Latest research: The importance of social support

Swimmer and coach

Social support is known to be really important in sport, when dealing with injury and in helping you succeed in day-to-day life. It has become increasingly recognised as a key resource for athletes, and has been linked with enhanced coping with organisational stressors, youth sport participation, self-confidence, and lower levels of burnout. Some really interesting pieces of research presented at a recent sports psychology conference tell us more about how social support can impact us.

Highlighting how important it is to have supportive people around you, Adam Coussens from the University of Exeter looked at how athletes perceive the support they get from those around them. He found that when athletes perceive certain individuals to be conscientious, open, and sharing a common identity, they also perceive them to be particularly supportive. Further, if athletes perceive certain individuals to be supportive, athletes will also feel confident. Not only can you get confidence when surrounded by supportive people but your motivation can be improved too. Bryn McCann looked at the impact on athlete motivation and found Peers, Coaches and Parents are three social agents who can impact on an athlete’s motivation.

Finally, some fascinating research from Andrew Cruickshank from the University of Central Lancashire who has been looking at the factors that separate Super Champs (Multiple World or Olympic Medalists) from Champs (GB team) from others (those who are good but may quit before senior selection) and found it comes down to commitment, preparation and reaction to challenge, reflection and reward and the role of coaches and significant others. Specifically on the theory that Talent needs Trauma (i.e. the idea that in order to succeed you must have built strength and resilience by overcoming significant hurdles along the way) they found that the hurdles encountered need to consist of structured challenge that helps athletes develop social and psychological skills. A lovely phrase Andrew used was “It needs to be a plaster, not an amputation” so athletes are not necessarily learning new stuff from trauma, just proving and reminding themselves that they have good psychological strength and skills.

Latest research on supporting junior athletes…

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Supporting young athletes so they flourish in their sport but also have doors left open academically if they become injured, or don’t make it in sport is essential but tough. A number of researchers round the UK and abroad are studying youth athletes and their social environment to understand how they can be best supported. Some of the latest findings were presented at a sports psychology conference in Leeds last week.

Researchers at Victoria University in Australia found that there are difficulties experienced in dual careers (e.g., school and sport) of junior elite athletes that could have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. They found the use of productive coping strategies had a direct, positive effect on life satisfaction so suggest it is important to teach and optimise coping skills to help them manage the constant tension between school and sport.

Taking this a step further, researchers Camilla Knight (Swansea University) and Chris Harwood, (Loughborough University) looked at specific ways that those around youth athletes (parents, coaches and peers) can support them in these dual roles. They found all the supporters seemed to understand the demands of upon the youth athletes and placed great value on education, supporting their sporting and academic engagement, providing integrated support, educating athletes regarding the demands they would encounter and trusting athletes to guide their development but that where additional support would be valued was around financial assistance and further integration and communication.

Finally, three researchers from the University of Stirling looked at what may stop youth athletes dropping out of their sports and found that social support from those around them raised their intention to carry on with their sport.

Take away points if you are supporting a youth athlete:

  1. Teach your athlete coping skills to help them manage the tension between school and sport.
  2. Remember it may well be the social support you and others are providing which keeps the athlete doing their sport
  3. Help your youth athlete communicate how they are feeling around their dual role and any stresses this is causing them.