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Athlete well-being and passive-aggressive coaching methods
Athlete well-being and passive-aggressive coaching methods

Athlete well-being and passive-aggressive coaching methods

By Brian Marshall

Lisa was 2 seconds from her best time. She walks over to her coach who ignores her and then doesn’t speak to her for the rest of the day.

Peter has an average game and gets substituted. The coach says to Peter in front of the team: “you didn’t feel like playing today?”. Each word dripping in sarcasm.

Whether you are a coach, athlete, or parent, you may have witnessed or experienced such a situation at sporting events or in training. As we become fully committed to ensuring sporting teams prioritize athlete well-being then it is also important to be aware of coaching methods, such as passive aggressiveness that can cause athlete distress.

In this article, I discuss passive-aggressive coaching behaviours in the coaching environment and then reflect on how coaches can look to avoid this negative way of coaching.

Effective coaching vs. hostile coaching

Generally, coaches are seeking to create a learning environment where the athlete can simultaneously develop their skills and performance whilst also supporting/improving their athlete’s psychological profile, such as self-esteem, satisfaction, and overall well-being[1]. Indeed, the most successful athletes report that a high-level of trust exist towards their coach[2] [3], where they do not feel the need to second guess what the coach is thinking or whether a comment or action from the coach could be interpreted in a variety of ways[4].

Thus, the effective coach is positive, has clear and open communication and is totally committed to the athlete’s personal well-being.

However, passive-aggressive coaching behaviours can appear in the coach’s approach to communicating. For example, the coach may show:

  • Negative attitudes
  • Resentment
  • Silence
  • Sullenness
  • Resistance, either in a hidden way, such as being stubborn or in an open way, for example, by being sarcastic or gossiping[5]

These are all negative acts that can be considered hostile. In the short-term, they could produce the desired outcome for the coach. For example, being sarcastic to the athlete might motivate them to one better performance. However long-term, the athlete’s well-being and motivation will decrease and their trust towards their coach will deteriorate. 

Research shows that passive-aggressive leadership can lead to athlete depression, dissatisfaction with their sport, and psychological distress[6]. Clearly, these are consequences that all coaches will want to avoid.

The whole team can mirror a coach’s passive aggressive behaviours

The coach is a role model and leader on the team. If the coach uses, for example, silence or resentment around the team, then it is not unlikely for the athletes to mirror the same behaviours to each other. This can result in a toxic environment.

For example, Coach Smith is frustrated with an athlete’s attendance – let us call that athlete Jo. Coach Smith may use a combination of silence and sarcasm in front of the whole team with the purpose of displaying their displeasure with Jo. Over time, Jo’s teammate may begin to isolate Jo by not talking to them or by being sarcastic to them (“you decided to come today!). Coach Smith might then complain to the parents that the team is isolating a fellow athlete and yet the origin of the problem lies with the coach.

Why might the coach use passive-aggressive behaviours?

If the coach must deal with an uncomfortable situation, for example, an athlete who might not be selected for the coming competition, then the coach might choose (whether knowingly or not) to avoid the discussion with the athlete and say nothing. (The athlete might read on the team’s Facebook page that they have not been selected). In this situation,

…the leader may perceive the discomfort of addressing an issue directly to be greater than the discomfort of addressing it indirectly — or not addressing it at all.[7]

Short-term, the coach may have avoided an uncomfortable situation. Long-term however, the consequences for the athlete’s well-being and the coach-athlete relationship will be severely affected.

Thus, one of the reasons that passive-aggressive behaviour might be used by the coach is because they do not have the communicative or emotional skills to deal with uncomfortable events or situations of conflict.

Old-fashioned coaching methods

It should be noted that passive-aggressive methods may be used willingly by coaches who feel that manipulation is an accepted form of coaching. Society today would disagree with this idea and would consider manipulation an old-fashioned and unacceptable approach. Athlete well-being is a cornerstone for later sporting development and achievement.

The passive-aggressive coach may also be assuming the role of the authoritative coach[8] and thus are consistently sending out the message that no one should question their actions (the coach who says: “I know best, do as I say!”). One of the traits of passive-aggressiveness can be to say to their athlete (or the athlete’s parent) that they have some important information and knowledge, that they cannot share, but proves that the coach is correct and or amazing![9].

Are you a coach that might use passive-aggressive methods?

Maybe you haven’t realized you are doing so. Maybe you can see yourself in some of the examples written about earlier. What can you do?

If you are disappointed with a performance, you could say to your athlete “How are you feeling? Let’s talk about your performance later today when we get some quiet time”. By doing this, you are connecting to your athlete. Your athlete will hear that you can reflect their emotions but that you are ready to work together. It is important here to think about your body language and thus make sure that your body is not displaying passive-aggressive messages, even if you are trying to find the appropriate words. Over time, your athletes will learn that a poor performance is something that the coach wants to address in a positive and constructive way (rather than the athlete fearing a wall of silence from the coach). Communication is a cornerstone of great coaching!

With regards to sarcasm and other forms of “one-liners”, start to notice when you use sarcasm and commit to not using sarcasm or irony in your coaching. You may have – what you think is – the funniest put-down ever, but don’t say it! You are a professional coach. You are hired to develop the emotional, social, and physical development of young people. You are not hired to be a late-night comedian where sarcasm and hostility are expected. Professionalism is a cornerstone of great coaching!

A coach can of course be humorous and joyful. Start with kindness and work up from there.

Improving your communication and leadership skills

If you are a coach that uses passive-aggressiveness, then help is at hand. As coaches we often focus on improving our technical knowledge, be that physiology, biomechanics, or mental preparation. However, leadership and communication skills are equally as important. The coach who needs new skills to deal with uncomfortable or conflict situation will be able to find education programs – either through a sporting association or from the world of business leadership. Equally, your club could invest in you by providing a mentor (to reflect and discuss current and future behaviours and challenges) or a psychologist who could both help with current/future behaviours but also whether there are past experiences that are influencing your ability and willingness to deal with conflict situations.

A personal note from the author

Looking back 20-25 years, when I was a young coach, I can see passive-aggressive behaviours in my own coaching. I would have benefited by learning about passive-aggressiveness and learning how to deal with conflict situations. At the time of writing, I have the opportunity in my current roles as both a mentor to elite coaches, and with the coaches I work with daily in my club environment, to prioritize athlete well-being and coaching based on the values of respect, communication, and fairness.


[1] Côté, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An Integrative Definition of Coaching Effectiveness and Expertise. International Journal Of Sports Science & Coaching4(3), 307-323. https://doi.org/10.1260/174795409789623892

[2]Becker, A. (2009). It’s Not What They Do, It’s How They Do It: Athlete Experiences of Great Coaching. International Journal Of Sports Science & Coaching4(1), 93-119. https://doi.org/10.1260/1747-9541.4.1.93.

[3] Vallée, C., & Bloom, G. (2005). Building a Successful University Program: Key and Common Elements of Expert Coaches. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology17(3), 179-196. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200591010021

[4] Cook, G., Fletcher, D., Peyrebrune, M. (2021). Olympic coaching excellence: A quantitative study of psychological aspects of Olympic swimming coaches. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 53, 2021, 101876

[5] Davey, L. (2016). Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 31 March 2021, from https://hbr.org/2016/01/reduce-passive-aggressive-behavior-on-your-team.

[6] Carucci, R. (2018). How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Boss. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 31 March 2021, from https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-to-deal-with-a-passive-aggressive-boss.

[7] Davey, L. (2016). Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 31 March 2021, from https://hbr.org/2016/01/reduce-passive-aggressive-behavior-on-your-team.

[8] Stirling, A. (2011). INITIATING AND SUSTAINING EMOTIONAL ABUSE IN THE COACHATHLETE RELATIONSHIP: ATHLETES’, PARENTS’, AND COACHES’ REFLECTIONS. University of Toronto. Retrieved 31 March 2021, from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/35742/3/Stirling_Ashley_E_201106_PhD_thesis.pdf.

[9] Carucci, R. (2018). How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Boss. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 31 March 2021, from https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-to-deal-with-a-passive-aggressive-boss.

Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

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