Free Access
Mov Sport Sci/Sci Mot
Number 105, 2019
Emotions et régulation émotionnelle en contexte sportif interpersonnel ou intergroupe
Page(s) 37 - 51
Published online 28 June 2019

© ACAPS, 2020

1 Introduction

Athletes experience a wide range of emotions in sport, and these emotional experiences influence behaviours and performance (Jones & Uphill, 2012). Better understanding the emotional experiences of athletes can help them to regulate their emotions to achieve optimal performance, personal well-being, and positive relationships in sport (Jones & Uphill, 2012). Researchers examining emotion regulation within sport psychology have predominantly focused on how athletes’ regulation of their own positive and negative emotions influences performance (Hanin, 2000, 2007; Uphill, McCarthy, & Jones, 2009). However, since emotions and sport are inherently social (Allen, 2006; Parkinson, 1996; Tamminen & Bennett, 2016), it is important to consider the interpersonal aspect of emotions and emotion regulation and the potential implications for athletes and coaches within sport psychology research (Campo et al., 2017; Friesen et al., 2013; Tamminen, Gaudreau, McEwen, & Crocker, 2016). There is a growing body of literature examining these interpersonal processes of emotion regulation among athletes (e.g. Campo et al., 2017; Friesen, Devonport, Sellars, & Lane, 2015; Palmateer & Tamminen, 2018; Tamminen et al., 2016); however, less attention has been paid to coaches’ use of strategies to regulate their athletes’ emotions. The present study was designed to address this gap in the literature.

Emotions are “narrowly defined states that emerge in response to specific challenges and goals through the incorporation of conceptual and contextual knowledge into basic affective responses [that] engender sets of goal-oriented physiological and cognitive changes meant to lead to adaptive responding” (Barrett, Mesquita, Ochsner, & Gross, 2007; DeSteno, Gross, and Kubzansky, 2013). Emotion regulation is defined as “the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions” (Gross, 1998, p. 275). One approach to classifying the strategies that individuals use to regulate their emotions is Gross’ (1998) process model, which includes antecedent-focused and response-focused emotion regulation strategies. Antecedent-focused emotion regulation occurs prior to the occurrence of an emotion and includes four regulatory processes: situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, and cognitive change. Response-focused emotion regulation occurs following an emotional response and involves response modulation via emotion expression or suppression. In sport, researchers have found that athletes use a number of strategies to regulate their own emotions including using music (Lane, Davis, Devonpont, 2011) and pre-performance routines (Uphill & Jones, 2005), and athletes often use a combination of adaptive and maladaptive strategies in order to achieve certain emotional states (Wagstaff & Weston, 2014).

In an effort to apply models of emotion regulation to interpersonal processes, Gross and Thompson (2007) discussed the importance of considering both intrinsic (i.e., regulating one’s own emotions) and extrinsic (i.e., regulating another’s emotions) regulatory processes; this perspective has commonly been referred to as interpersonal emotion regulation (IER; Niven, Totterdell, & Holman, 2009). Interpersonal emotion regulation is defined as the deliberate attempts to influence an individual’s emotions, and this topic has recently gained attention in sport psychology research (Friesen et al., 2013; Tamminen & Crocker, 2013). Interpersonal emotion regulation is used to influence both positive and negative emotions, is a short-term, deliberate process, and has an extrinsic or social target (e.g. directed at another person; Niven, 2017; Niven et al., 2009). Researchers have speculated that the antecedent and response-focused strategies from Gross’ (1998) intrapersonal process model of emotion regulation likely apply to interpersonal emotion regulation as well (Williams, 2007). Indeed, Campo et al. (2017) used the process model of emotion regulation to classify a variety of strategies that rugby players reported using to regulate their own emotions and the emotions of their teammates, lending support for the suitability of this model for examining IER strategies among athletes.

In sport settings, there is emerging evidence to suggest that athletes use self and interpersonal emotion regulation strategies to improve performance and relationships (Campo et al., 2017; Tamminen & Crocker, 2013; Wagstaff & Weston, 2014), and that athletes’ attempts to regulate teammates’ emotions at the person-level influences athlete enjoyment and commitment in sport (Tamminen et al., 2016). While these studies begin to address IER in a sport context, there has yet to be research examining coaches’ use of strategies to try and regulate the emotions of their athletes. However, despite the lack of research specifically examining coaches’ IER with athletes, there is a growing body of research that has examined affective processes more broadly between coaches and athletes. For example, researchers have examined the emotional content of coach speeches (Vargas-Tonsing, 2009), and coaches’ emotional intelligence (Thelwell et al., 2008) on athlete outcomes, and researchers have also examined the influence of coaches’ emotional expressions on player outcomes (Allan & Côté, 2016; van Kleef, Cheshin, Koning, & Wolf, 2018). With respect to emotional intelligence, the ability to identify and express emotions, the ability to regulate one’s own and other’s emotions, and the ability to use emotions in an adaptive way (Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Salovey, Detweiler-Bedell, Detweiler-Bedell, Mayer, 2008) have been found to be crucial within leader-follower interactions (Choi, Chung, Sung, Butt, Soliman, & Chang, 2015) and contribute to athletes’ perceptions of coaches’ coaching efficacy (Thelwell et al., 2008). In addition, researchers using a model of Emotions as Social Information (EASI; van Kleef, 2009) recently found that coaches’ expressions of happiness contributed to athletes’ experiences of happiness, athletes’ performance, and were associated with improvements in athletes’ perceptions of the quality of team performance (van Kleef et al., 2018). While this research provides valuable insight into the influence of some affective processes between coaches and athletes, these studies did not specifically examine the strategies that coaches may use to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions. Thus, to build on this body of research, we sought to examine the strategies that coaches use to try and regulate athletes’ emotions in practice and in competition settings.

In addition to examining the strategies that coaches use to try and regulate athletes’ emotions, we also sought to examine the contextual factors that may influence IER among coaches and athletes. One key factor that is proposed to influence IER is the quality and nature of the social relationship between individuals; for example, much of the qualitative research examining IER in sport has indicated that the social relationship between teammates is an important factor for athletes’ IER and emotional experiences (Friesen et al., 2015; Palmateer & Tamminen, 2018; Tamminen et al., 2016; Wolf, Harenberg, Tamminen, & Schmitz, 2017). Similarly, van Kleef et al. (2018) noted that while coaches’ expressions of happiness were associated with athlete outcomes, the shared emotional history of coaches and athletes may influence these affective processes. Beyond the sport context, researchers have stressed the importance of relationships when considering emotional dynamics between individuals (English, John, & Gross, 2013; Schoebi & Randall, 2015). Furthermore, athletes’ perceptions of the coach and the quality of the coach-athlete relationship have been found to influence athlete psychological and physical well-being, performance, and motivation (e.g. Isoard-Gautheur, Trouilloud, Gustafsson, & Guillet-Descas, 2016; Philippe & Seiler, 2006; Staff, Didymus, & Backhouse, 2017). Therefore, researchers examining coaches’ IER should also attend to the relationship within which these interpersonal processes take place.

Athletes’ emotional experiences have also been found to fluctuate over time (Martinent & Nicolas, 2017; Martinent, Campo, & Ferrand, 2012; Martinent, Gareau, Lienhart, Nicaise, & Guillet-Descas, 2018; Mellalieu, Hanton, & Shearer, 2008) and in practice versus competitive contexts (Thomas, Hanton, & Maynard, 2007). Evidence from a large body of research examining anxiety in sport also indicates that athletes’ emotional experiences are moderated by person, task, and situation characteristics (Mellalieu, Hanton, & Fletcher, 2006; Kleine, 1990). Changes in emotions may require the use different emotion regulation strategies, thus coaches’ use of IER strategies to regulate their athletes’ emotions may also change at different points and depending on different contextual factors in the sport environment.

Overall, the purpose of the present study was to explore the strategies coaches used to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions, as well as the relationship and contextual factors that influenced coaches’ IER strategy use.

2 Methods

The specific research questions were:

  • What IER strategies do coaches use to try and regulate the emotions of their athletes?

  • How does the coach-athlete relationship influence IER among coaches and athletes?

  • What contextual features influence IER among coaches and athletes?

To gain an in-depth understanding of participants’ reflections on the phenomena of interest, we conducted a qualitative study using a critical realist paradigmatic approach that aims to understand the reality of a phenomenon as it exists in real world settings (Clark, 2008; Easton, 2010).

2.1 Participants

We began recruitment upon receiving ethical approval from a university research ethics board. Athletes and coaches were purposefully sampled from cooperative and collective individual varsity sports (i.e. sports where athletes compete as individuals with both an individual and team goals; Evans, Eys, & Bruner, 2012); the athletes were required to have a minimum of one year experience on their current team in order to examine coaches and athletes who had pre-existing relationships, as it has been shown that older athletes who have been with their coaches for a longer period of time are more critical in their perceptions of the coach’s emotional intelligence (VanSickle, Hancher-Rauch, & Elliot, 2010) and they have a stronger the coach-athlete relationship (Jowett & Nezlek, 2011). Furthermore, individual sport classifications have shown to elicit more one-on-one communication between coaches and athletes (Jowett, 2003) and stronger coach-athlete relationships (Rhind, Jowett, & Yang, 2012); therefore, we chose to sample coaches and athletes from individual sports as we anticipated they would be information-rich cases for examining IER directly between coaches and athletes (rather than IER being used among a group of athletes).

The lead researcher contacted varsity coaches via email with information about the study. If a coach demonstrated interest, the researcher then reached out to the athletes of the team via email for recruitment. We advertised the study to male and female sport teams with a mix of male and female coaches; however, the final sample of participants included five male coaches, six female athletes, and four male athletes (total N = 15). Participants included coaches and athletes from individual varsity sports including fencing, swimming, track and field, Nordic skiing, and squash. Athletes had between five and ten years of experience (M = 6.67, SD = 1.86) in their respective sports and at least one year of experience as a varsity athlete. Coaches had between 18 and 40 years (M = 32.33, SD = 12.42) of coaching experience in their respective sports.

2.2 Data collection

Data collection consisted of two interviews with each participant, as well as participant audio diaries across a two-week time period. A similar procedure was used by Tamminen and Holt (2010) where athletes completed weekly audio diaries across a season in addition to pre- and post-season interviews regarding their coping strategies in sport.

2.2.1 Pre-diary interview

Individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant to gain an understanding of the coaches’ and athletes’ previous experiences with and understandings of IER, as well as the present dynamics of their coach-athlete relationship. See Appendix A for the interview guides. These interviews were also used to build rapport in order to foster comfort with the participants. Interviews included main questions, probes, and follow-up questions (Rubin & Rubin, 2005) to delve into the phenomena of interest.

2.2.2 Audio diaries

After the completion of the first interview, audio diaries were used to collect participants’ reflections of IER and coach-athlete interactions across a two-week time period in the middle of the competitive season. Participants were instructed to record their thoughts and feelings regarding their emotions and emotion regulation using a prompt sheet (cf. Tamminen & Holt, 2010) on a portable recording device following every practice or competition. All participants within each case had a minimum of one competition during the two-week period, however the number of practices differed between participants depending on their training schedules. See Appendix B for the audio diary prompts.

2.2.3 Post-diary interviews

Post-diary interviews were conducted with each participant a minimum of one week following the completion of the audio diary period. Bartlett (2012) used a similar audio diary method and included post-diary interviews as a way to both discuss audio diary entries and reflect on the audio diary method. These interviews focused on expanding the findings from the pre-diary interviews, clarifying participants’ reflections of IER strategies and the coach-athlete relationship reported in their audio diaries, and served as a member-checking function (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) to ensure the results were in line with participants’ experiences.

2.3 Data analysis

The interview and audio diary data were analyzed using inductive and deductive analyses following a similar process described by Elo and Kyngäs (2008) and Tamminen and Holt (2010). The analysis process consisted of data preparation, organization of the data via inductive and deductive analyses, and data reporting.

2.3.1 Data preparation

Participants were assigned participant identification numbers to maintain anonymity, and athlete and coach numbers are randomized in the final presentation of results to ensure athletes and coaches could not identify their case (e.g. Coach 1 is not associated with Athlete 1 and 2 in the results section). In addition, some participants’ quotes have been described rather than quoted directly in the results section to protect anonymity and confidentiality. Interviews and audio diaries were transcribed verbatim and individual quotes were labelled with the athlete or coach identification code (e.g. A5 or C1) and Pre-Interview, Post-Interview or audio diary entry number (e.g. E5 represents the participant’s fifth audio diary entry). The average length of the pre-interviews was 47.3 minutes and the average length of the post-interviews was 30.4 minutes. Participants completed 95 audio diary entries at the end of a two-week period with an average of 6.3 entries per participant. Compliance with the audio diary method varied: athletes completed between 2–12 entries (M = 6.8). One coach did not complete any diary entries; however, we chose not to exclude the coach from the study, as he did complete both of the interviews. The remaining coaches completed between 1–14 entries (M = 6.75).

2.3.2 Data organization: inductive and deductive analysis

Inductive analysis consists of identifying units of meaning and grouping these units of meaning into broader categories without any predetermined categories or assumptions (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). The data was initially analyzed inductively to ensure that the analysis was not limited to previous theories. We then compared the inductively-derived categories of themes to research and theory in the extant literature, to determine whether concepts identified in our analysis may fit with previous concepts and theories to help explain the findings (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008; Sandelowski, 1993). During this deductive phase of data analysis, quotes reflecting coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation and athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies were re-coded using Gross’ (1998) categories of emotion regulation. While exploring athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies was not the primary focus of this study, we found that athletes did not speak about coaches’ extrinsic strategies without also reflecting on their own emotion regulation strategies. During the deductive analysis, athletes’ and coaches’ intrinsic and extrinsic emotion regulation strategies became evident and were in line with Gross’ categories of emotion regulation; therefore, the authors felt that it would be a disservice to the IER literature to exclude athletes’ reflections on their intrinsic emotion regulation strategies. This theoretical perspective was used because the purpose of the study was to examine the strategies that coaches used to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions, rather than to examine the impact of coach emotional expressions on athlete outcomes.

Data describing the coach-athlete relationship and factors influencing the dynamic of this relationship were re-coded using Jowett and colleagues’ (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003; Jowett & Meek, 2000; Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004) 3 + 1C’s conceptualization of the coach-athlete relationship. Within this model, closeness is defined as the emotional interdependence, complementarity is the dyad members’ perceptions of cooperation and effectiveness within interactions, and commitment refers to members’ intentions to maintain the athletic relationship (Jowett, 2007). Co-orientation addresses the degree to which members are interdependent and have a shared knowledge and understanding of the relationship (Jowett, 2007). In examining the broader external factors that influenced the coach-athlete relationship (and subsequently coaches’ IER strategies), we drew on Jowett & Poczwardowski’s (2007) categorization of the antecedents that determine the development and quality of the coach-athlete relationship including individual characteristics, social and cultural norms, and relationship characteristics. Any categories identified within our inductive analysis that did not fit within Gross’ process model or Jowett and colleagues’ 3 + 1C’s conceptualization were retained within the results.

In order to organize and describe the interrelationships between categories, a preliminary conceptual model was developed through an abductive process (Boutilier & Beche, 1995; Lipscomb, 2012). During the post-diary interviews, participants were asked questions regarding the categories from the initial analyses of the pre-diary interviews and the audio diaries that the researcher believed participants could expand on or that were unclear. Following these questions, the researcher showed participants the preliminary conceptual model from the initial analyses of the initial interviews and audio diary transcripts, and had participants share their thoughts on the findings to serve as a member checking function (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Despite the recent criticisms toward member checking as a tool for ensuring methodological rigor (Smith & McGannon, 2018), member checking aligned with the paradigmatic assumptions in this study in that it provided participants with the opportunity to expand on and clarify their perceptions of IER and the coach-athlete relationship. A final version of the conceptual model outlining the categories and the relationships between categories was developed to depict athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies, coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation strategies, the immediate contextual factors, and the broader context of the coach-athlete relationship (see Fig. 1).

thumbnail Fig. 1

Integrated model of athlete and coach emotion regulation in the context of the coach-athlete relationship.

2.3.3 Audio diary data

Audio diaries were further analyzed by examining athletes’ emotions, athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies, coaches’ extrinsic regulation strategies, and contextual factors on an individual and entry-by-entry basis. The purpose of this process was to visually inspect the patterns of emotions and emotion regulation reported by participants in their audio diaries. This process helped to conceptualize how emotions and IER changed or stayed the same over time with individual athletes and coaches and across different practice and competitive contexts.

2.4 Methodological rigor

In this study, we used a number of strategies to strengthen the trustworthiness of this qualitative research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Smith & McGannon, 2018). Method and data source triangulation were used by having both audio diary and interview methods, as well as including both coaches and athletes from various sports for data collection (Guba, 1981). Triangulation has been said to increase the credibility of qualitative research results, as the use of multiple methods and data sources compensates for the limitations associated with each individual method or data source (Shenton, 2004). While the coaches and athletes’ responses are not linked in the presentation of the results to maintain anonymity and confidentiality, we conducted the analysis within the ‘cases’ of athletes and coaches (e.g. comparing the data from an athlete with the data reported by their coach); thus the triangulation of sources from coaches and athletes still proved useful, as did the triangulation of methods (audio diaries and interviews). Furthermore, the first author kept a reflexivity journal throughout the research process (Guba, 1981) to reflect on thoughts, feelings, and potential biases shaping the interpretation of results (Watt, 2007). Lastly, member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Smith & McGannon, 2018) was used during the post-diary interviews to further examine and develop the researchers’ interpretations of the results.

3 Results

3.1 Emotion regulation

Participants indicated a number of strategies that athletes used to try and regulate their own emotions and that coaches used to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions. While the specific strategies varied across individuals and depended on a number of contextual factors, athletes and coaches expressed many similarities in the strategies they used (or attempted to use) to manage their own or their athletes’ emotions. Athletes described using a number of strategies to regulate their own emotions (these are represented in Fig. 1 under ‘Athletes’ Intrinsic ER Strategies’); however, due to space constraints, the results section of this paper will focus on coaches’ extrinsic use of emotion regulation.

3.1.1 Situation selection

Situation selection by coaches was reported infrequently; however some coaches reported using situation selection as an extrinsic strategy to regulate their athletes’ emotions by designing a certain workout or choosing a competition or competitive events for their athletes. For example, C2 indicated that he would send certain athletes to competitions where he felt they would perform successfully and ensured athletes were aware of why they were attending certain competitions. He said that he told his athletes, “I have the confidence in you, that you are capable of um, uh, competing with these people. If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be here” (C2–Post Interview). Another coach explained that sometimes designing a workout and selecting difficult elements for a workout was intended to make athletes fail (thereby eliciting negative emotions), which he described as necessary in order to challenge the athletes; however he also described designing ‘easy’ workouts to ensure athletes succeeded.

3.1.2 Situation modification

Coaches and athletes both reported that situation modification was commonly used by coaches to try and manage athletes’ emotions. For example, coaches modified workouts to try and improve athletes’ emotions when athletes experienced anxiety or frustration associated with their personal life or a workout. Athlete A2 indicated in an audio diary entry:

The [coaches] were pretty good at helping us out, or at least helping me out with just kind of sensing that I was tired and being like, ‘okay [athlete], you don’t have to have to do the whole rest of the [workout], you can just do, you know, half of the rest of the [workout]’ cause I think, they figured that classes are ending and exams are coming so a lot of us are kind of stressed out. So they kind of accommodate us that way (A2–E5).

While coaches and athletes frequently indicated that coaches’ modification of workouts or practices had a positive effect on their emotions, athletes expressed that at times it caused them to feel greater frustration because they could not complete the intended workout. Participant A1 said:

Usually, I hate – I hate feeling like I’m not able to do the workout because I’m scared that I’m gonna fall behind in my training, I’m scared that um, I always feel like when I have to do a modified workout that I don’t do enough (A1–Post Interview).

3.1.3 Attentional deployment

Attempts to shift athletes’ attention toward or away from a situation appeared to be a common extrinsic emotion regulation strategy used by coaches in practice and competition. For example, participant C3 described a time when he believed he had successfully calmed down an anxious athlete by distracting her: “And we got her to um, um, count the number of good looking boys [in the environment] when she was gonna stand up behind the [competition area]. Like anything to distract her from what she was doing” (C3–Pre Interview). However, athletes also described how distraction was not always helpful, or was only helpful in certain contexts. Athlete A1 expressed her frustration when an assistant coach attempted to distract her from a competition. She said, “the assistant coach… sometimes tries to distract the athletes and I usually just remove myself. Because it doesn’t work for me. I need to be present” (A1–Post Interview).

With respect to using concentration as an extrinsic attentional deployment strategy, participants described instances where coaches reminded athletes to focus, in order to calm athletes and regulate their emotions prior to a competition or workout. Coach C1 described an emotional athlete who required reminders to stay focused and calm his emotions:

It’s a matter of giving him focus…as soon as you give him the objective of exactly what you want him to do then he can fixate on that, instead of the emotions themselves… then it just builds on that and he remains a little bit calm but focused (C1–Pre Interview).

3.1.4 Goal setting

Participants also stated that coaches would set process goals with their athletes to calm anxiety or nerves prior to competition, ease frustration or disappointment following a poor performance, or to increase positive emotions with respect to the upcoming season. Goal setting appeared to be a common strategy used to help athletes focus their attention on specific aspects of a competition of workout. Coach C3 indicated that he would talk to athletes about their race strategy and the goals within a competition to ease competitive anxiety. Similarly, Coach C1 said that he anticipated his athletes may be anxious about his expectations for their performance, and said that he would communicate small process goals to his athletes to reduce some of the anxiety they may perceive around expectations for winning a medal:

I have to let them know that you know, that… [winning] is not what my expectations are right? So uh, so you know, I don’t need them to achieve, you know, a medal or whatever standing, what I need to do is I need them to, let’s say attempt certain actions that we worked on, and so on (C1–Pre Interview).

3.1.5 Cognitive change

Participants reported that coaches would use reappraisal strategies to try and modify their athlete’s interpretation of a situation in competition and practice in order to regulate the athlete’s emotions. Reappraisal strategies included rationalization (i.e., explaining a situation in logical terms) and putting things into perspective (i.e., comparing the situation to a larger context). These reappraisal strategies were used to try and help athletes control their frustration, anxiety, and disappointment associated with training and poor performances at competitions. Coach C3 discussed the use of reappraisal to reduce athletes’ anxiety associated with their training:

I mean if the whole – if the whole workout’s a disaster, then I’ll actually stop the workout and then say ‘well it’s obvious that we’re too tired…’ like I’ll give them a very rational uh, explanation as to why it’s just – you know, ‘you’re not failures, you’re just – this workout was too hard today. We’ll come back and revisit it in a couple of days when we’re more ready to do it, (C3–Post Interview).

Coaches also indicated that they would put things into perspective for athletes when athletes were disappointed with performances or recovering from injury. For example, Athlete A6 mentioned that her coach would often put things into perspective when she was disappointed or upset with her performances:

I think [coach] a lot of the time will be like, ‘don’t worry, this isn’t like the be all end all. We still know you’re [good]’, which helps a lot. Or he’ll be like, ‘this [competition] doesn’t reflect you’, my old coach used to say that a lot, ‘this one [competition] doesn’t define you as an athlete’, which I found helped (A6–Pre Interview).

Athlete A8 shared similar sentiments: “After a loss… if we didn’t play well, he’ll let us know that it’s not the end of the world and we did play well, there were just a few things that we would need to tweak” (A8–Pre-Interview). Coaches, however, described their difficulties with using this strategy, as frequently putting things into perspective to help manage athletes’ negative emotions appeared to be tiresome and frustrating. Coach C3 said that he struggled with putting things into perspective for athletes who express frequent negativity, as these athletes tend to create a negative environment for athletes and coaches.

3.1.6 Response modulation Positive reinforcement

Participants reported coaches’ use of positive reinforcement among athletes who were expressing negative emotions, as well as to reduce the intensity of negative emotions associated with performance in workouts and competitions. Positive reinforcement consisted of encouraging words, high fives, and hugs. Participant A6 explained how her coach would use positive reinforcement during a workout: “He’ll [coach] come and do the same thing like during an interval, if you’re like, struggling and he can like see it on your face, then he’ll like, yeah, say some encouraging words and stuff” (A6–Pre Interview). Athlete A4 described her excitement when her coach noticed that she was performing well: “Yeah, sometimes when coaches like, know that you’re working hard, they’ll be like good and they’ll like acknowledge that you’re working hard… the coach will be like, ‘good! Yes! That’s right!’ and they’ll scream it. So that’s really encouraging” (A4–Pre-interview). While athletes reported the positive influence of coaches’ use of positive reinforcement on their emotions, coaches explained that they reserved this strategy for outstanding or key moments to ensure it is effective. Coach C1 indicated that positive reinforcement was not something he used frequently, and as a result it had a greater effect on athletes’ emotions when the strategy was used. Yelling and guilt-inducing criticism

Participants also reported instances of coaches yelling or using guilt-inducing criticism to worsen athletes’ emotions. While this strategy was not frequently discussed, it appeared that in some cases participants felt that worsening an athlete’s emotions could contribute to improved athletic performance. Athlete A3 indicated that anger helped her performance and she needed coaches to use strategies that encouraged frustration and anger in order to perform well. Similarly, coaches reported using this strategy to try and improve current and future performances among their athletes. Coach C3 said:

It would be me trying to rally them, a little bit of shaming, and I don’t mean shaming in the bad way, okay, shaming – that’s a bad word, um, a little bit of harsh reality that you’re not training hard enough and you’re not training often enough and if you don’t, you’ll be fine, but you’re not gonna beat the other guys… and so if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna have a bigger commitment here, you can’t [miss] workouts… we’re gonna demand that everyone does that (C3–Post Interview).

However, coaches expressed that they used this strategy infrequently and strategically to try and ensure it did not harm the athlete and would help their performance. Listening

Participants expressed that having coaches listen when athletes vented their emotions helped to decrease athletes’ experiences of negative emotions and increase positive emotions. Coach C2 expressed his views about coaching and said that listening is not done enough by coaches and is invaluable to an athlete. Coach C1 also reported listening to his athletes vent about frustrations or problems in their lives. He said, “I would talk to them a little bit, sort of get their feeling and usually let them vent [laughs] their frustrations and so on um, and I think for most cases, they like to vent a little bit” (C1–Pre Interview). Thus, listening was another way that coaches helped athletes to modulate their emotional responses.

3.2 Broader context: Coach-athlete relationship (3 + 1C’s)

Coaches and athletes described the coach-athlete relationship in ways that reflected the aspects of Jowett and colleagues’ 3 + 1C’s theoretical conceptualization of the coach-athlete relationship (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003; Jowett & Meek, 2000; Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004). It appeared that when coaches and athletes had relationships that were close, committed, and had open communication to facilitate co-orientation, coaches appeared more confident in their ability to regulate their athletes’ emotions. Additionally, athletes’ perceptions of effective extrinsic emotion regulation by their coaches appeared to contribute to perceptions of a stronger coach-athlete relationship.

3.2.1 Closeness and commitment

With respect to closeness and commitment, it became evident throughout participants’ reflections on emotion regulation and the coach-athlete relationship that closeness within a coach-athlete dyad played an important role in coaches’ attempts to regulate their athletes’ emotions. Furthermore, coaches’ attempts at regulating their athletes’ emotions contributed to the closeness in the relationship. Athlete A1 speculated that the close relationship with a coach was important because “maybe it just provides extra comfort having that coach that you can trust with your emotions?” (A1–Pre Interview). In addition, athletes expressed that extrinsic emotion regulation came predominantly from head coaches due to the perception that head coaches were more committed than assistant coaches and trainers, and more involved in the athletic relationship. Therefore, it appeared that athletes’ and coaches’ investment in the coach-athlete relationship may have contributed to coaches’ ability to successfully influence an athlete’s emotions.

3.2.2 Communication and co-orientation

Participants talked about the importance of communication within the coach-athlete relationship to maintain a common ground, and this communication contributed to coaches’ ability to regulate their athletes’ emotions. Coach C1 indicated the importance of communication with his athletes: “Communication is key. Um, the ability to communicate with uh, with each other is sort of crucial, both from a, you know from a, me to them, it’s a matter of giving them the tools they need” (C1–Pre Interview).

However, it appeared that it was the responsibility of the athletes to communicate with their coach, especially concerning emotions and emotion regulation, and athletes reported not always feeling comfortable initiating such contact nor did they necessarily understand what emotion regulation they required from their coach. Athlete A3 said:

I think a lot of my other coaches, because I wasn’t really sure how I [performed] or what kinds of emotions, emotional state I needed to be in and I didn’t know how to ask for it, so with one of my older coaches, I would go to competitions with him and he would tell me ‘oh you need to improve on this, you need to improve on that’, but I always tried to regulate my emotions myself, rather than asking them because I didn’t know that I needed a different emotion for [performing] (A3–Pre Interview).

3.3 Contextual and external factors

Participants indicated a number of contextual factors in coaches’ and athletes’ immediate environments that influenced athletes’ emotions, athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies, coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation strategies, and ultimately the broader context of the coach-athlete relationship. The immediate contextual factors reported by participants in this study were the athlete’s performance, competition versus workout, group size, competitive expectations, injury, personal life concerns and sport type. These results are presented in Table 1.

Participants in this study also described a number of external factors that contributed to the quality of the coach-athlete relationship, and ultimately to coaches’ ability to regulate their athletes’ emotions (see Tab. 2). External factors were categorized using Jowett & Poczwardowski, 2007 categories within the integrated model of coach-athlete relationships: individual differences (athlete/coach experience, personality), wider context (cultural norms, team size), and interpersonal factors (relationship length, athlete/coach gender). Coach-athlete gender appeared to play a dominant role as a contextual factor, and interestingly, female athletes elaborated on the preference to share emotions with a female coach, whereas male athletes did not report that their emotional experiences were related to their (male) coach’s gender.

Table 1

Factors in the immediate context influencing athletes’ emotions and emotion regulation processes between athletes and coaches.

Table 2

External factors influencing the coach-athlete relationship and emotion regulation processes between athletes and coaches.

3.4 Conceptual model

Overall, a bidirectional relationship was apparent between athletes’ emotions and their intrinsic emotion regulation, and with coaches’ extrinsic use of emotion regulation (see Fig. 1). This bidirectional relationship became evident as participants described how an athlete’s emotions influenced the athlete’s use of intrinsic emotion regulation strategies as well as the coach’s extrinsic emotion regulation strategy use; and participants also discussed how emotion regulation initiated by the coach or the athlete subsequently influenced athletes’ emotions. A bi-directional relationship was also identified between coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation strategies and the coach-athlete relationship, in that the quality of the relationship appeared to influence coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation, and coaches’ attempts at extrinsic emotion regulation also contributed to the quality of the relationship. For example, participants frequently discussed how coaches were better able to regulate their athletes’ emotions with a strong coach-athlete relationship; conversely, athletes indicated times when the coach-athlete relationship became better or worse depending on coaches’ use of extrinsic emotion regulation strategies. We identified a number of external factors (individual factors, the wider context, and interpersonal factors) contributed to the quality of the coach-athlete relationship and ultimately influenced athletes’ and coaches’ use of emotion regulation strategies. We also identified factors in the immediate context (the athlete’s performance, competition versus practice, time in season, group size, and personal life concerns) that contributed to IER between coaches and athletes.

4 Discussion

The purpose of the present study was to explore the strategies coaches used to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions, as well as the relationship and contextual factors that influenced coaches’ IER strategy use. Through an in-depth analysis of coach and athlete interviews and audio diaries, a conceptual model was developed outlining the relationships between athletes’ emotions, athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies, coaches’ extrinsic emotion regulation strategies, contextual and external factors, and the coach-athlete relationship. Overall, athletes’ and coaches’ intrinsic and extrinsic emotion regulation strategies appeared to both influence and be influenced by the quality of the coach-athlete relationship, as well as by immediate and broader external factors in the sport context. This study advances the literature by considering the types of extrinsic emotion regulation strategies that coaches used to try and regulate the athletes’ emotions as well as the factors that influence IER among coaches and athletes.

Emotional experiences take place within the context of social relationships (Schoebi & Randall, 2015), and therefore it was important to explore IER among athletes and coaches in the present study while taking into consideration the coach-athlete relationship. The present findings support research that has suggested a bi-directional relationship between coach-athlete relationship quality and dyadic coping between coaches and athletes (Staff et al., 2017). Staff and colleagues (2017) found that coaches and athletes cope with stress as a collective, and this both depends on and contributes to the quality of a coach-athlete relationship consisting of trust, communication, and support. Our results support this finding; however, the present study is the first to explore the potential link between coach-athlete relationship quality and coaches’ IER. In Niven’s (2017) theoretical framework of motives for IER in the workplace, she identified coaching purposes for leaders’ IER (i.e. attempting to elicit emotions in others that are beneficial for performance), and she also recognized leaders’ use of IER to improve relatedness and relationship quality. Altogether, there is evidence to support the idea of a bi-directional association regarding the association between relationship quality and IER. Future research could use quantitative approaches to determine whether relationship quality predicts effective use of IER, or whether effective IER use by coaches predicts improved relationship quality.

Participants in this study also described a number of immediate contextual factors that influenced the use of intrinsic and extrinsic emotion regulation strategies. These factors included the performance of the athlete, whether it was a competition or a practice, the group size, athletes’ and coaches’ performance expectations, the presence of an injury, aspects of one’s personal life, and sport type. Furthermore, athletes and coaches described factors such as coach experience, personality, cultural norms, relationship length, and gender of the coach and athlete as important in influencing coaches’ IER with athletes. While previous research has explored affective processes between coaches and athletes (Allan & Côté, 2016; Thelwell et al., 2008; van Kleef et al., 2018; Vargas-Tonsing, 2009), there is little research that has situated these processes within the coach-athlete relationship or with consideration given to the contextual factors that influence emotions in sport. Based on our qualitative findings, it is not possible to determine which of these factors have a greater or lesser influence on coaches’ IER with athletes; however, the present study adds to the literature by suggesting some potential avenues for future investigation. Future research should establish whether particular contextual factors are more likely to predict coaches’ use of particular IER strategies in practice and competition settings.

While the present findings clarify the types of strategies that coaches used to try and regulate athletes’ emotions, additional research is required to examine the motives that coaches may have in trying to regulate their athletes’ emotions. Tamir (2016) developed a taxonomy of motives for emotion regulation and described hedonic (i.e. the desire to feel immediate pleasant or unpleasant emotions) and instrumental (i.e. the desire to achieve immediate performance goals for future benefits) reasons behind one’s use of emotion regulation. This categorization of the motives for emotion regulation could apply to athletes’ and coaches’ uses of emotion regulation strategies and explain why coaches use particular IER strategies. Furthermore, it is important to consider coaches’ and athletes’ expectations regarding the effects of IER on athletes’ emotions and performance. Research findings by Netzer, van Kleef, and Tamir (2015) suggested that individuals may hold instrumental motives to regulate the emotions of others to achieve desired outcomes. Thus, coaches may believe some strategies would be effective for regulating an athlete’s emotions, whereas an athlete may not perceive these strategies to be effective, or they may have unintended adverse outcomes for the athlete. Our findings suggest that if athletes and coaches do not have a strong relationship or are not on the same page regarding the types of strategies that are desired and effective for regulating the athlete’s emotions, then this disconnect between the coach’s efforts and the athlete’s emotional experience could negatively impact performance. Additional research is needed to examine how emotion regulation motives may change based on contextual demands: by identifying the different motives for emotion regulation within different contexts, coaches and athletes can gain a better understanding of what emotions are desirable and the selection of specific intrinsic or extrinsic emotion regulation strategies.

Understanding the motives that coaches may have for regulating athletes’ emotions may also help to explain the use of more negative IER strategies such as yelling and guilt-inducing criticism. While these types of controlling coaching behaviours have been associated with a number of negative athlete outcomes (for a review see Bartholemew, Ntoumanis, & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, 2009), participants in the present study indicated that these strategies could be helpful for performance when used at appropriate times. Previous research suggests that some athletes may feel that expressions and experiences of negative emotions may function to improve their own and their teammates’ performance by provoking increased effort during competition (Tamminen et al., 2016). This is a complex issue and we do not mean to say that controlling coaching behaviours are necessarily ‘good’; however, our findings suggest that participants may not perceive these behaviours as universally ‘bad’ and coaches may be effective in regulating their athletes’ positive and negative emotions to foster increased effort and improved performances. However, there is limited research to date examining coaches’ motives to induce negative emotions among athletes and their impact on athlete effort, performance, and well-being, and more research is required to advance this line of inquiry.

Coaches reported some difficulty and fatigue associated with attempting to regulate athletes’ emotions. For example, a coach indicated that putting things into perspective for athletes became exhausting after prolonged use of the strategy. This could be explained by research on emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983), where engaging in the display of false emotions can lead to emotional exhaustion (Lee and Chelladurai, 2015) and leader burnout (Liu et al., 2015). Emotional labour is described as the management of feelings for public displays of emotion (Hochschild, 1983) and when considering interpersonal emotion regulation, Niven (2017) argued that leaders engage in emotional labour when attempting to regulate followers’ emotions purely out of obligation rather than intrinsic desire. Therefore, coaches’ attempts to manage the emotions of their athletes may have had an exhaustive effect on coaches if they felt obligated to do so. Overall, this study provides some evidence that coaches’ attempts at regulating their athletes’ emotions may also contribute to coaches’ emotional labour. Future research could explore how managing others’ emotions relates to the construct of emotional labour, coaches’ emotional exhaustion, and coach burnout; furthermore, it would be valuable to determine whether coaches’ motives for IER strategy used and the effectiveness of their attempts to regulate athletes’ emotions moderate these relationships.

5 Implications and limitations

The present study has both theoretical and practical implications. Given that this is one of the first studies to explore coaches’ use of IER strategies with their athletes, the findings serve as a foundation for future research on coaches’ and leaders’ use of IER in sport. In addition, these results build on previous research regarding athletes’ intrinsic emotion regulation strategies (Uphill et al., 2009) by considering the use of IER within the context of the coach-athlete relationship (Jowett & Meek, 2000). Overall, the conceptual model outlining the relationships between emotions, IER, the coach-athlete relationship, and additional contextual factors can provide researchers with a preliminary framework to examine the construct of IER and the coach-athlete relationship in sport.

The findings of this study also have practical implications for coaches and sport organizations. Given the apparent importance of emotions, emotion regulation, and the quality of the coach-athlete relationship for individual athletes, coaches should be aware of their use of extrinsic emotion regulation strategies. Although the propositions outlined in this study remain to be tested, these findings suggest that by communicating with athletes and understanding what each individual athlete needs in terms of emotion regulation, coaches may be able to more effectively regulate their athletes’ emotions and potentially also strengthen the coach-athlete relationship. Furthermore, coaches can facilitate active communication with their athletes to ensure athletes are able to effectively regulate their own emotions if coaches are not present.

Despite the implications of this study, there were limitations associated with the sample, and data collection, and the conceptual model. The small sample makes it difficult to generalize the findings to other sports, different age groups, different performance levels, and different genders. This issue should be stressed when considering the applicability of the conceptual model to other contexts, as aspects or relationships presented in the model may differ with other samples, as there is evidence to suggest differences in perceptions of the coach-athlete relationship in individual versus team sports (Lorimer & Jowett, 2009) and same-sex versus other-sex relationships (Jowett & Poczwardowski, 2007). With respect to data collection, the interviews and audio diaries were completed in a two-week time period during the middle of participants’ competitive seasons. Researchers could consider adopting a prospective approach to examine how coaches’ and athletes’ uses of emotion regulation strategies at various time points fluctuate across a season. Finally, while we examined coaches’ strategies to regulate athletes’ emotions, one limitation is that we did not investigate the concurrent impact of coaches’ emotional expressions on athletes. Given that coaches’ emotional expressions have been found to influence athletes’ emotions and performance (Allan & Côté, 2016; van Kleef et al., 2018; Vargas-Tonsing, 2009), additional research is needed to examine the relative impact of coaches’ emotional expressions and intentional IER efforts to try and influence athletes’ emotions.

6 Conclusion

Researchers have investigated emotional processes between coaches and athletes by examining coach emotional intelligence or by examining how coaches’ emotional expressions influence athletes. However, our findings demonstrated that coaches used specific strategies to try and regulate their athletes’ emotions. We also identified aspects of the coach-athlete relationship and various contextual factors that influenced IER between coaches and athletes, and we proposed a preliminary conceptualization of coaches’ IER strategy use with athletes. This study provides a foundation for future research examining coaches’ IER, while also highlighting the importance of considering these affective processes within the coach-athlete relationship and the context of the competitive sport environment.

Author contribution

Courtney Braun was responsible for the idea and theory development, carrying out the data collection and analyses, writing the manuscript. Katherine Tamminen supervised the project, significantly contributed to idea and theory development, and assisted with writing and editing the final manuscript.


Thank you to Sing-Yan Ng for her help with data collection.


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Cite this article as: Braun C & Tamminen KA (2019) Coaches’ interpersonal emotion regulation and the coach-athlete relationship. Mov Sport Sci/Sci Mot, 105, 37–51

Supplementary material

Appendices A and B (Access here)

All Tables

Table 1

Factors in the immediate context influencing athletes’ emotions and emotion regulation processes between athletes and coaches.

Table 2

External factors influencing the coach-athlete relationship and emotion regulation processes between athletes and coaches.

All Figures

thumbnail Fig. 1

Integrated model of athlete and coach emotion regulation in the context of the coach-athlete relationship.

In the text

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