem, including subordinate coaches, parents, athletes, and administrators (23, 38). When used inappropriately, these positions of power leave others vulnerable to experiences of harm. For example, psychological abuse (or what some refer to as psychological violence), the most prevalent form of athlete maltreatment, is most often perpetrated by coaches (42, 45, 48). Given their direct contact with other coaches, support staff, athletes and/or teams daily, coaches also significantly impact the type of culture promoted (e.g., win-at-all-costs versus caring or athlete-centred) and the nature and quality of athletes’ experiences (32). Coaches who are provided professional development and educational opportunities regarding positive sport practices are more likely to create environments where athletes experience enjoyment, competence, meaningful relationships, learning, satisfaction, reduced anxiety, and sport maintenance (6, 16, 36).

Although growing awareness of athlete maltreatment and the role of the coach in preventing these experiences has resulted in the proliferation of safe sport education initiatives for coaches globally, little research exists on the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In 2013, McMahon (28) investigated how a narrative pedagogical approach (i.e., athletes’ stories) might help swim coaches from amateur and elite levels understand the welfare implications for athletes subjected to emotionally or physically abusive coaching practices. Findings revealed that coaches gained increased empathy and undertook a more athlete-centered approach to coaching post-education, however, dominant cultural ideologies (e.g., winning) persisted in the coaches’ thinking and practice. Likewise, in 2018, Nurse (30) examined child sexual abuse prevention training for adults who work with children in schools, churches, and athletic leagues; with regards to coaches specifically, the training improved coaches’ knowledge on the topic and increased their confidence in their ability to identify abuse. These preliminary findings highlight the potential benefits of training for coaches; however, it is important to note that the education programmes were restricted to specific populations, sports, forms of harm, small sample sizes, and the effects of long-term behavioral change remained unclear. Further research examining the impact of safe sport training for coaches is required.

In Canada, the country of interest in this study, safe sport educational modules (e.g., NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, Safe Sport Training) (7, 9) have been developed by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), which is responsible for certifying and educating coaches across Canada. The CAC has also promoted safe sport standards and expectations for organizations and its coaches, including the Responsible Coaching Movement- a pledge to learn and apply consistent safety principles. The pillars of the Responsible Coaching Movement include the Rule of Two, which attempts to ensure all interactions and communications are in open, observable, and justifiable settings; background screening; and ethics training (8). In the province of Ontario, the Coaches Association of Ontario- an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches from community level to high performance across all sports in Ontario- has adopted similar safe sport efforts and developed resources, such as Safe Sport 101 and the Ontario Coaches Conference (10). The goals of such initiatives include but are not limited to improving the knowledge of coaches with respect to safe sport, increasing their confidence in enacting desirable coaching behaviors, creating positive sport climates, and facilitating the holistic development of athletes. To-date, the extent to which these educational initiatives meet these goals for Canadian coaches has not been examined.

While safe sport education for coaches has commonly focused on enhancing knowledge of harmful or prohibited conduct, enhancing confidence in using desired behaviors, and supporting stakeholders’ (e.g., athletes, coaches, support staff) development and well-being, there remains a lack of research examining the influence of safe sport training on coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In this study, the constructs of knowledge, confidence, efficacy, and stress were of interest. Despite recognizing their influential role, many coaches admit inadequate knowledge to cultivate safe sport environments (25); as cultivating safe sport environments is also a collective effort, it remains important that coaches feel efficacious in their ability to support all participants (31). Given the prevalence of mental health challenges in sport, coaches have expressed stress related to supporting athletes’ mental well-being (1, 3). Further, in response to the public attention paid to cases of athlete maltreatment and the focus on coaches as perpetrators of harm, coaches have reportedly felt stress about potential false accusations; specifically, concerns of negative touch have been identified in research and practice, resulting in coaches and sport personnel being fearful and unsure of how to be around athletes with whom they interact (40).

The purpose of this study therefore to explore the influences of safe sport training on Ontario coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Specifically, the first objective was to examine whether safe sport training improved coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. The second objective was to examine whether the effect of safe sport training on coaches increased with the number of safe sport training courses. The third objective was to examine whether certain courses were related to coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues.



This study was conducted in partnership with the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). CAO is an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches across all levels and sports in Ontario. Ontario has the largest population of all provinces in Ontario with over 15 million people and one in four Ontarians have coached in their lifetime (10). The CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation (see Table 1). As such, within the context of the current study, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., from injuries to drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, and maltreatment) was adopted. Upon receiving approval from the University of Toronto Health Sciences Research Ethics Board, coaches were contacted through the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) email listserv and social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Recruitment communication provided details about study eligibility/requirements, the purpose of the study, the voluntary nature of the study, confidentiality and anonymity, and the link to the online survey. The survey was administered with RED Cap electronic data capture. Participants were required to meet the following eligibility criteria to complete the online survey: 1) Ontario resident; 2) over the age of 16; and 3) had coached in the last two years. Following the confirmation of eligibility, participants were able to complete the survey, which took approximately 15-25 minutes (M=19.25) to complete.

Table 1. An overview of the Safe Sport Education modules evaluated in the current study.

NCCP Emergency Action Planning https://coach.ca/nccp-emergency-action-planUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the importance of having an EAP; identify when to activate the EAP; explain the responsibilities of the charge person and call person when the EAP is activated; and create a detailed EAP that includes all required information for responding to an emergency.
NCCP Planning a Practice https://coach.ca/nccp-planning-practiceUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: explain the importance of logistics in the development of a practice plan; establish an appropriate structure for a practice; and identify appropriate activities for each part of the practice. To receive full credit for this module, coaches must also complete NCCP Emergency Action Planning.
NCCP Making Head Way https://coach.ca/nccp-making-head-way-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will understand how to: prevent concussions; recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion; what to do when they suspect an athlete has a concussion; and ensure athletes return to play safely.
NCCP Leading Drug-Free Sport https://coach.ca/nccp-leading-drug-free-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and demonstrate their role in promoting drug free sport; assist athletes to recognize banned substances and the consequences as identified by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport; reinforce the importance of fair play and the NCCP Code of Ethics; educate and provide support to athletes in drug testing protocols; and inform athletes on nutritional supplements.
NCCP Prevention and Recovery https://coach.ca/nccp-prevention-and-recoveryUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: identify common injuries in sport, prevention and recovery strategies; design and implement programs/activities to optimize athlete training, performance and recovery; and support athletes’ return to sport through awareness and proactive leadership.
Commit to Kids https://protectchildren.ca/en/get-involved/online-training/commit-to-kids-for-coaches/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and recognize child sexual abuse and the grooming process; ways in which to handle disclosures of sexual abuse; the implications of sexual abuse; how to create a child protection code of conduct; and ways in which to enhance child and youth safety in sport.
Standard First Aid and CPR https://www.redcross.ca/training-and-certification/course-descriptions/first-aid-at-home-courses/standard-first-aid-cprUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and apply vital life-saving knowledge/skills essential for meeting a variety of workplace/professional requirements.
HeadStartPro https://headstartpro.com/coach-course/Upon completion of this module coaches will be able to: understand and develop a set of coaching tools to improve team performance and injury-prevention; and assist athletes and/or teams in achieving their full potential with performance-driven injury prevention training.
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions https://coach.ca/nccp-make-ethical-decisionsUpon completion of this module coaches will be to: analyze challenging situations and determine the moral, legal, or ethical implications; and apply the NCCP Ethical Decision-Making Model to respond in ways that are consistent with NCCP Code of Ethics.
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) https://coach.ca/nccp-creating-positive-sport-environmentUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the characteristics and benefits of participant-centered coaching; explain the types of harm that may occur when a coach misuses their power; respond to suspicions or knowledge of maltreatment; and implement positive coaching strategies to foster learning, performance, and create a safe sport environment.
CAC Safe Sport https://coach.ca/safe-sport-trainingUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand the critical role of all stakeholders in promoting safe sport, how the misuse of power leads to maltreatment, and principles of the Universal Code of Conduct; understand types of maltreatment and how to recognize signs and symptoms; and respond when maltreatment is suspected and create a safe sport culture for all participants.
Respect in Sport https://www.respectgroupinc.com/respect-in-sport/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: recognize, understand, and respond to issues of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.

Note. For further detail on course descriptions and/or objectives see the corresponding webpages indicated in the table.


Participants were 1365 coaches from the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). Of the respondents, 61% identified as men (n=823), 38% identified as women (n=514; n=28 did not disclose), 86% identified as White (n=1087), while 4% (n=53) identified as Black, 4% (n=51) identified as East/Southeast Asian, 2% (n=31) identified as Indigenous, and less than 2% identified as Latinx (n=19), South Asian (n=18), Middle Eastern (n=16), or another race category (n=27). Coaches reported working in a variety of contexts including grassroots (e.g., recreational, community sport, house league, intramural; n=273, 22%), school sports (e.g., primary and secondary school; n=141, 11%), development (e.g. competitive, club, travel, city, all-star; n=600, 49%), post-secondary (e.g., Support, CCAA, OUA, Inter-university; n=74, 6%), provincial (e.g., Canada Games, National Championships, OHL; n=90, 7%), international (e.g., International Competitions, Worlds, Pan Am, Commonwealth, Olympics; n=36, 3%), and masters or professional (e.g., Senior, NHL, NBA, CEBL; n=20, 2%). Coaches’ tenure in their current position ranged from 1-10 years (n=804, 65%), 11-20 years (n=238, 19%), and more than 20 years (n=194, 16%). Training in safe sport was required for 78% of coaches (n=782) and provided free of cost for 51% of coaches (n=535).


Safe sport training was measured with a “yes” or “no” response from coaches to indicate whether they had taken each of the following courses: NCCP[1] Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Making Head Way, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery of Injury, Commit to Kids, Standard First Aid and CPR, HeadStart, NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport.

Knowledge & confidence to create a safe sport environment was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.7), which asked coaches about their knowledge of safe sport concepts and their confidence in creating a safe sport environment. Example items included, “I am confident in my abilities to create a safe sport environment” and “I am familiar with the responsible coaching movement.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

[1] NCCP refers to the National Coaching Certification Program offered by the Coaching Association of Canada.

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Data Analysis

To investigate the first research objective, an initial correlation analysis was conducted to examine whether having any safe sport training was related to increases in coaching outcomes. The safe sport training variable was transformed so that coaches who answered “yes” to completing any of the safe sport training courses were coded as 1 and coaches who had answered “no” to completing all the safe sport training courses were coded as 0 (i.e., no SS training=0, any SS training=1). This variable was included in a correlation analysis with all coaching outcomes: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress over athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. To investigate the second research objective, four separate linear regression models were constructed with the sum of completed safe sport training courses (range =1-12) as the independent variable, and the following coaching outcomes as respective dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. In all four models, the coaching context, whether training was required (0=no, 1=yes), and whether training was free (0=no, 1=yes) were included as covariates. To address the third research objective, ANOVAs were conducted with individual safe sport courses as independent variables, and the following coaching outcomes as dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, efficacy to support others, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being and efficacy to support others. All analyses were conducted using IBM SPSS Statistics (Version 28) (20).


Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Range, mean, and standard deviation scores for all variables included in subsequent analyses are included in Table 2. Of the coaches in this sample, 65% (n=890) reported completing at least one of the education courses, while 35% (n=475) reported not having taken any of the education courses. Results of the correlation analysis (Table 3) demonstrate that having any safe sport training was significantly related to increases in efficacy to support others, but not knowledge and confidence, safe sport stress, or stress about athlete well-being.

Table 2. Descriptive statistics for all variables

Coaching Context (0=Grassroots)0-71.811.37
Training Required (0=No)0-1.59.49
Training Free (0=No)0-1.49.50
Any Safe Sport Training0-1.6.13
Number of Safe Sport Training0-123.643.42
Knowledge & Confidence-4-201
Safe sport stress-4-201
Stress over athlete well-being-4-201
Efficacy to Support-4-201
Table 3. Correlations between any safe sport training and coaching outcomes
Any Safe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Any Safe Sport Training1.00.06*.04.002-.03
Knowledge Confidence.06*1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.04-.021.00.34**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.002.00.34**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support-.03.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

Number of Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Figure 1 demonstrates the number of safe sport courses taken by coaches in this sample based on influential covariates such as coaching context, training requirement, and training accessibility (i.e., whether the training was provided free of cost). Significantly more safe sport courses were completed by coaches in Post-Secondary, Provincial, International, Masters and Professional contexts, and by coaches for whom training and education is required and free. 

Initial correlation analysis (Table 4) demonstrated being a coach at a high level of competition (e.g., provincial, international) was related to taking more safe sport courses, higher knowledge and confidence, and higher efficacy to support others. Having access to free training was related to taking more safe sport courses and higher knowledge and confidence. Finally, taking more safe sport training courses was related to higher knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Safe sport stress and stress about athlete well-being were not related to any of the independent variables.

Table 4. Correlations between number of safe sport training courses, covariates and outcome variables
Coaching ContextTraining RequiredTraining FreeSafe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Coaching Context1.00-.04-.03.11**.07**.01.00.08**
Training Required-.041.00.11**-.02.08**.06.03-.05
Training Free-.03.11**1.00.09**.08*.00-.06.01
Safe Sport Training.11**-.02.09**1.00.26**.05.01.10**
Knowledge Confidence.07**.08**.08*.26**1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.00.03-.**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support.08**-.05.01.10**.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

The results of the first regression analysis (Table 5) demonstrated that the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed was related to increases in knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, when training requirements, access to training, and context of the sport environment were held constant. The number of safe sport training courses coaches took was not related to safe sport stress or athlete well-being stress.

Table 5. Linear Regression Analyses for General Coach Training
Knowledge & ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Coaching Context.*.02
Training Required.09*.
Training Free.08*.
Safe Sport Training.31**.**.01
Adj. R-Square. 
**Coefficient is significant at the 0.01 level
*Coefficient is significant at the 0.05 level

Individual Safe Sport Courses and Coaching Outcomes

The results of the final analysis demonstrated that all courses were significantly related to improved knowledge and confidence. NCCP Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, and NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) were significantly related to reduced safe sport stress. Commit to Kids was significantly related to reduced athlete well-being stress. Finally, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), and CAC Safe Sport were significantly related to efficacy to support others (Table 6).

Table 6. Effects of Individual Safe Sport Courses
Knowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support Others
NCCP Emergency Action Planning60.97<.0015.67.0171.45.2293.75.053
NCCP Planning a Practice53.82<.001.13.722.44.5097.23.007
NCCP Making Head Way64.15<.001.10.754.08.772.35.557
NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport72.82<.0015.<.001
NCCP Prevention and Recovery47.18<.0013.<.001
Commit to Kids35.88<.0015.16.0238.91.00311.29<.001
Standard First Aid and CPR17.96<.001.31.580.69.4069.73.002
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions22.26<.001.17.680.01.931.01.91
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments)15.21<.0017.92.04.315.57516.42<.001
CAC Safe Sport89.17<.001.16.6903.91.5328.41.004
Respect in Sport32.62<.001.07.797.07.7973.64.056


The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on sport coaches’ knowledge and confidence, safe sport-related stress, efficacy to support others, and stress about athlete well-being. Specific focus was directed towards examining the relationship between the number of safe sport courses completed and the effects of specific safe sport courses for these coaching outcomes. The results of this study demonstrated that having any training or education was related to increased efficacy to support others. Having completed a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to increased efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, and all safe sport courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence.  

Although a plethora of safe sport education exists to-date, a prominent criticism has been the lack of empirical evaluations examining the impact or effectiveness of such training (24, 26). The findings of the current study help to address this knowledge gap by providing preliminary, empirical evidence regarding the influence of safe sport education. According to the results, coaches in more professional contexts took more safe sport training courses, which supports the notion that at elite levels of sport, coaches may have more access to professional development opportunities and/or devote more time improving their coaching skills (11, 27). Coaches who were provided access to free training in the current study also took more safe sport courses. These findings suggest that when provided the opportunity, coaches engage in professional development, however, as issues of cost and accessibility remain prevalent barriers, the advancement and development for many coaches remains limited (19, 43. Online modalities have been advocated as a cost-effective, time efficient, and readily accessible way to educate coaches (13, 14) yet, for many coaches, online professional development opportunities still present financial demands. For example, of the twelve courses examined in the current study, only three (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, CAC Safe Sport, NCCP Making Headway) are listed as online and free for coaches; in the current study, it was not known if affiliated organizations where coaches instruct reimbursed education/training and, if so, for which courses. Access or lack thereof to safe sport-related education may impact the extent to which safe, inclusive, and welcoming spaces are promoted by all coaches (22, 47). This is particularly important for coaching at the youth sport level where the delivery of sport programmes is highly dependent on volunteers who, despite recognizing their critical role for nurturing developmentally appropriate and safe environments, often lack the requisite knowledge to do so (2, 44, 46).

The completion of more safe sport training courses and all courses examined in the current study was related to enhanced coaches’ knowledge and confidence. Exposing coaches to diverse topics which include but are not limited to safety, positive development, harmful practices, and mental health, are critical to improving coaches’ awareness and ability to create safe sport environments (6, 28, 30). The coaches also reported increased knowledge of the Rule of Two and the Responsible Coaching Movement; these safe sport efforts provide additional safety principles for Ontario and Canadian coaches more broadly on background screening, appropriate interactions, and ethics training (8). Findings may be interpreted to suggest that not only does safe sport education positively influence coaches’ knowledge and confidence to create safe environments but also facilitates greater awareness of safe sport efforts in the Canadian sport context, thus providing coaches with a more comprehensive perspective on ways to stimulate safer sport.

Nurturing athletes’ holistic development is a key responsibility of coaches; however, coaches may not have the necessary education and training to adequately support their athletes (41). The current findings indicate that the completion of more safe sport education as well as specific courses (e.g., NCCP Empower+, CAC Safe Sport) may nurture coaches’ expertise and confidence to actively support their athletes with personal and performance challenges. The extent to which athletes report positive coach-athlete dynamics and feel supported in their relationships with coaches has been known to influence whether they experience learning, growth, and safe sport environments (32). Safe sport training also influenced coaches’ confidence to support coaching peers/support staff with personal and performance issues; these findings are particularly important as learning by doing, having a coach mentor, and observing others are important sources of knowledge and development for coaches (43). Collectively, the improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others (athletes and coaches) suggests that safe sport training may serve as an effective mechanism through which knowledge dissemination and learning amongst stakeholders is achieved.

Many coaches (uninformed on the benefits of positive touch) have adopted a risk-averse perspective when interacting with athletes (i.e., “no touching”) to avoid being accused of misconduct or having their behaviors misconstrued as harmful (33, 34). In the current study, no significant relationship resulted between the number of safe sport training courses completed and coaches’ perceived safe sport stress (e.g., fear of maltreatment allegations). Specific courses were identified as decreasing safe sport stress, however, some of the courses (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, HeadStartPro, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport) focus on physical injury prevention and/or drug-free sport and do not necessarily provide broader content on maltreatment that might warrant the reported lower coach stress regarding potential accusations of harm or safe sport issues. Although coaches have commonly reported concerns about touching in sport (33), there has also been growing awareness of psychological harm and toxic cultures in sport (38, 48). The lack of reported stress regarding safe sport concerns may be reflective of coaches being less fearful of false accusations related to psychological forms of harm as opposed to sexual harms. As the survey questions referred to coach stress in relation to abuse and harassment claims broadly, further research attention is needed to assess whether education may impact coaches’ safe sport stress differently depending on the form of harm (e.g., sexual versus psychological).

It is also interesting that while safe sport education was related to coaches’ improved efficacy to support athletes with personal and performance issues, the number of completed courses was not significantly related to stress about managing athlete physical and mental well-being. Only one course (Commit to Kids) reduced coaches’ perceived stress for managing athlete well-being. Commit to Kids focuses exclusively on providing education on sexual harms; while education on sexual harms is needed to advance safe sport, psychological harm and neglect are reported far more frequently by athletes (25, 48) and thus coaches’ perceptions of their ability to manage athletes’ well-being may be limited in scope.

            NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) was associated with enhanced knowledge and confidence, improved efficacy to support others, and lower safe sport stress, whereas CAC Safe Sport Training was linked to improved knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Interestingly, Commit to Kids was the only course to positively impact all coaching outcomes, despite focusing exclusively on sexual harms. As sexual harm continues to receive the most media and research attention (4, 25), education on sexual harms may be interpreted by coaches and those in the sport community to be most relevant and important for creating safe sport. Further, in Ontario and Canada more broadly, sport organizations frequently identify course equivalents where coaches may complete different courses, including CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport, NCCP Empower+, and Commit to Kids but still satisfy the safe sport-related requirements needed to instruct. The lack of an integrated approach and the various safe sport education options available may expose coaches to different experiences and levels of learning, thus providing a plausible explanation for the reported influences on coaching outcomes in the current study. To advance safe sport,evidence-informed education for coaches and stakeholders more broadly is needed (5, 47).

Limitations and Future Directions

Although this study contributes to research and practice in safe sport by providing insights into the reported benefits of safe sport education for coaches, the findings must be interpreted within the context of the current study. Considering the CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., injuries, drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, maltreatment) was required. The data were also collected from coaches in a specific geographic region (Ontario, Canada) and thus many of the safe sport courses evaluated were exclusive to this coaching sample. The courses evaluated in the current study should not be considered an exhaustive list of all safe-sport courses; for example, since the completion of the study, several courses (e.g., Support Through Sport, Safe Sport 101 Playbook) have been revised and/or developed. Additionally, as the sport domain has been referred to one that reinforces toxic cultures, there are several education courses in Ontario and Canada more broadly on creating positive culture and inclusive environments (e.g., NCCP Coaching Athletes with a Disability), that were not included and require future consideration regarding their impact on coaches and advancing safe sport. 

The study findings highlighted a relationship between safe sport education and improvements in coach knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, suggesting that practitioners should explore ways to make safe sport education free of cost and accessible. However, as this study did not assess knowledge translation, future research is needed to examine if coaches’ improved knowledge, confidence and efficacy from education contributes to behavior change and the use of more developmentally appropriate and safe coaching practices. Organizational influence also remains an area of interest; for example, it would be beneficial to explore how an organization’s cultural values, priorities (e.g., win-at-all-costs vs holistic development), and support (e.g., free training), may impact coach education uptake and subsequently the effectiveness of safe sport education on coaching outcomes. Future researchers may consider a case study approach to examine the impact of safe sport education for coaches within a specific organization; for example, Likert-scales may be used to assess attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions, semi-structured interviews may help to gain deeper insights on coaches’ interpretations regarding safe sport courses, and participant observation may shed light on issues of coach behavior change resulting from safe sport education.


Safe sport education for coaches has been consistently advocated as a recommendation for advancing safe, inclusive, and welcoming environments, however, the influence of safe sport education remains largely unknown (24, 26). The current study contributes to the sport literature by providing an examination of the influences of safe sport training for coaches. Findings revealed a relationship between the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed and increases in their knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. However, the number of safe sport training courses completed was not associated with stress related to safe sport matters or athlete well-being. All safe sport courses were reportedly associated with improved coach knowledge and confidence. Several training courses were also linked to improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others and reductions in their safe sport stress, with only one course contributing to coaches’ reduced stress related to athlete-well-being. Although the findings suggest favorable influences of safe sport training for coaches, the current study did not assess behavioral change. Future research is needed to explore whether reported improvements (e.g., knowledge and confidence) associated with safe sport education translates to coaching practice.

Applications in Sport

Safe sport education in the current study was reportedly associated with enhanced coach knowledge and confidence to create safe environments and efficacy to support athletes and other coaches/support staff. Unfortunately, as a large portion of the sport sector is run by a volunteer workforce (e.g., volunteer coaches), sport organizations remain reluctant to enforce training requirements for fear of further burdening these coaches who frequently report stress and burnout (2, 35). However, the extent to which sport organizations and their leaders prioritize and support safe sport, has been shown to impact the effectiveness of safe sport efforts (17, 37, 49). In some cases, merely having safe sport education initiatives may have little impact on creating and sustaining safer environments and appear as superficial gestures towards change, further reproducing harms (29, 31). Sport and coaching organizations are confronted with the challenge of maintaining low time and cost demands for many volunteer coaches while also providing adequate education for volunteer (and paid) coaches (19, 46).


The authors would like to thank the coaches who participated in this study along with Coaches Association of Ontario who contributed to the design and recruitment of this study.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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  45. Vertommen, T., Kampen, J., Schipper-van Veldhoven, N., Wouters, K., Uzieblo, K., & Van Den Eede, F. (2017). Profiling perpetrators of interpersonal violence against children in sport based on a victim survey. Child Abuse and Neglect, 63, 172–182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.11.029
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2024-06-20T12:01:59-05:00June 21st, 2024|General, Research, Sport Education, Sports Coaching, Sports Exercise Science|Comments Off on Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education

Celebrating the Olympics

A note from the editor: In recognition of the upcoming Olympics, The Sports Journal has “temporarily” allowed for the addition of unique perspectives on Olympic Sports. Please enjoy the commentary from Dr. John Cairney from the University of Queensland.

For the first time in over a decade, NHL players are set to return to the Olympic stage, sparking widespread excitement among ice hockey enthusiasts worldwide. Announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman , this decision to participate in the 2026 and 2030 Winter Games ends a hiatus that has lasted since 2014. It reflects a strategic move to enhance international competition among the world’s elite hockey players, aiming to alternate between the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey every two years.

The NHL’s withdrawal after the 2014 Olympics stemmed from logistical and financial concerns, including potential revenue losses and the risks of competitive imbalance and player injuries when resuming the season. The injury of John Tavares during the 2014 Sochi Olympics underscored the risk of injury, while also pointing to the demanding nature of Olympic play. Conversely, the break offered a rest period for those not participating, leading to concerns about unequal player fatigue and readiness. Players not competing in the Olympics could potentially benefit from the break, gaining an edge over those who did participate.

Despite these concerns, there was scant research at the time to evaluate their validity, even though professional sports, including ice hockey, are rich in data capable of informing such analyses. Our research team aimed to fill this gap by investigating the impact of NHL participation in the Winter Games on both team and individual player performance, with a
focus on injury and fatigue. Our findings offered some surprising insights.

Our first study looked at the team-level “fatigue effect,” suggesting that teams with more Olympic participants might experience a dip in performance post-Games due to player fatigue, potentially affecting their regular season play. We analysed goal differentials (goals for minus goals against) before and after the Olympics, taking into account the number of players each team sent and mid-season trades’ impacts. Although some Olympic years showed a trend towards a negative effect on goal differential, indicative of a potential fatigue effect, the overall impact on team performance was minor.

The second study focused on individual player performance, particularly during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. We examined performance metrics before and after the Olympics to test the “fatigue theory” at an individual level. Our findings indicated that the number of Olympic minutes played had no significant effect on post-Olympic performance for players overall. However, a closer look at player positions revealed that forwards experienced a slight decrease in points per game post-Olympics if they played more minutes. Defensemen, on the other hand, were unaffected. Overall, our research suggests that concerns about performance declines due to Olympic participation may have been exaggerated.

Our studies provide reassurance that NHL players’ return to the Winter Olympics is beneficial for the sport. While issues related to scheduling, injury risks, and competitive balance remain, the evidence indicates that these factors minimally impact the league and its athletes. The advantages of Olympic participation, including sport promotion, player experience, and fan engagement, significantly outweigh the potential downsides. As the NHL sends its stars back to the Olympic ice, this move is celebrated not only by fans but also as a victory for the global prestige of ice hockey.



2024-05-08T11:05:32-05:00June 7th, 2024|Commentary, General|Comments Off on Celebrating the Olympics

For the Good of the Game: What Keeps Soccer Referees from Renewing Their Licenses

Authors: Dr. J Ross Pruitt1, Dr. Dexter Davis2

Corresponding Author:

J. Ross Pruitt* Professor Department of Agriculture, Geosciences, and Natural Resources

269 Brehm Hall University of Tennessee at Martin

Martin, Tennessee 38238

Phone: (731)881-7254 Fax: (731)881-7968 rpruit10@utm.edu

For the Good of the Game: What Prevents Soccer Referees from Renewing Their Licenses 


The United States faces a critical shortage of youth sports referees despite a growing interest in many sports. This issue is increasingly gaining attention from sanctioning bodies, referee associations, and researchers. There is a significant cost of referee turnover and implementing strategies implemented to increase retention of officials, especially in soccer. Correct identification of the issues resulting in non-renewal of referee licenses will increase the likelihood of retention strategies being successful. This study builds on existing research by using best-worst scaling to provide a preference share on the factors that result in non-renewal which Likert scales cannot provide. Current and former U.S. Soccer Federation referees in Tennessee were surveyed to determine which factors are most likely to motivate their decision to not renew their referee license. Findings from this research indicate that motivations are different from youth referees compared to adult referees. Youth referees find the cost of refereeing and assigning are resulting in non-renewal of licenses compared to lack of respect and changing work commitments among adult referees. Results of this research can be used to improve retention strategies across age groups.

Keywords: best-worst scaling, soccer referees, referee motivations, referee retention  

Organized sports are an important part of society within the United States as it allows recreational and entertainment opportunities for participants and spectators. Sports officials are often referred to as the “third team” and are a critical aspect to the success of organized sports. In recent years, the popular press has been bombarded with stories of referee shortages (e.g., Conlon, 2022; Medina, 2022; Yurkevich, 2023) and physical attacks (Mendola, 2014; Ortiz, 2015; Weir, 2022; Hamacher, 2023). A majority of states have enacted or are considering laws to protect referees according to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) who tracks the status of legislation impacting sports officials (NASO, n.d.).  

Even with increased awareness of the issues of referee shortages, verbal abuse and/or physical assaults, and growing legal protections, organized sports in the United States are still facing a shortage of officials. National and grassroots sport associations have enacted strategies to reduce the turnover to aid in recruitment (Titlebaum et al., 2009) and retention (Warner et al., 2013) of sports officials. These efforts will take time to minimize the impact of verbal abuse and physical assaults that are believed to result in the exodus of sports officials (Warner et al., 2013; Downward et al., 2023). Prior research has explored the factors that result in individuals deciding to become a sports official (Furst, 1991; Kellett and Warner, 2011; Johansen, 2015; Baldwin and Vallance, 2016) and continuing as a sports official (Rainey, 1999; Rainey and Hardy, 1999; Kellett and Shilbury, 2007; Kellett and Warner, 2011; Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013; Ridinger et al., 2017; Da Gama et al, 2018; Giel and Brewer, 2020; Orviz-Martinez et al, 2021; Downward et al., 2023), but the factors resulting in non-renewal of licenses needed to officiate is less clear in the literature.  

The internal and external factors that draw individuals to officiate sports are important motivators to keep renewing their license. When one or more of these factors dissipate or change, an official’s lagging desire to continue can result in non-renewal of the soccer refereeing license. Licenses to officiate soccer are typically renewed annually which requires a conscious decision to continue or not continue. This provides the official with the opportunity to reflect whether the benefits of officiating (e.g., financial, health, social) continue to exceed the costs (e.g. cost to renew the license, additional time away from family, job stress, verbal abuse). As very few soccer referees can rely financially on officiating income alone, the need to balance family, career, and officiating is present. The popularity of youth soccer results in a constant cadre of referees needing recruitment, introductory and advanced training, and retention at the youth and grassroots level. Past research (e.g., Gomes et al, 2021) has used Likert scales and qualitative interviews to determine factors that impact continued refereeing of soccer. This study adds to the existing literature by inviting current and former soccer officials to make a choice among the alternative factors included on the survey instrument. The method used in this study presents a direct ranking of factors not provided in Likert scales. This paper continues with a literature review of the existing literature of factors attracting individuals to officiate sports and what results in the decision to no longer referee followed by a description of our survey methodology. Our survey population included current and former U.S. Soccer Federation referees. Results are then discussed with suggestions for future research presented.  

Literature Review  

The reasons an individual becomes a sports official are complex, but often include altruistic motivations (Balch and Scott, 2007) and love of the sport (Burke, Joyner, Pim, and Czech, 2000). Furst (1991) and Balch and Scott (2007) state that officials continue to officiate for social and interpersonal reasons along with a commitment to the sport. Kellett and Shilbury (2007) discuss the importance of the social and interpersonal support provided between officials to cope with the stress of officiating sports. The stress is, in part, a reflection of the need to quickly and correctly apply the rules of the sport while being in the proper position to make a decision. Initial training of new sports officials often focuses primarily on knowing the rules of the sport with some field training to practically apply what is learned. Factors that are important to keep beginning officials engaged in officiating such forming interpersonal relationships (e.g., Furst, 1991; Balch and Scott, 2007; Kellett and Shilbury, 2007; Kellett and Warner, 2011; Baldwin and Vallance, 2016) and coping with stress (e.g., Voight, 2009) are not the primary focus of initial trainings.  

Officiating sports is a stressful experience due to the complexity of making quick decisions (Guillén and Jiménez, 2001; González-Oya, 2006; Gama et al., 2018) in an environment where positive feedback for correct decisions is limited. In younger and/or inexperienced officials, the lack of experience in these environments and ability to cope with the accompanying stress can contribute to referees no longer officiating (Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013). Prior research has focused on the connection between stressors and burnout (Rainey and Hardy, 1999; Voight, 2009; Da Gama et al., 2018; Gomes et al., 2021; Orviz-Martinez et al., 2021; Downward et al., 2023) with tools like the Burnout Inventory for Referees developed by Weinberg and Richardson (1990). Stressors experienced by sports officials are not always related to the sporting event but can be representative of other factors in their lives including work, family, and support of the organization for which they officiate (Voight, 2009; Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013).  

Reasons that individuals begin refereeing may not always be the reasons they intend to continue. Kellett and Shilbury (2007) document that the interpersonal relationships developed can overcome nervousness experienced by beginning officials. These interpersonal relationships can be a positive stressor, or an indication of commitment described in Cuskelly and Hoye (2013). These may be social in nature can result in officials who, “are likely to feel somewhat compelled to continue officiating through various social mechanisms” (Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013). The level of organizational support, or the official’s perception of support, can result in an intention to continue officiating (Rainey, 1999; Kellett and Warner, 2011).  

Giel and Breuer (2020) find the altruistic motives are not a significant factor in continuing to referee. This highlights the importance of the social relationships as the stress associated with officiating, balancing family, job, and officiating, the stress associated with maintaining the desired level of performance, or other factors can result in the official questioning their desire to continue. This contributes to the belief often expressed in the popular press that burnout and verbal abuse/physical assault are primary motivators to officials leaving the sport (Kellett and Shilbury, 2007). The ability to reframe the abuse as described in Kellett and Shilbury (2007) may limit the extent to which the perception is reality. Voight (2009) finds the conflict between family and officiating, making a controversial call, conflict between work and officiating, making the wrong call, and verbal abuse from coaches as the top stressors among college soccer officials. The least amount of stress can be attributed to the fear of physical harm (Voight, 2009).  


The decision to not renew one’s soccer referee license reflects the costs of continuing to referee (whether financial, social, or emotional) relative to the benefits accrued by refereeing. We hypothesize that referees will consider not renewing their license prior to the actual decision where the license is not renewed (Rainey and Hardy, 1999; Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013). Factors that motivate the decision to not renew one’s license are presented in Table 1. Included factors represent those included in the literature (e.g., Furst, 1991; Rainey, 1999; Rainey and Hardy, 1999; Burke et al., 2000; Balch and Scott, 2007; Kellett and Shilbury, 2007; Cuskelly and Hoye, 2013; Johansen, 2014; Giel and Breuer, 2020) as well as those from our personal experiences refereeing and coaching soccer. After the factors shown in Table 1 were selected to include in the questionnaire, the staff and mentors of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region III Championships reviewed our factors and accompanying descriptions for thoroughness. Their suggestions are reflected in our final factors presented in Table 1.  

Use of best-worst scaling (Finn and Louviere, 1992) provides the relative importance that a factor can have on a referee’s continued interest in renewing their license. This method provides an improvement over qualitative interviews which can provide insight into motivations for referees, but not a hierarchical preference ranking that can be used by referee associations to assist in retention of referees. An additional benefit of best-worst scaling is the fact it provides a ratio scale for its results unlike a Likert rating scale that may result in the ordinal ranking not being consistent across respondents (Steenkamp and Baumgartner, 1998; Lusk and Briggeman, 2009). This provides greater insight into the obstacles for a referee to annually renew their license which can lead to increased retention efforts and educational efforts by clubs and sanctioning bodies to reduce the impact of factors resulting in non-renewal of licenses. 

Best-worst scaling provides the respondent the ability to select the factor that provides the most and least utility in a choice set which Likert scales do not provide. This approach has significant implications for marketing (Cohen, 2009; O’Reilly and Huybers, 2015; Massey, Wang, and Waller, 2015) to help identify specific factors that consumers find desirable. Use of this method has extended into the healthcare industry (Flynn et al., 2007) and the value of public information (Pruitt et al., 2014). Given J factors, there are J(J-1) combinations a respondent could select for each best-worst question. The choice of the most important factor j by individual i can by represented by λj on the utility scale with the latent level of utility determined by Iij = λj + εij which assumes that εij is the random error term. By selecting factor j as the most important factor and factor k as the least important is determined by the probability for all other J(J-1)-1 possible differences in the choice set.  

Results from best-worst scaling normally occurs through a multinomial or random parameters logit. Estimate coefficients have little interpretation aside from the magnitude of the coefficient. Preference shares for each factor’s impact on lack of interest in continuing to referee is calculated using the following equation preference share for factor.

Respondents were asked if they had actively considered not renewing their U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) referee license in the past five years. Individuals that responded yes, were then asked best-worst questions using the factors that were identified and presented in Table 1. Using PROC OPTEX in SAS 9.4, a quasi-balanced incomplete block design (BIBD) was created. The design had a treatment D-efficiency of 90.78 and a block design D-efficiency of 99.86. This resulted in twelve best-worst questions with six factors present in each question. Each factor appeared six times to each respondent with an example of the best-worst questions is provided in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Example Best-Worst Question


A web-based Qualtrics survey was created that was distributed to current and former U.S. Soccer Federation referees implementing the best-worst questions discussed previously. Through contacts with the Tennessee Soccer Referee Program, we were able to distribute the questionnaire to 3,507 current and former referees. Our ability to contact referees who had not recertified in the previous four years is due to the Tennessee Soccer Referee Program adopting computer software that allows the program to track referees who do not re-certify from year to year. Inclusion of youth referees (between the ages of thirteen and eighteen) was approved by our university’s Institutional Review Board which allows for determination if factors vary by age. Per USSF policy, any email contact from a certified USSF assignor results in the parent/guardian also being contacted1. This resulted in parents/guardians of current and former youth referees also receiving the recruitment email. Initial questions identified if the respondent was at least eighteen years of age and then determined if the respondent was answering for themselves or as parent/guardian of a current or former youth soccer referee2. For youth referees, we included questions that determined if their parent/guardian had provided consent in addition to the minor providing assent. As the parent/guardian also received the recruitment email, email addresses for minors were collected in case the parent/guardian revoked consent necessitating removal of youth referee responses. No parent or guardian contacted us requesting removal of the youth referee’s responses.

A recruitment email was sent in early March 2023 to 3,507 current and former referees registered with USSF in the state of Tennessee with a follow-up email sent two weeks later. An incentive was offered to each respondent of a gift card worth $100 to a referee equipment supplier or a free registration for the 2023 year. Email addresses were collected at the end of the questionnaire and provided to the Tennessee Soccer Referee Program which was responsible in selecting and contacting the winners of the inducement. We received 107 usable responses for a response rate of 3.05%.

Results Demographic information is provided in Table 2. Total responses did vary by question as respondents were not required to answer every demographic question which were asked following the best-worst questions. Respondents were overwhelmingly male and Caucasian. Approximately forty percent of respondents were less than twenty-five years of age and an additional twenty-five percent between the ages of forty-three and fifty-four. Over sixty percent who responded were no longer refereeing soccer with approximately two-thirds believing they were assigned the appropriate number of matches given their skill and ability level. Those receiving the questionnaire were asked an open-ended question on how many years they refereed soccer. Of the 110 responses, many did not provide an exact number. For those who provided an exact number, the average number of years that survey participants had refereed was 8.63 years. Given responses not included in this calculation that stated they had refereed 10+, 20+, or 50+ years, this estimate of 8.63 understates the longevity of referees in this research. A histogram of responses for this question is presented in Figure 2. More than three-quarters of respondents refereed no more than sixty matches a year with the majority refereeing less than fifteen matches annually. Over ninety percent of respondents only refereed soccer. Nearly seventy percent of respondents had suffered verbal abuse in the past two years with approximately five percent having suffered a physical assault (e.g., touched, pushed, shoved, punched, kicked, or spat on) by a player, coach, fan, or parent. Parents and coaches were most likely to have been the source of verbal abuse with players being the source of physical assault.

As we were able to include youth referees (less than eighteen years old), we conducted t-tests for significant differences in means between those who had actively considered not renewing their USSF licenses for youth and adult referees. We did not test for differences in means in age and educational attainment categories since we compared those less than eighteen of ages to all other ages in this comparison. Differences in the mean at the 5% level of significance (p<0.05) were found in these groupings with less than fifteen matches officiated, whether the respondent felt they were under assigned, assigned the right number of matches for their skill/ability level, and whether they play organized soccer. Table 2 includes these results.

Table 2. Demographic Information

VariableMeanStandard Deviation
Gender (n=111)  
Prefer Not to Say0.90%0.09
Ethnicity (n=111)  
African American0.00%0.00
Native American0.00%0.00
Prefer Not to Say5.41%0.23
Age (n=111)  
Over 6010.81%0.31
Education Level (n=111)  
Currently in Middle/High School27.03%0.45
High School Diploma or GED0.00%0.00
Trade, vocational, or technical school4.50%0.21
Associate Degree4.50%0.21
Bachelor’s Degree27.93%0.45
Master’s Degree15.32%0.36
Doctoral or Professional Degree7.21%0.26
Prefer Not to Say1.80%0.13
Household Income (n=110)  
Less than $40,00010.00%0.30
$40,000 to $60,0009.09%0.29
$60,001 to $80,0008.18%0.28
$80,001 to $100,0005.45%0.23
Greater than $100,00040.00%0.49
Prefer Not to Say27.27%0.45

Table 2. Continued

VariableMeanStandard Deviation
Residence (n=111)  
Urban Area14.41%0.35
Suburban Area66.67%0.39
Rural Area18.92%0.47
Levels Officiated1  
Youth recreational33.46% 
High School16.18% 
Adult Amateur/Recreational10.29% 
Approximate number of annual matches  
Less than 1530.91%20.46
Over 1057.27%0.26
Proper Assigning Level (n=109)  
Under assigned25.69%20.44
Over assigned7.34%0.26
Right number66.97%20.47
Sports Officiated besides Soccer  
5 or more0.00%0.00
Play Organized Soccer (n=110)43.64%20.50
Verbally Abused in Last Two Years (n=109)68.81%0.47
Source of Verbal Abuse1  

Table 2. Continued

VariableMeanStandard Deviation
Physically Assaulted in Last Two Years (n=109)4.59%0.21
Source of Physical Assault1  
Injury of at Least Four Weeks (n=109)11.93%0.33
Attend Continuing Education (n=110)  
Once a year28.18%0.45
Twice a year7.27%0.26
Three to four times a year10.00%0.30
At least five times a year0.00%0.00
Does not attend47.27%0.50
Accepts unsanctioned matches (n=110)12.73%0.33
Anticipates refereeing soccer: (n=110)  
No longer refereeing60.91%0.49
Less than one year7.27%0.26
One to two years12.73%0.33
Three to four years8.18%0.28
At least five years10.91%0.31

1 Question allowed multiple responses and standard deviations are not presented as a result.
2 Denotes significant differences at the 5% level (p<0.05) between youth and adult referees who had actively considered not renewing their license.

Non-Renewal of Referee License

Respondents who answered they had actively considered not renewing their license in the past five years were shown a series of questions asking them to select the most and least important factors impacting why they would not renew their refereeing license. As our sample included youth referees (those less than 18 years of age), we estimated a combined model for all referees responding against the alternative models of youth and adult referees. Each of these models was estimated using a multinomial logit (MNL), an uncorrelated random parameters logit (RPL), and a correlated random parameters logit model. Significant differences were found to exist between youth and adult referees who were considering not renewing resulting in separate models being estimates for youth and adult referees. Likelihood ratio tests favored the use of MNL model for both youth and adult referees.

Youth Referees

Results for youth referees are presented in Table 3 uses Work as the base factor with results. Estimates for the MNL and RPL models are presented with the MNL preferred by use of a likelihood ratio test. Aside from their magnitude, the econometric estimates in Table 3 have no natural interpretation and equation 1 was used to calculate the shares of preference that are presented. The shares of preference for the uncorrelated RPL model were generated from 1,000 random draws using a normal distribution of the mean and standard deviation of a specific factor that might result in a referee not renewing their USSF license. Shares of preference were consistent between the two modeling techniques as there was not greater than ±0.01% difference for any factor. The cost to referee (i.e., Afford) was the number one reason that youth referees had considered not renewing their USSF license. This factor includes the inability to make it to matches for youth referees reflecting the need for an adult or friend to help them make it to assignments. Note that even with a small sample size of youth referees, fifteen of the eighteen youth referees were no longer refereeing. The youth referee’s opinion on how well they were assigned was the second most important factor with the lack of Respect from fans, players, and coaches third (depending on the model used). It should be noted that the fourth most important factor was Game Fees, indicating the cost to benefit ratio for youth referees is contributing to non-renewals. The use of best-worst scaling provides a clearer view of the magnitude of factors resulting in youth referees not renewing their licenses through the direct comparisons with the lack of Respect relatively not as important as other factors.

Table 3.  Relative Importance of Factor Impacting Non-Renewal of Youth Referee Licenses

FactorEconometric EstimatesShares of Preference
Youth Involvement-0.761***-0.763***0.0270.026
Social Aspects0.271***0.2700.0740.074
Family Commitments-0.865***-0.859***0.0240.024
Lack of Opportunities to Advance-0.189-0.1880.0470.047
Cost to Referee1.123****1.130***0.1740.174
Game Fees0.913***0.915***0.1410.141
Lack of Organizational Support0.524**0.529**0.0960.096
(Base Factor)  [0.000][0.015]
Log Likelihood-625.138-624.910  
McFadden’s LRI0.0940.149  
Number of Respondents1818  

            ***, **, and * asterisks represent the factor is significantly different from the Work factor at the 1%, 5%, and 10% level, respectively.

a Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.
b numbers in brackets are standard deviations.

In addition to the shares of preference presented in Table 3, we generated Pearson correlations from the individual specific RPL estimates shown in Table 4. Several factors had correlations with at least ±0.3 with another factor. Given the limited number of responses, care should be taken when viewing Table 4, but it provides an indication of how youth referees view these factors influencing their decision to not continue refereeing. The more likely a youth referee viewed the lack of Social camaraderie, the higher an injury might factor into a non-renewal decision. Importantly, the lack of Social connections had a strong direct relationship with their views of Organizational Support provided to them. Concerns about how many games the referee was assigned had a positive relationship with Game Fees being an important factor in the decision to not renew the license. Game Fees tended to have large (positive or negative) correlations with many factors that were included in this research.

Table 4.  Pearson Correlations Between Factors from Individual Specific RPL Estimates of Youth Referees

Respect (1)1.000          
Youth Involvement (2)0.0071.000         
Assign (3)-0.1400.1771.000        
Social (4)-0.1760.410-0.3011.000       
Injury (5)-0.007-0.439-0.4940.5051.000      
Advance (6)-0.211-0.8320.0180.2220.2121.000     
Age (7)0.1640.8740.100-0.248-0.448-0.9191.000    
Cost (8)-0.043-0.159-0.2640.2270.079-0.0730.0961.000   
Game Fees (9)-0.1230.7250.476-0.569-0.737-0.5380.694-0.0461.000  
Organizational Support (10)0.097-0.338-0.1720.5140.5440.189-0.3320.249-0.6691.000 
Family (11)-0.326-0.753-0.0300.4890.5640.723-0.860-0.025-0.6100.5311.000

Adult Referees

Results for adult referees who had considered not renewing their USSF license are presented in Table 5. As with youth referees, a MNL model was preferred to an uncorrelated RPL model with the estimates from both models presented. Unlike youth referees, the lack of Respect experienced by adult referees is the primary reasons resulting in the non-renewal decision. Work commitments or a change in them was the second most important factor. Nearly two-thirds of adult referees who had considered not renewing their license were no longer refereeing; fifteen were considering not renewing in more than the next two years with only four considering refereeing at least four more years.

Table 5.  Relative Importance of Factor Impacting Non-Renewal of Adult Referee Licenses

FactorEconometric EstimatesShares of Preference
Youth Involvement-1.571***-1.582***0.0280.028
Social Aspects-1.313***-1.312***0.0360.036
Family Commitments-0.688***-0.688***0.0680.068
Lack of Opportunities to Advance-0.828***-.833***0.0590.059
Cost to Referee-.481***-0.474***0.0840.084
Game Fees-0.350***-0.348***0.0950.095
Lack of Organizational Support-0.510***-0.514***0.0810.081
(Base Factor)  [0.000][0.014]
Log Likelihood-2843.485-2838.531  
McFadden’s LRI0.0660.097  
Number of Respondents7777  

***, **, and * asterisks represent the factor is significantly different from the Work factor at the 1%, 5%, and 10% level, respectively.

a Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.
b numbers in brackets are standard deviations.

As with the youth referees, Pearson correlations for the adult referees are presented in Table 6. A greater response rate among adults compared to youth referees provides more robustness in the correlations that are presented. It is interesting to note the strong negative correlation between Game Fees and Assign (-0.591) suggesting concerns about pay is not tied to assigning. Concerns about Game Fees and the ability to Advance had a strong positive relationship (0.607) indicating adult referees view the pay for higher level games isn’t a strong enough incentive to advance. Those referees who rated the inability to Advance highly was negatively correlated (-0.611) with concerns about being over or under assigned (Assign).

Table 6.  Pearson Correlations Between Factors from Individual Specific RPL Estimates of Adult Referees

Respect (1)1.000          
Youth Involvement (2)0.0631.000         
Assign (3)-0.304-0.5781.000        
Social (4)-0.105-0.0520.0171.000       
Injury (5)0.1530.533-0.587-0.1241.000      
Advance (6)0.3000.387-0.6110.2170.4181.000     
Age (7)-0.172-0.2300.089-0.192-0.115-0.2871.000    
Cost (8)0.2750.179-0.4600.0280.1960.542-0.2821.000   
Game Fees (9)0.0460.444-0.591-0.1240.4010.607-0.0150.3361.000  
Organizational Support (10)0.129-0.036-0.055-0.0690.049-0.334-0.0930.007-0.1971.000 
Family (11)-0.255-0.2790.574-0.136-0.543-0.3380.147-0.483-0.3230.0361.000


Concerns about retaining sports officials are a pressing factor for many sports with referee abuse a concern among leagues and official associations. Factors influencing the decision to not renew referee licenses are not well understood in the literature. Prior research has focused on qualitative factors impacting the renewal decision which doesn’t quantitatively rank factors included in the research. This research surveyed current and former referees who had actively considered not renewing their referee license with a majority no longer refereeing soccer. There were significant differences between youth and adult referees in the factors that had led them to consider not renewing their referee license. For youth, the cost to referee and concerns about being over- or under-assigned were the top two reasons for considering not renewing their license compared to adults who were more concerned about the lack of respect and work commitments. For both age groups, concerns about organizational support were significant factors as it relates to continuing refereeing.

Our study is limited by the small sample size, but it is an important look into the factors that resulted in a majority of referees no longer renewing their U.S. Soccer Federation license. While we do not focus on the well-being of referees as in Downward and Webb (2023), our findings are consistent with theirs that a zero-tolerance approach will aid in adult referee retention. This reinforces the need for organizational support (Rainey, 1995; Voight, 2007; Ridinger et al., 2017; Downward and Webb, 2023), but also requires training by those organizations on what to include in post-match reports to have the backing. As over 75% of respondents in our survey did not attend more than one continuing education session annually, sanctioning bodies and referee associations need innovative ideas to aid in reaching this objective.

Future research should focus on expanding this to referees who have not recently considered non-renewal of their referee licenses. This portion of the referee community will likely have different factors motivating their continued renewals as was demonstrated by the differences observed in this paper based on the age of the referee. Identification of the factors that aid in retention of these referees may aid in development of strategies to limit the impact of factors discussed in this research. Given the nature of soccer in the U.S., future research should better control for the differences in length of refereeing and level officiated (e.g., recreational versus club). With the number of young referees who work matches in the U.S., the skills necessary to be successful may not have been developed to handle the stressors commonly associated with officiating (Rainey, 1995; Rainey and Hardy, 1999; Burke et al., 2000; Voight, 2009; Gomes et al., 2021). A more diverse respondent pool, in terms of locality, gender, and ethnicity, is also needed to better understand why referees continue to engage in a stressful avocation.


The authors express appreciation to Don Eubank, State Referee Administrator for Tennessee Soccer, for sending the questionnaire to soccer referees in the state and providing the incentive for respondents to complete the questionnaire. We also thank the staff and mentors of U.S. Youth Soccer Region III for helpful feedback on an early draft of the questionnaire. The authors are grateful for the helpful edits and suggestions from Marco Palma on an earlier draft of this paper.

Conflicts of Interest

J. Ross Pruitt is an active soccer referee with the U.S. Soccer Federation, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, and National Intercollegiate Soccer Official Association.


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2024-05-08T12:27:56-05:00May 31st, 2024|General, Sports Coaching, Sports Management|Comments Off on For the Good of the Game: What Keeps Soccer Referees from Renewing Their Licenses

Advice on making the most of basketball three-point shot data

Authors: George Terhanian1

Corresponding Author:

George Terhanian, PhD
200 Hoover Avenue, #2101
Las Vegas NV, 89101

1George Terhanian founded Electric Insights after holding executive positions at The NPD Group, Toluna, and Harris Interactive. He has also served on boards or advisory groups for several organizations, including the US National Academy of Sciences, the Advertising Research Foundation, and the British Polling Society. He is known for conceiving how to make survey data, including pre-election forecasts, more accurate through statistical matching methods.

Making the most of basketball three-point shot data


This study’s primary goal is to help National Basketball Association (NBA) and other basketball teams worldwide increase their three-point shooting accuracy and decrease their opponents’, a key to winning more games.  A related goal is to explain how a combination of good data, logistic regression analysis, likely effects reporting in probabilities or percentage points, and self-serve simulation can improve communication among data analysts, basketball coaches, and players, and enhance each group’s effectiveness.  Logistic regression analysis of 32,511 NBA three-point shots shows six factors affect the three-point shooting percentage: closest defender’s distance to the shooter, time left on the 24-second shot clock, whether the player shot after dribbling or catching the ball, game period, shot distance, and venue.  In the past, data analysts conveyed the results of such analyses to coaches and players using terms such as regression, logits, and odds.  Some NBA executives say doing so again would be disastrous.  An alternative is to emphasize probabilities and percentages in communication and create self-serve simulators coaches and players can use to predict how changes in critical factors affect three-point shooting percentages.  NBA and other teams worldwide can apply this approach to new and existing datasets they maintain, enhance, and build.

Key Words: self-serve simulation, predicted probabilities, logistic regression, likely effects reporting, psychotherapy


The National Basketball Association (NBA) releases specific three-point shot characteristics, such as shooter name and shot distance.  Aside from the 2014-15 season’s first 903 of 1,230 games (and 2015-16’s first 631, though the latter data are no longer publicly available), the released data exclude a variety of individual shot characteristics such as the closest defender’s distance to the shooter, a crucial defensive effectiveness measure (14).  Teams are said to consider the excluded characteristics proprietary.  As Mike Zarren, assistant general manager and chief legal counsel for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, explained, “You can’t share stuff with other teams…We are not at an equilibrium point where all the teams know what everyone else is doing.  There are some advantages that some teams have over others” (15) (51:47). 

The analyses here use the 2014-15 shot dataset, the last and largest single-season one containing full shot data that is publicly available.  The main goal is to help NBA and other basketball teams worldwide increase their three-point shooting accuracy and decrease their opponents’.  Teams that do so should win more games.  A related goal is to explain how a combination of good data, logistic regression analysis, likely effects reporting in probabilities or percentage points (e.g., “Shooting off the catch rather than the dribble is associated with a two-percentage-point increase in our three-point shot make percentage.”), and self-serve simulation can improve communication among data analysts, basketball coaches, and players, and enhance each group’s effectiveness.  NBA and other teams worldwide can apply this approach to new and existing datasets they maintain, enhance, and build.  Aspects of the approach are also portable to many other issues and areas where the key outcome variable is binary (26).

This paper has seven additional sections (excluding references and other ancillary information).  The first summarizes basic rules and strategies for NBA basketball, highlighting the importance of the three-point shot.  It also explains why data analysts seeking to communicate effectively with coaches and players should consider using non-technical language.  The second section describes the three-point shot data used in this paper’s analyses.  It then provides the rationale for relying on logistic regression analysis for model building and prediction.  The third section reports the results of the analyses and suggests how data analysts might share them with coaches and players.  It also explores why academic researchers tend not to report likely effects in probabilities or percentage points.  The fourth details how data analysts can build self-serve simulators that report likely effects in probabilities or percentage points.  The limitations of this paper’s analyses are discussed in the fifth section.  The next-to-last section describes how teams might apply the approach described here, while the final section provides concluding remarks.

NBA Basketball: Basic Rules and Strategies

NBA games have two teams with five players competing for four 12-minute periods (excluding possible five-minute overtime periods).  To score, a team needs to shoot the ball through the basket.  With the clock running, a successful shot is worth three or two points, depending on the shooter’s distance from the basket.  The clock stops for free throws, which are uncontested 15-foot shots worth a single point awarded for specific infringements.  One can calculate each shot’s expected value (EV) by multiplying its potential value by its average make percentage.  For the 2022-23 regular season, the expected value of a three- and two-point shot was almost identical: 1.08 points (3*.36) for a three-pointer and 1.10 (2*.55) for a two-pointer.  Each free throw’s expected value was .78 points (1*.78) or 1.56 for a more typical pair (3).  A recent example shows why the expected value measure can be strategically important.

In the second round of the 2020-21 playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks shocked the heavily favored Philadelphia 76ers, coming from behind to win the seven-game series four to three.  The Hawks’ decision to foul Ben Simmons repeatedly to force him to shoot free throws contributed to the victory.  As Hall-of-Fame player Earvin “Magic” Johnson observed, “…it fueled the Hawks’ comeback” (13).

Simmons shot just 33% (15 for 45) from the free-throw line for the series, far below his 61% (and the league’s 77%) regular season average.  Simmons’s 33% figure suggests the Hawks expected him to score only .66 points for two free throws in a series in which his team made 40% of its three-pointers (for an expected value of 1.22 points) and 52% of its two-pointers (for a 1.05 expected value).  That means the Hawks expected to gain .56 points (1.22 – .66) for a replaced three-point shot and .39 points (1.05 – .66) for a replaced two-pointer with the foul Simmons strategy.  Perhaps more notably, it may have affected Simmons’s decision-making.  To his team’s detriment, Simmons chose not to attempt an open lay-up or dunk with 3:30 remaining in game seven (4), arguably for fear of getting fouled and having to shoot free throws (21, 27).

Overstating three-point shooting’s significance is difficult.  In 2022-23, the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, and Houston Rockets won 41, 27, and 21 (of 82) regular season games, too few to qualify for the post-season playoffs; their three-point shooting percentages of 34%, 33%, and 33% were the league’s worst.  The Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers won 54, 44, and 44 games, enough to compete in the playoffs; they were top performers in three-point shooting at 39%, 39%, and 38%.  These data and separate multi-season analyses (18, 20) suggest that winning in the NBA hinges heavily on making (and defending) three-point shots. 

Clear Communication 

An excellent statistical model is “a simplified version of reality, like a street map that shows you how to travel from one part of a city to another” (28) (p. ix).  But that map will not help you find your way if it includes esoteric terms or unfamiliar signs or symbols.  Likewise, if data analysts use uncommon language when giving advice, coaches and players may feel lost.  Mike Zarren would agree.  If Celtics’ data analysts were to apply logistic regression to three-point shot data, he would tell them to communicate what they learn “without using the word regression because that’s a disaster” (15) (11:18).  Terms like logits, standard deviations, odds, odds ratios, and z scores also would be off-limits.  Zarren does not believe coaches and players are unintelligent.  Even good data analysts can find aspects of logistic regression challenging.  That is why DeMaris (7) (p. 1,057) observed, “…there is still considerable confusion about the interpretation of logistic regression results.”  And why Gelman and Hill (11) (p. 83) commented, “…the concept of odds can be difficult to understand, and odds ratios are even more obscure.”

Washington Wizards’ assistant coach Dean Oliver’s views on clear communication resemble Zarren’s.  “When I directed quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets and would prepare stuff for coaches,” he said, “there were actually very few numbers in there.  It was usually words because it was easier for them to absorb…” (15) (48:54). 

An alternative to avoiding numbers is to report key predictor variables’ likely effects with familiar ones like probabilities and percentages—the NBA reports various descriptive statistics and cross-tabulations on its website, emphasizing percentages, hence coaches’ and players’ familiarity. 



The NBA has used technology to gather detailed player performance data since the 2013-14 season via SportVU, then Second Spectrum.  The analyses here use SportVU data, described as “real-time and innovative statistics based on speed, distance, player separation, and ball possession for comprehensive analysis of players and teams” (25).  How did the SportVU system work?  In each arena’s rafters, six cameras recorded information throughout each game in .04-second intervals, producing 25 images per second.  A computer algorithm then plotted the locations of the ball, basket, and 10 players.  SportVU delivered data and reports to each team and the league as a last step.

As noted earlier, the NBA made available SportVU raw, shot-level data—including the defender distance variable—for three-quarters of the 2014-15 regular season.  (The NBA also made available raw, shot-level data early in the 2015-16 season before discontinuing the practice entirely in January 2016.  The latter dataset is no longer publicly available.)  The 2014-15 dataset (17)—the last and largest single-season one publicly available—contains 21 variables and 128,069 three- and two-point shots, as described in the Appendix.  After making minor changes (e.g., removing two-point shots), the remaining three-point shots totaled 32,511—11,426 makes and 21,085 misses—taken from October 28, 2014, through March 4, 2015.

Analysis Method 

Logistic regression models the relationship between a binary outcome (e.g., made or missed three-point shots, or nearly anything with a yes or no interpretation) and, typically, several predictor or explanatory variables.  It is ideal for identifying and estimating the effects of actions to increase or decrease the size or proportion of the group of interest, specifically, made three-point shots.  It can also predict each three-point shot’s probability of belonging to the “made” rather than the “missed” group.  Many academic researchers consider it “the standard way to model binary outcomes” (11) (p. 79), “dominating all other methods in both the social and biomedical sciences” (2) (para. 1).

The final logistic regression model comprises one dependent and six predictor variables.  The predictor variables were selected based on their relationship with the dependent variable, one another, theory, availability, and their effect on the model’s predictive accuracy.  Below are descriptions of the seven variables and brief explanations for how they may differ from the original ones described in the Appendix.

  1. ShotResult: The dependent variable: whether the shooter made the shot. (Values: 0=Missed, 1=Made; Original variable: Fgm)
  2. DefDist: The closest defender’s distance to the shooter in feet (ft.). Basketball players and coaches recommended a four-category variable after discussions and preliminary analyses. (Values: 1=0-3 ft., 2=3-6 ft., 3=6-9 ft., 4=9+ ft.; Original variable: Close_Def_Dist)
  3. ShotClock: The number of seconds (secs.) on the 24-second shot clock. Analyses showed steep drops in the make probability at the 4- and 2-second marks, thus the decision to create a variable with three categories. (Values: 1=0-2 secs., 2=2-4 secs., 3=4+ secs; Original variable: Shot_Clock)
  4. Catch: Whether the shooter took the shot off the catch or dribble. The original variable reported the number of dribbles the shooter took before shooting. Basketball players and coaches recommended a two-category variable after discussions and preliminary analyses. (Values: 1=Off Catch, 2=Off Dribble; Original variable: Dribbles)
  5. Period: The game period when the shot was taken, with fourth period and overtime shots pooled because of their similar make percentages. (Values: 1=1, 2=2, 3=3, 4=4+; Original variable: Period)
  6. ShotDist: The distance in feet from the center of the basket to the shooter. Basketball players and coaches recommended a four-category variable after discussions and preliminary analyses. (Values: 1=22-24 ft., 2=24-25 ft., 3=25-26 ft., 4=26+ ft.; Original variable: Shot_Dist)
  7. Venue: Whether it was a home or away game for the shooter’s team. (Values: 0=Away, 1=Home; Original variable: Location)

Table 1 reports the logistic regression analysis results, notably, standard information such as logit coefficients, odds, z scores, and a measure of statistical significance (i.e., p>z).  It also reports useful non-standard information such as frequencies, (predicted) probabilities, and expected values.  The rationale for reporting standard and non-standard information, to borrow from the statistician Frederick Mosteller, is to “let weaknesses from one…be buttressed by strength from another” (16) (Ch. 4, p. 116), a concept he referred to as “balancing biases.”  As envisioned, data analysts can rely on standard information when building and evaluating logistic regression models, and non-standard when communicating the results and their implications to coaches and players.

Table 1.

Results of final logistic regression analysis

0-3 ft.6%1.290.86
3-6 ft.54%
6-9 ft.28%0.381.466.780.00.371.11
9+ ft.12%0.471.607.740.00.391.17
0-2 secs.5%1.210.62
2-4 secs.7%0.631.888.020.00.330.99
4+ secs.88%0.772.1711.870.00.361.08
Off catch75%1.361.07
Off dribble25%-
22-24 ft31%1.381.13
24-25 ft.36%-0.090.91-
25-26 ft.20%-0.170.84-
26+ ft.13%-0.300.74-

Note. n=32,511.  Log pseudolikelihood, starting value: -21,078.18; final value: -20,827.69.  Likelihood ratio (degrees of freedom=13): 498.44, p > chi2 = 0.00. Tjur R2: 0.014; McFadden R2: 0.012.  Stukel chi2(1) = 4.10, p > chi2 = 0.043

Standard versus Non-Standard Interpretations

Table 1 shows that the defender distance variable (DefDist) affects the outcome variable.  A standard interpretation would emphasize odds ratios and statistical significance:

Controlling for other variables’ effects, three-point shots taken with the closest defender 9+ feet away have a:

  • 60% higher odds (i.e., 1.6/1) of going in than those taken with the closest defender 0-3 feet away,
  • 24% higher odds (i.e., 1.6/1.29) than those with the defender 3-6 feet away, and
  • 10% higher odds (i.e., 1.6/1.46) than those with the defender 6-9 feet away.

Each effect is statistically significant, as their z scores show.

Although the standard interpretation is correct from a technical standpoint, coaches and players may not understand or act on it, given Zarren’s and Oliver’s comments (as well as those of DeMaris, Gelman, and Hill).  Now consider a non-standard interpretation (that relies on Table 1’s non-standard information).  Note that each percentage’s associated expected value is in parentheses.

All else unchanged, the percentage of three-point makes would decrease from 35% (1.05 pts.) to:

  • 29% (0.86 pts.) with the defender always 0-3 feet away from the shooter, and
  • 34% (1.02 pts.) with the defender always 3-6 feet away.

It would increase from 35% to:

  • 37% (1.11 pts.) with the defender always 6-9 feet away, and
  • 39% (1.17 pts.) with the defender always 9+ feet away.

NBA coaches and players would probably prefer the non-standard interpretation.  Arguably, reporting the likely effect in percentage points instead of odds is more intuitive and actionable (26, 30). 

Calculating Each Shot’s Make Probability

Another number to note in Table 1 is the constant of -1.46 logits which translates to a predicted make probability of 19% (0.56 pts.).  The -1.46 number represents a three-point shot with the lowest value on each predictor variable:

  • Defender 0-3 feet away
  • 0-2 seconds on the shot clock
  • Off the catch
  • First period
  • Shot distance of 22-24 feet
  • Away game

An implication is that it is possible to calculate the predicted make probability of each of the 32,511 shots.  Such information can spark curiosity and foster improved performance for a player scrutinizing his own (or opponents’) shot data.  For example, Row 1 of Table 2 reports the logit coefficients associated with the first three-point shot Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors attempted in 2014-15.  In the third period of an away game versus the Sacramento Kings with 4.6 seconds on the shot clock, Thompson missed from 22 feet off the catch with the defender 3.9 feet away.  As the column titled Prob shows, that shot’s predicted make probability was 38% (.38*100), calculated by applying the following formula to select Table 2 numbers: exp (sum of logit coefficients + constant)/ (exp (sum of logit coefficients + constant) +1).

Upon closer examination, Thompson could have asked the team’s data analysts how that shot’s make probability would have changed had the defender been 9+ rather than 3.9 feet away.  To respond, an analyst could have replaced the DefDist logit coefficient of 0.25 with 0.47, the one corresponding to a 9+ feet value.  As shown in Row 2, the make probability would have risen to 42%, a four-percentage-point increase or likely effect. 

Thompson next might have asked how shooting off the dribble rather than the catch would have affected the 42% probability.  After replacing the Catch logit coefficient of 0 with-0.09, an analyst could have reported that the probability would have dropped to 39%, as Row 3 of the Prob column shows. 

Thompson, an excellent shooter, would probably work to improve specific aspects of his shooting if he had such data for all his three-point shots (31).

Table 2.

Simulating the effect of changes on a single shot’s make probability 

Row DefDist ShotClock Catch Period ShotDist Venue Cost Total Prob 
0.25 0.77 -0.05 -1.46 -0.49 0.38 
0.47 0.77 -0.05 -1.46 -0.27 0.42 
0.47 0.77 -0.09 -0.05 -1.46 -0.36 0.39 

Predicting the Likely Effect of Multiple Changes to Multiple Predictor Variables

Coaches thinking more broadly might focus on all 32,511 shots and ask analysts to predict the likely effect of multiple changes to the values of multiple predictor variables. Building on the Thompson example, analysts could approach the task by conceptualizing changes as scenarios.  Below, and graphically in Figure 1, are three illustrative ones.

Scenario 1. Players take all 32,511 three-point shots with the defender 9+ ft. away.  

Prediction: 39% of all three-pointers will go in, an increase of four percentage points compared to the 35% baseline, translating to 1,297 more makes and 12,723 total ones.

Scenario 2. Players take all 32,511 three-point shots:

  • with the defender 9+ feet away 
  • from 22-24 ft. away from the basket

Prediction: 42% of all shots will go in, a three-percentage-point gain vs. Scenario 1.  This translates to 808 more makes and 13,531 total makes.

Scenario 3. Players take all 32,511 three-point shots:

  • with the defender 9+ ft. away 
  • from 22-24 ft. away from the basket
  • with 4+ seconds on the 24-second shot clock

Prediction: 43% of all shots will go in, an increase of another percentage point compared to Scenario 2, translating to 370 more makes and 13,901 total ones.

Figure 1.

Percentage of predicted makes by scenario 

Each scenario’s likely effect results from all-or-nothing simulation.  How does it work?  For any predictor variable, such as Catch, data analysts select one target value—either “Off Catch” (occurring 75% of the time) or “Off Dribble” (25%).  Assume they choose “Off Catch,” with a logit coefficient of 0, as Table 1 shows.  For the 8,127 “Off Dribble” shots, they would replace the coefficient of -0.09, also shown in Table 1, with 0 and calculate the new likely effect: 158 more made three-pointers for the season, translating to 11,584 total makes. 

Adopting a fine-tuning approach is another possibility.  After examining the frequency distribution of the Catch values, analysts could specify a new distribution, such as 92% “Off Catch” and 8% “Off Dribble,” ensuring the total sums to 100%.  They would keep the original 24,384 “Off Catch” values (i.e., 75%) and change the -0.09 coefficient to 0 for another 2,600 selected randomly from the original 8,127 “Off Dribble” values to achieve the 92:8 ratio.  The change would result in 11,530 made three-pointers, 54 less (i.e., 11,584-11,530) than if players had taken all shots off the catch.

If coaches and players embrace simulation, there could be too many scenarios for data analysts to handle.  To stay ahead of demand, they could build self-serve simulators tailored explicitly for coaches’ and players’ use.  Finding prototypes in academic research will be a struggle, however, arguably because of the non-linear relationship between logits and probabilities (26, 30) and its dampening effect on reporting likely effects in probabilities or percentage points.  Figure 2 plots illustrative logit and probability values to cast light on that relationship.

Figure 2.

The non-linear relationship between logits (x-axis) and probabilities (y-axis) 

Note how a one-logit increase from zero to one on the x-axis corresponds to a .23 probability increase (from .5 to .73) on the y-axis.  Yet a one-logit increase from four to five (or minus 5 to minus 4) translates only to a tiny probability increase.  As shown in Table 1 (and later in Table 3), it is still possible to report the effect of a predictor variable, x, on a binary outcome, y, in probabilities or percentage points (e.g., a one-unit change in x is associated with a three-percentage-point increase in y, all else being equal).  Arguably, it is also sensible to do so, not least because NBA players make roughly 35% of their three-point shots and the relationship between logits and probabilities is reasonably linear between .2 and .8 on the probability scale, as Figure 2 shows.  But in more extreme cases, as Figure 2 suggests, the effect size will depend heavily on the value of y and the values of the model’s other predictor variables.  More precisely, the size of the effect will decrease near 0 and 1.  As a result, x’s effect on y in probabilities percentage points “…cannot be fully represented by a single number” (19) (p. 23).  That may be why some logistic regression experts (6-8) have advised against using probabilities or percentage points to report and interpret logistic regression coefficients’ overall effects.  It also may be why most major statistical software packages do not produce effects in probabilities or percentage points through pre-packaged procedures or built-in modules.  As an unintended consequence, some data analysts seeking guidance likely have had to fend for themselves.           

Data analysts can use this guide to build simulators that report likely effects in probabilities or percentage points.  (For convenience, references are made to the three-point shot data used in this paper’s analyses, although the guide is general and should work across areas of interest.)  Several steps are involved in the process:

Step 1. Ensure sufficient three-point shot data are available to conduct logistic regression analysis, which should be a straightforward task for NBA teams given the league’s business relationship with Second Spectrum (which replaced SportVU).  How does one define sufficient?  As a rule of thumb, at least 10 shot attempts are needed for each predictor variable in logistic regression model, adjusting for the expected shot make rate (or miss rate if it is lower than the make rate).  For context, this paper’s main analysis with six predictor variables and a 35% expected make rate required a minimum of 171 three-point shot attempts: 10 * (6 /.35).  For non-NBA teams requiring raw data, assistant coaches can record key shot characteristics with paper and pencil or specialized hand-held apps. 

Step 2. Develop a model to predict successful 3-point shots, the binary outcome of interest.  Logistic regression produces a weight—a logit coefficient—for each category of each predictor variable.  In an optimal model, those weights maximize the predicted probability gap between the mutually exclusive outcomes (1).  

Step 3. To calculate a single 2014-15 three-point shot’s make probability, sum the weights corresponding to its characteristics and add the constant.  After that, apply the formula shown earlier to the result: exp (sum of logit coefficients + constant)/ (exp (sum of logit coefficients + constant) +1).  Alternatively, request the predicted probability from the statistical software.

Step 4. Do the same for the 32,510 remaining shots, sum all 32,511 probabilities, then take the average to compute the overall make probability.  If the model predicts players will make 35% of all three-point shots, it translates to 11,426 makes (.35*32,511).   

Step 5. To enable the simulator to work online or in a mobile app, develop an algorithm using JavaScript.  The simulator’s purpose is to let users see how changes they make to the values of the predictor variables affect the .35 probability.  

Step 6. Design a user interface, possibly by enlisting the support of someone familiar with website and app development.

Step 7. Keep things simple initially—permit users to change only one value of one predictor variable.  If it has two response choices like Away and Home, let the user change every Away response to Home or vice versa.  Think of this as the all-or-nothing option.  

Step 8. For all 32,511 three-point shots, change the corresponding Away or Home logit coefficient (but no others) to align with the user’s selection, then recalculate the predicted make probability.  The likely effect is the difference between the new and starting probability (and the new and starting makes).   

Step 9. Follow the same process to let users change the values of several predictor variables simultaneously. 

Step 10. Go further and allow users to change any predictor variable’s frequency distribution as they please, ensuring the distribution sums to 100%.  Think of this as the fine-tuning option.  The algorithm will need rules to accommodate the changes.  

What would all-or-nothing and fine-tuning self-serve simulators look like, and how would they function?  Figure 3 shows a screenshot of a working all-or-nothing simulator (accessible at https://www.electricinsights.com/hoops1).  The first column contains the predictor variables and their values.  Column 2 shows the changes (in blue) the user made to the 2014-15 frequencies; the third column displays the original frequencies.

Figure 3

All-or-nothing simulation 

As Figure 3 shows, the user selected values of “0-3 ft.” for “Defender Distance,” “0-2 secs.” for “Time Left on Shot Clock,” “Dribble” for “Off Catch or Dribble?” and “26+ ft.” for “Shot Distance.”  The likely effect is a 22-point decrease in the make probability, translating to 7,229 fewer makes and 4,197 total ones.

Personalized simulators for players like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry could be more beneficial (and accurate) than a generic, all-player one.  To support this point, Table 3 reports the results of a new analysis of Curry’s 2014-15 three-point shots.  Note how the values of many key measures, such as frequencies and expected values, differ substantially from their Table 1 counterparts.  Table 3 shows, for instance, that Curry took 54% of his three-pointers off the dribble with an expected value of 1.32 points per shot.  But Table 1 showed NBA players (including Curry) took only 25% of their three-pointers off the dribble with a 1.01 points-per-shot expected value.  Curry is not your average three-point shooter, hence the need for personalization.  

Table 3.

Results of Steph Curry logistic regression analysis 

0-3 ft.11%1.240.72
3-6 ft.55%0.892.442.440.02.431.29
6-9 ft.24%0.972.652.480.01.451.35
9+ ft.10%1.263.512.750.00.521.55
0-2 secs.2%1.250.75
2-4 secs.3%
4+ secs.95%0.792.
Off catch46%1 .401.21
Off dribble54%
22-24 ft16%1.551.65
24-25 ft.31%-0.750.47-2.460.01.371.11
25-26 ft.24%-0.510.60-1.580.11.431.28
26+ ft.28%-0.650.52-

Note.  n=j.  Log pseudolikelihood, starting value: -305.04; final value: -294.46.  Likelihood ratio (degrees of freedom=13): 21.16, p > chi2 = 0.07. Tjur R2: 0.047; McFadden R2: 0.035.  Stukel chi2(1) = 4.38, p > chi2 = 0.11.

A working fine-tuning simulator—a complement to the Curry analysis—is available at https://www.electricinsights.com/curry1.  It lets users change any value of any predictor variable by any amount and see the likely effect.  In the screenshot shown in Figure 4, the user changed Curry’s 2014-15 season frequencies (in parentheses) for “Defender Distance,” “Off Catch or Dribble?” and “Shot Distance.”  The likely effect is a seven-percentage-point increase to his 42% average make probability, translating to 31 more makes (i.e., 220-189).

Figure 4 

Steph Curry’s fine-tuning simulator 


If the sample size of three-point shots allows, data analysts can build all-or-nothing and fine-tuning simulators that include all teams and players, each team, and each player.  Given sufficient demand, they can also do so with data for other major shot types (i.e., two-pointers and free throws).    

Several caveats are in order before describing how basketball teams might act on the results the approach described here, using the results (and simulators) shown earlier for illustration.  First, inferences drawn from the 2014-15 dataset may no longer apply because of the time gap.  Nor did this dataset include several three-point shot characteristics (e.g., closest defender’s height and reach, the game score at each shot) that could be important, which is a second caveat. 

A third caveat concerns the “all else the same” assumption, a logistic regression analysis theoretical staple.  In practice, it may not hold up.  Giving excellent three-point shooters more playing time, for example, could worsen teams defensively.  Deciding who plays and why, a type of optimization, lies outside this paper’s scope.

Another caveat involves ease of implementation.  Building and updating simulators like Curry’s for NBA players who shoot, say, 175 or more three-point shots per season may require automation.  To characterize the task as trivial would be misleading.

Humility and ignorance are two key factors to consider as the fifth caveat.  Some NBA data analysts may have already adopted an approach combining good data, logistic regression, likely effects reporting in probabilities or percentage points, and self-serve simulation.  As noted earlier, they work mainly in secrecy.  And when they make comments at analytics conferences or similar forums, some are instructed “to go up on stage and talk about something without saying anything” (15) (51:37), according to Zarren.

Application In Sports

Good basketball coaches position their players to make the highest percentage of three-pointers possible, all else equal.  They also implement a defense to minimize opponents’ three-point make percentage.  The analyses presented here suggest six factors affect the make percentage:

  • Closest defender’s distance to the shooter
  • Time left on the 24-second shot clock
  • Whether the player shot off the dribble or catch
  • Game period
  • Shot distance
  • Venue

How might coaches act on these findings?  There are numerous possibilities, starting with game pace.  Fast ball movement from defense to offense (e.g., before the defense sets) gives the offensive team more time to find an open three-point shot, preferably before the four-second mark on the shot clock where shooting percentages dip, and unquestionably before the two-second mark where they plummet.  As the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter, Steph Curry understands this well.  Table 3 showed he attempted only two percent (compared to a five percent NBA average) of his three-point shots with less than two seconds on the shot clock.

Coaches should design offensive plays and patterns to create at least three feet of space between the shooter and defender.  A 22-24-foot shot’s make probability with the defender 0-3 feet away is only 29%, all else equal.  It increases to 34% with the defender 3-6 feet away.  Space is critical for Curry, too.  He shot 11% of his three-pointers with the defender 0-3 feet away versus the NBA average of 6%, reducing his overall make percentage.  It could have been worse.  Had he taken all 448 of his shots with the defender 0-3 feet away, all other factors being equal, his make probability would have dropped from 42% to 24%.

Making sure players understand the characteristics of a desirable three-point shot is another opportunity.  Personalized simulators like Curry’s can make each player’s shooting strengths and weaknesses obvious.  For instance, some players may make a higher percentage of three-pointers off the dribble than catch.  Others may suffer only a slight percentage point decline when guarded tightly or shooting from 26+ rather than 22-24 feet.  And if those simulators contain opponents’ shot data, coaches could use them to determine how to exploit specific opponents’ weaknesses.

Analyses show the three-point make percentage drops in the fourth period.  Player fitness could be a contributing factor.  Without applicable data (e.g., feet, meters, or miles logged since tip-off), it is difficult or impossible to test the hypothesis.  Maybe the players on the court lack the skills needed to shoot higher percentages.  Or game stress could affect shooting performance—data on the game score at each shot would clarify the matter.  For context, the all-or-nothing simulator would show that the highest probability three-point shot (46%) has these characteristics:

  • Defender 9+ feet away
  • 4+ seconds on the shot clock
  • Off the catch
  • First period
  • 22-24 feet from the basket
  • At home 

The simulator would also show that the 46% make probability drops to 42% in the fourth period, changing nothing else.  That means players have grown tired, different players are on the court, game pressure has taken its toll, or unknown variables caused the drop.  So how should head coaches make sense of this?  Working with assistant coaches and data analysts, they can explore ways to increase players’ fitness levels, optimize substitution patterns, and help players cope better with pressure.  If teams can access variables that were unavailable for analysis here, their analysts can include them in new models to estimate their likely effect.

Players make a higher percentage of three-point shots at home than on the road, all else equal.  Crowd noise, characteristics (e.g., lighting) of the less familiar setting, travel effects (e.g., uncomfortable hotel beds), or some combination of these may explain why.  Coaches can look outside the league for ideas to help players overcome such obstacles.  For instance, former US Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine prepares SEAL candidates for training by replicating the challenges they are likely to encounter, including Hell Week during which “each candidate sleeps only about four total hours but runs more than 200 miles and does physical training for more than 20 hours per day” (5). 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Divine’s SEALFIT program places particular emphasis on skills like positive visualization, breath control, and meditation because, as he said, “People who haven’t learned to control their mind and emotions quit or they get hurt” (10).  Does SEALFIT work?  Divine reports that nine of 10 SEAL candidates who complete SEALFIT training become SEALs (versus a 20% norm).  He is confident that NBA players would benefit from the program (M. Divine, personal communication, March 11, 2022).

A complementary tool for improving performance is psychotherapy.  As described earlier, Ben Simmons’s decision to avoid attempting an open lay-up or dunk (arguably) for fear of being fouled and having to shoot free throws may have cost his team the 76ers a 2021 playoff series to the Hawks.  As his teammate Joel Embiid declared, “That was the turning point” (12) (1:08).  Psychotherapist Richard Schwartz, who developed the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapeutic model (23), would probably concur then speculate that Simmons’s widely criticized decision (21, 27) originated from past trauma linked to his poor free-throw shooting.  After citing evidence (24) of IFS’s effectiveness, Schwartz might posit that a protective part of Simmons’s mind—a “guardian of [his] inner world” (23) (p. 184)—compelled him to pass rather than shoot to prevent a traumatized part—think of it as a deeply wounded child—from re-experiencing pain or shame at the free throw line.  Were Schwartz to work with Simmons, he would likely try to communicate with his mind’s traumatized part as if it were an actual person, restore its faith in Simmons’s free-throw shooting abilities, and encourage the protective part to undertake different tasks.  The more traditional coaching approach of advising, or even requiring, Simmons to practice harder with expert guidance did not—and may never—work.  As Early (9) observed, “Simmons has been reluctant to seek help from top shooting coaches…He reportedly clashed with his former team (the 76ers) years ago over who he would work with, preferring to practice with his brother rather than team shooting coach John Townsend.” 

Coaches can use the same strategies to reduce their opponent’s three-point shooting percentage they use to improve their own.  Table 1 data (and the all-or-nothing simulator) suggest the key lies in forcing opponents to shoot with less than four seconds on the clock, off the dribble, from long distances while being closely guarded.  Stepping up the defensive intensity in the first and third periods where the likelihood of making a three-point shot is relatively high, and motivating the home crowd to unsettle opponents makes sense, too.

Coaches can also think about implementing a full- or three-quarter court press more often, maybe for entire games.  The goals of a 2-2-1 three-quarter court press, for example, are control and containment, not turnover generation.  As envisioned, its use would slow down the game and force opponents to shoot a higher percentage of difficult three-pointers with less time on the clock, reducing their make percentage.  As Hall-of-Fame coach Jack Ramsay explained in Pressure Basketball, “The tempo of the game is controlled by the defensive team and the best manner of control is through the exertion of pressure at some point on the court” (22) (p. 80).

Good data, logistic regression analysis, and self-serve simulation can also promote truth and trust, positive attributes for any coach or leader.  Maybe tongue in cheek, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy (15) (17:40) confessed to lying to his players. “If I saw what I wanted to change,” he said, “I would either use numbers to support it or make them up because the players are not going to know the difference.”  Giving players tools that predict the likely effects of their potential actions would be more truthful and potentially more effective, too. 


Keeping things simple is critical in basketball.  According to Zarren (15) (7:00), “There are 20 things in (the coach’s) head that will get us X number of wins per season, but you can only focus on six of them in practice, and the players might only remember four and actually execute one in a game.  So you’ve got to pick your battles if you’re a stats guy who…needs to talk to a coach.  But if you’re a coach, you need to pick your battles, too.”

Van Gundy (15) (16:51) offered data analysts and coaches strong advice related to this point from his coaching experience.  “I wouldn’t tell a guy you’re 38% on three to four dribbles so dribble a fifth time because you go up to 40%,” he said.  “You better be pretty sure about what you’re saying…You want players to feel confident.  You don’t want them out there saying, ‘Was that [four] dribbles or [five] when I pull up?’” 

To mitigate the risk of generating harmful insights, data analysts should actively engage coaches and players in making key analytical decisions (e.g., ensuring predictor variables and their levels are meaningful), not least because Van Gundy and others who share his philosophy consider basketball sense—the capacity to make wise choices that benefit the team—to be of paramount importance.  

Arguably, self-serve simulation with likely effects reporting in probabilities or percentage points is steeped in such basketball sense.  As a benefit, data analysts will not need to rely on technical terms (e.g., “he shoots two standard deviations below the league average when you force him to the left” (15) (48:20)), as former Memphis Grizzlies’ executive John Hollinger once did.  Instead, they can speak with more authority using plain language (e.g., “his make probability drops to 28% when you force him to the left”).  Or they can make self-serve simulators available to players (and coaches) and let them figure it out on their own.  They may appreciate it, even cynics sharing Hall-of-Fame player Charles Barkley’s views: “Analytics don’t work at all.  It’s just the crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent” (29) (2:05).

NBA and other basketball teams worldwide should consider adopting an approach that combines good data, logistic regression analysis, likely effects reporting in probabilities or percentage points, and self-serve simulation.  The possible benefits are myriad.  It can help teams increase their three-point shooting percentages while lowering their opponents’; improve communication among data analysts, coaches, and players; enhance each group’s effectiveness; and lead to more wins. 


Variables in the 2014-15 NBA shot dataset

  1. Game_Id: The game’s unique identifier.
  2. Matchup: The teams competing.
  3. Location: Whether it was a home or away game for the shooter’s team.
  4. Outcome: Whether the shooter’s team won or lost.
  5. Final_Margin: By how many points the shooter’s team won or lost.
  6. Shot_Number: The shooter’s nth shot that game.
  7. Period: The period in which the shooter took the shot.
  8. Game_Clock: Minutes and seconds left in the period in which the shooter took the shot.
  9. Shot_Clock: Seconds remaining on the 24-second shot clock when the shooter took the shot.
  10. Dribbles: Number of dribbles the shooter took before shooting.
  11. Touch_Time: Number of seconds the shooter had the ball before shooting.
  12. Shot_Dist: Distance in feet from the center of the basket to the shooter.
  13. Pts_Type: Whether the shooter attempted a two- or three-point shot.
  14. Shot_Result: Whether the shooter made the shot.
  15. Closest Defender: Name of the defender closest to the shooter.
  16. Closest_Defender_Player_Id: The closest defender’s unique identifier.
  17. Close_Def_Dist: The closest defender’s distance to the shooter in feet.
  18. Fgm: Whether the shooter made the shot.
  19. Pts: The shot’s point value (0, 2 or 3).
  20. Player_Name: The shooter’s first and last name.
  21. Player_Id: The shooter’s unique identifier.

Note: The original dataset contained 128,069 two- and three-point shots. After removing all two-point shots, and all three-point shots with a missing (or unimputable) value on the Shot_Clock variable, the size decreased to 32,511. For a value to be imputable, there had to be 24 seconds or less on the game clock when the player took the shot. In that case, the decision was made to replace the missing Shot_Clock value with the Game_Clock value.


The author would like to thank David Clemm, Robert Eisinger, Ward Fonrose, John Geraci, Ryan Heaton, Adam Hoeflich, Priam Lacassagne, Roxane Lacassagne, and Mark Naples for reviewing earlier versions of this paper, and for providing helpful comments and suggestions. The author is particularly thankful to Dan Dougherty (who passed away in 2022) and Tom Northrup for their indirect contribution. Their longstanding beliefs and ideas about how basketball should be played permeate this paper’s “implications for coaches” section.


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2024-05-21T13:46:56-05:00May 17th, 2024|General, Research, Sports Management|Comments Off on Advice on making the most of basketball three-point shot data
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