Authors: Eric D. Magrum, Bryan A. McCullick

Corresponding Author:
Eric D. Magrum
University of Georgia
Department of Kinesiology
219 Ramsey Center
Athens, GA 30602

Eric D. Magrum is doctoral student at the University of Georgia.

The Role of Emotion in Sport Coaching: A Review of the Literature


The purpose of this paper was to review the literature regarding the role of emotion in sport coaching and identify avenues for future studies. SPORTDiscus, ERIC, PsycArticles, PsychINFO, and SocINDEX databases were mined using combinations of the following keywords: ‘emotion,’ ‘coach,’ and ‘coaching’ for articles pertaining to the role of emotion in sport coaching. The search resulted in 23 peer-reviewed articles and a thematic analysis revealed four groups of studies focused on emotion and its role in: a) coach effectiveness, b) coach-athlete interaction, c) development of emotional intelligence, and d) navigating job related stress, pressure and burnout. Key findings of the included studies indicated coaches are more effective if they are able to recognize and comprehend their emotions, those of others, and the probable after-effects of their relations. Furthermore, it appears that emotional competence may be an essential skill for coaching effectiveness. Future research should aim to identify and develop the social, emotional, and coping skills underpinning coach effectiveness. Moreover, researchers should examine the relationship between coaches’ emotional skills, coaching effectiveness, talent identification, recruitment, and coaching expertise.

Keywords:     Emotions, coaching


When asked about one of legendary coach John Wooden’s greatest qualities, a former player recalled “we started out way behind like, 18-2- just getting killed. I’d look over at Coach, and there he’d sit on the bench with his program rolled up in his hand-totally unaffected, almost like we were ahead. And I’d think to myself, ‘Hey, if he’s not worried, why should I be worried?’” (20). To him, it was a clear example that Wooden believed in and exemplified the notion that steady, reliable, and complete effort was essential for high-level performance. From Wooden’s perspective, the outward expression of emotion, more often than not, evoked ups and downs that were counterproductive to the team’s mission (20). Moreover, he clearly understood his actions, as a leader, would set the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the team. This is not suggesting Coach Wooden was devoid of emotion, but rather, he strategically controlled and concealed his feelings to produce what he felt was an ideal, a model for which his team could strive. Players who operationalized this model behavior were not lacking emotion, but in full control of their emotions, both on and off the court. Nevertheless, Wooden was not above exposing his love for those under his guidance (21).

While Wooden demonstrated an array of emotions during his coaching career, he also illustrated how sport coaches utilized emotion in their roles. However, although Wooden presented an admirable example, coaches engage and employ emotions differently.

For example, Bob Knight expressed emotions and behaviors that were paradoxical to Wooden’s perspective. Very public and easy to interpret displays of emotion were commonplace for Knight. Despite this diametric opposition, both Knight and Wooden achieved historic success’ and few would argue they are among the top coaches in history. Although vastly different, one aspect is strikingly clear between both Wooden and Knight’s philosophies: they understood their emotions and the magnitude to which their expression would incite players, assistant coaches, officials, and others was essential to success.

Other coaches such as Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Bowden, and Jim Tressel absorbed and even stressed the importance of expressing emotion with their players (3, 12, 18, 19). More specifically, these coaches openly demonstrated care for their athletes. Caring means to connect with and is an emotion that demonstrates concern. Thus, collectively, these high caliber coaches have pinpointed the ability to connect emotionally with their athletes as a crucial element in their coaching. In other words, these top-tier coaches understand that human emotion is inseparable from and often amplified in sporting contexts. Therefore, those select coaches who are able to identify, understand, and regulate their own and other’s emotions, may be more effective.

While a plethora of high-profile examples exist that testify to the significance of emotion in sport coaching, it is important to sift through the contemporary scholarship for empirical evidence that underscores its’ importance. Recent studies report findings that support the testimonials above and stress the ability to perceive, manage, and control emotion as an essential skill for successful sport performance in both athletes and coaches (8). More specifically, coaches must be skilled in emotional management, as they are performers in their own right (5). Their performance can influence their ability to form relationships, protect their well-being, and influence athletes’ own emotional management and performance (8).  More recent scholarship supports this notion and posits that elite coaches tend to be athlete centered, aware of their own, as well as others’ emotions, able to understand emotions and their influences, and lastly, are able to manage their own emotions and those of their athletes (9).  Therefore, the existing scholarship endorses the notion that emotions are critical to a coaches’ success.

While the significance of emotion in sport has been unveiled, a fundamental and consensual understanding of emotion, has yet to be discussed. Derived from the Latin root word motere, emotion means, “to move.” With the presence of an “e”, the translation of emotion is, “to move away.” Therefore, the word itself implies every emotion may elicit action (4). This could have large implications for a coach whose job is to direct improvements in behavior toward a desired goal. Conceptually, if one is in control of their emotions, he or she may then control impulses to act and the resultant actions. Agreeing with previously mentioned findings, it would seem then that coaches who are able to perceive, understand, and regulate their own and others’ emotions, may be more effective. 

While a seemingly sound argument with a few scholarly forays, there remains an insufficient body of research focusing on emotion’s role in coaching. Much of the contemporary scholarship examining emotion in coaching takes a leadership perspective (2) and an analysis of the existing literature is warranted. Therefore, the two-fold aim of this paper was to: (a) identify and analyze the existing studies examining the role of emotion in coaching, and (b) provide directions for future studies in the area.


The authors’ performed an exhaustive search of the existing scholarship on emotion’s role in sport coaching. The first step in this process was to mine and locate the literature. Due to a predicted paucity of literature on this particular subject, no specific timeframe for publication was set as a parameter. Using combinations of the following keywords: ‘emotion’, ‘coach’, and ‘coaching,’ the SPORTDiscus, ERIC, PsycArticles, PsychINFO, and SocINDEX databases were inventoried. Results were confined to peer reviewed articles, published in the English language, and focused on coaching.

The initial catalogue resulted in 892 articles for potential inclusion. Due to the general nature of the original search terms, a wide variety of scientific fields were identified. For example: executive coaching was recognized in many of the database searches.

Therefore, the second step entailed a screening of the articles to only those containing information directly pertaining to emotion in sport coaching. This screening process cut the list of qualified articles to 23 from 13 distinct journals. The journals represented six disciplines including: biology, psychology, coaching, sociology, sport science, and motivation & emotion. Interestingly, only three coaching journals were represented.

 Those articles remaining after the purge were the basis for the third step, identifying categories and trends. At this stage, each article was read twice and coded for classification. Categorization was based on the aims and variables investigated. Once the aims and variables were itemized, categorization of the scholarship took place. Each piece of scholarship was exclusively earmarked for one category.

The fourth and final step was to identify the most salient findings in the literature. To do this, authors re-read the scholarship and pinpointed the recurring results. Findings from each study were then assembled and compared with other findings. Collective findings were then analyzed and deduced into salient findings from each category.  


The results are presented in four sections. Each section describes the results of the thematic analysis which revealed that the literature could be classified into four categories regarding emotion and its role in: a) coach effectiveness, b) coach-athlete interaction, c) the development of coaches’ emotional intelligence, and d) navigating job related stress, pressure and burnout. Each of those sections contains a sub-section that provides the salient findings from that group of studies.

Emotion and Coach Effectiveness

Unsurprisingly, the first theme describing the studies on emotion in coaching focuses on effectiveness. Studies within this theme dealt with elite, Olympic, individual and team sport coaches, along with a range of other coaches in gender, age, coaching experience and sport. Additionally, two of the studies sampled both coaches and athletes in an effort to triangulate findings. Other examinations added to the current understanding but may have provided further benefit from the inclusion of assistant coach or supporting staff perspectives. Additionally, studies employing cross-sectional samples may have benefitted from using a longitudinal design. Studies within this theme did provide valuable insights on future scholarship.

Within this group of studies, two evident themes were found to enhance coach effectiveness. The first, is a coach’s ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. This skillset permits coaches to access emotional information, whether explicitly or implicitly within themselves and others. Gathering this information allows coaches to make informed decisions and maximize effectiveness. Secondly, striking a balance between striving to achieve exceptionally high standards and recognizing when these strivings have begun to overtake and undermine other important areas is vital for a coach’s effectiveness.

Together, findings indicate emotions represent a critical aspect of coaching effectiveness. Specifically, the coaches’ ability to identify and understand his/her own emotions and recognize if or when expectations become unreasonable. In addition, evidence from this body of research provides insights for coaches and athletes long term sport participation. Interacting with players in a positive manner requires a coach to understand the individual athletes, his/her own, parents, and others’ emotions. Saying or acting in an inappropriate fashion can generate a “bad taste” in young athletes, and negatively impact their sporting experience, before it truly takes off. Being aware of and knowing how to regulate emotion may be a fundamental element, particularly for youth coaches.  Therefore, future research should aim to examine the influence of emotional skills in coaching.

Emotion and Coach-Athlete Interaction

The role of emotion within coach-athlete relationships was the second theme to emerge from the analysis.Evidence suggested the closeness between a coach and athlete plays an important role in producing confident athletes and regulating athletes’ emotions (1, 6). Mutual trust, respect, and support represent other mainstays in any successful coach-athlete relationship (10, 11, 16).

Coaches’ use and understanding of emotions is critical when dealing with athletes. Evidence suggests emotions can have a major effect on athletes’ performance (7). Therefore, it would be in the best interest for coaches to possess the skillset to detect and potentially re-direct athlete’s behavior in a desired direction.

Evidence within this theme highlighted the positive uses of emotion in coaching, in addition to the unfortunate and unnecessary negative effects. Coaches must understand their own, as well as others’ emotions, and learn how these biological forces direct action and affect others over the short and long-term.

Studies provided initial insights and advanced the current understanding of others. Particularly, Braun (1) executed a well-designed study which employed multiple coaches and athletes, as well as, different data collection methods including interviews, audio diaries, and follow up interviews ensuring the data’s credibility. This uncovered a novel, bidirectional relationship between a coach’s emotional regulation strategies and the coach athlete relationship. However, one large limitation is the participation of only female athletes, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. Other investigations within this theme sought to identify relationships between coaches and teams, but only employed a consensus of four athletes per team. Moreover, other investigations used interviews to collect perceived effects of emotional abuse.

Collectively, the recurring theme originating from this category was the profound influence coaches demonstrate on an athlete’s life through their interactions. While this is usually cast in a positive light, these interactions can also lead to negative outcomes for the athlete. Specifically, the manner in which coaches interact with athletes has been linked to performance outcomes, training effects, psychological effects, moral development, and emotional abuse. Findings indicate coaches understand how vital it is to recognize athletes’ emotion. However, the link between a coaches’ emotional state and athlete outcomes were not drawn. Therefore, coaches are urged to critically assess and reflect upon their actions and the potential implications for athletes.

Future research in this area should take a deep dive into the influence of coaches’ actions and behaviors on athlete outcomes from both coach and athlete perspectives. Moreover, future inquiries may move the coaching profession forward by questioning coaches about their emotional states in situations where positive and negative athlete outcomes occurred.

Development of Emotional Intelligence

Beyond domain specific skills and competence, coaching requires the ability to lead. Critical to leadership is the ability to appraise, express, regulate and direct behavior in oneself and in others, otherwise known as emotional intelligence (EI) (17). Although EI has been found to be desirable in a variety of disciplines, there was only limited evidence to support this claim within coaching.

 The third theme encompassed a wide array of coaches representing many countries and sports. Examinations used qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate this construct and included not only self-perceptions of EI, but also athlete perceptions of coaches EI. Both qualitative and quantitative inquires provided useful information on the relationships between EI and other variables, such as coach efficacy and leadership style, but also the practical relevance of the construct in a professional coaching setting. Although the present investigations are insightful, a major limitation of the examinations is the inconsistent use of EI measures between studies. Furthermore, while a theoretical explanation of EI models is beyond the scope of this text, it is important to highlight the limitation of the various methods used. While previous research indicates all three models of EI measure performance equally well, these inquiries may have studied slightly different constructs (15).

Several recurring findings appeared within this scholarship. Emotionally competent coaches were: a) found to have a superior sense of coach efficacy or the confidence to bring about a desired result in athletes, b) better equipped to cope with stresses associated with coaching, c) superior self and athlete motivators, and lastly, d) possessing an inflated perception of their EI when compared to their athletes’ perceptions.  

Salient findings from this group of studies supports the theorized importance of EI in sport coaching. However, while current results are thought-provoking, the existing evidence remains insufficient and inconclusive. Thus, to propel the coaching professional forward, future research should identify the relationship between EI and coaching behavior, effectiveness, and athlete outcomes.

Emotion’s Role in Navigating Stress, Pressure, and Burnout

Especially at higher levels, coaching is fraught with pressure. That pressure, if not managed, can lead to stress and, eventually burnout. Burnout has been defined as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind” (13, p. 99).  As coaching is the ultimate in ‘people-work’ studies on the role of emotion and the navigation of the pressure and stress leading to burnout was the fourth theme to emerge.

The investigations in this area shed valuable light on an important topic. A variety of coaches were examined herein including: volunteer, club, national, and Olympic level coaches. Due to the subjective nature of stress and burnout, the qualitative methods utilized to understand coaches’ experiences were justified. Olusoga & Kentta (14) interviewed two elite coaches about their experiences and stories of burnout and withdrawal from the sport. Although the information contained within is informative, had authors included the perspectives of their significant others, who were noted as being affected, the study may have provided a more realistic view of how the emotions of others affect coaches. Additionally, including the perspectives of assistant coaches or other supporting staff may have revealed information not presently displayed. Future research should not only dive into the stresses and pressures within coaching, but should also include the perspectives of those supporting the coach.

Somewhat surprisingly, expectation appeared to be the recurrent source of the examined coaches’ negative cascade of events. Following suit, burnout was the product of environments with few resources and high expectations. Unexpectedly, coach’s burnout was not confined to their profession, but also impeded their home life. Expectations had a revolving effect on stress levels of coaches. Coaches cited becoming stressed immediately after accepting high profile positions, which lead to increased tension and agitation. In turn, this was observed by athletes and adversely affected their performance. Likewise, coaches felt their stress hindered their own effectiveness. Finally, coaches were found to experience the most stress on game days as opposed to non-game days.


The present investigation sought to examine the existing literature pertaining to emotion in sport coaching. The primary conclusion indicates coaches are more effective if they are able to recognize and comprehend their emotions, the emotions of others, and the potential aftereffects of their interactions. Anecdotally, some of the best coaches, of all time, understood that people are emotional beings and to understand people, we must understand emotion. Taking the empirical and anecdotal evidence into account, if scholars wish to push the coaching profession forward emotion should continually be a topic of inquiry.

Future investigations should be geared toward identifying and developing the social, emotional, and coping skills required to be an effective coach along with investigating the relationship between EI, coaching effectiveness, talent identification, recruitment, and coaching expertise. Furthermore, potential studies should aim to encapsulate emotionally charged moments where coach and athlete connect. These studies should incorporate multiple perspectives including: coaches, athletes, administrators, and others who may provide insight into the emotional demands and outcomes of coaches. A portion of this scholarship should be directed toward protecting the future coaches from emotional exhaustion and burnout by identifying current coaches with these symptoms and attempting to combat them with recovery modalities.


Coaches must understand their role and influence within sport and the development of productive citizens. Understanding emotions, how they affect us, and how we can control their influence, is a fundamental skill. Therefore, coaches are urged to read material pertaining to emotions, emotional regulation, and emotional intelligence, reflect on their daily interactions and coaching activities, and discuss these experiences with others. Evidence suggests those who are more emotionally competent are more successful in a multitude of different endeavors. Thus, the authors recommend coaches and athletes strive to become more emotionally competent. This will serve to produce documented benefits for the individual in sport, as well as their professional and person life.

Coach educators would be wise to educate coaches on the importance of emotion in coaching. At present, coaching education is based primarily on technical and tactical competency. However, this may be null in void if coaches cannot establish a quality relationship with athletes. The coach-athlete relationship is critical to coaching effectiveness and efficacy.

Furthermore, educating future coaches is only beneficial if they are able to withstand the demands of the job and continue coaching. Hence, coaching education should create educational material detailing the importance of work life and stress-recovery balance. Premediated recovery and/or help seeking strategies may help reduce burnout in coaches. After all, in order to educate the next generation of coaches there must be skilled, experienced, and well-educated coaches available to do so. This will ensure the profession moves forward.


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