Authors: Dr. Sharon P. Misasi*, Dr. Gary Morin and Lauren Kwasnowski

Dr. Sharon P. Misasi is a Professor of Exercise Science at Southern Connecticut State University. Dr. Gary Morin is a Professor of Exercise Science, Assistant Athletic Trainer and Program Director of the Athletic Training Education Program. Lauren Kwasnowski is a Research assistant for this study, undergraduate student in the Allied Health Program at the University of Connecticut and a member/captain of the UCONN Division I Lacrosse team.

*Corresponding Author:
Sharon P. Misasi PhD, AT.
Southern Connecticut State University
501 Crescent Street
PE 002B
New Haven CT 06515

This study investigated the interpersonal aspects and perceptions of the coach-athlete relationship as it pertains to collegiate athletes at Division I and II universities and athletes and coaches of different genders. Electronic surveys were emailed to 50 NCAA Division I and 50 Division II head coaches in the Northeast. Coaches were requested to respond to the survey and email the athlete survey to their respective athletes. These surveys were completed by both coaches and athletes: Coach-Athlete Relationship Questionnaire (CART-Q), Leadership Scale for Sports (LSS). The final instrument, Coaching Behavior Scale for Sports (CBS-S), was completed by only the athletes. There were no significant differences found with the CART-Q. The LSS illustrated several areas of significances in the categories of Training, Democratic Behavior, Autocratic Behavior and Social Support. Although there was no significance found in Positive Feedback there was an interesting finding in that female coaches felt they were less likely to provide positive feedback than their male counterparts. The CBS-S has subscales which include: physical training and planning, technical skills, mental preparation, competition strategies, personal rapport and negative personal rapport. Statistical significance was found in the following subscales: competition strategies, personal rapport and negative personal rapport. The coach is a meaningful person in the lives of athletes and the role they play is vital in the athlete’s sport experience. Our results indicate that the level of competitive division appears to play a role in how athletes perceive their coaches and how coaches perceive themselves. In addition, gender differences among coaches’ affect responses of the athletes and the coaches. Leadership is not a simple process. There is no one way to lead and what works for one may not work for all. Therefore, the best one can do is get to know their athletes and work hard to understand their goals, motivations and needs.

KEYWORDS: Coaching, Effective Leadership, Successful Leadership

Sport plays a vast and important role in the lives of many. Athletes of all ages are directed by coaches, giving them a significant impact on the athletes. However, the level of impact is unknown, along with the expectations of what athletes want from coaches and how do coaches perceive themselves. The coach’s role is considered to be a highly complex process. Coaches in most settings must complete a variety of tasks such as planning practices and game strategies, organizational tasks and mentoring athletes which does in fact include more than teaching fundamental skills and tactics (Challadurai, 1984; Williams & Krane, 2015; Anshel, 2012; Murphy, 2005; Cox, 2012; Lyle, 2002 and Cote, Yardley, Hay, Sedwick, & Baker, 1999).

There is a difference between an effective leader and a successful leader (Williams & Krane, 2015; Anshel, 2012; Murphy, 2005 and Cox, 2012). A coach’s successful leadership changes an athlete’s behavior as a function of the coach’s effort and gets others to behave as the manager/coach intends them to behave. The task may be completed and the coach’s needs may be satisfied, but the players’ needs are ignored (Cribben, 1981). Effective leadership in coaching occurs when athletes perform in accordance with the coach’s intentions while finding their own needs satisfied. Effective coaches are concerned with maintaining good relations with team members and winning a specific contest (Williams & Krane, 2015; Anshel, 2012; Murphy, 2005; and Cox, 2102). Horn (2002) states that effective coaching behaviors result in the athletes reaching: personal achievements, performance goals and positive psychological outcomes. Cote and Gilbert (2009) define coaching as “the consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection and character” (p. 316). Another important aspect (Horn, 2002) is the athletes’ perception of coaching behaviors. Smoll and Smith (1989) state that athlete’s perception and recall determine coaching effectiveness. Each athlete gives meaning to overt coaching behaviors which creates the athlete’s attitude toward the coach and the sport experience. One’s perception of another’s behavior is more important than the behavior itself when considering one’s feelings toward that person (Shaver, 1975).

As noted, the coach is a very significant person in the lives of athletes and the role they play is key in the athletes’ sport experience (Williams, Kenow, Jerome, Rogers, Sartain, & Darland, 2003; Kavussanu, Boardley, Jutkiewicz, Vincent & Ring, 2008). Central to the coaching process is the coach-athlete interpersonal dynamics (Jowett & Poczwardowski, 2007). Most coaches attempt to act in ways that they believe will develop their athletes’ success and personal enhancement. Horn (2002) states that coaches can positively impact athletic performance, behavior as well as the psychological and emotional well-being of the athlete. The coach-athlete relationship is an important factor affecting sport performance (Serpa, 1999). Jowett and Cockerill (2002) discuss this relationship further. The coach and the athlete interaction is unique with the goal to bring about successful performance outcomes and satisfaction. Olympiou, Jowett & Duda (2008) suggested that an athlete’s perception of the coach-athlete relationship has motivational significance. If the coach-athlete relationship is in sync, successful outcomes can be accomplished (Coe, 1996). Kenow and Williams (1999) recommend that coaches should create positive coach-athlete interactions which will allow the coach to gain insight into the thoughts and emotions of their athletes. Phillips and Jubenville (2009) stated that the coach-athlete relationship is important to both groups’ performance and both must evaluate the other to enhance performance.

Not all relationships are effective and some coaches take negative tactics in their approach to the athletes. These approaches lead to inadequate coach-athlete relationships (Martens, 1987; Smoll & Smith, 1989). These coaches tend to be strict, regimented and even militaristic. Ironically, they tend to be labeled as successful coaches but only seek to have their ambitions realized. They do not care if their athletes are injured, depressed or even burned out (Williams & Krane, 2015; Anshel, 2012; Murphy, 2005; and Cox, 2012; Smoll and Smith, 1989; Jowett & Cockerill, 2002). These negative coaches are arrogant and may even betray the athlete’s trust despite its importance in the relationship (Ryan, 1996).

Williams et al. (2003) stated that there is little research identifying optimal coaching behaviors and those factors that influence the effectiveness of particular behaviors. Included is the need to identify how athletes perceive their coach’s actions and effectiveness. This study investigated the interpersonal aspects and perceptions of the coach-athlete relationship as it pertains to collegiate athletes at Division I and II universities and teams of different genders.

After obtaining approval from the Southern Connecticut State University’s Institutional Review Board, contact was made via email to the coaches. The lead researcher sent two emails to the head coaches of NCAA Division I and II varsity sport programs at northeast colleges and universities (n= # of schools). The varsity sport programs included all male and female sports that were sponsored by the selected institutions. The first email was directed to the coaches and offered a series of questions that addressed their perceived behaviors to their athletes. The second email included a request that the attached survey link be forwarded to the athletes on their roster. In total, the two emails were emailed to 50 Division I team coaches and 50 Division II team coaches.

Coaching and athlete survey participants were requested to provide certain demographic information regarding their gender, sport and collegiate level. Each athlete was provided a weblink to the survey instrument, which was distributed through SNAP technology. The instrument consisted of a single survey that was in fact the combination of three distinct devices. All instruments were adjusted to use a 5 point scale. Athletes were asked to rate each item strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree and strongly agree. This was done to maintain scoring consistency on all instruments as they were combined into one survey for coaches and one for athletes.


The first instrument was the Coach-Athlete Relationship Questionnaire (CART-Q). This instrument measures affective, cognitive and behavioral interpersonal aspects in the coach-athlete relationship such as closeness, commitment and complementarity (Jowett and Ntoumanis, 2004).

The second inventory was the Leadership Scale for Sports (LSS). This scale was developed to measure leadership behaviors of sport coaches. A coach’s version permitted participants to self-identify perceptions of their own behavior. The second version allowed the athletes’ to identify their preferences for specific behaviors, and the athletes’ perceptions of the coaches’ behavior. The scale has five dimensions: instructional (training) behavior, democratic behavior, autocratic behavior, social support behavior, and motivational behavior (in the form of positive feedback given) (Chelladurai & Saleh, 1980).

The final instrument was the Coaching Behavior Scale for Sports (CBS-S). This instrument was completed only by the athlete participants. Athletes responded to statements based upon their perception of their coach’s involvement in a particular area. This scale has 47 items that are divided into 7 different constructs: physical training and planning; technical skills; mental preparation; competition strategies; personal rapport; and negative personal rapport (Cote, et al., 1999).


Data from each of the instruments was downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet and uploaded into SPSS (IBM SPSS Statistics 20). Statistical analysis was applied to identify differences among the three survey instruments based on gender and the level of athletic participation. Analysis was done for both the coaching and athlete versions if indicated. A MANOVA (p< 0.05) was applied to each category of the LSS and the CBS-S. If a category was identified as significantly different through the multivariate analysis, a series of ANOVA’s was applied to the individual questions of that category.

Surveys were emailed to 50 Division I (DI) and 50 Division II (DII) universities. Fifty-five female coaches (51%) and 52 male coaches (49%) responded to the survey. There were a total of 61 DI coaches (58%) and 45 DII coaches (43%). Three hundred and ten athletes responded to the survey with 209 female athletes (68%) and 99 (32%) male athletes. There were 135 DI athletes (44%) and 169 DII athletes (56%).

There was no significant difference found the CART-Q. There were significant differences found among certain categories of the LSS. The results of each are listed separately. The LSS is a survey designed to assess coaching behaviors. There are two forms that are used. One form is completed by coaches and serves as a self-assessment of coaching behavior. The second form is designed to be completed by the athletes and to evaluate their own coach’s behavior. Both forms consist of 40 questions which are placed into five domains. The domains of behavior: training, democratic behavior, autocratic, social support and providing positive feedback. A total of 290 athletes responded to the survey. One hundred ninety-eight (n=198) of these athletes were female and 92 athletes were male. There were 103 coaches who responded to the LSS coaching survey. The gender of the coaches was not determined or if they coached male or female sports.


Significant differences were identified across the training domain for responses by the coaches and the athletes (Table 1). Coaching responses differed based on the gender of the participant, with two of the questions identified as significantly different during the univariate analyses (Table 2). These two questions demonstrated that female coaches tended to plan out their activities more often but the male coaches were more insistent that player assignments were performed to “last detail”

Multivariate analyses assessing athlete and coach responses for gender and competitive division

Univariate comparison of training questions by coaches for gender

The athletes’ responses did not differ by gender as did the coaches’ responses. Instead they differed based on the competitive division of the athletes. The subsequent univariate comparison identified a single significant question (Table 3). This question demonstrated that athletes of Division I institutions were more likely to “give specific instructions to each athlete on what should be done in every situation.”

Univariate comparison of training questions by athletes for competitive division

Democratic Behavior

The second analysis assessed the democratic domain for both the coaches and athletes in terms of gender and competitive division (Table 4). Although coaches did not differ by gender, they did differ by competitive division. The subsequent univariate comparison of the coaches’ responses related to competitive division identified only one question as being significantly different. This specific question demonstrated that NCAA Division I coaches were less likely to let athletes “try their own way even if mistakes were made.” No significant differences were identified across the athlete surveys for gender or competitive division (Table 5).

Multivariate analyses assessing athlete and coach responses for gender and competitive division regarding democratic behaviors

Univariate comparison of democratic questions by coaches for competitive division

Autocratic Behavior

The third domain is related to autocratic behaviors conducted by coaches. There was no significant difference between the two genders. There was a significant difference between coaches of NCAA Division I and II competitive programs (Table 6). The subsequent univariate analyses revealed one of the five questions was significantly different between competitive divisions with NCAA Division I coaches less likely to be inclined to explain their actions to their athletes. The athletes saw no significant difference based on gender or for competitive division in terms of autocratic behaviors (Table 7).

Multivariate analyses assessing athlete and coach responses for gender and competitive division regarding autocratic behaviors

Univariate analysis of gender and competitive division based on social support

Social Support

The athlete’s gender played a role in the perceptions of coach support to team members. However, a similar difference was not identified among athletes based on their competitive division (Table 8). Two questions from the gender comparison were significant (Table 9). Female athletes felt that their coaches were more likely to help settle conflicts within the team than did male athletes. The female athletes also believed that their coaches were more likely to encourage informal relations with athletes. It should be noted, that although only two questions were significantly different, all of the questions related to social support showed that females felt their coaches were more likely to demonstrate acts of social support within the team. The perception of the coaches did not match those of the athletes. There was no significant difference on the perceptions of social support for either gender or competitive gender.

Multivariate analyses of gender and competitive division based on social support

Univariate analyses of questions based on gender for social support

Positive Feedback

Regarding positive feedback there were no significant differences among the multivariate analyses for gender or competitive divisions. The means for the NCAA Division I and the Division II were comparable. Although the mean results demonstrated the female coaches were more likely to give positive feedback in the eyes of their athletes, the responses did not differ enough to demonstrate an overall statistical significance (Table 10). Ironically, although the results were not significant, female coaches felt they were less likely to provide positive feedback than their male counterparts.

Multivariate analyses of gender and competitive division based on positive feedback


Two hundred and ninety-four athletes responded to the Coaching Behavior Scale for Sport (CBS-S). The number of female athletes (n=198) was more than double of the male athletes (n=96). One hundred and thirty-two (n=132) athletes played sports at the NCAA Division I level while 162 participated as a NCAA Division II athlete.

The CBS-S consists of 47 questions that permitted the athletes to evaluate their coaches on behaviors beyond actual sport knowledge. The scale is subdivided into six sub-scales. These subscales include: physical training and planning, technical skills, mental preparation, competition strategies, personal rapport and negative personal rapport. Based on the results of the multivariate testing, no significant differences were identified for gender (Table 11) or competitive division (Table 12) for questions dealing with physical training and planning, technical skills and mental preparation.

Multivariate Comparison Gender

Multivariate Comparison Competitive Division

However, there was a significant difference how the different genders perceived a coach’s development of competition strategies (Table 11) without a difference due to competitive division (Table 12). Univariate analyses were applied to each of the six subscale questions related to coaching competition strategy (Table 13). Two questions were identified as significantly different with higher scores for male athletes related to the use of goals in sports. It appeared that coaches of male athletes were more likely to monitor an athlete’s progress toward his goals and to help identify target dates to meet those goals.

Gender means for Competitive Strategies

The sub-scale examining personal rapport on a positive nature demonstrated significant differences based on gender, but once again not with competitive division (Table 11, 12). Five of the seven questions related to positive personal rapport demonstrated significant differences (Table 14). Although a common trait of coaches for both genders, male athletes demonstrated higher response scores. Males felt their coaches were more likely to prepare them to face different situations, were more likely to keep them focused and were more likely to maintain a consistent competition routine. Males also felt that their coaches were more likely to deal with their problems during the competition and display more confidence in their competitive performance.

Gender Means for Personal Rapport

The final subscale considered negative personal rapport, which consisted of questions examining the athletes’ perceptions of whether the coach was approachable and how likely the coach was to use negative behavior such as yelling, insults and intimidation as part of their actions. A significant difference was identified for these perceptions based on the athletes’ gender, but not with their competitive division (Table 11, 12). During the univariate analysis, individual questions were identified during the post-hoc testing as significantly different across gender (Table 15). Male athletes were more likely to perceive their coaches as being approachable about personal problems, but were also more likely to have their coaches yell at them when angry. For both genders, it should be noted these questions dealing with negative coaching tended to have low means demonstrating that these behaviors are more likely not to occur than to actually occur.

Gender Means for Negative Personal Rapport

According to the CBS-S, the final summary revealed that there were no apparent differences in the perceptions of coaching behaviors when comparing NCAA Division I or II athletes. Comparisons based on gender demonstrated significant differences on those subscales primarily focusing on interpersonal relationships between coaches and athletes. During the univariate analyses of those subscales that were significantly different, several questions were significant and most cases the males were more likely to have the higher means.

Leadership is very important in sport. Leadership as provided by the coach plays a very significant role in the lives of athletes and in the athlete’s sport experience (Williams et al., 2003). However, the means by which a coach demonstrates leadership behaviors may vary from coach to coach. Coaches at different levels of competition may be expected to interact with athletes differently due to the different levels of athletic ability and possibly the greater pressure to win for employment security. Coaching attitudes and actions may also differ based on the athlete’s gender. This study attempted to examine if competition level and gender played a role in coaching leadership behavior.

Our results indicate that the level of competitive division appears to play a role in how athletes perceive their coaches and how coaches perceive themselves. Athletes of NCAA DI institutions reported that their coaches had higher expectations of their athletes in terms of carrying out assignments, and were less likely to permit their athletes to freelance in their sport. One would assume this to be the case, DI coaches are often pressured to win from many sources, and so they would want tasks done their way. The coaches of high profile sports, especially, must win and be successful, otherwise are often fired from their positions as the normal repercussion. The male sports of football and basketball typify this tendency and help to explain these results. As stated by Weinberg and Gould (2003) male athletes prefer autocratic styles while female athletes prefer a democratic style and one they can participate in. Additionally, with the higher availability of scholarship aid available, Division I coaches can expect to have a higher quality athlete affording coaches the ability to expect more in the form of results from the athlete.

Additionally, DI coaches were less likely to provide an explanation of their actions to their athletes. This demonstrates that the DI coaches tend to be more dictatorial in nature, but it is unknown if this trend is related to the greater threat of job termination, anticipated higher coaching experience and/or it is a personality type needed to work at this level. There is some evidence that males prefer more instructive behaviors and an autocratic style of leadership (Chelladurai & Saleh, 1978; Terry, 1984).

Females prefer more democratic coaching behaviors and a participatory coaching style that allows them to help make the decisions (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). However, it is important to note that there are more similarities than differences between male and female preferences for specific coaching behaviors (Horn, 2002). Regardless of level there was no difference in the perceived level of positive feedback given to the athletes.

Gender differences among coaches’ effect responses of the athletes and the coaches. Female coaches were more likely to plan ahead for training but seemed to be more forgiving if their athletes did not fulfill every aspect of their assignments. The level of social support provided by female coaches was higher than their male counterparts according to the athletes. Female coaches were perceived to be more involved in settling issues among team members and to encourage formal and informal relationships with the athletes. Unger and Crawford (1992) have stated that female-female friendships are more confiding, intimate and emotionally expressive than male-male therefore the female-female relationships are characterized by emotionality. Because of this, female coaches and athletes may be more likely to form highly interdependent and emotionally laden relationships in the athletic realm. The relationships between male coaches and male athletes may be based on the aim to achieve performance goals without the expression of feelings.

This study appears to support these findings. Female athletes felt that their coaches were more likely to help settle conflicts within the team than did male athletes. The female athletes also believed that their coaches were more likely to encourage informal relations with athletes. It should be noted, that although only two questions were significantly different, all of the questions related to social support had a consistent trend. It appears that female coaches tend to have a more personal connection with their athletes. Although not investigated in this study, female athletes discuss personal issues with female coaches. On the other hand, male coaches appear distant and do not have the direct emotional attachment with from their athletes. This is not to say they do not care or support their athletes, instead the male athletes are more interested in the goal minus the emotion. This was also supported by Miller, Ogilvie and Branch (2008) who stated male’s value feedback and technical instruction. Female athletes had a greater need for emotion.

A limitation to the study is that the athletes did not identify the coach’s gender as part of their responses. It is expected that a large majority of the male athletes had male coaches, however female sports do not have the same homogeneity of coaching genders. Frey, Czech, Kent and Johnson (2006) found that athletes (male and female) prefer a male coach instead of a female coach. Magnusen and Rhea (2009) found that male athletes (all football players) preferred a male strength and conditioning coach. These athletes were less comfortable with a female strength coach. As for female athletes, they did not have a gender preference. The female athletes wanted a qualified strength and conditioning coach regardless of gender whereas male athletes preferred a male irrespective of how qualified the female coach may be.

Further research should determine if male coaches of women’s teams take on those roles/interactions identified with the female coaches. So the question would be: does the athlete’s gender drive the actions of the coaches or does the coach’s gender drive how they deal with the athlete? In light of female coaches now entering the NFL or NBA, will female coaches change when dealing with male athletes and assume a more typical ‘male’ attitude?

Although there are more similarities than differences in the preferred leadership behaviors of men and women, one should note that Weinberg and Gould (2003) state that, ‘determining what makes effective sports leadership is clearly not a simple process’ (p. 213). Coaches are responsible for the whole development of the athlete: physical, mental, technical and tactical (Becker, 2009). This will enable the athletes to achieve their goals. However, the answer to the question what makes the athlete-coach interaction well-balanced does not seem so obvious.

Vince Lombardi was known for his intensity and passion but more importantly the expectations he placed upon his athletes. As a coach, Lombardi treated each player as an individual thereby having the ability to be flexible and meet their needs. It has been stated that Lombardi knew his players well. He knew which players would succeed by providing positive reinforcement and those that would respond to criticism (Kramer and Shaap, 1968).

In summary, leadership in sport is a fascinating topic. There is no one way to lead and what works for one may not work for all. Research can aid in assisting coaches with tried and true practices that will enable them to assist their athletes in becoming the best they can be.

In summary, leadership is sport in a intriguing topic. There is no one way to lead and what works for one may not work for all. Research can aid in assisting coaches with tried and true practices that will enable them to assist their athletes in becoming the best they can be. Illustrated in our research was the result that there is a difference in DI and DII. Coaches in DI were more authoritarian in nature and had higher expectations of their athletes. So athletes must understand this if their desire is to play at that level. So how does one apply this study? The most important concept a coach can apply is gaining an understanding and knowledge of your athletes first and foremost. Once you have gained that you will be able to assist them in reaching their goals.

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