Research Brief: Nasty Coaches and the Damage Done

Abusive leadership has lasting negative effects on athletes’ performance
Research Brief: Nasty Coaches and the Damage Done

What Did the Study Look At?

We hear stories about transformational leaders or coaches having positive effects on their followers or players long after people have moved on. The same goes for abusive leaders or coaches and the lasting scars they leave on those with whom they work.

Organizational researchers, however, focus almost exclusively on how leadership behaviours affect current followers. And sports psychology researchers offer limited insights on the ill effects of abusive leadership (defined as sustained forms of nonphysical hostility — ridicule, blame, verbal threats, rudeness among others — intended to make a subordinate feel guilty, upset, or inadequate).

This research team tackles both challenges. Based on the contention that leadership has sustained effects on followers even after the leader-follower relationship has ended, the researchers investigated the career-long effects of abusive leadership by professional basketball coaches on players’ aggression and task performance.

How Was the Study Designed?

Data were obtained from NBA players and coaches between the 2000/2001 and 2005/2006 seasons; the information was based on external rather than self-reported sources.

The study focused on 57 coaches who held positions in the NBA for at least one full season during the study period. Researchers conducted a comprehensive search for biographical information on each NBA coach from archival sources, with a focus on news articles that contained references to the coaches’ leadership behaviours. From these biographies, abusive leadership ratings were established based on a previously developed 15-item scale (for example, “ridicules me”, “blames me”, “is rude to me”).

Players were matched with the coach they had in each year. Technical fouls — generally unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — served as a proxy for players’ psychological aggression. Player task performance measures were derived from objective performance data routinely used within the industry for major personnel decisions. 

What Did the Study Find?

  • Abusive leadership was consistently associated with increased psychological aggression (technical fouls) over the course of the players’ career. Specifically, abusive leadership experienced at some point within the six years of the study shifted the players’ trajectory of psychological aggression upward across their career. 
  • Abusive leadership significantly predicted lower task performance across players’ careers (as measured by the player efficiency score).
  • While athletes displayed a downward shift in task performance over time, the strength of this effect did not change. 

What Do I Need to Know?

Why is exposure to abusive leadership so important? The researchers point to evidence that exposure to negative relationships has consistently stronger effects than similar exposure to positive relationships. Consider that transformational leadership has been shown to cast a glow on followers five years down the road; the fallout from an abusive leader presumably would last much longer.

In a sports environment, abusive leadership is often tolerated and seen as a way to drive players to a higher level of achievement. When NBA coaches are fired, the researchers say, “the reasons are similar to those involved in the firing of senior executives in traditional organizations, namely correcting poor selection decisions, coaches losing the respect of their team or significant players, organizational politics, and coaches not achieving performance targets. In contrast, any kind of formal discipline or firing of coaches for abusive leadership is rare.”

The message for organizations is that the negative effects of coaches’ and leaders’ abusive supervision continues well into the future. Early intervention is crucial.


Title: Scarred for the Rest of my Career? Career-Long Effects of Abusive Leadership on Professional Athlete Aggression and Task Performance”

Authors: Erica L. Carleton (Smith School of Business; now at the University of Saskatchewan), Julian Barling (Smith School of Business), Amy M. Christie (Wilfrid Laurier University), Melissa Trivisonno (Smith School of Business), Kelsey Tulloch (Smith School of Business), and Mark R. Beauchamp (University of British Columbia) 

Published: Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (vol. 38, issue 4, 409-422)

— Alan Morantz

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