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Female hockey coach with her youth athletes

Competence and warmth are two of the fundamental dimensions which we often judge other people (Kervyn, Bergsieker, & Fiske, 2011). Traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness, and morality, all contribute to someone’s perceived warmth (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). In contrast, traits such as intelligence, skill, creativity, and independence all contribute to someone’s perceived competence.

Now consider this – you’re heading to the rink for your child’s first hockey practice of the season. When meeting the coach for the first time, which set of traits – warmth or competence – will convince you, as a parent, that this individual is suitable to coach the team?

Parents in Youth Sport

Parents invest a significant amount of time, money, and emotion in sport activities for their children. Parental roles in youth sport have been categorized as the supporter, provider, coach, and administrator (Knight, Dorsch, Osai, Haderlie, & Sellars, 2016). Therefore, understanding the information parents attend to when forming impressions of youth sport coaches whom they have never met has important implications for their child’s sport experiences. Although coaches can certainly exhibit both competence and warmth (i.e., these are not mutually exclusive characteristics), it is important to understand which characteristics parents favour when evaluating prospective individuals to coach their child.

Research Findings

For the research project, we provided 211 hockey parents with a story that described a competitive youth sport coach, and then asked them to envision what this person would be like as a coach for their child’s team. Parents read a story about a coach described with 1) warmth-only information (e.g., nice, sociable, outgoing), 2) competence-only information (e.g., smart, hard-working, competent), or 3) a generally positive description (e.g., made a very positive overall impression; Sutcliffe, Benson, & Bruner, 2019). We found that when parents were provided with warmth-only information about a prospective coach, they perceived the coach to be less competent compared to a generally positive description.

Parents also determined the coach to be less suitable to coach their child’s team when they perceived the coach to lack competence, whereas a perceived lack of warmth did not have similar consequences. Parents may be sensitive to the perceived level of competence in a potential new coach because these attributes could help or hinder their child’s hockey-related goals.

This research was conducted within a competitive context (i.e., rep hockey). More research is needed to see if these same patterns emerge in a recreational context.

Key Takeaways

Based on the findings above, parents, coaches and sport administrators can consider these key takeaways at the beginning of a new season:

  • Parents should be encouraged to reserve judgment until coaches have had sufficient opportunity to display both instructional and interpersonal behaviors. To alleviate any misperceptions, coaches should consider holding a meeting early in the season to improve parents’ understanding of team philosophies and establish cooperation and support.
  • Although parents are sensitive to the absence of competence traits, perceived warmth may be more important long-term. Given that warmth promotes approachability and serves as the foundation of a positive coach-athlete relationship (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003), it would be unwise to suggest that warmth characteristics are not relevant to coaches in a youth sport context.
  • Coaching courses should consider integrating skill development to help coaches deliver a positive first impression for parents.
  • Given that unacceptable parent behavior (e.g., sideline verbal aggression) has become an increasingly relevant topic in youth sport (Tamminen, Poucher, & Povilaitis, 2017), parents may be less inclined to act out if they perceive to have a suitable coach (Smoll, Cumming, & Smith, 2011).

About the Author(s)

Jordan Sutcliffe is a Master’s student at Nipissing University. His research interests include parental involvement in youth sport, positive youth development and mental health. Growing up as an avid sport sampler, Jordan’s athletic career ended in 2015 after playing three seasons with the University of Ottawa varsity football team. He now enjoys spending his free time coaching youth football and grassroots soccer.

The author appreciates collaboration with Drs. Alex Benson and Mark Bruner and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC Insight Grant 435-2-16-0591) on this research project.


Asch, S. E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41(3), 258.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 77-83. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.005

Jowett, S., & Cockerill, I. M. (2003). Olympic medalists’ perspective of the athlete–coach relationship. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4(4), 313-331. doi:10.1016/S1469-0292(02)00011-0

Kervyn, N., Bergsieker, H. B., & Fiske, S. T. (2012). The innuendo effect: Hearing the positive but inferring the negative. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 77-85. doi:10.1016/j/jesp.2011.08.001

Knight, C. J., Dorsch, T. E., Osai, K. V., Haderlie, K. L., & Sellars, P. A. (2016). Influences on parental involvement in youth sport. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(2), 161-178. doi:1037/spy0000053

Smoll, F. L., Cumming, S. P., & Smith, R. E. (2011). Enhancing coach-parent relationships in youth sports: Increasing harmony and minimizing hassle. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 6(1), 13-26. doi:10.1260/1747-9541.6.1.13

Sutcliffe, J. T., Benson, A. J., & Bruner, M. W. (2019). Parents value competence more than warmth in competitive youth ice hockey coaches: Evidence based on the innuendo effect. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 43, 82-89

Tamminen, K. A., Poucher, Z. A., & Povilaitis, V. (2017). The car ride home: An interpretive examination of parent–athlete sport conversations. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 6(4), 325. doi:10.1037/spy0000093

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