Running head: Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 1
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports
Group 2: Babb, Castleberry, Crisp
Coaches impact their athletes in ways beyond what other relationships can do for
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 2
people. The nonverbal communication between coaches and athletes is dramatically more
prominent than nonverbal communication in other scenarios. The way they interact
determines the outcome of the game, and the attitude of both the player and the coach.
The coach’s interaction with the players determines the players’ confidence and success.
This study will discuss the impact of this unique relationship. Through the positive
reinforcement in sports via nonverbal communication, the outcome of not only athletics,
but of the athlete, is determined.
Some coaches may believe that having aggressive verbal and physical
communication will improve the performance of their athletes; however studies have
shown that coaches who promote aggressive communication, both verbally and
physically put unwanted pressures on their athletes, that can cause athletes to have less
satisfaction with their coaches, less team success, and less sportsmanship (Kassing &
Infante, 1999). Verbal aggressions are message behaviors that attack a person’s self-
concept and promote psychological pain by communicating through acts of cursing,
yelling, and screaming at others. Physical aggression differs in that the message
behaviors are communicated through nonverbal actions like hostile body language and
poor eye contact (Kassing & Infante, 1999). Individuals who exhibit verbal aggressive
behaviors are more likely to have interpersonal problems and resort to physical
aggression (Vissing & Straus, 1990). There is a clear relationship between verbal and
physical aggression: when one form of aggression is present, the other form of aggression
is most likely to either develop or be present as well.
Most coaches are former athletes, and the competitiveness that lingers in all
athletes doesn’t simply fade when the roles switch. Coaches too, are competitive. They
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 3
can mismanage competition and put unwanted pressures on their players to improve their
performance. Like all relationships, specifically the athlete-coach relationship,
communication is extremely important. A coach communicates with his players through
feedback. The feedback can be lessons on how to improve errors or it can be praise on
successes: either type can be received differently depending on the way the feedback is
delivered. If a coach is calm when communicating with players, the athletes will have a
better understanding of the context and they will be able to take the feedback and use it to
their advantage. However, if a coach demonstrates frustration, then the players will be put
under pressure to change the errors to please the coach (Kassing & Infante, 1999).
Athletes perceive verbally and physically aggressive coaches as “unfriendly”,
“not relaxed”, and “less attentiveness” (Kassing & Infante, 1999). When you take into
consideration all of these things, an athlete’s performance can severely be impacted in a
negative way if they do not respect their own coach. A coach needs to be a good role
model, show respect, and have the ability to communicate effectively with his or her
players. Positive reinforcement, both verbally and physically, can be the underlying
component that promotes team cohesion to essentially produce a successful team.
What a player thinks of his coach is very important in the way that he performs. A
coach can motivate or de-motivate a player to perform well by the way he communicates
with that player. “Players Perceptions of Their Coaches’ Immediacy, Assertiveness, and
Responsiveness” was a study performed by Kelly Rocca, Matthew Martin, and Mary
Toale. The study places three communication variables, immediacy, assertiveness, and
responsiveness, at the forefront of the research and examines how an athlete analyzes this
from their coach.
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According to Turman (2006), 90% of American children participate in at least one
organized sport before finishing high school. This is a significant indicator that young
athletes aren’t just learning in the classroom, but also learning outside the classroom. As
children develop, whom they surround themselves around can influence their future self.
Informal learning has been taking place in organized team sports for generations. Young
athletes are “taught”, “motivated”, and “guided” by their coaches (Turman, 2006). There
are different ways a coach sustains power within a sport. These powers include: coercive,
reward, legitimate, referent, and expert (Turman, 2006). More specifically, reward power
is when a coach provides rewards such as playing time and starter status, if positive
behaviors are performed (Turman, 2006). The more athletes’ respect their coach, the
more efficient the coach will be as an instructor.
Turman (2006) reports that athletes who have a higher playing status, (e.g.,
starters) receive higher levels of reward power from their coaches. These athletes receive
more positive feedback and more positive reinforcement, which essentially impact their
performance. These athletes are also more confident in their playing abilities. Ironically,
those players who have low playing statuses receive less positive reinforcement; these
players are the ones who should be receiving the positive reinforcement (Turman, 2006).
There is a strong connection between coaching behaviors and athlete satisfaction. For
example, if a coach is not providing the same levels of feedback to all players, then the
players who are at a disadvantage perform worse and are less satisfied.
Athletic coaches are not just authority figures that provide positive and negative
feedback; they also have the potential to be important role models. Studies have proven
that there is a link between identification with the coach and motivation to perform
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(Reynolds & Allen, 2003). If a young athlete has a negative identification with his or her
coach it may be a direct result of aggression. When learning something new or trying to
find ways to improve, encouragement and positive reinforcement is very important. It
would be difficult to have a positive outlook if a coach was constantly showing
frustration through nonverbal aggression. The behaviors of a coach could affect the
athletes’ willingness to learn new aspects of the chosen sport. Lacking knowledge and
motivation to play can hinder the performance of the individual athlete and the team as a
whole. Therefore, having a positive identification with the coach, where positive
feedback and reinforcement are present and aggression is not, is the most important
component in performing successfully.
Immediacy is looked to as a positive attribute that a coach can have that affects its
players. Being likeable may cause athletes to respond better and do what a coach tells
them to do. A greater effect would cause more cognitive learning by the athletes. If a
player is paying attention to the coach, he or she may retain what is taught and use this
during the athletic performance to achieve their goal. Assertiveness was another factor
that was evaluated in this study as a way coaches communicate with their players. Our
study focuses on nonverbal communication but being assertive does not have to just be
verbally. Assertiveness as a coach forces players to give you attention that allows you to
then teach them. Without the player’s attention, coaches are less likely to get through to
their players. Responsiveness was the last communication variable studied in this
research. Responsiveness as a coach shows players that they care for them and are willing
to help. If a player feels their coach is unapproachable, they are less likely to speak to
them and therefore may not learn or perform well. The results of this study showed that
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coaches who are immediate, are also highly responsive and assertive. The study also
provides a lane for us as they mention that future researches could possibly study
nonverbal immediacy between a coach and his athletes and how that affects motivation
Coaches are an important influence of athletes in determining the outcome of
sporting events. According to Turman (2008) they determine how athletes interpret their
experience (Turman, 2008). The verbal and nonverbal behaviors of the coach determine
the teams’ cohesiveness, and ultimately lead to more sportsmanship. The immediate
interaction between the coach and athlete requires immediate use of nonverbal behaviors,
further enhancing one’s individual connection to their team. A coach’s nonverbal actions
contribute to social attraction to the group. The amount of physical closeness in athletics
is often significantly greater than that of a classroom. Between high fives, time-outs,
huddles, hand signals, and more, the nonverbal behaviors imply closeness with fellow
teammates not seen in other situations.
High fives are the most common nonverbal communication behavior seen at
sporting events. It is a quick and easy way of congratulating someone, or saying ‘it was a
good effort’ without preventing them from becoming distracted from the game. Not only
between athletes, but also between athletes and their coaches, high fives are a great way
to show appreciation for a successful play. Furthermore, Ballard (2010) mentions a quote
about how during sports games you can slap someone in the bottom, and it isn’t thought
of as anything more than a congratulations. Yet, in any other context it would be
considered invasive and inappropriate.
Verbal aggression has a significant impact on the way athletes perform. The study
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“Relationship between Coaches’ Use of Behavior Techniques and Verbal Aggression on
Athletes’ Motivation and Affect” proves this point. Behavior Alteration Techniques
(BAT) was the main focus in this study. Behavior Alteration Techniques are used to try
and influence athletes. There are positive and negative BAT’s that can affect a player.
Two mentioned in this study were immediate reward for behavior and punishment from
behavior (Martin, Rocca, Cayanus, & Weber, 2009, p. 229). The results from this study
proved that when verbally attacked by coaches, the students were less motivated to excel
and were more likely to dislike their coaches. We can take from this the impact of verbal
communication and see how it can relate to nonverbal communication that is shown to be
“aggressive”. Will it affect the athlete’s performance and motivation as much as verbal
Kneidinger (2001) discusses gender specific nonverbal communication in sports.
She discusses the level of appropriateness of a butt-slap between a teacher and student
versus a coach and athlete. Studies of contact “…by winners and losers found that
winners gave more touches to others and were involved in more overall touches than
losers” (Kneidinger, 2001). Also, the most prevalent touch involved the use of hands. In
general studies, Kneidinger points out that females are more expressive emotionally in
general, but in the context of a competition, males are more nonverbally emotionally
expressive than females. Being an aspect connected to emotions, nonverbal behaviors,
like touching, are seen as relaxed in an athletic setting. Females, however, do express
more nonverbal behavior to the same-sex than males. The intensity and devotion to the
sport varies, meaning types of touching between male and female athletes will vary.
Additionally, female’s nonverbal communication of touch increases with losses more
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 8
frequently than males. Lastly, in context of home and away games females showed more
‘behaviors’ at the home games, while males showed more ‘behaviors’ at the away games.
The expressions of pride and shame often have very distinct nonverbal behaviors
correlating them in relation to sports, except, perhaps magnified. Tracy (2008) discusses
how congenitally blind people, recently blind people, and seeing people all similarly
behave nonverbally in a prideful or ashamed way; with only a slight variation in the
shameful reaction. Smiling and frowning are facial expressions that even the congenitally
blind people expressed, meaning the inflections of the face are not learned reactions,
rather instinctual. This implies that certain nonverbal communication behaviors of
individuals are not influenced by their teammates and coaches, but rather it is a
spontaneous and natural cross-cultural reaction.
The relationship between teachers and students is, however, similar to the
relationship between coaches and athletes in the outcomes. Both involve instructional
communication to “foster a learning environment to help ensure positive learning
outcomes” (Turman, 2003). In order to achieve positive learning outcomes, instructors
need to contain personal traits that promote willingness to communicate and self-disclose.
According to Turman (2003) they must also display verbal and nonverbal immediacy, but
have no traits of verbal or physical aggression. Students and athletes will listen more if
they respect and like you, thus suggesting that they will understand and perform better.
Although nonverbal communication between coaches and players is not
particularly the focus in the study, what we are able to take from this is to understand the
leadership styles of coaches that are perceived by athletes. This can help us to further
understand how nonverbal communication can affect the way an athlete performs.
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An autocratic style of leadership includes the behaviors that coaches use to
separate themselves from their athletes. They establish authority and let it be known to
their players the status of their position. A democratic style includes behaviors that
welcome participation by the players when making decisions about the team and the sport
in general. Social support leadership helps to take care of the personal needs that each
player requires. Positive feedback leadership involves communicating to the athletes a
sense of appreciation for what they accomplish. Training and instruction feedback are the
behaviors that coaches use to develop the players knowledge and skills in the sport
(Turman & Schrodt 2004, pp.131-132).
Similar to the study just mentioned, the research study “Coaches Use of
Anticipatory and Counterfactual Regret Messages During Competition”, written by Paul
Turman, focuses on regret messages and how coaches use them during athletic
competitions. Accountability, individual performance, collective failure, social
significance, regret reduction, and future regret are all considered regret messages.
Coaches use these messages to motivate their players. Some athletes respond well to
these messages while others do not and therefore their performance declines. Nonverbal
regret messages can be a topic that can be further explored within our study.
According to Kassing and Pappas (2007), coaches don’t just impact their athletes
sporting career, they also impact the person that they potentially become. They provide
athletes with the knowledge to become a leader, shape their self-perceptions, and teach
them about motivation. Athletes reported that they preferred positive, encouraging, and
immediate feedback that was reinforcing and rewarding (Kassing & Pappas, 2007).
Positive coach-athlete relationships can influence how an athlete views the “quality” of
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 10
his experience, but also of future experiences as well. The more a coach provides
positive reinforcement, the happier and more successful the athlete and team will
perform. According to Kassing and Pappas (2007), coaches don’t just impact their
athletes sporting career, but they also impact the person that they potentially become.
They provide athletes with the knowledge to become a leader, shape their self-
perceptions, and teach them about motivation. Athletes reported that they preferred
positive, encouraging, and immediate feedback that was reinforcing and rewarding
(Kassing & Pappas, 2007). Positive coach-athlete relationships can influence how an
athlete views the “quality” of his experience, but also of future experiences as well. The
more a coach provides positive reinforcement, the happier and more successful the
athlete and team will perform.
In youth sports especially, the impact coaches, fans and family have on the
children in significant. If kids grow up with constant bickering between parents, coaches,
and officials, than the children will grow up only understanding negative exposure to
sports. According to Omli, the role parents play in youth sports and the coach-athlete
relationship, and the joys that come of being a youth sport parent, are very important
when it comes to presenting the sport as a fun sport that requires close relationships,
teamwork, and hard work. This being said, background anger at child sporting events
create conflict, confusion, and negatively influence the children. Children’s reactions to
nonverbal anger increase the amount of distress in a child because the nonverbal aspect
often includes physical conflicts. Negative nonverbal behavior can impact a child’s
opinion of sports for the rest of their life.
What a coach expects of a player and what the player expects of himself can have
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 11
a strong impact on how well the athlete performs in competition. In the study “Great
Expectations: How Do Athletes of Different Expectancies Attribute Their Perception of
Personal Athletic Performance?” the authors, Marcia Wilson and Dawn Stephens,
examine the differences between high and low expectancy athletes perceptions for the
cause of their performance.
The study uses Darley and Fazio’s Expectancy Confirmation Model for
understanding the expectancy process. Coaches form an expectation of the athlete, which
then allows the coach to behave in a manner that is congruent with that expectancy.
Athletes perceive and interpret the behavior that the coach displays. Athletes respond to
these behaviors in different ways. Coaches interpret an athlete’s response. Coaches are
likely to retain expectation, which is the consequence of the coach and athletes behavior.
Athletes interpret their own responses (Wilson & Stephens, p.394). Nonverbal
communication can take place within the responses of both the coach and the athlete.
Although it is not the focus of the study, we can see how nonverbal communication can
have an effect on a player’s performance when given by a coach.
Through acting as mentor, discipliner, friend, encourager, confidant, role model,
and supporter, coaches shape the lives of their athlete through nonverbal behaviors. Many
of the nonverbal behaviors may be seen as inappropriate in any other context other than
athletics. Through the coaches, sports offer people an experience of acceptance, success,
and unique nonverbal behaviors that cannot be attained anywhere else.
Statement of Method
Communication among coaches and athletes is necessary, but how much of an
impact does the nonverbal aspect make in improvement of the athletes? Our research
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 12
question: Does positive reinforcement via nonverbal communication make a difference in
performance?, will determine the influence of different nonverbal communication
between coach and athlete. The method of analysis would be the static-group comparison.
This study allots for two study groups to compare results. It is the best study to
implement because it allows the comparison of the effects of no communication to the
effects on nonverbal communication.
We thought that this method would be very beneficial to test our hypothesis: Does
positive reinforcement via nonverbal communication make a difference in performance?,
this is a question, not a hypothesis because it allows us to test and observe our static-
group experiment. It also allows us to look closely at the relationship between the two
variables, which is essential to successfully acquiring knowledge on nonverbal
We need to compare the athletes and the coaches, in whom we will observe the
nonverbal communication that is taking place to see if it impacts the performance. For
our experiment, the independent variables are the coaches and the dependent variables
will be the athletes. The coaches are the influencers and impact the athletes. We will
look at two groups of athletes, we will observe one group of dependent variables
(athletes) when they are exposed to the independent variable (coaches), and we will
observe the other group of athletes when they are not being exposed to the independent
variable because this will allow us to compare what happens when coaches are and are
not present. It will also allow us to observe the athlete-to-athlete nonverbal interactions
and to see if the athletes are receiving positive reinforcement from their coaches, and if
so, analyzing if it does or does not influence their performance level.
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 13
For our study on nonverbal communication, where we look at it being a positive
reinforcement to see if it impacts performance, we would operationally define the levels
of nonverbal communication. For example, someone who shows high signs of nonverbal
communication promote high levels of eye contact and body language. The way in which
we would determine if a coach establishes high levels of nonverbal communication is by
observing the natural interactions of the coach to the athletes. To establish if a coach has
high levels of nonverbal communication, he or she would need to score above average on
our observation report, which measures in seconds how long the coach promotes eye
contact during an interaction with an athlete, compared to the length of the actual
exchange itself. Also, we would examine how much body language was used in the
exchanges and how much human touch occurred between the coach and the athlete.
We will measure the improvement of team statistics before, during, and after the
season to see if the positive reinforcement through nonverbal communication has affected
the players. We will look at both the statistics of the team as well as individual statistics
to see if certain players are affected more than others. We will also measure the results of
games during the season. We can see if more positive reinforcement during a particular
practice week led to a win or loss that week for the team. This can truly help us in the end
when trying to see if the non verbal positive reinforcement makes a difference in the
player’s athletic performances. Another thing that we will measure is the number of body
language touches between the coach and the players. We feel that keeping count of this
will add to our data and ultimately help us in the end with our research. We will measure
the number of pats on the back, hi-fives, hugs, etc. This will be evidence of non verbal
communication that is used for positive reinforcement by the coach. These measurements
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 14
will help us grasp what we are looking for in this research.
We came up with a data collection procedure that we think will most effectively
help us obtain valid and reliable results. We will have one person record the practices and
games with a video camera while another person observes naturally. Video cameras do
not always capture everything, so the person observing naturally will be there to pick up
on things that the camera does not. Recording on the video camera also makes sure that
we have something to go back and look at when we are analyzing. The natural eye may
not catch everything as well so we feel that having both the video camera and the natural
observer will help us to make sure we have enough information. We can go back and
compare tapes from practices and games earlier in the season to those of which are later
in the season and see how our results may have changed. We feel that using both can
work while still being natural in the setting, which is at the practices and the games.
Capturing the non verbal positive reinforcement between coach and player will be
significantly made easier by having one person videotape and another observe naturally.
Studying two division III college football teams, with two separate coaches, with
the coach being the intervention and independent variable, and the teams being the
dependant, we will see the level of difference the coaches makes in the success of both
teams, and how their participation in the study differs. By observing and note taking in a
natural setting, and videotaping the interaction during practice and games, we can be
assured of not missing anything, however, this could lead to difficulties protecting the
participants. So proper discarding of the video would be necessary.
The college football teams studied would be located in Maryland, for the
convenience of the researchers. Observation of each player and their stats would ensure
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 15
complete team analysis and not allow for variation among the rest of the team. In order to
ensure participant protection the study would not specify which Maryland University
teams were studied, nor their individual names and jersey numbers. This information
would otherwise lead to determining the University studied. Also, we would not p
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ositions played with the stats because if a person non-relative to the study knew players
stats they could determine the university as well. We would, however, include the fact
that football was the researched sport.
Key variables that might impact our results are the athleticism and skill level and
knowledge of the sport for the athletes. The more an athlete knows about the sport and
the better his or her skill level; this could impact his performance and chance of receiving
positive reinforcement. This needs to be accounted for before we begin to observe the
athletes. After we have randomly selected the athletes to observe, we will have them
complete a survey asking them basic questions about their past experiences with the sport
and their successes with the sport, like playing time, statistics, and winning averages, and
the history of the coaches that they have had and how they perceived their past coaches’
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 34
Studying the affect of coach-to-athlete nonverbal communication on athletic
performance during games and practice can be very complicated. For starters, we are not
measuring or focusing on the influence that verbal communication has toward
performance, so we have nothing to which we can correlate percentages. We also are not
factoring whether it is the nonverbal or verbal communication that influences
performance when both are present (which is the majority of the game).
In order to perfect this study, we would have to measure the influence of verbal
over nonverbal and visa-versa. This would involve much more extensive observation and
time in order to accurately determine the difference in influence. However, by studying
both types of communication, verbal and nonverbal, the results from the study could be
observed by researchers to better prove that performance is highly influenced by the type
of communication that is present within the sporting atmosphere.
Another thing that factors into the limitations of this study is its research of only
one sport. In order to acquire a greater understanding of nonverbal communication
influence, the study should be done using multiple different sports teams on multiple
levels. Furthermore, studying more than two teams at each level would allow for less bias
amongst individual level of athletic capability.
If the study progressed over years, researchers could study peewee sports, along
with high school, college, and professional levels. This would benefit the study because
people react differently to nonverbal communication as they age. And only conducting
our study for one season allows a large limitation on how a coach exhibiting poor
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 35
nonverbal communication versus a coach exhibiting good nonverbal communication
affects the overall performance level and motivation of an athlete.
Another limitation from our proposed study is that we are only observing the
coach to athlete nonverbal communication. If we were to observe the coach to athlete
along with the athlete-to-athlete nonverbal communication, it would be more beneficial
for our results. By studying both types of relationships within a given sport, we would be
able to observe whether athletes are not only affected by their coaches’ nonverbal
communication, or if athlete relationships within the team affect the performance level as
well. A key variable that might impact the results could be the history of the actual coach
and how long they have been coaching. This might impact the results because newer
coaches might not obtain the knowledge of how to be a successful coach.
To name a few, adding Baseball, Soccer, Lacrosse, Basketball, or more to the
study would improve the validity of the experiment, because the results could not only be
compared to athletics as a whole, but the differences between individual sports as well.
Adding more sports to the research experiment would expand the study to more than just
the results of two football teams. This would prevent a great deal of bias, and add to the
validity of the research.
A strength that can come from conducting this study is the fact that we would be
opening a door for others to research and learn about how positive reinforcement through
nonverbal communication can affect athletes. We found numerous studies about how
verbal communication plays a role in athletic coaching but our study would be the first to
touch on nonverbal communication. Other researchers may build off of our study and
find out even more information on this topic. This can help both athletes and coaches as
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 36
they work on their nonverbal communication between one another. From our data, we
may prove that positive reinforcement in the form of nonverbal communication will help
an athlete succeed which will lead to their team succeeding as well. This will also allow
for a coach to understand what they have to do to become better communicators to their
Another strength of our study is that it is important, yet not impossible to fully
carryout. As we mentioned before, we can conduct our study without needing extreme
help from outside sources. Our set up and method of data collection is not farfetched to
the point where we would need experts to come helps us analyze our information. Our
study is critical but it is not too intense that the average person could not understand what
we were trying to accomplish. Our study is able to be followed by student-athletes,
coaches, parents, and anyone else interested. Some other studies require heavy expertise
in a field to understand what is going on. Our study is relatable to most people and this
gives our study an advantage.
An important strength to our study is based on the idea of ethics. While carrying
out our study and making observations, names of players, coaches, and sports teams will
not be disclosed so that everything will be kept anonymous to protect the athletes and the
coaches. Everyone involved in our study will be numbered or renamed to make sure that
we consider ethics in our study. This is important because coaches who might not exhibit
good communication skills could potentially be fired because some may see them as bad
We are not trying to make a potential impact on a coaches’ career, we are only
trying to study whether positive reinforcement via nonverbal communication results in
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 37
positive performance levels. Also, if we were to disclose the schools name then it might
affect some parents’ decision on whether or not their children attend those schools.
Lastly, if we were to disclose an athletes' name, not only would it be wrong seeing as
how they are minors, but also if they had poor performance statistics then it might affect
the self-esteem and motivation level of the athlete under study.
Positive Reinforcement Via Nonverbal Communication in Sports 38
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