Power: What, Why and Who has it?

Coaching is considered to be a highly dynamic and complex process, where coaches are required to develop diverse skills and knowledge in order to become successful. Central to this process is social interaction, particularly the interaction between coach and athlete. Considering the importance of this relationship and the time in which a professional coach spends with their athlete, there remains a dearth of research surrounding the social dynamics constructing and affecting the relationship. Realising this, two football based studies attempting to bridge the knowledge gap conducted research aiming to; (a) identify the behaviours demonstrated by a coach during interactions with the players and (b) understand the reasoning behind their use. The results indicate the concept of power is used extensively used by ‘High-level’ football coaches, in a variety of forms to generate different outcomes surrounding their relationship with the athlete.

Power is widely recognised as a constant and inevitable consequence of social interactions. Particularly within relationships where job roles are accepted, creating a perceived hierarchy of power in the form of ‘legitimate power’. In a sporting context power can be described as the ability to control an athletes desired outcomes, whilst being an ever-present feature, impacting on social interactions and also on the thoughts and ambitions of the person in power. In the world of professional football, power is perceived as a tool used to gain ‘respect’ from the players, leading researches to conclude that Power equals Respect within traditional coaching culture. After further investigation as many as six types of power were identified;

A coach automatically gains legitimate power over players before a ball is kicked or whistle blown as a result of their appointed position within the club, rather than from qualities which the coach will demonstrate. Research shows that football coaches believe legitimate power should be used as a platform to build respect. Once out on the training field, a coach is then required to demonstrate vast knowledge and expertise to gain further respect through ‘informational power’ and ‘expert power’.

In coaching, types of power can be similar in nature and difficult to distinguish or individually define. Studies advocate that coaches are unaware of the types of power and different ways in which they are utilised. This suggests that these actions come from traditional coaching culture instead of education and literature being used to enhance coaching and the coach-athlete relationship. When building a coach-athlete relationship within football, players are known to ‘test’ a new coach’s knowledge levels, therefore attempting to diminish the power the coach has, whilst increasing the perceived sense of power the athlete has. The use of instruction, demonstration and feedback by coaches provides the perfect platform on which to display power by using specific knowledge and explanations. Types of power are not isolated and can intersect, possibly altering the effectiveness or strength of one form or another. Unaware of the power definitions studies indicate coaches recognise that by displaying ‘informational power’ and the power of ‘expertise’, the initial power obtained is strengthened. Vice versa, coaches must acknowledge that failure to demonstrate one of the subsequent power types effectively can have detrimental effects on their level of ‘legitimate power’.

As with all forms of coaching science, isolating one aspect is not realistic and each component combines in order to create an effective high level coach. Research shows that the use of authoritarian coaching style is the widely accepted style adopted by soccer coaches to combat against loss of power. Restricting the level of questioning behaviour and constantly imposing information onto the players, levels of various types of power are increased, whilst eliminating the chance for players to doubt the coach’s knowledge level or diminish their confidence in the coach’s ability.

One type of power which is complicated within the coach-athlete relationship is ‘reward’ power. Reward power is based on extrinsic motivation of the players and is defined as the power that results from one person’s control over another’s reward. Studies propose coaches are able to utilise this form of power through praise, which increases a players desire to behaviour (adhere to the rules) and their levels of self-confidence. However praise can have negative effects on players depending on frequency and magnitude. In order to maintain the value of reward power and desire to receive it from the player’s perspective, praise should be justified with frequency and duration considered in each scenario.

One possible reason for understanding why players allow coaches to possess a great deal of power stems from the culture of football where coaches act as the ‘gatekeepers’ to professional contracts. By obeying the coach and accepting commands, players believe they will receive more reward power and therefore stand a better chance of being singed by the club. This theory corresponds and provides an answer as to why players offer little in the way of resistance or openly criticise or question the coach’s regime.

Equally, the use of scolding behaviours recorded in the studies proved to be of huge significance within the coach-athlete relationship. Although coaches recognise that it is necessary to use ‘scolding’ (dressing-down / reprimand) behaviours at certain times to gain a certain response from an unacceptable occasion, yet criticising and reprimanding players constantly and without caution can be unproductive. This behaviour has huge effects on relationships between the coach and the athlete, eventually resulting in the player losing respect for the coach. This may lead them to start questioning and challenging the coaches overall power. Observing coach behaviours in the research literature, it can be proposed that scolding can be linked to the theory of coercive power. Coercive power is acknowledged as the ability of one person to punish another. Studies suggest that frequent use of this type of power when coaching can have destructive effects on the respect a coach receives and therefore the level of power they have over the players. It is also important to think why coaches exert power over athletes. Power is used within the coach-athlete relationship for many reasons, including to improve motivation. This deterioration between coach and the athlete could impact upon the quality of coaching, player development and performance outcomes of players. Although there is currently limited literature in this field it is important to consider the effect that using coercive power could have on players from the beginning before demonstrating expertise and knowledge which has been proposed to gain high levels of power.

The final type of power proposed to play a part in the coach-athlete relationship is referent power. Referent power is known as the player’s identification with the coach being aspirational in resembling their actions and behaviours. Unlike legitimate power being established from respecting the coach’s position, referent power is formed from the player respecting the coach and is therefore personal. This form of power increases if the coach is seen to possess desirable personal characteristics and behaviours causing the player to try and become more like the coach. The coaching literature suggest that a coach’s use of praising and scolding  can help to form social bonds with the players based upon not only their professional knowledge but also the coach themselves in how they act. Assumptions between researchers is that the power of the coach can increase if the players believe in them as not only a professional but as a person.

In summary, this discussion has endeavoured to demonstrate that although coaches may not be fully aware of the ‘science’ behind their coaching behaviours, studies clearly show that coaches demonstrate power over the players in the coach athlete relationship through various forms. As discussed, this use of power can lead to personal, emotional, cultural and social effects on the coach-athlete relationship, both positively and negatively. Therefore coaches should be encouraged to reflect upon their current coaching practice, style and behaviours to discover which and how many forms of power they utilise when coaching. By possessing the ability to understand and recognise forms or power, coaches will be able to implement the right form at the right time to improve their coach-athlete relationship and overall coaching ability.


Cameron Campbell



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