Authentic leaders can help curb athlete aggression, study says

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Competition can inevitably become contentious, which is why successful athletes keep their emotions in check. Now, researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Suffolk report athletes competing under the guidance of sports coaches who display “authentic leadership” are less likely to act aggressively on the playing field.

Moreover, their study finds authentic leadership promotes greater sports enjoyment and commitment among athletes. Study authors consider both of those factors vital qualities in a successful athlete, as they often end up influencing whether or not an individual continues to participate in their sport of choice. Generally speaking, people tend to move away from playing organized sports as they grow older.

More specifically, when study authors talk about “athlete aggression,” they are referring to committing intentional fouls and risking injury to opponents.

So, what exactly makes a leader or coach authentic?

Study authors point to four main attributes:

  • Self-awareness: An understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses and being aware of one’s impact on others.
  • Relational transparency: Expressing one’s true thoughts and feelings, all while minimizing inappropriate emotions.
  • Balanced processing of information: Considering all relevant information objectively, including their followers’ perspectives, before making a decision.
  • Internalized moral perspective: Exhibiting behaviors that are consistent with one’s high moral standards; always behaving ethically in one’s interactions with others.

Coaches are vital in influencing athletes’ development and must be encouraged to show high authentic leadership – being open with their athletes and including them in decision making, whilst behaving ethically, admitting to their mistakes, and speaking honestly,” says study co-author and Birmingham Professor Maria Kavussanu in a university release.

“Our study demonstrates that if a coach displays the attributes of an authentic leader this could have a positive impact on their athletes – increasing athletes’ trust, commitment, and enjoyment, and decreasing aggression,” she continues. “Sport enjoyment is particularly important for continued participation in sport, which tends to decline with age. As such, coaches who display authentic behaviors can increase their athletes’ enjoyment, with significant positive implications for athletes’ physical and mental well-being.”

These findings are based on an analysis of 129 participants, including 76 women. Each athlete was a sport science student at a U.K. university, and an amateur athlete competing at a regional level. Through an experimental vignette methodology, the research team analyzed the impact of authentic leadership on athletes’ trust, enjoyment, commitment, and a variety of additional morally relevant variables: aggression, cheating, and guilt for cheating and aggression.

“When a coach demonstrates the attributes of an authentic leader, athletes are more likely to trust the coach and want to continue competing for them. In contrast, a coach displaying the behaviors of a non-authentic leader could diminish trust, enjoyment, and commitment among the athletes who train under them,” concludes study co-author Ella Malloy from the University of Suffolk.

The study is published in the journal Sport Exercise and Performance Psychology.

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