Authors: F. Moen(1), R. Anstensen(1), M. Hrozanova(2), T. C. Stiles(3)

Corresponding Author:
Frode Moen, PhD
Department of Education and Lifelong learning, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway
+47 93 24 87 50

Frode Moen is a mental trainer for elite athletes and coaches at the Norwegian Olympic Sports Center in the Mid-Norway region, where he also is the manager. He is also an associate professor at the Department of Lifelong Learning and Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology where his research focuses on coaching in business, coaching in sport, communication, performance psychology, athlete burnout, attention, motivation, education, and relationship issues.

1) Centre for Elite Sports Research, Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Social and Educational Sciences, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
2) Centre for Elite Sports Research, Department of Neuromedicine and Movement Science, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
3) Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social and Educational Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

The Working Alliance and Satisfaction with the Coach-Athlete relationship among Norwegian elite swimmers

The current study investigates how the three dimensions of the Working Alliance Inventory (WAI); bond, goal and task, uniquely explain the perceived satisfaction among Norwegian swimmers with their coach-athlete relationships. The current study uses regressions analysis to investigate the research question and the analysis shows that only the bond dimension uniquely explains the swimmers’ satisfaction with their relationships with their coaches. Bond explains 50% of the variance in athletes’ satisfaction with their coaches. The results are discussed in regard of applied implications and possible future research.
Keywords: working alliance, sport, coach-athlete relationship

The coach-athlete relationship has received much attention in sport research (19). It is considered one of the most crucial determinants of an athlete’s motivation, satisfaction and subsequent sport performance (24). Numerous studies claim that the coach-athlete relationship can explain athletes’ successes and well-being, but also performance impairments and athletes who are not functioning optimally (11, 12, 16, 7). The main responsibility for coaches in sport is to help their athletes improve their performance outcomes and nurture positive psychological responses (13). Thus, as for the helper within the humanistic approach in psychology (31), the role of the coach in sport is to facilitate self-actualization via a helping relationship with an autonomy-supportive style (26). This implies that ‘coaches provide opportunities for choices, emphasize task relevance, explain reasons underlying rules and limits, acknowledge athletes’ feelings and perspectives, give athletes opportunities to take initiatives, provide non-controlling competence feedback, avoid using controlling motivational strategies, and prevent ego-involvement in their athletes’ (24, p. 898). Thus, the coach-athlete relationship is crucial for allowing and facilitating athlete growth and talent physically, technically, tactically, socially and/or mentally (5).

The Working Alliance Inventory
A well-documented and frequently used scale in clinical psychology that measures the effectiveness of helping relationships in the clinical setting is the Working Alliance Inventory (WAI; 14, 15). The WAI has recently been used in the sport setting to explain effective and non-effective coach-athlete relationships (27, 28). These studies have shown that the WAI explains 66% of the variance in athlete burnout (27) and 27% of the variance in subjective performance (28). Interestingly, one study has shown that the working alliance between coaches and athletes can also explain the burnout syndrome among coaches, whereas WAI explained 57% of the variance in cynicism, 32% of the variance in reduced sense of accomplishment and 26% of the variance in exhaustion (29). The WAI is therefore a useful scale in assessing the coach-athlete relationship, and its association with highly relevant variables of athlete functioning, such as burnout or subjective performance.

Three different dimensions constitute the WAI: bond, goal and task (3, p.252). These three dimensions are related to different aspects of the coach-athlete relationship. Firstly, the bond defines whether athletes perceive a genuine interest from the coach to help them, perceive mutual trust from their coaches and understanding regarding their subjective experience when working with their coaches (4, 14). Coaches’ empathic understanding is an expression of the relational “tone” in the coach-athlete relationship. Thus, bond represents the degree of emotional attachment that athletes experience in the coach-athlete relationship. Secondly, goal defines to what extent the athletes experience a mutual understanding between themselves and their coaches about the desired or expected outcomes from the coach-athlete relationship (4). Thirdly, task define to what degree athletes experience that coaches and themselves have defined actions that are needed to accomplish the athletes’ goals, and whether athletes experience these actions as applicable and beneficial (3, 28). Goals and tasks refer to athletes’ understanding and visions of own goals, and the experience they have with goal achievement as a result from executing agreed upon actions (1, 10, 22, 28). Thus, goals and tasks are related to athletes’ development and progress.

The coach-athlete relationship
The coach-athlete relationship facilitates the achievement of goals that neither of the parties could achieve alone (2). The athlete has the need to feel support and acquire knowledge from the coach, while the coach has the need to develop the talent of an athlete by imparting their expertise and use their athletes’ experiences to maximize their potential. It has been argued that in such highly interdependent and interactive relationships, the parties only maintain their relationship if it is beneficial and rewarding, as opposed to costly and debilitating (21). Therefore, for the coach-athlete relationship to be effective and functional, it is inevitable that both parties are satisfied with their roles, and feel the desire to continue the relationship.

The current study
Indeed, previous research has shown that when the athlete recognizes trust, liking, commitment, efficacy of the relationship and respect for the coach, the athlete is more likely to be satisfied (23). Importantly, all three dimensions of the WAI contribute to the experience of the coach-athlete relationship. However, no previous research has investigated whether, and to what extent, each of the dimensions constitutes athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. Therefore, the current study aims to investigate how the three WAI dimensions uniquely explain the degree of athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship among Norwegian elite swimmers.

The Norwegian Swimming Federation (NSF) is the national federation of swimming in Norway and represents swimmers at elite level and in general. Swimming is considered to be one of the most successful sports in Norway, with senior level athletes achieving 35 international medals (at European and World Championships, and Olympic Games), since year 2000. To investigate the satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship in this successful population, 120 elite swimmers were invited to participate in the investigation. The athletes were chosen from the four largest and most professional swimming clubs in Norway. All athletes in the 4 clubs from 12 years old and older were asked to voluntarily participate in the current study by answering a questionnaire about their experience with their relationship with their coaches.

The Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD), which is the research ethic board for social sciences in Norway, approved this study. Prior to the beginning of the study, the participating athletes and their coaches received oral information about the study. Thereafter, athletes received a printed questionnaire covering demographics such as age, gender, level of performance, ambition, motivation and satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship.

Level of performance was measured with a single question, where the participants were asked to rate their performance level on a scale ranging from 1 (not qualified for national championships), 2 (qualified for national championships), 3 (finalist in youth championships), 4 (senior championships qualified), 5 (medalist in senior championships), and 6 (finalist in international championships). Furthermore, the individual ambition level was measured with a single question, rated on a scale ranging from 1 (no particular ambitions at all) to 6 (ambitions to become a world champion). Athletes’ motivation in swimming was also measured with a single question, rated on a scale ranging from 1 (not motivated at all) to 10 (highly motivated). Satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship was measured with a question where the participants were asked how satisfied they were with their relationships with their coaches, rated on a scale ranging from 1 (not satisfied at all) to 10 (very satisfied).

The WAI, in a version adjusted for the sport context, was used to assess coach– athlete relationship characteristics. This 12-item questionnaire yields three central dimensions: (a) agreement on the goals pursued in the relationship (the goal dimension); (b) agreement on tasks to be accomplished to achieve these goals (the task dimension); and (c) the development of a personal bond between the coach and the athlete (the bonding dimension). Athletes were asked to consider these 12 items regarding their thoughts and feelings towards their responsible swimming coach, on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 7 (always). Examples of items covering these dimensions are “My coach and I work on mutually agreed-upon goals”, “My coach and me agree about the steps I need to take to improve in my sport” and “There is mutual trust between my coach and me” for the goal, task and bonding dimensions, respectively. Validation studies of the WAI scale have proven good construct validity and high reliability (6, 33). The Cronbach’s alpha for the measurement in the current study was .87, .74 and .82 for the goal, task and bond dimension, respectively.

Data analysis procedures
The data were first analyzed by running the descriptive statistics, and thereafter by examining the correlations between variables, using Pearson correlation coefficient. In order to examine how the different dimensions of WAI uniquely explain the variance in satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship, a hierarchical multiple regression analysis was applied. Level of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship was used as the dependent variable. In the first step, sex was entered to control for potential gender differences. Since the aim of the current study was to examine to what extent the different dimensions of the WAI independently predict levels of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship, the three different dimensions were entered in three steps. In the second step the WAI dimension bond was entered, then goal and finally task. P-values < 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations
From the 120 participants, 114 (41% males and 59% females) completed the study, which gives a response rate of 95%. The sample had a mean age of 16 ½ years (ranging from 12 to 24 years). Ten percent of athletes reported that their performance level was not being qualified for national championships, 17% were qualified for national championships, 9% were finalist in youth championships, 42% were senior championships qualified, 14% were medalist in senior championships, and 7% were finalist in international championships. Furthermore, athletes reported that 26% had average ambitions (aim to improve and experience fun), 17% had high ambitions (aim to be the best swimmer in Norway), 31% had high ambitions (aim to qualify for international championships) and 25% had very high ambitions (ambitions to become a world champion). Seventy seven percent of the athletes were very motivated (7 or higher), 13% were average motivated (6 and 5) and 10% were not very motivated (4 and 3) regarding their sport activities. Table 1 shows correlations between the study variables as well as the statistical means, standard deviations, minimum and maximum scores from the variables.

Table 1

The correlation analysis shows that there are significant, weak to moderate positive relations between ambition and performance level, motivation and the following variables, respectively: ambition, WAI-goals, satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship, and WAI-bond. Another significant weak to moderate relation was found between satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship and level of performance, however, this relation was negative. Significant moderate to strong positive relations were found between WAI-bond and satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship; between WAI-goals and satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship and WAI-bond, respectively; and WAI-tasks and motivation, satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship, WAI-bond and WAI-tasks, respectively. Other variables showed zero order correlations.

Hierarchical multiple regression
A four-stage hierarchical multiple regression analysis was conducted to investigate if the sex, bond, goal and task variables uniquely predicted the athletes’ perceptions of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. A summary of the hierarchical multiple regression analysis is given in Table 2.

Table 2

Sex was not significantly associated with levels of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship when entered as predictor in Model 1. In model 2 WAI-bond was entered and was significantly associated with levels of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. When WAI-goal and WAI-task were entered in model 3 and 4 there were no significant associations with levels of satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. Model 4 explained 52% of the variance in the dependent variable, and WAI-bond was the only significant predictor.

The current study investigated how the three dimensions of the WAI, bond, goal and task, uniquely explain the perceived satisfaction of Norwegian swimmers with their coach-athlete relationships. Firstly, a correlation analysis showed significant, strong, positive correlations between the bond and task dimensions and satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship, while the goal dimension showed a significant, moderate, positive correlation. Not surprisingly, the three WAI dimensions were also significantly, strongly correlated to each other. Secondly, results from a regression analysis showed that only the bond dimension is uniquely associated with athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship.

The statistical analyses in the current study uncovered an important role of the bond dimension of the WAI in athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. First of all, the strongest correlation found between all the variables included in the current study was the correlation between satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship and WAI-bond (.70). The regressions analysis further showed that WAI-bond alone uniquely explains 50% of the variance in satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. The bond dimension of the WAI highlights the importance that athletes experience a mutual understanding between themselves and their coaches, and an authentic interest from the coach to understand their perspectives and to help them to achieve athletic excellence and personal growth (4). In the current study, these are the key elements of the Norwegian swimmers’ satisfaction with their relationships with their coaches.

The importance of the coach-athlete bond in the satisfaction with coach-athlete relationship is in accord with previous research. This finding supports and shares important similarities with earlier studies that point out the importance of closeness, which define the emotional attachment in the relationship, commitment, which define the intention to maintain the partnership over time, and complementarity, which define the perception if the relationship is effective or not (17). The coach-athlete relationship is defined as a situation where the cognitions, feelings and behaviors of both the athlete and the coach are mutually and causally interrelated (18, 20). This definition emphasizes the importance of deep interdependence between coaches and their athletes. Based on the current findings, earlier studies and theories focusing on relationship issues, it is hereby suggested that the WAI dimension bond is essential in establishing effective relationships within sports (30).

Interestingly, the correlation analysis showed that there is a weak, negative correlation between athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship and their level of sport, which indicates that the athletes’ level of performance is not associated with their satisfaction with their coach. Thus, the satisfaction of the coach-athlete relationship in the current study is independent of athletes’ performance level. It has been suggested that the outcome of an effective coach-athlete relationship is achieving athletic excellence and/or personal growth (17, 25). Therefore, the effectiveness of the relationship is not entirely dependent on athletic success, but personal growth plays a role too. This finding strengthens the importance of bond as a predictor of how athletes experience their coach-athlete relationships. The importance of being heard, seen and understood, and work with the athletes based on their needs and motives, as in accordance with the humanistic approach in psychology (32), is highlighted among the Norwegian swimmers in this current study.

The current finding is even more interesting in light of the motivation and ambition analysis, which showed that the majority of the athletes report high or very high ambitions and are highly motivated to achieve excellence in their sport. The importance of defining clear goals and associated strategies or tasks to achieve successful performances is crucial for athletes with such high level of ambitions and motivations (1, 10). Interestingly, self-efficacy, which defines how sure athletes are to execute necessary actions to achieve defined goals, has been found to be an essential factor in predicting performance in sports (and in any other field) (1, 10). The goal and task dimensions of the WAI share important similarities with the self-efficacy construct and should therefore be more predictive of athletic satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship than WAI-bond. That is if athletic performance is the most important issue among the athletes when they consider their participation in swimming. However, both WAI-goal and WAI-task are not contributing significantly to explain the athletes’ satisfaction with their coaches in the current study. Interestingly, a coach-athlete relationship that focuses entirely on achieving athletic excellence might not necessarily be a healthy relationship (17). It is the mutual understanding of needs and how these needs are met in the coach-athlete dyad between athletes and coaches that define the effectiveness of the relationship. The findings in the current study support such a claim.

It is important to note that there were significant, strong correlations between all three of the WAI dimensions: bond, goal and task, and between all three of the WAI dimension and athletes’ satisfaction with the coach-athlete relationship. Thus, the variance the three variables share together indicates that the athletes in the current study do not entirely focus on bond and the caring side of the coach-athlete relationship, but that the common variance that the three variables share is covaried out in the regression analysis. Furthermore, the findings in the current study confirm the importance and association between ambitions and level of performance (8, 9). Interestingly, level of performance is not significantly related with motivation, which might indicate that athletes can be highly motivated and perform at a low level, and still be satisfied with their coaches. Again, this supports the claim that different coaches and athletes might have agreed upon different needs and motives in their relationships.

The findings in the current study bear significant importance for Norwegian sports, since the Norwegian sports federation aims to arrange and facilitate sports for everyone, regardless of ambitions and performance level. This is supported by the findings which indicate that swimmers are satisfied with the helping relationship that is established between themselves and their coaches, regardless of ambitions and performance level. It is worth noting that the mean value of the coach-athlete relationship satisfaction is 8.85 (SD=1.2), which indicates highly satisfied athletes. To conclude, these findings provide a reason to believe that the coaches have achieved to meet the individual needs of the different athletes in the current study, and that WAI-bond is the necessary tool to achieve that the athletes are satisfied with their relationships with their coaches.

Although the results in the current study are interesting it has several limitations. Sample size may have influenced the results and larger numbers of participants are therefore called for in future research. Future studies should also include analysis where both indirect- and direct relationships between independent variables are included to explain the effect on the dependent variable, such as Structural equation modeling (SEM). Moreover, the collected data is constituted by self-reporting measures and it is difficult to know how these self-reports accurately reflect the variables under study. Conducting studies that combine self-reported data with data obtained in a more objective manner could further develop the line of research. For instance, by longitudinal studies that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods.

This study indicates that coaches’ abilities to build and establish emphatic bonds with their athletes, thus being able to understand how they think and how they feel, is a key in successful coach-athlete relationships. Therefore, to build strong alliances between coaches and their athletes communication skills is a necessity. Coaches must possess both questioning- and listening skills in their communication with their athletes to understand their inner thoughts and feelings related to their experiences as athletes. When their athletes are heard and understood they are ready to focus on goals and effective strategies to develop their capacities as athletes.

This study was done in cooperation with The Olympic department in middle-Norway and the Center for Elite Sports Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The researchers are grateful for the elite athletes who participated in the current study and their coaches who let them participate.

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