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Navigating Coaching Styles: Striking the Balance Between Fierce and Friendly

In the realm of coaching, the media often underscores the diversity in coaching styles, prompting a deeper exploration into their true implications. This exploration unveils two prominent coaching styles discussed in the literature: autonomy-supportive and controlling (Bartholomew et al., 2009; Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012). The essence of these styles goes beyond the surface, impacting athletes not only in their performance but also in their psychological and emotional well-being.


An autonomy-supportive coaching style distinguishes itself through a coach's provision of explanations and justifications for decisions, coupled with a respectful acknowledgment of athletes' autonomy in decision-making. This style proves optimal in alleviating the internal and external pressures athletes encounter (Bartholomew et al., 2009; Hodge et al., 2011; Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012). It creates an environment where athletes feel empowered and in control, fostering a positive and growth-oriented mindset.


On the flip side, a controlling coaching style, outlined in the literature, adopts a more authoritarian approach. It restricts athletes' autonomy, leading to a coercive atmosphere where athletes may feel like mere "puppets on a string." This lack of autonomy, coupled with a coercive attitude, can elevate the pressure on athletes, potentially shifting blame away from themselves in the face of setbacks (Bartholomew et al., 2009; Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2012). Despite potential short-term gains in perceived competence (Matosic et al., 2014), the long-term impact on intrinsic motivation and overall well-being is concerning.


Matosic et al. (2014) shed light on the potential negative impact of a controlling coaching style on an athlete's standing within a team, particularly in cases involving scholarships. While some evidence suggests that this style may enhance the perception of competence (a key aspect of the Self-Determination Theory), the drawbacks overshadow these benefits, potentially undermining intrinsic motivation (Ryan et al., 2000; Matosic et al., 2014).


Recognizing the importance of situational demands, Hodge et al. (2011) emphasize the need to incorporate both coaching styles when necessary. They argue that a solely autonomy-supportive approach may not always benefit athletes in the long term, necessitating a balanced consideration of controlling elements when the athlete's free choice could be detrimental. The key lies in prioritizing the athlete's interests and well-being.


When dealing with young athletes, the literature accentuates the vulnerability of this demographic and the need for tailored support. Isoard-Gauther et al. (2012) highlight the role of autonomy in preventing burnout, advocating for an autonomy-supportive coaching style, particularly when dealing with children who are more prone to dropout due to motivational issues.


The quest for the best coaching style for athletes is a nuanced exploration, recognizing the diversity of individuals, sports, and situations. Coaches play a pivotal role not only in refining technical skills but also in shaping the psychological and emotional landscape of athletes. Several coaching styles exist, each with its unique attributes, advantages, and potential drawbacks. To determine the best coaching style, one must consider factors such as the athlete's personality, the nature of the sport, and the team dynamics.


An autonomy-supportive coaching style, as outlined in research by Bartholomew et al. (2009) and Isoard-Gautheur et al. (2012), emphasizes providing explanations and justifications for decisions while respecting athletes' autonomy. This approach fosters a sense of empowerment, self-determination, and a positive mindset. Athletes under an autonomy-supportive coach tend to feel more in control, leading to enhanced intrinsic motivation. However, this style may not be universally effective, as individual athletes respond differently to autonomy and guidance.


On the other end of the spectrum is the controlling coaching style, characterized by a more authoritarian approach where coaches dictate decisions and limit athletes' autonomy. While this style may, in some instances, improve the perception of competence (Matosic et al., 2014), it often leads to negative consequences such as increased pressure, reduced intrinsic motivation, and potential team discord. A controlling coaching style can be counterproductive in the long run, overshadowing short-term gains.


The most effective coaching style is likely a blend that incorporates elements of both autonomy-supportive and controlling approaches, emphasizing adaptability to different situations. Hodge et al. (2011) stress the importance of understanding and utilizing both styles based on situational demands. There are instances where providing athletes with autonomy is beneficial, promoting self-discovery and a sense of ownership. However, there are situations where a more controlling approach might be necessary, especially when the athlete's choices could have detrimental effects on themselves or the team.


The best coaching style also varies depending on the developmental stage of the athlete. Young athletes may benefit greatly from an autonomy-supportive approach. Isoard-Gautheur et al. (2012) argue that preventing burnout, a common reason for sport dropout, requires a coaching style that supports autonomy. For children and adolescents, fostering a love for the sport through autonomy and intrinsic motivation is crucial for long-term engagement.


Ultimately, the best coaching style is one that is adaptive, aligning with the needs and preferences of the athletes. Effective coaches possess the flexibility to adjust their approach based on the unique characteristics of the individuals they are guiding and the demands of the situation. A coach's ability to create a positive and supportive environment, regardless of the specific coaching style, is paramount. Communication, trust-building, and a genuine understanding of the athlete contribute significantly to a coaching style's effectiveness.


While the literature favours an autonomy-supportive coaching style for its positive impact on well-being and attitudes, it also acknowledges the situational nuances that may call for a controlled approach. Coaches must be astutely aware that their behaviour and style directly influence those they guide, emphasizing the need for a nuanced and adaptable coaching approach that balances fierceness and friendliness. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the best coaching style for athletes. The optimal approach lies in a dynamic blend of autonomy-supportive and controlling elements, tailored to individual athletes and the demands of the sport. Coaches who master the art of balancing these styles, fostering intrinsic motivation, and adapting to diverse circumstances, are most likely to guide their athletes toward success on and off the field.


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