A Positive Environment for Volunteer Coaches: The Role of Psychological ContractApril 25, 2019
Community sport organizations or clubs are the cornerstone of sport in Canada. A vast majority of these community sport clubs rely almost exclusively on volunteers for their management and program delivery (Cuskelly, Hoye, & Auld, 2006; Doherty, 2005).
A threat to these organizations and their sustainability is acquiring and retaining volunteer coaches to deliver the sport programming. In recent years there has been a noted decline in volunteerism (Statistics Canada, 2015) and sport has been no exception to this trend (Breuer et al., 2012; Cuskelly, 2005; Cuskelly et al., 2006). A proposed strategy to support a positive coaching environment that may promote volunteer retention is the consideration of volunteer coaches’ psychological contract.
A psychological contract refers to the unwritten set of expectations that govern a volunteer/organization relationship. It is what a volunteer expects to provide, and what they expect the organization to provide in return. Psychological contracts have been examined extensively in the paid workforce, recognizing that employees have expectations beyond their written contract. Whether these expectations are fulfilled or not may impact an employees’ commitment and satisfaction, and ultimately their intent to continue working for their employer. In the volunteer coaching context, where there generally are not written contracts, volunteers rely almost exclusively on their psychological contract to represent what they perceive their role to entail, and what they expect of their club in return. Given the important role that psychological contracts play in the paid workforce, our research sought to explore the psychological contract within the volunteer coaching environment (see Harman & Doherty, 2014; 2017).
Components of Volunteer Coaches’ Psychological Contract
Interviews (n = 22) and surveys (n = 187) were completed by volunteer sport coaches engaged with community sport clubs who identified several expectations they have of themselves and of their club:
Coaches’ expectations of themselves (listed in order of importance):
- Professionalism – demonstrate commitment to the team, respect the value of fair play, represent the community sport organization in a positive manner, and act in an ethical manner
- Leadership – ensure athletes are having a good time while participating, provide a safe environment for athletes, and establish team expectations
- Technical Expertise – have and/or obtain coaching certifications, attend coaching development opportunities, provide technical support to athletes, prepare practice plans and game strategies, and when appropriate act as a mentor to other coaches
- Team Administration – complete required team paperwork, arrange accommodations for away tournaments/games, book facilities for practices, and look after team business in general
Coaches’ expectations of their sport club (listed in order of importance):
- Coach Support – be available to answer questions, be receptive to coach feedback, and support coach decisions
- Club Administration – coordinate player registration, coordinate facilities for practices and games, coordinate game schedules and referees, and oversee financial transactions
- Positive Coaching Environment – assist with volunteer screening, provide mentorship, assist with conflict resolution, and encourage idea sharing
- Coach Development – provide training opportunities to enhance coaching skills
- Financial Support – assist or reimburse coaches for costs associated with volunteering, in particular costs to obtain coaching certifications
- Recognition – acknowledge the efforts of volunteers and their involvement in the club, and thank volunteer coaches for their contributions
- Extra Opportunities – schedule invitational or exhibition games, coordinate registration for “extra” events
- Social Opportunities – organize social gatherings for volunteer coaches to interact with one another
Impact of Fulfilling Expectations
We further examined how the fulfillment, or not, of coaches’ expectations of their sport club impacted coach satisfaction and commitment to the organization. The results indicated that:
- Under-fulfillment of coaches’ expectations for coach support, club administration, and a positive coaching environment is associated with lower satisfaction with coaching.
- Fulfillment of coaches’ expectations for coach support, club administration and recognition is associated with higher levels of coach commitment to the community sport organization.
- Over-fulfilling some of the coaches’ expectations can actually lead to decreased satisfaction. In particular, over-fulfilling expectations related to coach support, club administration, and a positive coaching environment were found to decrease coach satisfaction. For example, if a coach has a low expectation for their club to provide them with autonomy in their role, and the sport club provides them with a lot of freedom to develop and run their sport program as they see fit, this could lead to decreased satisfaction with their role because of the mismatch of expectations. Further, if a club emphasizes cooperation among coaches and parents beyond the expectation of the coach, this can similarly lead to decreased satisfaction.
- In contrast, exceeding coaches’ expectations with regards to coach recognition was found to actually increase coach satisfaction and commitment to their club
Development of Coaches’ Psychological Contract
We also uncovered who or what was influencing coaches’ psychological contract. Most of the coaches interviewed set expectations of themselves and their clubs based on insights from sources external to the club. Key influences include the coaches’ previous experience as a player, knowledge acquired from attending a coach education course, and previous experience as a volunteer coach at another organization.
Implications for Community Sport Organizations
Our research reveals that the psychological contract is an important element of the relationship between community sport organizations and their volunteer coaches. While the concept of the psychological contract sounds simple – what do coaches expect of themselves? and what do they expect their club to provide in return? – the reality is that without acknowledging the psychological contract of volunteers, and effectively managing the coaching environment so that expectations align, it may seem like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Two-way communication of expectations may lead to more effective relationships with current volunteers, leading to increased retention, and reduced role uncertainty. This more positive environment may also help with coach recruitment.
Recommendations for Sport Managers
- Sport clubs should recognize that volunteers enter their organization with a preconceived notion of what their role will entail, and what the club will provide. Developing an understanding of these expectations (the psychological contract) and/or working to adjust coaches’ expectations increases the likelihood of clubs meeting coaches’ expectations, and the positive outcomes associated with psychological contract fulfillment. Clubs can engage in a focused conversation with their coaches around volunteer expectations and/or create a short survey to gain an understanding of what their volunteers expect. Following or during these conversations clubs can also try to manage expectations that they are unable to fulfill. For example, if a volunteer expects the club to provide them with training, they can explain it is beyond their current financial resources, but knowing that this is something important to their coaches they will add to the budget for the future, and seek grants to fulfill this expectation.
- Sport clubs can use the results from this research to initiate conversations with their volunteers – do they have similar expectations as to what was presented here? What are the most important expectations for them to be fulfilled? What expectations is the club not doing a good job at fulfilling? Following this conversation, it is important that the club representative (i.e., club executive boards) follow-up with the volunteer coaches, confirming what expectations they believe they can fulfill, and if there are some they cannot.
- Clubs can help to shape coaches’ expectations through effective communication strategies. This could include orientation meetings, emails, one-on-one interactions, end of year evaluations, social events, social media postings, coach meetings etc. Communications across these different touchpoints should deliver a consistent message of what resources and supports the club is able to provide (i.e., coach training, volunteer screening, practice facilities etc.), and what is required of volunteers (i.e., secure team sponsor, NCCP certification, submit game scores etc.). Clubs should also be aware that top-down and formal communications have been found to be the least effective for aligning expectations (Sherman & Morley, 2015).
- Developing a club-wide understanding of what is expected of volunteer coaches and communicating these expectations may also assist with volunteer coach recruitment. Lack of confidence is a key barrier to youth sport coaching (LaVoi & Dutove, 2012) Providing a consistent message of what is required of volunteers may reduce this concern. Having clear expectations upfront may reduce the potential of feeling overwhelmed or lacking the appropriate skills to be a volunteer coach.
- Sport clubs should also consider that volunteers have their own motivations and expectations, and providing them with opportunities that best coincide with these increases the likelihood of psychological contract fulfillment and ultimately creating an effective volunteer environment. One way to better match volunteers and roles is to provide a clear description of what the role entails during the recruitment phase. This will allow volunteers to sign up for positions that best align with their expectations.
About the Author(s)
Alanna Harman is an Assistant Professor in the department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses broadly on volunteer management in community sport, and the presentation of female athletes in the media. Alanna has coached synchronized swimming, is an NCCP Learning Facilitator, and currently volunteers with Ontario Artistic Swimming.
Alison Doherty is a Professor in the School of Kinesiology at Western University. Her research interests include the management of community level sport, volunteerism in sport organizations, organizational capacity, and group and non-profit sport board dynamics. Alison competed in the heptathlon and represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games, and is currently the assistant high jump coach for the Western Track & Field team.
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