News Release

Coaches can boost athletes’ mental health by being ‘authentic leaders’

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Birmingham

Sports coaches could strengthen athletes’ mental health and protect them from mental illness – by adopting an ‘authentic leadership’ style, a new study reveals.

Researchers found when athletes perceived that their coach engaged in behaviours such as openly sharing information, showing understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, acting in an ethical manner, and listening to alternative perspectives, they felt happier and dealt with problems more easily.

Publishing their findings today (6 March) in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, experts from the University of Birmingham reveal that athletes training with coaches who display the attributes of an ‘authentic leader’, are likely to be mentally ‘fitter’.

Researchers found that the indirect effect of authentic leadership on athletes’ positive mental health, through making their teammates acting more prosocially toward them, e.g., encouraging them, supporting them, giving them positive feedback, congratulating them for good play, was stronger in athletes competing at a higher competitive level.

This suggests that authentic leadership from coaches and better behaved teammates are particularly important in athletes who compete at higher levels, such as national, international, or university leagues.

Study lead author Professor Maria Kavussanu, from the University of Birmingham, commented: “Higher level athletes tend to train together for longer hours and have the opportunity for more frequent social interaction with each other.

“The relationships that develop within the team become important, as do experiencing positive behaviours such as support and encouragement from their teammates, which can be promoted by coaches adopting an authentic leadership style.

“This may have greater potential to strengthen the athletes’ psychological capital making them more resilient, confident, and optimistic with subsequent beneficial effects on their positive mental health. The stronger effect of authentic leadership on athletes’ competing at higher levels is a unique finding that is worth exploring further in future research.”

The research follows findings by Professor Kavussanu and colleagues that sports coaches who display ‘authentic leadership’ qualities could find their athletes are less likely to act aggressively towards competitors. Such leadership can also enhance sport enjoyment and commitment – both vital qualities in sport as they can influence athletes’ continued participation, which tends to decline as sportspeople get older.

The researchers also found that authentic leadership was related to lower mental illness - fewer feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress, through increased psychological capital, increased prosocial teammate behaviour and reduced antisocial teammate behaviour.

The study findings suggest that adopting an authentic leadership style may have the potential to protect athletes from mental illness by strengthening their self-belief, increasing positive, and decreasing negative behaviour from teammates.


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Notes for editors

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 8,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • A global top 100 university and a member of the elite Russell Group of UK universities, the University was established by Queen Victoria in 1900 as Great Britain’s first civic university, where students from all religions and backgrounds were accepted on an equal basis. Renowned for its research excellence, the University’s researchers have received 10 Nobel Prizes. From pioneering organ transplants, discovering gravitational waves and furthering understanding of Shakespeare, to developing cures for cancer, advances in robotics and revealing the structure of DNA, the University has been at the forefront of some of the most ground-breaking discoveries of the last 100 years. 
  • Mental Health in Athletes: Does Authentic Leadership Matter? – Maria Kavussanu et al is published by Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Participating institutions include:
    • University of Birmingham, UK;
    • University of Derby, UK;
    • Hunan University of Technology, China; and
    • Zhejiang University, China.


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