Mastery vs. caring climate in youth sport – room for both?

What are the essential components of an ideal youth sport climate? Should the coach focus on teaching athletes the fundamental skills needed for the sport, focusing on the individual mastery for each player? Should the coach focus on building a caring climate for the players so that they feel like they are a part of the team, and that they are able to take calculated risks to improve their skills?

At the 2012 conference for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, these questions arose several times for myself and my colleagues. Based on my coaching experience, I firmly believe that a coach should focus on mastery of fundamental sport skills. In swimming, this meant mastering each of the four strokes in a way that did not produce injury. I felt that if a swimmer could improve his or her skills, this would lead to higher motivation and a sense of self-accomplishment.

But what about the sport climate? Is promoting mastery part of building a caring climate? What about intensive sport experiences, such as training camps? If the training camp creates a challenging (maybe even threatening) environment that enables athletes to reach new levels of skill mastery, how would athletes rank how “caring” this climate was? For instance, “tough love” can get results, and athletes can perceive the coach’s tough love as his way of showing that he cares. This stands in contrast to a climate to one where the coach provides a non-threatening atmosphere, but never pushes athletes to improve.

Like so many cases in sport, much lies in the perception that the athlete has. A mastery-oriented athlete might perceive challenge as an opportunity to improve, while an ego-oriented athlete might perceive challenge as a threat that could show his weakness as an athlete. If a coach builds a sport climate that values mastery, that will involve challenging the athletes. How will his athletes perceive these challenges?

Sport psychology researchers will need to clarify what a caring climate looks like at each stage of athlete development, and clarify the best ways to push athletes to improve within this climate. I don’t think these two concepts mutually exclude each other. Indeed, when we look at surveys for why children play youth sports, they report they want to be with their friends and have fun, and at the same time, they want to improve their skills.

To borrow a thought I have heard Dan Gould use many times, we need to figure out how to “dose adversity” so that we get the best response from the athlete. What’s appropriate at each stage of athlete development? What might be an appropriate dose for one 16 year-old but not for another 16 year-old? And how can we make this process simpler, so that coaches – new coaches, especially – can actually apply these scientific principles in their daily work with youth athletes?

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