Psychological attributes, not physical gifts, of young athletes predict success, say coaches in a new study

August 23, 1999

Too much pressure and criticism harm athletes' potential

In a new study examining how much psychological and physical characteristics matter in the development of young athletes, psychologist Shari Kuchenbecker,Ph.D., and co-authors from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles found that psychological factors were most important in achieving athletic success. And too much pressure and criticism were the most harmful to a young athlete's development. These findings will be presented at the 107th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston.

"The number one quality that coaches see as a real winner is loving to play the sport," said Dr. Kuchenbecker. "Having a positive attitude, being coachable, self-motivated and being a team player followed as the next top attributes of winning athletes."

"Many young athletes have negative forces motivating them to succeed in sports, like pleasing their parents, getting a college scholarship or fitting into the various jock cliques at school," said Dr. Kuchenbecker. "This study shows that the coaches who teach these children about sports create winners by emphasizing the positive personal development of the young athlete. It is an important reminder to parents, coaches and educators of the healthy function sports play in the overall development of young people."

Dr. Kuchenbecker and her co-authors discovered this by asking 658 coaches (75% male and 25% female) of young athletes (between 3-22 years old) who participate in 43 sports to characterize a young athlete of winning potential from a list of 64 physical and 64 psychological characteristics.

Coaches across the board emphasized the importance of psychological factors as essential for athletic success in young people. "This was true for the youth athletic coaches (American Youth Soccer Organization [AYSO], club and high school athletic events, elementary schools) as well as the coaches from U.S. Junior National Championship competitions and 17 NCAA Division 1 coaches at Stanford University, winner for the fifth straight year of the prestigious Sears Cup for the top number of championships across sports," said Dr. Kuchenbecker.

Of all the psychological and physical characteristics the coaches could choose from as essential traits to succeeding as an athlete, 43 percent picked loves to play; 32.7 percent picked positive attitude; 29.8 percent picked coachable; 27.4 percent picked self-motivated; and 25.7 percent picked team player. "The coaches also cited the two top damaging forces that hurt developing athletes: criticism (16.8%) and pressure (12.2%)," said Dr. Kuchenbecker.

The physical skills that were rated as important to succeed by the coaches, which were far below the psychological characteristics, were natural physical athlete (10.2%), good eye-hand coordination (8.8%) and coordinated for age (4.0%).

The sports examined were baseball and Little League (14.8%); basketball (17%); football (8.4%); soccer, including AYSO (19.8%); softball (8.1%); volleyball (7.9%); swimming and diving (4.7%); tennis (2.8%); track and field, including cross -country (2.9%); water polo (1.6%) and a range of other sports, including ice hockey, badminton, fencing, martial arts, wrestling, golf, downhill skiing and ultimate frisbee. The coaches rating the athletes averaged 7.8 years of experience, with a range of 1 to 42 years of experience.

Presentation: "Who's a Winner? Coaches' Views of Winning Young Athletes," Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Session 4200, 1:00 - 2:50 PM, Monday, August 23, 1999, Hynes Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A (F-14).
Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., can be reached at (310) 476-1745 or at

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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