College Football Scandals Stress Need For Coaching Character

Jim Tressel
Former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel seemed to be a role model for achieving on-field success with a high level of character.  Two-time National Coach of the Year, Larry Coker and former player Randy Shannon also were thought to provide moral leadership while winning national championships during their tenure as head coaches for the University of Miami.

Yet, both storied football programs now find themselves in the middle of NCAA investigations for major rule violations.  Reports of players trading memorabilia for cash or discounts, receiving cash and “entertainment” from boosters, and at least one of these coaches admitting to lying about their knowledge of these events has triggered a frenzy of discussion on what’s wrong with college athletics.

As head coaches often claim at their post-scandal press conferences, the buck stops with them as they have overall responsibility for the program and its players.  Being in the hot seat requires a coach that can provide the balance between ultra-competitive, “win now” demands of fans and boosters and long-term development of players’ skills and character. Several recent research initiatives have looked at this unique role and how to walk that fine line

Randy Shannon
Before arriving on a big-time college campus, elite athletes are exposed to multiple coaches.  Certainly, these coaches influence the player’s knowledge and skill level in their sport, but exercise science researchers at Concordia University in Montreal have documented a link between coaches and players in moral and ethical development.

Through interviews with elite coaches and athletes, Sandra Peláez and Simon Bacon found that after parents, coaches can become significant influences in moral guidance for athletes.

"Coaches are mentors, parent figures, career enablers, and judges -- all at the same time," lead author Peláez said. "Every coach, however, doesn't influence every athlete he or she works with. The coach-athlete relationship is what enables a coach's influence and therefore determines how much influence a coach has. We found athletes would evaluate the relationship with their coaches and then decide whether to accept moral guidance or not."

Of course, defining what is meant by the term morals is slippery.  For this study, four core moral values were defined. These were "elite sports involvement" (i.e. discipline), "interaction with others" (i.e. respect), "self-related" (i.e. enjoying the sport) and "game" (i.e. striving to win).

Also found in the study was the importance of cultural differences between coach and player as well as the generational influence of coaches being mentored by their former coaches.

Attitudes towards sports also begins at much younger age and helps set the stage for future behaviors.  A “win at all costs” coaching mentality has been found to be less effective for player development than a mastery method which emphasizes positive communications and learning the sport.

Recently, University of Washington sport psychologists interviewed 243 children -- 145 boys and 98 girls -- playing basketball in two separate Seattle leagues. The athletes ranged in age from 9 to 13 and 80 percent were white. They were given questionnaires to fill out twice, once prior to the beginning of the season and again 12 weeks later when the season was almost over.  Those kids that played for mastery coaches reported having more fun and enjoying the sport.

"One consistent finding of our research is that a mastery climate retains more youngsters in sports. It keeps them coming back," said Ronald Smith, a UW psychology professor and lead author of the study. "Retention is a huge problem in some youth sports programs. An important reason to keep kids involved in sports is that it reduces obesity by helping them be more active."

Like their athletes, elite college head coaches can often reach rock star status, as well.  This can cause problems if the coach cannot adapt to new situations for fear of trying new methods and not having an answer for everything.

"Coaching is complex, continually changing and influenced greatly by the context, athletes' circumstances and the developing relationship between the coach and the athlete,” claims Jim Denison, PhD, of the University of Alberta, and co-author of a new paper on positive coaching and ethical practices for athlete development. “When coaches achieve an expert status they tend to want to maintain that, so admitting that you don't know becomes a threat to their expertise."

So much is riding on a successful NCAA Division 1 program that a head coach may not be able to step back and admit a mistake or a problem with their players.

"It's hard for that person to express uncertainty, or be open to new ways of looking at a problem or consulting with others,” added Denison. "You cannot begin to 'problemetize' until you acknowledge and recognize that the knowledge you have is socially constructed based on a lot of take-for-granted ideas and traditions that have become dominant. We invite coaches to think more critically about how they think and what they do, to 'problemetize' their assumptions and to open their minds to look at their coaching practices critically and with the opportunity to try new things without feeling threatened by change."

Of course, easier said than done.  With so many strong influences on college athletes, head coaches will need to develop strong relationships with their team and even stronger support from their universities and fans in order to provide a championship with character.

Follow Dan Peterson on Twitter

See also: Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning and Wait Until After The Season To Fire The Coach

Sports Fans Love A Close Game

For sports fans watching their favorite team play, the greatest enjoyment comes only with a strong dollop of fear and maybe even near-despair, a new study suggests.  Researchers studied fans of two college football teams as they watched the teams' annual rivalry game on television.  They found that fans of the winning team who, at some point during the game, were almost certain their team would lose, ended up thinking the game was the most thrilling and suspenseful.

"You don't want to be in a great mood during the whole game if you really want to enjoy it," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.  "We found that negative emotions play a key role in how much we enjoy sports."

The study appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Communication.

Researchers studied 113 college students as they watched the 2006 football game between the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines. While the game has always been a bitter rivalry, the stakes were particularly high that year: Ohio State was ranked number one in the country and Michigan was ranked number two, with the winner going to the national championship game.

Ohio State ended up winning the game 42-39, in a dramatic finish.

"Ohio State was winning easily in the first half, but the good thing for our study was that Michigan really tightened the game in the second half. It turned out to be a great game," said Prabu David, study co-author and associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

Students from Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University participated in the study. Before the game, they completed questionnaires about which team they were rooting for, and how committed they were to their favorite team.

They then watched the game on television from wherever they wanted, and logged onto a website during the 24 commercial breaks to answer questions about the likelihood that their favorite team would win, how suspenseful they thought the game was, and how positively or negatively they were feeling at the moment.

The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game.

"When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn't always mean positive emotions," David said.  "Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion."

Results showed that positive feelings during the game had the greatest effect on suspense, but negative feelings also played a substantial role.  In the past, researchers have thought of positive and negative emotions experienced in entertainment as cancelling each other out, David said. But this research suggests that both positive and negative emotions act independently and together to contribute to entertainment and enjoyment.

"You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state."

That's why the fans of the winning team -- in this case, Ohio State -- who felt the most sense of enjoyable suspense were also those who at some point were most convinced their team would lose, she said.  As expected, the study found that participants who said they were fans of one of the teams also found the game more suspenseful than those who had no strong allegiance.

However, the intensity of fan commitment did not matter in terms of how much suspense viewers felt during the game. In other words, viewers who considered themselves "super fans" because of how committed they were to their team and how long they supported their team, did not find the game any more suspenseful than did less committed fans of the team.

There was no difference between Ohio State and Michigan supporters in terms of how suspenseful they thought the game was, which was expected given the closeness of the game.  David said the results of this study closely followed those of a previous study he did with colleagues that examined fan reaction during the 2006 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks.

The results of that study also showed the importance of negative feelings in contributing to how much fans enjoyed the game.

"Obviously, winning helps people enjoy a game. But we're finding that it doesn't help to have a game where you have positive feelings the whole game -- negative feelings are an important part of enjoying a game," he said.

While some people may question the purpose of studying fan reactions to a football game, the researchers say the study has important implications.  For one, sports provides a unique opportunity to study how emotions operate in people.

"Researchers want to study the impact of emotions, but it is very difficult to create powerful emotional reactions in a laboratory setting," David said.  "This is a study that was done in the real world, and we can get a snapshot into a person's emotional state while they are actually experiencing the emotion. Sports creates emotions that are very powerful, and which matter to people."

In addition, regardless of what people think about it, sports and entertainment is a big business in America and around the world.

"We need to better understand how people use entertainment in their lives, and what value they are getting from it," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "This study is just one step in that process."

See also: Sports Fans Have Selective Memories and The Cognitive Benefits Of Being A Sports Fan

Source: Ohio State University