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Positive youth development and observed
athlete behavior in recreational sport
Matthew Vierimaa1*, Mark W. Bruner2, Jean Côté3
1 Department of Kinesiology and Health Science, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, United States of
America, 2 Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University, North Bay, Ontario, Canada, 3 School of
Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
* [email protected]
Citation: Vierimaa M, Bruner MW, Côté J (2018)
Positive youth development and observed athlete
behavior in recreational sport. PLoS ONE 13(1):
Competence, confidence, connection, and character are regarded as outcomes of positive
youth development (PYD) in sport. However, the specific athlete behaviors associated with
different PYD profiles are not well understood. Thus, the purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between athletes’ observed behavior during sport competitions and
their perceptions of PYD outcomes.
Cross-sectional study with systematic behavioral observation.
Editor: Martinek T, UNITED STATES
Received: January 18, 2017
Accepted: January 8, 2018
Sixty-seven youth athletes were observed during basketball games near the end of their
season, and the content of their behavior was systematically coded. Athletes also completed measures of the 4 Cs (competence, confidence connection, and character). A person-centered analysis approach was used to examine the relationship between PYD
profiles and observed behavior.
Published: January 30, 2018
Copyright: © 2018 Vierimaa et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: We can confirm that
the analyses can be replicated using the minimal
data present within the paper. If requested,
additional anonymized data could be made
available from the corresponding author or the
Queen’s University General Research Ethics Board.
Due to the identifiable nature of video-recorded
observational data, full data cannot be made
publicly available. Anonymous partial data may be
requested from the corresponding author
([email protected]) or the Queen’s
University General Research Ethics Board (chair.
[email protected]).
A cluster analysis identified two homogenous groups of athletes characterized by relatively
high and low perceptions of confidence, connection, and character. A MANCOVA revealed
that after controlling for gender and years of playing experience, the high Cs group engaged
in more frequent sport communication with their coaches.
Results re-affirm the critical role that coaches play in the developmental experiences of
young athletes, and highlight the importance of contextual factors of the youth sport
PLOS ONE | January 30, 2018
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Positive youth development and athlete behavior
Funding: Funding for this project was provided by
a Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral
Scholarship (#767-2013-2642) from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada (SSHRC: to MV,
and a SSHRC Insight Grant (#435-2014-0038) to
JC. The funding agency played no role whatsoever
in study design, data collection and analysis,
decision to publish, or preparation of the
manuscript for this study.
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
Positive youth development (PYD) is a strength-based perspective that views youth as
resources to be developed, rather than problems to be solved [1]. Essentially, the PYD perspective contends that all youth have personal strengths that can flourish and be promoted (e.g.,
[2]). The PYD approach began in developmental psychology approximately 20 years ago, and
the majority of studies have investigated how youth’s participation in various forms of extracurricular activities can influence important developmental outcomes (e.g., [3]). Researchers
have suggested that effective PYD programs tend to be characterized by the provision of leadership opportunities, emphasis on the development of personal and life skills, sustained and
caring youth-adult relationships, and a supportive and empowering environment [4–5]. Some
have argued that organized sport may be a particularly fruitful context for the development of
PYD [6–7]. As a result, the PYD approach has gained considerable popularity among sport
researchers over the past decade (see [8–9] for reviews), leading to a proliferation of research
across sport contexts using different conceptual frameworks.
One of the most dominant PYD frameworks across both developmental and sport psychology is the 5 Cs, popularized by Lerner and colleagues [3]. Lerner et al. posit that PYD occurs
when youth exhibit growth in five distinct areas: Competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. As youth develop in these five key areas over time, this can ultimately lead to a
sixth C—contribution, whereby youth become thriving members of society who contribute to
themselves, their families, and communities [10]. Following a review of the sport literature,
Côté and colleagues [11] advocated for combining character and caring when studying PYD
in a sport context, due to a lack of differentiation among these constructs in the extant sport
literature. The resultant 4 Cs mirror the framework’s original conceptualization [12], which
was expanded by Lerner and colleagues [3] using a similar review process to that of Côté and
colleagues [11]. Using this sport-specific 4 Cs framework, Vierimaa and colleagues [13] conducted a subsequent review of literature and proposed a measurement toolkit using existing
instruments, which assess the manifestation of the 4 Cs within a sport context. Based upon this
approach [11, 13], each of the 4 Cs can be defined as follows: Competence reflects athletes’ skill
level or ability in a given sport; confidence refers to athletes’ belief in their abilities to be successful in a given sport; connection is an umbrella term which comprises quality relationships
among the social actors in a sport environment (e.g., coaches, teammates, etc.); finally, character refers to respect, responsibility, and ultimately engaging in prosocial behaviors and avoiding antisocial behaviors.
Recent studies have begun to apply this 4 Cs toolkit in sport research, demonstrating its
utility to measure changes in PYD outcomes over time. Specifically, these studies have investigated the link between these PYD outcomes and observed coach behavior using systematic
observation. For example, Allan and Côté [14] studied the relationship between the emotional
tone of coaches’ behavior and athletes’ perceptions of the 4 Cs. The results of their study found
that athletes of coaches who were calm and inquisitive reported more frequent prosocial
behavior and less antisocial behavior toward opponents than athletes of coaches who conveyed
a more negative and intense emotional tone. Erickson and Côté [15] adopted a longitudinal
approach in their investigation of the intervention tone of coaches’ behavior in relation to athletes’ developmental trajectories over the course of a season. Interestingly, Erickson and Côté
found that coaches interacted most often with athletes who scored the lowest on the 4 Cs.
These studies provide critical insight into the important role of coaches’ on PYD in sport.
However, we also know that youth’s sport experiences and development are shaped by the differential effects of multiple social agents (e.g., [16]), rather than the coach alone. Thus, there is
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Positive youth development and athlete behavior
a need to better understand how the full spectrum of athletes’ social interactions are linked
with PYD outcomes.
The research on observed athlete behavior, specifically, is scant in comparison to the sizeable number of studies on coach behavior. However, there exists great potential in applying
systematic observation to the study of athlete behavior in youth sport [17]. Several studies have
examined observed athlete behavior in relation to performance outcomes (e.g., [18–19]), while
others have recently begun to explore how observed athlete behavior is associated with PYD
outcomes in different sport contexts. In their study on social status (i.e., connection) and athlete behavior among competitive adolescent volleyball players, Vierimaa and Côté [20] found
that lower status athletes less frequently engaged in interactions with their teammates and
coaches than their higher status peers. Erickson and Côté [21] studied interpersonal interactions in an informal sport play setting (i.e., recreational drop-in basketball games) and found
that athletes with greater perceptions of competence tended to take on a leadership role and
spent more time engaged with their peers in organizational behaviors. Overall, these two studies highlight the utility of using systematic observation to uncover the behavioral manifestation
of PYD in sport. However, one must also remember that social interactions are constrained by
the nature of the sport activity and environment in which they take place. Erickson and Côté
[21] focused on peer interactions exclusively due to the nature of informal sport play, while
Vierimaa and Côté [20] examined athletes’ interactions with both coaches and peers during
highly structured competitive volleyball training sessions. Organized competition represents
an important middle ground between these two contexts, as it is organized and includes the
presence of many key social agents (e.g., coaches, teammates, opponents), but it can be more
unpredictable than training sessions, and thus researchers may be more likely to observe
salient social interactions that unfold in the heat of the moment that may not otherwise occur
during training.
Thus, the purpose of this exploratory cross-sectional study was to investigate the relationship between athletes’ observed behavior during sport competitions and perceptions of PYD
outcomes (i.e., the 4 Cs). Specifically, we aimed to uncover differential PYD profiles based on
athletes’ responses on measures of the 4 Cs, and subsequently examine observed behavioral
differences across these groups, in essence investigating the behavioral manifestation of PYD
during sport competitions. Given the exploratory nature of this study and limited existing
empirical evidence, no specific hypotheses were put forth.
Participants for the present study were 67 athletes and 20 head coaches from 20 teams in a single recreational basketball league in Ontario, Canada. Athletes ranged in age from 11–15
(Mean, M = 12.42; Standard Deviation, SD = 1.29), were predominantly male (68.7%), and had
between 1–9 years of previous basketball playing experience (M = 2.73; SD = 1.96). Athletes
were spread across three divisions: girls aged 11–14 (k = 7; n = 21); boys aged 11–12 (k = 8;
n = 25); and boys aged 13–15 (k = 5; n = 21). Nine of the head coaches were female and 11
were male. The head coaches were between 24–59 years of age (M = 35.31; SD = 13.70) and
had between 1–35 years of coaching experience (M = 8.46; SD = 11.38). Apart from two female
coaches in the boys’ 11–12 year old division, all other coaches coached same sex athletes. All
study participants and their parents provided active written consent prior to data collection.
The study procedures were approved by the general research ethics review board at Queen’s
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Positive youth development and athlete behavior
The basketball league is recreational in nature, and aside from a single practice at the beginning of the season, participants’ involvement is entirely made up of weekly games. Despite the
competitive nature (e.g., scores are kept) of these weekly competitions, no long-term competitive elements are emphasized (e.g., standings, playoffs). Rather, all players receive equal playing
time and the league strives to ensure that all players have fun, regardless of ability level. Additionally, the league is entirely volunteer-run and attracts a diverse mix of local youth by virtue
of its low cost ($10 registration fee).
All of the participants’ teams were observed at two time points during the last month of their
season in February and March of 2015. At each time point, all of the participants’ teams were
audio and video recorded using two high-definition video cameras and a parabolic microphone. One camera was set up on a tripod with a static wide-angle perspective to capture both
team benches. The other camera was located on the sidelines at center court and actively
tracked the on-court action during play. The parabolic microphone was used to supplement
the cameras’ built-in microphones to aid in capturing athletes’ verbalizations. The first time
point served as pilot data and to acclimate the participants and coaches to the presence of the
research team and equipment, while audio and video recorded during the second time point
was retained for analysis [14, 20]. Immediately following the second time point, all of the participating athletes completed a battery of questionnaires that measured the 4 Cs (i.e., competence, confidence, connection, and character).
4 Cs. Athlete outcomes were measured using the 4 Cs toolkit, which is comprised of
instruments that assess each of the 4 Cs: competence, confidence, connection, and character
[13]. This toolkit was developed through a review of the sport literature and represents a collection of previously validated instruments that measure youths’ perceptions of the 4 Cs within
a sport context. Participants were instructed to base their responses on their present team environment. As a whole, the toolkit has been applied in past research with youth soccer [14] and
volleyball participants [20]. For further discussion of the selection of these individual instruments and their psychometric properties, see [13, 15].
Competence. Athletes’ perceptions of their competence in sport was measured using the
Sport Competence Inventory (SCI; [13]), which expanded upon a single-item measure originally developed by Causgrove Dunn, Dunn, and Bayduza [22]. The SCI measures athletes’ selfperceptions of their competence in sport using three items that assess technical, tactical, and
physical skills. Athletes rate their own competence in these areas based on a 5-point scale ranging from “not at all competent” to “extremely competent” and a composite score is calculated
from their responses. The present sample demonstrated adequate internal reliability (Cronbach’s α = .82).
Confidence. The self-confidence subscale of the Revised Competitive State Anxiety-2
(CSAI-2R; [23]) was used to assess athletes’ confidence in sport. This measure is composed of
five items that are rated on a 4-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much so”. The
question stem was modified to target trait sport confidence instead of state sport confidence
(i.e., indicate how you generally feel; [13]). Previous research has established factorial validity
for this measure [23], which has also been used with youth populations (e.g., [24]). In the present sample, Cronbach’s α was .86.
Connection with coach. In the present study, the connection dimension intended to
assess athletes’ relationships with both their coaches and teammates. The direct perspective of
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Positive youth development and athlete behavior
the athlete response scale from Jowett and Ntoumanis’ [25] Coach-Athlete Relationship Questionnaire (CART-Q) was used as a measure of athletes’ connection with their head coach (e.g.,
“I am close to my coach). The CART-Q is made up of 11 items that assess coach-athlete relationship quality using a 9-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “extremely”, and has been
previously been shown to have strong psychometric properties [25]. While the CART-Q originally measured three subscales (i.e., closeness, commitment, and complementarity), these
were collapsed to provide an overall measure of coach-athlete relationship quality. The
CART-Q demonstrated adequate internal consistency in the present sample (Cronbach’s
α = .96).
Connection with teammates. The Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire (YSEQ; [26])
was administered as a measure of athletes’ connection with their teammates; specifically, it
assessed athletes’ perceptions of team cohesion. This instrument contains 18-items which
assess athletes’ perceptions of task and social cohesion based on a 9-point scale ranging from
“strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. Factorial validity for this measure has been previously
established with a large sample of youth athletes [26]. In the present sample, Cronbach’s α ranged from .89 (task cohesion) to .91 (social cohesion).
Character. The Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior Scale for Sport (PABSS; [27]) was used
as a measure of character. The PABSS is a 20-item scale which measures the frequency in
which participants engage in various types of moral behavior using a 5-point scale ranging
from “never” to “very often”. This measure has shown strong psychometric properties in previous studies [27–28]. In the present study, composite measures of prosocial behavior (α = .78)
and antisocial behavior (α = .82) were calculated and each demonstrated adequate reliability.
The antisocial behavior items were reverse-coded such that higher scores implied less frequent
antisocial behaviors.
Observational data. An adapted version of the Athlete Behavior Coding System (ABCS;
[20]) and Observer XT software [29] were used to code the video-recorded observational data.
The ABCS was originally designed to code athlete behavior in youth volleyball training sessions and intended to provide an exhaustive categorization of athlete behavior in that particular context (see [20] for additional detail on its development). The ABCS is comprised of eight
main content categories: Prosocial communication, sport communication, directive communication, general communication, engaged, non-cooperative/disruptive, antisocial communication, and uncodable. The ABCS is a continuous coding system, meaning that second of
athletes’ behavior during practice or competition are coded using these eight content categories. To pair with each content category, the ABCS also captures the target of each interactive
behavior (e.g., coach or teammate) as well as a set of contextual codes which describe different
aspects of a volleyball training session. Due to the inherent differences between volleyball
training sessions and basketball competitions, some changes were made to the coding system.
First, the social context dimension was replaced with a location dimension, which codes
whether an athlete was on the court, on the bench, or out of view at a specific point in time.
Second, minor modifications were made to the content dimension, which involved combining
directive communication with its parent sport communication category, as well as refining the
definitions and examples of each category to more accurately reflect the sport setting in the
present study. Finally, a ball possession dimension was added to measure the frequency and
duration in which each athlete has possession of the basketball …
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