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Paradoxically, Masters sport is equally celebrated and ignored. Masters athletes are celebrated because they are motivated, goal-oriented, and determined to thrive at ages when sport participation has traditionally waned – they defeat stereotypes and allow us to rethink possibilities. Yet Masters athletes (MAs) can also be an “after-thought” in sport organizations, receiving scarce attention. Our pan-Canadian research team has been exploring this paradox and its implications during the past decade. We commend researchers that came before us, starting in the 1980s, who studied the physiological implications of sport participation into older age. However, we noted the relative lack of attention to social and psychological motives of MAs and the needs of adults seeking ways to be active in sport for life, leading us to explore how MAs are different than other athletes and what this means for sport programmers and coaches.

Masters sport is advertised and organized specifically for adults who are beyond the typical age of peak performance. Typically, Masters sports cater to athletes beginning at age 35 (e.g., athletics, cycling), although some begin as young as 18 (gymnastics, artistic skating) or 25 (swimming). It is rule-governed and competitive. MAs, by definition, report having a regular pattern of practice/training in advance of competitions, and the majority in individual sports like track and field and swimming have dedicated coaches. They range in serious-mindedness, from the recreationally competitive who devote two to six hours weekly to their sport, to those who compete in national and international events and devote upwards of 10 hours weekly.

Recently, various Canadian and international sport organizations have reached out to us and asked for evidence-based insight to help support their Masters sports programs. The result has been increasing dialogue between researchers and practitioners on how to enhance a Quality Masters Sport Experience, and about unique approaches to organizing and coaching middle-aged and older adults in sport. This article provides an overview of what we have learned about programming for enhancing MAs’ sport experiences, focused on themes that have resonated with sport programmers and coaches in our recent webinars. We specifically discuss the valuable role of a coach and adult-tailored coaching approaches, and the emergence of practical tools for coaches to hone these approaches in their craft.

Quality Masters sport experience

Asking sport programmers and coaches to reflect on characteristics of a Quality Sport Experience is a great way to initiate dialogue about MAs. During webinars and other learning sessions with various sport organizations, we asked, “what do you believe are the hallmarks of an adult athletic experience that has integrity, is worthy of investment, and likely to generate fulsome benefits for participants?”. This question really gets coaches and programmers talking, causing them to reflect on the needs of MAs, which are often different than those of youth, adolescent, or younger high-performance athletes. Although answers can be quite individualized, respondents commonly share perspectives that fit into several identifiable themes based in research in the domain. In Table 1, we present these themes as the seven Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience. These hallmarks are derived from our interpretation of a broad body of evidence on Masters sport, including work on the psychology of the MA (Young, 2011; Young, Callary & Rathwell, 2018), profiling of MAs (Larson, Young, McHugh & Rodgers, 2020; Rathwell, Callary & Young, 2015), and reviews dedicated to coaching MAs (Callary & Young, 2020). The table includes descriptions of each hallmark, and questions to help coaches think through these important considerations.

Table 1: Hallmarks of a quality Masters sport experience

  Hallmark Example Questions for Coaches to Ponder
Meaningful Competition MAs have multifaceted perspectives on competition, and competitions provide a framing that can enrich sport activity.
  • Do you emphasize the opportunity for MAs to meaningfully translate their hard work in training to competition? To use lessons from competition to enhance training?
  • Do you motivate MAs to self-compete, to better their own standards?
  • Do you set up opportunities for MAs to engage in competitive activities during practice?
Mastery MAs derive feelings of competency when they fulfill goals related to learning, improving, and giving effort.
  • Do you set up progressions that become increasingly more complex over time, and increasingly demand more effort?
  • Do you encourage MAs to monitor, reflect upon,  identify, and celebrate instances of mastery?
  • Do you set up instances where MAs persevere to eventually overcome a skill acquisition barrier?
Testing and Assessing Oneself MAs like to push themselves to learn or refine facets of sport and appreciate being held to account for outcomes.
  • Do you set up opportunities for MAs to test themselves on criteria for sport skills?
  • Do you collaborate on criteria for assessment with MAs? At an agreed difficulty level?
  • Do your MAs have opportunities to succeed and fall short in trials? Do they get retests, and suitable training so they can improve?
Quality Relationships MAs are motivated to search for, and benefit from, social connections, and a sense of belonging among relatable people.    
  • Does your club have a close-knit climate where MAs feel they belong to something special?
  • How do norms in your club encourage MAs to share in the “good times”?
  • Do you show an interest in each MA? How do you connect on sport and non-sport matters?  
Fun and Fitness MAs want to have a good time and enjoy the idea of being an athlete, while being supported by a program that gets them in great shape. 
  • Does your program make MAs fitter using “sporty” approaches that differ from exercise/gym routines?
  • Do your MAs experience an “adult sporting lifestyle”? Which aspects of your program and/or coaching allow participants to call themselves “athletes”?
  • Do you know which aspects of your program MAs find most enjoyable? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
Intellectual Stimulation MAs are inherently interested in obtaining knowledge about their activities and becoming a “student of their sport” is rewarding.
  • Do you know which aspects of your program MAs find most informative? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
  • How do you make your adults smarter for when they do things on their own?
  • Do you use approaches that challenge MAs on what they don’t know, in ways that motivate them to learn?
Feeling Empowered MAs want to feel their sport pursuits stem from their decisions, informed by collaborations. 
  • Do MAs show pride in their decisions to commit to sport? How do you encourage this?
  • Do you know which aspects of your program and/or coaching give MAs self-direction? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
  • Is your decision making and practice planning informed by two-way communication with MAs?
Feeling Validated MAs need to feel that their investments in sport are being reciprocated and legitimized by the quality of practice/programming and coaching they receive.
  • Do your athletes believe that they are getting value for their money?
  • Does your coaching respect that busy adults have dedicated their little free leisure time to your practices?
  • Is your coaching of sufficient quality to legitimize their time away from other activities, including family time?

 

We have found that coaches without experience in Masters sport typically assume MAs are either engaged to fulfill their social needs, or are hard-nosed enthusiasts looking to satisfy a quench for competition. Our Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience allow for a multidimensional interpretation, recognizing the remarkable diversity of MAs’ motives, backgrounds, and experiences, while understanding their unique realities in adulthood. Reflecting on Table 1 encourages practitioners to think in new ways about MAs and to think broadly about what is different with Masters cohorts.

What’s different about coaching adults? Their unique psychosocial needs

Cyclists racing on country roads

In 2015, we interviewed Masters swimmers from community clubs in Ontario. Swimmers were asked about their wants, needs and preferences from coaches in their sport. The most important finding was the vast benefits they attributed to having a coach – in essence, they believed that without a coach, their involvement would simply be fitness or exercise. They described instances where their coach enhanced their confidence, skill set, process of learning, lifestyle habits, and shaped a climate that met their social affiliation needs (Callary, Rathwell & Young, 2015). Masters coaches can be exceptional resources who embody the “value” in organized sport programming. By studying the preferences of MAs and how they are satisfied through the approaches of coaches, sport researchers have begun to understand effective Masters coaching. Moreover, in sports like golf where instructors are often sub-contractors who run their own enterprise, a better understanding of how to effectively coach adults enhances “entrepreneurial value.”

Through research with Masters swimmers, several areas of importance in Masters coaching were identified (Callary et al., 2015), including:

  • Coaches’ professional development, personal attributes and knowledge – Effective coaches let it be known to their MAs they are continually invest in coaching education and gathering new coaching resources. MAs see this as a sign that their coach is credible, cares, and is immersed in efforts to improve.
  • Instructional behaviors and feedback delivery – Effective coaches know which athletes prefer technical correction and being pushed in front of others, and which athletes do not. There is great variability in the types of feedback to which each MA will respond.
  • Planning of practices and programs – Effective coaches are remarkably efficient managers of practice time. They justify adults’ presence at practice with well-structured and organized activities, but also collaborate on aspects of flexible programming to allow adults to fit other training in on their own terms. Effective coaches motivate or “ready” MAs to train, but also know when to accommodate MAs’ fluctuations in readiness.
  • Preparation of and interaction with athletes around competitions – Effective coaches use upcoming competitions to contextualize the technical or strategic aspects that individual MAs need to work on in training.

Research has shown that these areas of coaching can be very different when working with MAs, compared to other cohorts. This has been established in swimming (Callary, Rathwell, & Young, 2017; Ferrari, Bloom, Gilbert & Caron, 2017), sprint canoe and kayak (MacLellan, Callary & Young, 2018), and dragonboat (Callary, Rathwell, MacLellan & Young, 2015), and with testimonials from coaches about the unique nuances of working with adults in sports as varied as touch rugby, soccer, alpine skiing, artistic skating, and racewalking (Callary, Young & Rathwell, 2021).

In particular, the research indicates that the psychosocial skills of coaching – the “relational or people skills” – need to be different when coaching MAs. Literature certainly exists about the biophysical, physiological, and injury risk considerations associated with coaching MAs. However, our emerging body of research advocates for fulsome consideration of psychosocial skills that are essential for establishing quality interactions, social connections, trust and belief in collaboration, and a sense of partnership (Callary, Currie & Young, 2020). Altogether, coaches who effectively consider the relational nuances for how to coach matured adult athletes are instrumental in delivering a Quality Masters Sport Experience. 

Adult-oriented coaching approaches

Female golf athlete driving.

One of the critical aspects of relational coaching in Masters sport is the use of adult-oriented coaching approaches. Adult-oriented approaches consider the nuances of organizing, leading, instructing, and collaborating with MAs. These approaches respect adults’ matured self-concept and how it influences their approach to learning, such as their enhanced inquisitiveness and tendencies to want to frame sport challenges in personally meaningful ways (see MacLellan, Callary & Young, 2019). Over the past four years, we have established five essential approaches to adult-oriented coaching and developed an Adult-Oriented Sport Coaching Survey (AOSCS; Rathwell, Young, Callary, Motz, Hoffmann & Currie, 2020) to help coaches self-assess these approaches in their practice. There is also a corresponding athlete version of the AOSCS that allows MAs to rate how frequently they experience adult-oriented approaches from their coaches. Table 2 defines and describes each of these five approaches. The AOSCS provides a valuable tool for coach learning and reflection, which can be used to enhance coach development and performance. Within our webinars, coaches have been reflecting on themes found within the AOSCS and considering how they apply to their coaching philosophy. Moreover, coaches can be taught how to track their AOSCS scores (globally, and for each of the approaches) across the season. Coaches can also use scores derived from the athlete version of the AOSCS to receive developmental feedback based on their athletes’ experiences. Data from MAs’ surveys can be considered alongside the coach’s self-report data to identify any incongruencies, such as when the coach feels that they are using an adult-oriented approach but it is not being perceived by their athletes. Coaches can use the combined data to create their own profile for how they are using each of the five approaches, which ones are being “received” by athletes, and how these relationships change over time. Such a process allows coaches to reflect on strengths, weaknesses, congruencies, and changes related to the relational component of their coaching practice.

Table 2: The five adult-oriented sport coaching approaches

  Definition of Adult-Oriented Approach:
Considering the Individuality of Athletes How a coach considers and tailors their approach to each MA’s experiences and motives in the planning, organization, and delivery of practice
Framing Learning Situations How a coach frames learning situations for their MAs through self-discovery, problem-based scenarios, modeling, and assessments
Imparting Coaching Knowledge How a coach shares their own relevant athletic experience, coaching knowledge, and professional coaching development
Respecting Preferences for Effort, Accountability and Feedback How a coach adapts their approach to consider how each MA wishes to be held accountable for working hard and giving effort, and how each MA wishes to receive feedback at practice
Creating Personalized Programming How a coach considers and tailors aspects of scheduling (practices and competitions), season-long programming, and support at competitions, to a MA’s needs and abilities 

Realizing positive outcomes

Coaches of MAs can apply the five coaching approaches organically – using them in teachable moments or opportune instances, based on need, or can intentionally plan for their use. Our recent research found that by applying all five AOSCS approaches across a season, coaches were able to enhance positive outcomes. This included enhancing their personal relationships with their athletes, and satisfying their athletes’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Coaches’ use of AOSCS approaches was also significantly and positively related to the degree to which MAs reported commitment to, and liking of, their sport experience (Motz, Rathwell, Young, Callary, Hoffmann, & Currie, 2019). In light of the finding that AOSCS approaches are positively associated with MAs’ ratings for positive sport outcomes, we believe the AOSCS can be a tool for coach self-assessment that may foster an empowering environment and can set a precedence for discussion about how coaching approaches meet MAs’ wants and needs. The use of AOSCS surveys in webinars and workshops, perhaps in concert with coach education developers (Callary & Young, 2020), can draw coaches’ attention to areas to nuance their approaches with adults.

Call to Action: Developing quality Masters sport experiences

The evidence-based research that has amounted in recent years, and coaches’ recent responses to this information at webinars, suggests there are real differences between coaching MAs and younger athletes. Undoubtedly, there are intrapersonal, interpersonal and professional knowledges associated generically with coaching all different cohorts, but clearly there are Masters-specific nuances to coaching knowledge and practice that should be given due deliberation if we are to satisfy the Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience.

The sport organizations with which we have had the pleasure to interact are asking for information on how to coach effectively within the Masters context. Sport organizations are responding to a need, likely due to the prospect of a growing Masters participant base. This is an opportune time to advance more systematic and evidence-based approaches to Masters sport programming and coach development. It is overdue. When we explored sources of learning to coach MAs, coaches reported much trial and error experimentation, many had never considered the need to develop their knowledge on relational coaching of adults, and almost none had received any coach education on the topic (Callary, Rathwell & Young, 2018). There clearly was a knowledge gap. We are optimistic that sport programmers want to know more about developing adult-oriented coaching practices and see great opportunities in encouraging coaches’ development of interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies (not only their knowledge of sport sciences and sport-specific skills) for the Masters cohort.

Recommended resources

Coaching Masters Athletes (coming April 2021) – A foundational textbook resource for all coaches and student coaches who are, or who plan to be, working with Masters athletes.

www.coachingmastersathletes.com – Houses a catalogue of the authors’ work, infographics relating to evidence-based practice, information on the AOSCS tools, and home of the Coaching Masters Athletes Research Network.  


About the Author(s)

Dr. Bradley Young is a Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. He has authored more than 50 chapters and peer-reviewed publications on topics relating to the psycho-social aspects of lifelong sport participation, the effective programming of Masters sport, and promotional messaging for recruiting more adults to sport. A fledgling Masters athlete himself, and currently a community coach, he has served in an advisory capacity to the Coaching Association of Canada and presently is on the board of Active Aging Canada.

Dr. Scott Rathwell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Lethbridge. His research focuses on the psychosocial factors related to lifelong sport and the mechanisms through which Masters athletes maintain their elite performance. Dr. Rathwell created and operates the Pronghorns Leadership Academy at the University of Lethbridge where he mentors university student-athletes with the aim of improving their leadership capacity.

Dr. Bettina Callary is the Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Sport Coaching and Adult Learning and an Associate Professor in the Department of Experiential Studies in Community and Sport at Cape Breton University. She researches coach education and development strategies, coach developers, and psychosocial understandings of inclusive coaching. She runs the Community Active Sport Training and Learning (CoASTaL) lab. Dr. Callary is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Sport Coaching Journal, and an editor for Sports Coaching Review and the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. She is also an alpine ski coach and coach developer.

References

Callary, B., Currie, C., & Young, B.W. (2020). Insights into the importance of relational coaching for Masters sport. International Sport Coaching Journal. Online. https://doi.org/10.1123/iscj.2019-0021

Callary, B., Rathwell, S., MacLellan, J., & Young, B.W. (2015). Coaching masters dragon boaters – Perspectives from a coach and an athlete. Presented at the 10th International Council of Coaching Excellence Global Coach Conference, Vierumäki, Finland.

Callary, B., Rathwell, S., & Young, B.W. (2015). Masters swimmers’ experiences with coaches: What they want, what they need, what they get. SAGE Open. http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/5/2/2158244015588960

Callary, B., Rathwell, S., & Young, B.W. (2017). Alignment of Masters swim coaches’ approaches with the Andragogy in Practice Model. International Sport Coaching Journal, 4, 177-190.

Callary, B., Rathwell, S., & Young, B.W. (2018). Coach education and learning sources for coaches of Masters swimmers. International Sport Coaching Journal, 5, 47-59.

Callary, B. & Young, B.W. (2020). What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: Using adult learning principles to synergize coach education and coaching practices in Masters sport. In B. Callary & B. Gearity (Eds.), Coach education and development in sport: Instructional strategies (pp. 215-225). London: Routledge.

Callary, B., Young, B.W., & Rathwell, S. (Eds). (2021). Coaching Masters athletes: Advancing research and practice in adult sport. New York: Routledge.

Ferrari, G., Bloom, G., Gilbert, W., & Caron, J. (2017). Experiences of competitive masters swimmers: Desired coaching characteristics and perceived benefits. International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology15, 409-422.

Larson, H., Young, B.W., McHugh, T-L., & Rodgers, W. (2020). Participation profiles of current masters swimmers and their (lack of) retrospective associations with youth experiences. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 101878. Online ahead of press. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101878

MacLellan, J., Callary, B., & Young, B.W. (2018). Same coach, different approach? How Masters and youth athletes perceive learning opportunities in training. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 13, 167-178.

Motz, D., Rathwell, S., Young, B.W., Callary, B., Hoffmann, M., & Currie, C. (2019). Preliminary criterion validity for the Adult-Oriented Sport Coaching Survey: Associations with key psychosocial variables. Journal of Exercise, Movement, & Sport: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning & Sport Psychology, 51(1), 93. https://www.scapps.org/jems/index.php/1/article/view/2311

Rathwell, S., Callary, B., & Young, B.W. (2015). Exploring the context of coached Masters swim programs: A narrative approach. International Journal of Aquatic Research & Education, 9, 70-88.

Rathwell, S., Young, B.W., Callary, B., Motz, D., Hoffmann, M., & Currie, C. (2020). The Adult Oriented Sport Coaching Survey: An instrument designed to assess coaching behaviours tailored to adult athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.2020-0031

Young, B.W. (2011). Psycho-social perspectives on the motivation and commitment of Masters athletes. In N. Holt & M. Talbot (Eds.), Lifelong engagement in sport and physical activity (pp.125-138). London: Routledge and the International Council of Sport Science & Physical Education.

Young, B.W., Callary, B., & Rathwell, S. (2018). Psychological considerations for the older athlete. In O. Braddick et al. (Eds.). Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology (pp. 1-26). New York: Oxford University Press. Online. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.180


The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.