Loughborough University
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Managing challenging situations in the coach-athlete dyad: Navigating the grey zone

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posted on 2024-01-30, 13:04 authored by Katelynn SladeKatelynn Slade

Challenging situations between coaches and athletes are regularly experienced and unavoidable. Particularly in high performance sport, coaches and athletes are faced with selection decisions/outcomes (Capstick & Trudel, 2010b; Fiander et al., 2021; McMahon et al., 2021), injuries (Tracey, 2003), performance issues (Sagar & Jowett, 2012), managing mental health (Felton & Jowett, 2013; Kegelaers et al., 2021; Pilkington et al., 2022), and organisational stressors (Arnold et al., 2017; Simpson et al., 2021) to name a few. Regardless of relationship quality, coaches and athletes will be faced with these situations and must manage them to be able to move forward, maintain performance, and protect their well-being. With current literature in sport mainly focusing on malpractice, unethical behaviour, and malicious intent, (Bermon et al., 2021; McMahon & McGannon, 2019; Stirling & Kerr, 2014) this thesis sought to focus on situations that when mismanaged or underpinned by poor practice can lead to hurt feelings and breakdowns in relationships. Therefore, the aims of this thesis were to (a) define challenging situations in high performance sport, (b) explore a range of challenging situations that occur in high performance sport between coaches and athletes, (c) discover how such challenging situations are perceived and managed within the context of the coach-athlete dyad from the coach and athlete perspective, and (d) provide practical guidelines for a specific challenging situation namely, the process of selection and its subsequent outcomes (selection/deselection).

To aid in the understanding of challenging situations between coaches and athletes, a conceptual model was developed and used to analyse the data in Study 1 and Study 2. In this thesis, a perceived challenging situation is a situation that can push or pull coaches and athletes into an area of uncertainty, unpredictability, volatility, complexity, and ambiguity, with no guarantees. This area is what we call the “Grey Zone”, and it is a space of indeterminacy wherein a coach and athlete will have to interact to develop an understanding of the problem, thus allowing them to identify possible solutions together. Depending on how a coach and an athlete perceive, understand, and manage the challenging situation whilst existing in the Grey Zone, they may move to opposite ends of the model, the Green Zone, or the Red Zone. The model exists as a continuum with a sliding scale, where members can move in the same direction or in opposition directions, with the Green and Red Zone existing on opposite ends with the Grey Zone in the middle. The Green Zone is a space of safety. A coach and/or athlete existing in this space feels heard, respected, connected, trusted, and valued. Whereas a coach and/or athlete existing in the Red Zone feels unsafe, unheard, disrespected, disconnected, and distrusted. Through utilizing the Grey Zone model (GZM), this research programme identified behaviours and actions that could move a coach and/or athlete to either the Green Zone or Red Zone following a challenging situation. Informed by contemporary stress and appraisal theory (Fletcher et al., 2008; Fletcher & Hanton, 2003; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Thelwell et al., 2010) and the nature of sport coaching (Cassidy et al., 2008; D. Collins et al., 2022; Côté & Gilbert, 2009; R. Jones et al., 2010), this research defines challenging situations in the coach-athlete dyad as: organisational, performance, interpersonal, and intrapersonal stressors that can push or pull one or both the coach and athlete, and subsequently their relationship into a state of indeterminacy that may cause conflict or strain depending on how the challenging situation was managed and the context in which it occurred. Stressors, in this context, are also referred to more broadly as ‘challenging situations’ and relate to individuals’ perceptions of said stressors as a challenge or threat.

For Study 1, a total of 11 current high performance and World Class Performance (WCP) coaches, took part in a semi-structured interview aided by vignettes to explore and discover the process by which coaches deal with challenging situations. Using content analysis, the GZM was utilised to analyse the obtained qualitative data. Results indicated that coaches regularly experience challenging situations and use a variety of techniques to manage them such as clear and honest communication, continuous support, trust, and giving athlete autonomy. The most discussed challenging situation from the interviews was managing selection and deselection. Seven of the coaches discussed selection and deselection as a challenging situation that is fraught with uncertainty, tough decisions, and disgruntled athletes, leading to breakdowns in relationships.

Building on Study 1, Study 2 sought to capture experiences and perceptions regarding deselection through interviews with 12 current and retired high performance and WCP athletes (6 current, 6 retired). Transcripts were analysed using a combined inductive and deductive approach guided by the GZM. Generic and sub-categories conceptualise an athlete’s movement either into the Green Zone or Red Zone highlighting how the challenging situation of deselection was and experienced and mismanaged or managed. Relational behaviours (such as communication, support, and high-quality relationships) and practical measures (including having a clear deselection policy and/or guidelines in place) were found to help athletes manage the process of deselection.

Further to the development of a practical tool (i.e., GZM) for coaches, athletes, psychologists, and other relevant support staff to use in sport to manage challenging situations, Study 3 sought to develop guidelines for managing the selection process and its outcomes (selection or deselection) in high-performance sport. It was evident from Study 1 and Study 2 that coaches and athletes may benefit from the development of a framework and set of guidelines to manage this specific challenging situation. Therefore, Study 3 brought together various stakeholders in sport to develop such guidelines. Employing the Delphi method, a total of 20 participants comprised the expert panel (coaches, athletes, and other key personnel involved in high performance sport) from various individual and team sports Following interviews and content analysis, 60 items reached the pre-determined consensus level of 75%. The 60 items were then further content analysed and grouped with respect to the three key stakeholders: athlete (14), coach (21), and organisation (25). Within each of these main categories, seven subcategories emerged: personal, interpersonal, procedural, educational, supportive, communicative, and reviewing behaviours, and actions that athletes, coaches, and organisations can take to better manage selection-deselection.

In this thesis, a conceptual tool and guidelines are proposed which can be used in real-life sport settings by coaches, athletes, and other practitioners. Coaches and athletes regularly face challenging situations and can either end up in the Green Zone or Red Zone depending on how they are managed. From this thesis, numerous suggestions for coaches and athletes are made on how to better manage such situations. Specifically, a conceptual model was developed and used to analyse the data of this thesis to create a visual practical aid. The GZM can be used across various challenging situations to assess how an individual is perceiving and managing the current situation. The GZM is a “temperature check” for individuals and a visual aid to see how others are experiencing the situation. As this research indicated, selection and deselection were readily experienced by coaches and athletes, yet they are offered little guidance and support on how to manage the situation. The guidelines which were developed through this research programme for the selection and deselection process can be implemented across a variety of sports and can be altered based on individual needs. This thesis sought to delve deeper into contested situations between coaches and athletes that are regularly experienced and provide practical and applicable solutions.


IOC Olympic Studies Centre - PhD Students and Early Career Academics Research Grant Programme 2021 Award (2,500 USD)



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


Loughborough University

Rights holder

© Katelynn Slade

Publication date



  • en


Sophia Jowett ; Daniel Rhind

Qualification name

  • PhD

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

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  • I have submitted a signed certificate