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Channel Your Moral Compass to be an Excellent Coach

In this blog I will talk about the role morality plays in coaching excellence. I will share the science around the negative impact immoral behaviour can have on coaching effectiveness and what the science says about how morality contributes to better coaching.


“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy” - Norman Schwarzkopf (U.S Army General)

What has Coaching Excellence got to do with Good Character?

For centuries philosophers have emphasised that the path to the good life is one where being morally virtuous plays a central role. For instance, Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, proposed that the good life involves a strong commitment to morally fine actions where the values of humanity (e.g., altruism), justice (e.g., fairness) and temperance (e.g., discipline) are used to help a person to make the right decisions in the face of unhealthy impulses and social pressures (1). However, Aristotle goes on to say that morality play a much more profound role in the healthy development of humans than just mentoring our decisions. In Aristotle’s view, the foundation of a healthy and high-functioning society rests on the commitment of its citizens to uphold and promote strong ethical standards and practices with each other. It was, thus, Aristotle’s belief that people who demonstrated greater moral character would be afforded more influence in society due to proving themselves as people who could be trusted to promote the common good. Interestingly, decades of research on how people gain and lose power in society seem to support Aristotle’s belief. In his book called the power paradox, Dacher Keltner highlights compelling research that suggests humans, throughout history, have been motivated to give power to people who demonstrate personal qualities (e.g., empathy) which can be entrusted to further the interests of humanity and will go to great lengths to take power away from those who demonstrate personal qualities that can harm humanity (e.g., dishonesty) to ensure humanities interests are protected (2). Hence, if our ability to gain and hold influence over others is intimately tied to the strength of our moral character, then coaching excellence should surely involve a healthy dose of morality? 

Coaching effectiveness has been termed as “The consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection, and character in specific coaching contexts” (3, pg. 316). If we take this definition at face value, then good coaching is centrally concerned with a coach’s ability to successfully impart their knowledge onto a player,  through professional, personal and interpersonal skill. If so, and with all coaches’ levels of knowledge and skill being equal, then excellent moral character should be a distinctive feature of those coaches who are more successful at influencing players with their knowledge. Additionally, the very idea that coaches should look to develop their players moral conduct thrusts the coach’s own level of moral conduct into the limelight if we assume a coach can only sell what they first own themselves (1). With that being said, let’s take a closer look at how moral character can improve a coach’s influence over their players' development. 

The Role of Morality in Building Trust

For players to allow a coach to influence their development requires them to see their coach as trustworthy. Trust has been termed as a positive expectation in another person that, even when personally vulnerable, they will reliably act in their best interests (4). Trust can be broken down into cognitive and emotional trust (Figure 1) (5). Cognitive trust is based on our judgement that someone can benefit us. We tend to use two main judgements to form cognitive trust: The degree to which we see someone as competent (having useful knowledge) and consistent (their behavior is reliably positive) (4). Emotional trust, on the other hand, is based on having personal admiration for someone. The two forms of admiration we use to form emotional trust are whether we see someone as caring (a selfless attitude) and showing candour (is honest and authentic) (4). Moral character is said to be particularly important in building trust because it is at the heart of promoting both cognitive and emotional trust (6,7). For instance, morally strong coaches act with integrity meaning they are more likely to demonstrate consistent behaviour to players because of being more principled; whilst being more honest and transparent about their competency can help players accurately understand their knowledge. A strong moral character also means a coach will likely hold caring motivation and therefore act in a more selfless manner towards players. Finally, moral character enhances the likelihood the coach will demonstrate candour, which is to display good ethical qualities such as being fair and honest. Put together, coaches who display a strong moral character are going to be able to establish trust more quickly with their players and keep their trust in the long term (7).


Figure 1 – Cognitive and emotional trust adopted from (5)


The Dark Triad

Dr Scott Barry Kaufmann, a humanistic psychologist has spent his career attempting to understand the psychology behind why some people reach their potential and some don’t. In his new book on the science behind human potential (8), he differentiates between a set of moral and immoral traits that have been researched in personality psychology to explain why some people reach their potential and others stagnate. The immoral traits are the most researched and are known as the dark triad. The dark triad of personality was introduced in 2002 (9) and consists of three dark attitudes that aim to bring harm to people: narcissism (extreme selfishness), Machiavellianism (manipulation and dishonesty), and psychopathy (a liking for hatred and destruction) (Figure 2). Together, this triad makes up the dark core of a person’s personality, which is to be emotionally cold, selfish, and deceitful (8). People high in these dark triad traits are much more likely to engage in immoral behaviours such as abusing power and exploiting people for self-gain (8,9). According to Kaufmann, people higher in the dark triad are less likely to get out of life what they want and reach their potential due to harboring an unhealthy set of tendencies that sabotage their growth, whilst sadly, people higher in the dark triad can also use these unhealthy tendencies to sabotage other peoples growth too!


Figure 2 – The Dark Triad adopted from (8) 


The Dark Triad in Elite Coaching

In recent years, sport psychology researchers have looked to see if the dark triad plays a role in effective coaching at the elite level. An initial hypothesis, albeit somewhat controversial, was that to coach effectively might require a tactical use of dark triad behaviours (e.g., dishonesty and manipulation) to navigate political issues and get players onside (10). The main idea here is that effective coaching requires a broad range of behaviours that might mean dark triad behaviours can be beneficial in certain situations. However, whilst this hypothesis can make some intuitive sense given the complex nature of coaching, the potential negative effect of these behaviours on players should be weighed against their potential positive effects before such recommendations are made. To answer this, it is worth turning to the research that has looked to understand how the dark triad traits impact coaching effectiveness.

Back in 2018, Researchers Rachel Arnold, David Fletcher and Jennifer Hobson interviewed Olympic athletes to understand their experiences of working under performance leaders (e.g., coaches, managers) who were thought to be high on the dark triad traits to learn more about what dark behaviours were most used and what their effects—for better or worse—were (11). A range of dark behaviours was listed, which included these ‘dark’ leaders attributing everyone else’s success to themselves, taking no responsibility for problems, acting superior and arrogant, and trying to control or sabotage people for personal gain. Overall, these behaviours created a psychologically unhealthy environment where blind loyalty was rewarded and challenging the status quo was punished. The effects of these dark behaviours had overwhelmingly negative consequences for the athletes; contributing to bouts of low confidence, increased anxiety and pressure, and feelings of social isolation. Of the positive effects reported, some athletes felt they became more resilient to handle challenges due to the stress they went through and some had increased motivation to achieve success in their sport to prove these dark leaders their negative view of them was wrong. It seems clear that this study provides little evidence for the dark behaviours having a positive effect on coaching practice but rather highlights the destructive nature of these behaviours on the player's well-being, performance and the wider functioning of the sporting organisation.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the negative effects of dark behaviours in coaching comes from two studies conducted in the last couple of years. The first study was a comparison study between two groups of Olympic coaches (12). One group was an elite group, which involved coaches that had won a gold medal with an athlete at the Olympic games, whilst the second group consisted of super-elite coaches, these were coaches who consistently won gold medals with their athletes at the Olympics time and time again. When asking the two groups to rate themselves across personality traits, an interesting finding emerged: The super-elite coaches rated themselves much lower in the dark triad traits of narcissism and Machiavellianism and higher in the moral trait of agreeableness – to be warm, caring, and friendly- than the elite coaches. In a follow-up study that used the same research design, athletes who worked under those elite and super-elite coaches were asked to rate these coaches’ personality traits (13). What the athletes said about their coaches were mildly consistent with what the coaches said about themselves, with the athletes rating the super-elite coaches much lower than the elite coaches in narcissism. However, unlike the first study, no differences in Machiavellianism and agreeableness were found between the super-elite and elite coaches. However, the athletes did rate the super-elite coaches higher in conscientiousness – to have high-standards and be self-disciplined - a personality trait commonly found to be lower in people who are high on the dark triad traits (9).  

What is the Verdict on Morality and Coaching Excellence? 

From the studies discussed, there is little evidence to support the idea that engaging in dark triad behaviours is beneficial for coaching (10). There is, however, strong evidence to suggest dark triad behaviours have a profoundly negative effect on an athletes mindset. On the other hand, we can assert with a high degree of confidence that moral traits like agreeableness, genuineness, and integrity enhance coaching effectiveness. What is not quite known though is why a moral character has such a positive impact on player outcomes. As noted, integrity builds commitment and trust between coaches and their athletes, something heavily undermined by dark triad traits. The more committed the athlete is to the relationship with the coach and the more trusting they are of them, the more of a positive influence the coach will have over their development. If we combine this heightened positive influence with a greater desire for the coach’s to work in the athletes best interests (because of being low in dark triad traits like narcissism and Machiavellianism), then the coaching has a much greater chance of benefiting an athlete’s motivation, well-being, and learning, making them much more likely to reach their potential. 

Another possibility is that as narcissism was consistently lower in the super elite coaches, these coaches have a ‘quiet ego’. Dr Kaufmann notes that a quiet ego is advantageous for professional development as these people will be more introspective, open to working on their weaknesses, willing to challenge themselves, and can focus on skill development without letting their ego get in the way (e.g., is open to feedback) (8). Indeed, athletes felt that the super-elite coaches were much more open-minded than the elite coaches (13). People with a ‘quiet ego’ also have a high amount of empathy for players, meaning their highly motivated to be player-focused. Therefore in total, it can be suggested that strong moral character supports the development of more effective coaching by (a) building a strong amount of trust in the coach-player relationship which affords the coach more positive influence over their players’ development (b) grants the coach many growth-enhancing qualities that help them develop their coaching expertise to its full potential and (c) provides coaches with greater caring motivation which creates a more productive training environment as player needs are put first and better satisfied. 


  • Elite coaches higher in the dark triad traits of narcissism (especially) and Machiavellianism are considered less effective than elite coaches lower in these traits.

  • The use of immoral coaching behaviour seems to have a profoundly negative effect (with minimal positive effects) on their relationship with players’ and on the players performance mindset, mental health, and ability to develop their athletic ability in line with their potential.

  • The moral traits of integrity, genuineness, humility, and agreeableness are qualities that support more effective coaching because these qualities means athletes see their coaches are more likable, trustworthy and credible which gives the coaches a greater ability to influence their athletes. These qualities also helps coaches better develop their own coaching ability in line with their potential, and provide them with the motivation to focus all their energy on what their players need from them which creates a more productive training environment.


(1) Aristotle. (1953). In Radice B., Baldick R. (Eds.), Ethics. London: The Penguin Classics.

(2) Keltner, D. (2016). The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. London: Penguin Books.

(3) Côté, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An integrative definition of coaching effectiveness and expertise.

International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 4(3), 307-323. doi:10.1260/174795409789623892.

(4) Akker, V. D. L., Heres, L., Lasthuizen, K., & Six, F. (2009). Ethical leadership and trust: It's all about meeting expectations. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(2), 102-122. 

(5) Nowack, K. M., & Zak, P. J. (2020). In team we trust. Retrieved from

(6) Brown, M. E., & Treviño, L. K. (2006). Ethical leadership: A review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 595-616. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2006.10.004.

(7) Dowell, D., Morrison, M., & Heffernan, T. (2015). The changing importance of affective trust and cognitive trust across the relationship lifecycle: A study of business-to-business relationships. Industrial Marketing Management, 44, 119-130. doi:10.1016/j.indmarman.2014.10.016.

(8) Kaufman, S. B. (2022). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. London: Sheldon Press.


(9) Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556-563. doi:10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6.


(10) Cruickshank, A., & Collins, D. (2015). The sport Coach. In L. O'Boyle, D. Murray & P. Cummins (Eds.), Leadership in sport (pp. 155-172). Oxon: Routledge.


(11) Arnold, R., Fletcher, D., & Hobson, J. A. (2018). Performance leadership and management in elite sport: A black and white issue or different shades of grey? Journal of Sport Management, 32(5), 452-463. doi:10.1123/jsm.2017-0296.


(12) Cook, G. M., Fletcher, D., & Peyrebrune, M. (2021). Olympic coaching excellence: A quantitative study of psychological aspects of Olympic swimming coaches. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 53, 101876. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101876.


(13) Cook, G. M., Fletcher, D., & Peyrebrune, M. (2022). Olympic coaching excellence: A quantitative study of Olympic swimmers’ perceptions of their coaches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 40(1), 32-39. doi:10.1080/02640414.2021.1976486.

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