Autonomy-Supportive Pedagogical Approach to Coaching Young Male Rugby Players in the
Transition Phase from Junior to Professional Rugby
Challenges of young rugby players in the transition phase
Athletes experience different types of transitions throughout their sporting career, which can be distinguished by normative and non-normative transition phases (Wylleman and Lavallee, 1997). The planned and successful transition from junior to professional sport is considered normative, whereas non-normative transitions for young athletes happen due to unplanned events like e.g., not getting a contract offer or an early career-ending injury (Wylleman and Lavallee, 1997). The transition phase from junior to professional rugby is associated with a variety of challenges for young players (Nicholls et al., 2006). From a physical perspective, young people who are aspiring to become professional rugby players face increased expectations of their physical abilities and attributes and feel the need to become bigger, stronger and faster throughout their talent development pathway (Till et al., 2016). These high expectations can lead to the negative side of elite sport like high pressure to perform and certain weight and size requirements, which can lead to rugby players using performance-enhancing drugs to cope with these stressors (Didymus and Backhouse, 2020). Furthermore, young rugby players have to deal with psychological challenges and stressors not just in a game context, but also off the field in order to be successful (Hodge et al., 2008). This includes fulfilling different positional roles, the ability to follow and execute tactical and technical demands and understanding the concepts of defence and attack (Hodge et al., 2008). Very often aspiring youth athletes play in multiple programs like club academies, schools and provincial or national teams and must meet the requirements of all of these training and game environments with different sports coaches (Till et al., 2020). Finn and McKenna (2010) identified several challenges for rugby players transitioning from the academy to the first team. Players reported not only an increase in the physical challenges of the training and playing schedule, but also additional stress and pressure to perform at the highest level, prove value to the team and earn respect from more established players. Making physical or mental errors in the game are stressors for young
players (Nicholls et al., 2006). Building new relationships with the coaches and adapting to different coaching styles is a challenge, as well as lifestyle changes and distractions. Young players might feel social strains of partners and peers to engage in distracting social activities like drinking or going out to party and having to deal with financial pressure or agents (Finn and McKenna, 2010). Also, receiving criticism from parents and coaches is one of the main challenges young rugby players cite in Nicholls et al., (2006). In order to overcome these challenges, cope with them and ensure psychological wellbeing in the transition phase to professional rugby, young players must possess psychological skills and characteristics like e.g., confidence, volition and motivation (McAuliffe, Lavallee and Campbell, 2021). Especially the absence of motivation leads to feelings of in- competence, devaluation of the tasks or situations in the training or competitive environment, lack of control and ownership of the sports participation and performance (Deci and Ryan, 1985). Therefore, coaches must create an environment, where athletes develop or evolve self-determined intrinsic motivation. A motivational environment in which psychological needs are met (Self-Determination Theory) leads to positive psychological wellbeing in athletes (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Occhino et al., 2014). Coaches have a major impact on creating a supportive, motivational climate, primarily through their behavior and coaching approach and studies show, that coaches ́ behavior are a predictor for the motivation of players (Amorose and Anderson- Butcher, 2007; Conroy and Coatsworth, 2007). The way coaches behave, engage, act and communicate has a huge influence on the experience of athletes in sport and how they think, feel and behave (Amorose and Anderson-Butcher, 2007; Deci and Ryan, 2000). Effects of young athletes participating in sport are most likely indirect and dependent on interpersonal and intrapersonal processes within the sports context (Larson et al., 2006). A suggestion for pedagogical framing is an autonomy-supportive approach centering psychological need satisfaction and creating a motivational learning environment (Oc- chino et al., 2014).
Creating an autonomy-supportive environment
The motivational model of the coach-athlete relationship from Mageau and Vallerand (2003) is a theoretical framework, that utilizes the Self-Determination Theory and pro- motes an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach in sports coaching to achieve desired player outcomes like improved performance and psychosocial wellbeing (Occhino, 2014). The model is based on the Self Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan, 1985) and the Hierarchical Model of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation (Vallerand, 1997). Autonomy- supportive pedagogy in a sports context refers to an individual in a position of authority, who considers the perspectives of the athletes and fosters self-initiation, which can lead to participation in problem-solving and decision making (Black and Deci, 2000). The foundation of an autonomy-supportive coaching approach is the coach acknowledging the player ́s feelings and perspectives without being overly controlled by external demands and conceptualizing sport contexts as learning contexts (Black and Deci, 2000; Conroy and Coatsworth, 2007). This also includes the acceptance of negative emotions as part of the growth process of a person (Amoura et al., 2015). An autonomy-supportive environment is associated with the satisfaction of the three psychological needs according to the Self-Determination Theory: Autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci and Ryan, 2002). Studies have shown that coaches, who apply an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach into their practice, support their athletes in four key areas: It not only enhances athletic performance, but also sustains intrinsic motivation and athletes valuing their sport; as well as the satisfaction of the three main psychological needs and fostering engagement and participation in sport (Occhino et al., 2014). To achieve an autonomy-supportive environment with the goal of motivation and psychological wellbeing and development, the following seven pedagogical behaviors are relevant to coaches according to Mageau and Vallerand (2003). Controlling behaviors or those that can be perceived as bullying or coercion must be avoided (1). In order to teach problem-solving, the coach must provide athletes with opportunities to take initiative and work independently (2). Furthermore, coaches should give non-controlling competence feedback to their athletes, which allows solving problems cooperatively between the coach and the athletes (3). Involving athletes in decision-making for the training program and providing choice within boundaries is a key aspect of an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach (4). Another important aspect for coaches ́ behavior is the acknowledgment of the players ́ perspectives and feelings (5). Coaches should teach a rationale for tasks and make players understand the “how” and “why” behind training, the sport itself and development (6). The last key aspect of this pedagogical approach is reducing the perception of ego-involvement in athletes and focusing on self-referenced evaluation criteria (7). These pedagogical behaviors of coaches, as well as providing structure and caring for the athletes as people and not athletes first in the training and competitive setting should ideally lead to the fulfillment of the psychological needs and promote intrinsic motivation (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003). Even though an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach is very open and involves the athlete ́s input, structure is particularly important for players in order to understand their role in a team (Pope and Wilson, 2012). Emotional support by coaches can support relatedness. The feeling of belonging, competence, relatedness and self- worth is more likely when the player ́s perspectives, opinions and input is valued by the coach (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003). Additionally, Cronin et al., (2019) connect coaching as a caring practice to the Self Determination Theory and discuss autonomy supportive behavior and caring relationships as symbiotic features of successful coaching. Whereas, controlling behaviors from rather autocratic coaches undermine intrinsic motivation and reduce the satisfaction of psychological needs (Bartholomew et al., 2011). Controlling strategies include the use of controlling feedback, excessive personal control, fostering ego-involvement or intimidation behaviors (Bartholomew et al., 2009). According to the literature, these two pedagogical approaches can also be found overlapping, mixed, or in varying degrees among coaches (Hammermeister, 2014). Coaches can have controlling, as well as autonomy-supportive behavior in the same training and competitive environment.
Application of an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach in junior rugby
The implementation of an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach in order to meet the contemporary needs and cope with the challenges of young rugby players in the transition phase from junior to professional rugby is not only dependent on the coaching setting, but also the coach’s personal orientation and goals (Occhino, 2014). A coach, who
focuses on the long-term development of young players is more likely to adapt an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach, while a coach who focuses solely on winning will tend to a coach-centered and rather controlled coaching style (Amorose, 2007). The coaching context is significant for the implementation of an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach, especially in a complex high-performance environment with high expectations and demands from different people, which can make an autonomy-supportive approach more challenging and difficult (Occhino, 2014; Amorose, 2007; Su and Reeve, 2011). Athletes and coaches in elite environments have to deal with many stressors and pressure to perform and therefore tend to prefer controlling behaviors (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003). Many coaches in high-performance settings feel the urge to control as many variables of the coaching process as possible in order to be successful and achieve the desired and expected performance outcomes (Lyle, 2002). When considering the sporting career of a junior rugby player, the transition phase from junior to senior professional rugby is primarily classified in the area of development. How- ever, as already explained above, many stressors and challenges of high-performance sports and an elite environment are already apparent and there are additional ones for youth players in order to “make the jump” to professional rugby. Although one may wish for each individual player who intends to play rugby professionally to succeed in this normative transition, non-normative transitions may also occur through, for example, not sign- ing on as a contracted player or dropping out due to injury. These young athletes also have contemporary needs that must be addressed in the pedagogical framework. Thus, an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach in a high-performance setting should also prepare and consider the non-normative transitions, as well as the goal of lifelong participation in sport outside of competitive sport. This opens up the question of what an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach to addressing challenges during the transition process might look like for young rugby players taking their contemporary needs into account. In order to meet the challenge of changing physical demands and associated pressures, players should first and foremost understand the “how” and “why” behind physical adaptations, training stimulus, long-term development and the changes to the body. Coaches must be able to strengthen the competencies of athletes in this phase through open
communication, education and support. Psychological pressures such as fear of physical or mental failure in the game and the added pressure to prove themselves in the senior team, develop advanced tactical and technical skills, and expand sport-specific knowledge can be countered with an open training and skill development design in which players take responsibility for their own learning and feedback is given through cooperation and discussion with the coaches. Non-controlling competence feedback can also be a solution in practice to help young players to cope with perceived pressure from rugby coaches. Augmented feedback of coaches which solely focuses on error identification will most likely interfere with critical processing and slow down the learning process, as well as instill fear of criticism (Winstein et al., 1994). However, if players receive feedback in an autonomy-supportive way, Lewthwaite and Wulf (2012) found positive links to intrinsic motivation, psychological well- being and the urge to complete the task and learn something new. In summary, if the basic principles of the autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach ac- cording to Mageau and Vallerand (2003) are followed, the challenges of the transition from junior to senior professional rugby can be addressed through a purposeful, pedagogical design and session planning.
Challenges for coaches in the process and critical evaluation
The coach's personality, as well as external influences, expectations, and the sporting context in which the players and the coach find themselves, present significant challenges for the coach in implementing an autonomy-supportive pedagogical framework (Amorose and Anderson-Butcher, 2007; Su and Reeve, 2011). In addition, the application of such an approach requires the coach to delve deeper into the subject matter and the meaning of autonomous-supportive. Iachini, Amorose, and Anderson-Butcher (2010) found that coaches often do not understand the benefits of an autonomy-supportive approach and what it actually entails. Moreover, the inclusion of the players' opinions and perspectives in decision-making processes is merely rhetorical or has no real impact on training or game design, tactics or even organizational issues (McLean and Mallett, 2012).
Another challenge for coaches for implementing the pedagogical approach is the involvement of other stakeholders in the development process of the young athletes (Byrne, 2010). There are certain expectations for coaching styles and approaches from management, other coaches or even parents. Byrne (2010) discusses openly critical feedback received from parents after adopting a more autonomy-supportive pedagogical framework. Especially letting players make their own decisions and involve them into decision- making processes was considered “laissez-faire” by parents and they expected more directive coaching (Byrne, 2010). Mageau and Vallerand (2003) stated that there are significant differences between a laissez-faire interpersonal coaching style and autonomy-supportive pedagogical frameworks. This means that not only the young players need more intensive education, but also all other stakeholders such as parents, support staff or management (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003). Coaches who want to adapt an autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach for the first time need to develop awareness for their own coaching behaviors and develop an evidence-informed review process for their own personal development in this pedagogical framework (Ahlberg, Mallett and Tinning, 2008). Otherwise, the chances are high that a lack of awareness for controlling behavior and not following the key aspects of the autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach occurs. There is always a temptation to switch to a more controlling coaching style when the desired performance outcomes do not occur according to the plan. If an autonomy-supported pedagogical approach should be followed, then changing to a controlling pedagogical framework should be resisted. Furthermore, the successful implementation of an autonomy-supported pedagogical framework by a coach depends on his or her own initial orientation and coaching beliefs and is massively influenced by their own experiences as athlete, coach or learner (Lyle, 2002). Coaches tend to replicate what they ́ve experienced as athletes or what they have learned from their mentors. An evaluation of the coaching philosophy and the pedagogical approach for the specific sporting setting and the goals and development plan for the athletes is recommended, ideally at the beginning of a season or start of a program. The pedagogical framework is only applicable when awareness for the contemporary needs of the young athletes exists and a coach takes time to understand the athletes.
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