The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Coaching Effects on the Youth Athlete [UPDATED]
by Richard F. Bernier
The purpose of this research is to explore the effects of a coach’s self-fulfilling prophecy on a youth athlete. The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been around for a long time. Research in this area has been done as early as the 1940’s. The self-fulfilling prophecy was first identified by Robert Merton in 1948 as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1968).
There has been little direct research in this area in the sport setting, however, the multitude of research that has been done can be applied to sports. The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy is considered a social issue since it involves the interaction between two or more individuals. It has the ability to affect important outcomes for individuals (Madon et al., 2011).
With the developing minds and bodies of young athletes, it would be logical that they would be highly susceptible to the effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy. An early study by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1963) involved a classroom setting and the effects of teachers’ self-fulfilling prophecies on students. Since coaches share similar traits as teachers, this study is a good example of how young athletes would be affected.
Coaches’ behaviors not only affect the behavior of young athletes on the field but also contributes to how a child behaves in their social environment outside of sports. Other theories that have been associated with the self-fulfilling prophecy are the self-verification theory, confirmation bias, and the Pygmalion Effect to name a few.
What is Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when at least one person has a false belief in another person or group. They treat this person or group as if the belief is true. This, in turn, results in the person or group confirming the original belief making it true. In a youth sport context example, a coach obtains a player from another team in which this player has played the key attacking position as a striker on his previous team. The player was highly successful on the other team as the highest goal scorer with the most goals and assists.
However, the recruiting coach sees the team this player came from as a lower level team playing easier teams than the teams he plays. He has the belief that this player does not have the tactical or technical ability to play the striker position on his higher level team. He places this player in the position of right-back (defender), a position that the player has never played before, therefore, having to learn the tactical aspects of this new position.
Since this is a new position and he is learning the different tactics, he is making some errors. The coach uses these errors as proof that the player is not good enough tactically to play the position of striker. The coach has proven that he is correct in his assessment, at least in his view. This example is taken from a real-life situation on a youth soccer team and is reported based on observations of interactions and discussions between the coach and athlete. Many questions arise out of this situation.
Why would a coach react this way? Would it not be beneficial to the team to have players playing in their strongest positions? Could it be the coach’s ego, wanting to prove he is right and knows how to assess players? Could it be that the player is doing a good job in filling a weak spot on the team, even though it is not his best position? If so, then why not be truthful about their motives in the player positioning? Could there be personality issues between the coach and player? Is the coach playing his “favorite” players? Are there hidden reasons for this behavior that is not that readily visible?
There are many questions that need to be answered with plenty of room for additional research to determine the reasons why a coach would act in this manner. These questions are beyond the scope of this paper but opens up the need for more research directly related to the youth sport setting. The self-fulfilling prophecy has the ability to potentially affect important outcomes for individuals (Madon et al., 2011). Three issues have been identified that are of particular importance: The mechanisms underlying self-fulfilling prophecies, the power of self-fulfilling prophecies to alter behavior, and the way that self-fulfilling prophecies may contribute to social problems.
Self Verification Theory
A mechanism underlying the self-fulfilling prophecy to look at is the self-verification theory. With the self-verification theory people prefer others to see them the way they see themselves. In a sport setting the coach would want to be known as the expert in their sport. If they deem a player as not having certain skills then they would create the situation to prove they are correct. If efforts fail to obtain self-verifying evaluations they use a strategy of “seeing” nonexistent evidence (Van Lange, Kruglanski & Higgins, 2012). This type of evaluation is similar to confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is where a person seeks to validate or interpret information to confirm their preconception. Participants actively seek out evidence that confirms their preconceptions and ignores evidence that could disconfirm their preconceptions. Studies have shown that people will overweigh positive confirmatory evidence and underweigh negative disconfirmatory evidence (Nickerson, 1998).
The Pygmalion Effect
The Pygmalion Effect is another concept that is very similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy. In studies in business it has been shown that this can either elevate a worker’s productivity or undermine it. An early study was completed by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1963) in a classroom setting.
In this study, they had informed a group of teachers that a test could be given to students that would measure who had the ability to improve their intelligence scores. A group of students were administered a test but it did not measure what the researches had claimed. It was just a general knowledge test. They then randomly chose half the group and told the teachers those students scored high on the test for the ability to learn better and increase their intelligence scores. After completing the school year the students were retested and what they discovered was that the students identified as having the learning ability improved more than the other group. The hypothesis based on observation and questioning is that the students identified as ‘gifted’ were given more attention than the other students which would account for their improved results.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is seen as an interpersonal process involving two or more people. This makes this issue a social issue that has not always been looked at this way in the past. Self-fulfilling prophecies can even involve large groups, as large as a whole race or nationality of people. This can be especially true in the sports setting.
For example, there had been long-held beliefs that only white men are good quarterbacks, African Americans couldn’t play golf, and the best basketball players are black. Fortunately, this belief, along with others, are being changed in professional sports partly because of people like Warren Moon, Tiger Woods, and Larry Bird.
Targets of the self-fulfilling prophecy are less susceptible to the self-fulfilling prophecy when they are motivated to defend their personal identities (Swann and Ely, 1984) or are aware of the perceiver’s expectations (Hilton and Darley, 1985).
There is research that shows that the athlete’s personality will help determine if they would be susceptible. It can also explain how some athletes have gone on to high levels despite the biases they had encountered. Can a coach recognize the onset of a self-fulfilling prophecy and turn it around? In other words, should a coach be taught that if he has a preconceived notion as not being a good player to then spend more, not less, time with that player?
A Team is as Strong as its Weakest Link
A coach should realize that a team is as strong as its weakest link, especially in youth sports where every player should be getting playing time. It is then logical that if the coach spends time to improve the ability of the worst player that the whole team would benefit by creating more quality games. There is a sequence of four steps in which the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon occurs in sport settings (Horn, Lox & Labrador, 2010). In step 1 the coach forms an expectation based on criteria they have observed. In the detailed example at the beginning of this paper, the coach knows the player played at a lower level. He then correlated the lower level of play with the player’s ability. His expectation is that he does not have all the skills to play a key position on his team. This is formed before he even sees the player step on the field. In the second step, the coach’s expectation affects their own behavior by putting the player in a position they have never played before. During practices, the player is given general instructions on an activity. Little or no corrective instruction is given. The coach concentrates his efforts on the attacking players and the new player is never given the opportunity to run the activity as an attacker. The athlete’s performance remains the same, especially in regards to attacking. The coach’s behavior is affecting the athletes’ performance and behavior which marks step 3. Instead of giving the full effort he now just goes through the motions which is putting him behind in advancing his abilities. In the fourth and final step the coach sees the performance of the player not advancing. He observes bad passes and poor decisions. There is no sense of urgency in the athlete’s play. The coach can now point these factors out as confirmation that his initial assessment of the player was correct.
Addressing the Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1963 study in the classroom shows us two things. The first is that teachers will react and spend more time helping a student that is able to improve then one that is not. This happens even if the perception is accurate or not on assessing the child. A child getting special attention then becomes a chance encounter unfairly leaving others behind. It is easily observable to see that coaches behave in the same manner. I believe this to be true more in the competitive leagues than in the recreational leagues. I base this opinion on the reasoning that most recreational teams are coached by inexperienced parent coaches. This is not true in every case but in most and these coaches are more about fun than winning the game. Of course, there is always the exception but as a general statement, I believe this to be true.
On the other hand, the more competitive leagues have more experienced coaches that are most likely paid to coach. Intuitively you would think that the more experienced coach would be aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if you look at how the competitive youth coach presents his credentials you will see it is about their win/loss record or how many championships they have won. Research in this area should be done to determine if there are observable predictors to determine if a coach is susceptible to the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The second thing this study shows is how this affects children. How many children could have gone on to college or achieve something great but did not because they were essentially ignored? How many children have quit athletics early and have led sedentary lives but could have been active, healthy adults? Children are impressionable and the coaches of our youth should receive training on how to best handle a child’s psychological needs.
At a minimum they should be aware of their actions and how it affects a child. What a coach does or does not do affects not just their athletic abilities but also their social interactions.
Based on the direct effects on a child I believe coaches should have some training on the psychological aspects of coaching. There are coaching licenses in some sports such as soccer, however, these courses only teach the coaches how to conduct a practice session.
There are also plenty of coaching clinics but again, they only touch on the playing and administration of coaching. Not all athletes will react negatively to a coach’s self-fulfilling prophecy. An athlete with low self-esteem is the most vulnerable (Smith & Smoll,2012). These are the athletes that have not had much success in sports. They feel inferior so they act inferior.
Coaches, team managers, administrators, and even parents should be taught to recognize these athletes and how to deal with them better. These athletes are usually the trouble makers and can be picked out and dealt with in a way that would benefit them and the team. Punishment is not necessarily the answer.
There are three main groups of people who directly affect a youth athlete: coaches, parents, and the athlete. I would like to present this issue as a topic at a coaching conference. I am also going to try to get into schools to offer this to parents and athletes. A third source to disseminate this information is to youth sport groups. I am currently involved in youth soccer and will start with this group in my area. Not all coaches will respond to the information presented so there will still be issues of the self-fulfilling prophecy occurring. This would be where I would work with the athletes on a one-on-one basis. This is to help them deal with the issue and give them someone who they can go to discuss how to handle it. I would be there to guide them through alternatives and to ease the emotional issues that could accompany this challenge. In summary, a coach’s actions can have a negative effect on a child from mild to severe. In most cases the athlete drops out of playing sports. This can lead to a sedentary lifestyle which in turn becomes a health issue for the child now and later in life. According to the Center for Disease Control, participation on at least one sport team has increased by more than 3% between 1999 and 2011. In contrast to this, 19.6% of children and adolescents are considered obese. This has tripled since 1980 (6.5%). Research shows that there is a sharp decline in participation in sports after 11 or 12 years of age. In a severe case, it could create social issues where the child becomes dysfunctional. I, along with other psychologists, need to educate coaches and parents. We also need to provide unconditional support for the athletes.
Youth Performance Coaching
If you are new to youth coaching, training and mentoring, this is a great launching point for your career. You will gain valuable insight that will give you the skills needed to make a positive change in the lives of youth.
That’s it for now.
Center for Disease Control (2013). Trends in the prevalence of physical activity and sedentary behaviors, National YRBS: 1991-2011. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/npao/data.htm. Hilton, J.L., & Darley, J.M. (1985). Constructing other persons: A limit on effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 21:1-18. Horn, T.S., Lox, C.L. & Labrador, F. (2010). The self-fulfilling prophecy theory: When coaches’ expectations become reality. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance, 6th ed. J.M. Williams editor, New York:McGraw Hill, 81-105. Madon, S., Willard, J. Guyll, M. & Scherr, K.C. (2011). Self-fulfilling prophecies: Mechanisms, power, and links. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 5/8: 578-590. Merton, R.K. (1968). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd ed. New York: Free Press, 477. Nickerson, R.S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, Vol 2, No 2, 175-220. Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1963). Teachers’ expectancies: Determinants of pupils’ IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19. 115-118. Swann, W.B., Jr., & Ely, R.J. (1984). A battle of wills: Self-verification versus behavioral confirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1287-1302. Smith, R.E. & Smoll, F.L. (2012). Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches: Developing Champions in Sports and Life. New York:Rowman & Littlefiled Publishers. Van Lange, P.A.M., Kruglanski, A.W., & Higgins, E.T. (2012). Handbook of theories of social psychology: Volume two. Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications Ltd.
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