Coaching young footballers to win at all costs leads players to behave badly on the pitch, according to new research from the University of Birmingham.

The study of 325 young footballers suggests that educating coaches to emphasise personal performance rather than winning encourages players to develop good on-field behaviour.

Dr Maria Kavussanu, from the University's School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, said: "The current World Cup has brought the issue of sportsmanship on the field into focus. We know from studies of young footballers that as children get older, they engage in more antisocial behaviours, like diving or trying to get an opponent booked. They are also less likely to act in a sportsmanlike way than younger children.

"However, our studies suggest that it is not inevitable that children will become more antisocial as they get older.  It depends a lot on the environment in which they are coached". 

The researchers asked players aged between 12 and 17 to report how often they became involved in anti social behaviours including trying to get an opponent booked, elbowing an opponent, diving or feigning injury over the course of a season. The group were also asked how often they performed sportsmanlike actions, including helping an opponent off the floor or congratulating an opponent on good play.

The researchers also asked each player to assess what methods of motivation their coaches used.

They found that behaviours like diving, trying to get an opponent booked or winding up the opposition were linked to coaching which focused primarily on winning. The research also showed that coaches of older players tended to place more emphasis on winning. This may explain why poor behaviour on the field becomes worse as young footballers get older.

Dr Kavussanu commented: "The furore over Ronaldo's antics demonstrates the frustration that people feel with poor on field behaviour. However, our research suggests that the coaching climate seems to be an important factor in differences we see in players' behaviour. Encouraging coaches to create a climate, in which individual performance and skill is valued above winning at all costs, may help children to continue to behave appropriately on the pitch later in life."

The researchers also emphasise that changing the coaching culture away from a "win at all costs approach" can actually benefit players' performance: "Emphasising winning encourages social comparisons between the players and can put a lot of pressure on individuals, leading to high levels of anxiety within the team. Behaving antisocially can actually take a player's focus away from the game and can have very negative consequences on the player's performance"

Luke Sage, a member of the research team, believes that coaches can use coaching sessions to actually encourage good behaviour: "Coaches should integrate discussion of good behaviour into their sessions to try and filter down some moral issues.

"This can be pretty informal; the children get their social affiliation, but we are also drip feeding them some morals and fostering the idea that you can achieve more through cooperation".


Notes to Editors:

The study: "Motivational predictors of prosocial and antisocial behaviour in football": is published in the Journal of Sports Sciences (24) 6.

Further information:

Ben Hill - Press Officer, University of Birmingham

tel: 0121 414 5134 / mob: 07789 921163