The effect of expletive use and team gender perceptions of coaching effectiveness.
Abstract: Although many sports fans believe that expletive use is a typical part of coaching, there is a dearth of research on the perceptions of such behavior. As such, the present study was designed to test the hypothesis that expletive use by coaches is more accepted when it is directed at a male team than when it is directed at a female team. As part of a 2 (Expletive Use: Present or Absent) x 2 (Team Gender: Female or Male) between-subjects design, 60 participants (30 women, 30 men) read and gave reactions to a fictitious speech ostensibly given by a male basketball coach to his team. Consistent with predictions, participants rated the speech to be less effective when it contained expletives than when it did not. Furthermore, when the speech was directed at a female team, male participants considered it even less effective if it contained expletives than if it did not. By contrast, when the speech was directed at a male team, male participants rated the speech to be equally effective, regardless of whether or not it contained expletives. Female participants did not exhibit this effect. The present study suggests that expletive use in coaching may be an ineffective strategy, and reveals that males and females have different expectations and opinions of expletive use in coaching. Thus, coaches should be aware of the possible negative ramifications of their use of profanity, particularly with female athletes.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Coaches (Athletics) (Psychological aspects)
Coaches (Athletics) (Ethical aspects)
Coaches (Athletics) (Practice)
Words, Obscene (Psychological aspects)
Words, Obscene (Ethical aspects)
Coaching (Athletics) (Psychological aspects)
Coaching (Athletics) (Ethical aspects)
Authors: Howell, Jennifer L.
Giuliano, Traci A.
Pub Date: 03/01/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Sport Behavior Publisher: University of South Alabama Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health; Sports and fitness Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 University of South Alabama ISSN: 0162-7341
Issue: Date: March, 2011 Source Volume: 34 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 200 Management dynamics Advertising Code: 91 Ethics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 249309844
Full Text: In February of 2009, Oklahoma State University's men's basketball coach Travis Ford was caught by a live television feed screaming expletives at one of his players (Associated Press, 2009). The media was flooded with coverage of the incident and incited public outcry about Ford's behavior. In fact, both the OSU athletic director and the head of the Big-12 athletic conference went on record as disapproving of Ford's behavior. Nevertheless, no action was taken against Ford because, as the Associated Press (2009) acknowledged, Ford is not the only coach to use such language, but was merely one of the unlucky ones to be caught doing so. Replying to the news story online, many sports fans, players, and coaches commented that profanity use by a coach is a "normal [behavior] in competitive sports" and that Ford was simply "doing what works." Although sports fans insist that the use of expletives is common in sports, there remains some controversy about the effectiveness and appropriateness of using profanity to motivate athletes. Unfortunately, little is known about the extent to which expletive use helps or hinders coaching effectiveness because the empirical investigation of cursing in general has been predominantly descriptive. Research on cursing behavior in settings outside of sports has shown that expletives are used in a variety of settings (e.g., in the workplace, among peers, in the home; Martin, 1997) and for many different reasons (e.g., to create emphasis, to insult others, and to express frustration; Jay, 2009; Rassin & Muris, 2005). However, very little research to date has explored the impact of expletive use in a coaching context.

Links Between Expletive Use and Coaching Effectiveness

One possible way to conceptualize the influence of expletive use in coaching is to understand players' subjective opinions of coaching techniques. Research shows that athletes typically prefer coaches who present criticism in a positive and constructive way (Sherman, Fuller, & Speed, 2009) and who emphasize the team's abilities rather than focus on the team's shortcomings (Vargas-Tonsing, Meyers, & Feltz, 2004). It follows that cursing, which is commonly associated with a negative emphasis (Jay 2009), might make a coach less likeable, and hence less effective at motivating his or her players (Bordly, Kavussanu, & Ring, 2008).

Although it is logical to assume that a coach's use of profanity might have a negative effect on player motivation, it is also possible that this technique could increase a coach's effectiveness. Consistent with this notion, recent research indicates that using expletives can make individuals more persuasive, despite the popular belief that expletive use decreases credibility (Rassin & Van Der Heijden, 2004). Rassin and Van Der Heijden (2004) found that, contrary to people's expectations, expletive use by a hypothetical eyewitness makes an eyewitness appear more credible and sincere than a witness who does not use expletives. Translating this research into a sporting context, a coach who uses expletives might be perceived as more sincere compared to a coach who does not use expletives. Such an increase in sincerity could lead to enhanced motivation and player performance in the short term. Nevertheless, expletive use might not be as successful in the long run because players' interactions with their coach would be consistently more negative in tone; over time, this could prove to be ultimately less satisfying and motivating (Bordly et al., 2008; Sherman et al., 2009).

The Role of Gender in Perceptions of Expletive Use

Because gender plays a role in determining both expletive use (Cotes, 1993) and expectations for expletive use (De Klerk, 1991), it seems plausible that any influence of expletive use would be moderated by both the gender of a coach and the gender of the players. For example, research shows that people generally expect men to use fewer expletives in the presence of women (De Klerk, 1991; Kaye & Sapolsky, 2005; Martin, 1997). As such, a male coach would likely receive lower ratings of effectiveness if he directed expletives at a female team than if he used similar language with a male team. However, because a similar expectation does not exist for women (i.e., to temper their expletive use based on audience gender), female coaches would presumably receive similar ratings regardless of their team's gender.

Another factor that might influence perceptions of expletive use is the gender of the audience (i.e., the gender of individuals observing a profanity-laced interaction). Indeed, men often exhibit what Glick and Fiske (1997) term benevolent sexism. That is, men feel that women should be helped and protected from obscenity, which could lead them to be offended by expletive use toward women, but not toward men. However, women generally do not hold the same chivalrous values (Glick & Fiske, 1997), and therefore should not be affected by the gender of the audience of expletive use.

The Present Study

The research reviewed thus far suggests that expletive use by a coach should decrease his or her perceived effectiveness, especially in situations involving a male coach and a female team. However, there is a dearth of research empirically investigating the effects of expletive use as a function of gender in a coaching context. As such, the present study sought to integrate previous research on profanity use with research on coaching techniques by measuring men's and women's perceptions of cursing behavior as a function of team gender. To explore this question, the current study varied the content of a hypothetical half time speech (i.e., it did or did not contain expletives), as well as the gender of the team (i.e., female or male) at whom the speech was directed, in order to determine the extent to which these factors influenced the perceived effectiveness of a coach's cursing behavior.

Based on previous research on coaching techniques (Vargas-Tonsing et al., 2004) and the negative aspects of cursing behavior (Jay, 1992), we predicted that speeches containing expletives would generally be rated less favorably than speeches not containing expletives. In addition, because men may feel they need to 'protect' women (Glick & Fiske, 1997) from harsh language, an interaction among team gender, expletive use, and participant gender was expected. Specifically, we hypothesized that male participants would judge a speech containing expletives to be less effective when it was directed toward a female team than a toward a male team, but that they would judge a speech without expletives to be equally effective for both male and female teams. By contrast, because women do not hold similar chivalrous attitudes (Glick & Fiske, 1997), we hypothesized that female participants' ratings of the speeches would not be affected by team gender.



Sixty undergraduate students (30 women, 30 men) were asked to participate in a study exploring "perceptions of coaching effectiveness." Participants ranged in age from 18 to 23 years (M = 19.95, SD = 1.02) and self reported their ethnicities as White (92.9%), African American (2%), Hispanic/Latino(a) (2%), Asian American (1.7%), or "other" (1.4%).

Design and Procedure

As part of a 2 (Team Gender: Female or Male) x 2 (Expletive Use: Present or Absent) between-subjects design, participants were asked to participate in a study investigating people's perceptions of halftime speeches. After receiving an oral synopsis of the study and signing a consent form, each participant was given an experimental packet that contained a fictitious halftime speech given by a high school basketball coach to his team (see Appendix). After providing some basic demographic information (e.g., age, ethnicity, political orientation, experience participating in sports), participants were randomly assigned to read one of four hypothetical speeches. Half of the speeches contained expletives, whereas the remaining half did not contain expletives. In addition, half of each of the speeches were directed a male team, and the other half were directed at a female team. Following the speech was a series of questions (described below) designed to assess participants' perceptions of the speech and the coach. After the data were collected and analyzed, participants were debriefed and provided with a summary of the results via email.

Several considerations were taken into account when constructing the experimental scenario for the present study. First, it was important to ensure that the sport used was gender neutral so that people's preconceived notions about the masculinity or femininity of a sport did not unduly influence their perceptions of cursing behavior as a function of gender. Thus, the context of basketball was used because participants in a pilot study considered basketball to be the most gender-neutral sport (i.e., the one most likely to have equal participation from both men and women) of all NCAA sports in which half-time speeches are involved (including soccer, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and water polo). Second, although it is possible that expletive use by a male coach and a female coach would be perceived differently by participants, we did not manipulate coach gender in the present study because participants in a pilot study found a scenario that described a female coaching a male team to be unbelievable. Real-world evidence corroborates this belief: Although half of the head coaches in the Women's National Basketball association are men (, the National Basketball Association does not have any female head coaches ( Third, we chose to use a high school basketball team in our scenario in order to minimize the potential for "ceiling" or "floor" effects in our data (i.e., to maximize the possibility for variance in participants' reactions). Specifically, because expletive use is widely considered inappropriate for all children (Jay, King, & Duncan, 2006), a scenario involving a team of children younger than high school age would likely lead to a restriction in range of participants' responses (i.e., with all participants presumably perceiving expletive use as highly unfavorable) which would make it difficult to detect any effects of audience gender. A restriction in range could also potentially occur with a scenario involving older players (such as professional athletes), because there are fewer prohibitions against using profanity toward adults in general, and thus any potential effects of team gender could be attenuated. Given these concerns, we chose to use high school athletes because they are at an age that is somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and consequently the use of profanity toward this age group is neither completely taboo nor completely accepted. Finally, participants in a pilot study were able to accurately recall (at a better than chance rate) the gender of the team, the coach, and whether or not the coach used expletives, and thus we administered the current study confident that the independent variables were salient enough to allow us to detect differences in the dependent measures.


Participants rated their perceptions of the effectiveness of the speech and the coach on 7-point scales ranging from 1 (Not At All) to 7 (Very). A 9-item index ([alpha] = .93) was used to measure participants' impressions of the speech itself and consisted of questions such as, "To what extent would this speech be successful at motivating the players?", "How likely is it that the players performed better in the second half because of this speech?", and "In your opinion how effective was this speech?" In addition, a 4-item index ([alpha] = .79) was used to measure participants' perceptions of the coach, and included items such as, "How experienced do you think this coach is?", "In your opinion, how effective is the coach?", and "How likely is it that this coach would get a job at another high school?" The last page of the survey contained a manipulation check in which participants were asked to recall the gender of the coach (female or male), the gender of the team (female or male), and whether or not the speech contained expletives (yes or no).


Two-way between-subjects analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were used to analyze the influence of expletive use, team gender, and participant gender on perceptions of coaching effectiveness. Two participants were excluded from the data analysis for failing the manipulation check.

Perceived Effectiveness of the Speech

Consistent with predictions, a significant main effect of expletive use revealed that the speeches containing expletives (M = 3.35) were rated more negatively than were speeches not containing expletives (M = 4.14), F(I, 50) = 7.80, p = .007, [[eta].sup.2] = 0.21. As expected, this main effect was qualified by a 3-way interaction among team gender, expletive use, and participant gender, indicating that cursing behavior was perceived differently by men and women, F (1,50) = 6.02, p = .02, [[eta].sup.2] = 0.15. As Figure 1 shows, when a speech contained expletives, male participants rated it as less effective when the speech was directed at a female team (M = 2.93) than when it was directed at a male team (M = 4.27), t (15) = -2.52, p = .02. However, when a speech did not contain expletives, male participants considered it to be equally effective for both female (M = 3.82) and male teams (M = 3.92), t < 1, ns. By contrast, female participants rated all four speeches as equally effective, regardless of expletive use or team gender, F < 1, ns.

Perceived Ability of the Coach

A similar 3-way interaction revealed that men and women also perceived the coach's ability differently as a function of expletive use and team gender, F (1, 50) = 4.5 l, p = .04, [[eta].sup.2] = 0.12. As Figure 2 shows, when a coach used expletives toward a female team (M= 2.63), male participants rated his ability lower than when he used expletives toward a male team (M= 4.83), t (15) = -4.35, p = .001. By contrast, when a coach did not use expletives, male participants gave him equal ability ratings, regardless of whether he was coaching a female team (M = 4.29) or a male (M = 3.93) team, t < I, ns. Female participants gave equal ratings to coaches regardless of team gender or expletive use, F < 1, ns.




Our results substantiate the notion that profanity use affects perceptions of coaching effectiveness. Interestingly, our findings also indicate that men's and women's perceptions of coaching effectiveness are affected differently by cursing behavior as a function of team gender. In providing evidence for this phenomenon, our study offers a strong foundation for the empirical investigation of the interplay between expletive use and gender in a sporting context.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that people's overall perceptions of cursing behavior in a coaching context are negative. Such negative reactions might be due to the fact that expletive use has the potential to intensify the initial valence or tone (i.e., the positivity or negativity) of a speech. Specifically, it could be that expletive use makes the tone of the speech more salient, and thus a negative speech (such as the one in the present study) would be made even more negative by expletive use. Because players are less motivated when a coach focuses on negative (rather than positive) aspects of their performance (Vargas-Tonsing et al., 2004), expletive use in the context of criticism (as in the present study) would presumably decrease coaching effectiveness. Interestingly, to the extent that expletive use intensifies the tone of a speech, expletive use in the context of a positive speech might be expected to improve people's perceptions of coaching tactics. As such, it would be useful for future studies to evaluate the impact of cursing behavior in both a positive context (e.g., "You are playing a damn good game!") and a negative context (e.g., "Shoot the damn ball!").

We also found that men and women have different perceptions of a coach's cursing behavior. Specifically, whereas men find a coach's expletive use to be much more inappropriate when directed at female players compared to male players, women's perceptions are not affected by the gender of the players. One plausible explanation for these gender differences is that male participants may have been exhibiting what Glick and Fiske (1997) call benevolent sexism. Specifically, men's particularly negative judgments of a male coach using expletives toward a female team could have been influenced by a need to shield women from immorality and obscenity (Glick & Fiske, 1997). Additionally, male participants in the present study considered themselves to be slightly politically conservative (i.e., M= 3.21 on a 7 point scale), a trait linked with susceptibility to benevolent sexism (Christopher & Mull, 2006). Of course, any future study exploring the moderating effects of gender would need to take into account individual differences in benevolent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1997) in order to identify the extent to which benevolent sexism accounts for gender differences in reactions to expletive use.

Although our results offer a strong foundation for understanding the reactions to expletive use in coaching, it is important to recognize some potential limitations. First, because our study was an initial foray into the topic of expletive use in coaching, we chose to focus on perceptions of coaching effectiveness from the perspective of an uninvolved audience. A useful extension of the present study would be to investigate the extent to which expletive use constitutes an effective coaching strategy from the player's perspective. Such a study would measure the impact of expletive use on player satisfaction, motivation, and performance. One intriguing possibility is that a coach's use of profanity might increase an athlete's physiological arousal, which in some cases could lead to better performance (Perkins, Wilson, & Kerr, 2001).

A second potential limitation is that we did not vary coach gender in the present study. As noted earlier, our pilot participants did not find such a scenario to be believable. Nevertheless, because expletive use is often moderated by the gender of both the speaker and the audience (Coates, 1993), the interplay between coach gender, team gender, and expletive use would be a worthwhile avenue for future investigation. For example, it could be the case that societal expectations for women to use fewer expletives than men do (DeKlerk, 1991; Jay, 1992) would make expletive use by a female coach more taboo than expletive use by a male coach. However, because male participants likely are not as affected by a woman (as compared to a man) using expletives at female players, a contrast effect (Sherif, Taub & Hovland, 1958) could emerge, effectively exaggerating male participant's preexisting negative reactions to a male coach using expletives with a female team.

In terms of future research, it would also be productive to explore other factors that moderate perceptions of a coach's cursing behavior. One potential moderator, for example, might be the age of the athletes at whom the cursing is directed. Because expletive use is generally considered more inappropriate for children than for adults (Jay et al., 2006), it is reasonable to expect that expletive use with a younger audience (e.g., junior high and elementary age) would result in more dramatic and negative reactions than would expletive use toward a college or adult audience. As such, future studies should seek to compare people's perceptions of coaches of different age groups in order to better understand the role that age plays in perceptions of expletive use in the context of coaching.

Another potential moderating factor in perceptions of expletive use is the sporting context in which the cursing behavior occurs. It would be interesting, for example, to understand perceptions of a coach who uses expletives in a sporting context that is not traditionally associated with the use of profanity by coaches (e.g., golf). It could be that individuals would consider any coach who uses expletives at a golfer to be inappropriate, and thus consider expletive use by both male and female coaches to be equally inappropriate regardless of team gender.

Although there is still much to be understood about perceptions of profanity in coaching situations, the present study suggests some practical applications. Our results indicate that it is important for coaches to be aware of how often, and in what context, expletives are used. Indeed, because profanity may decrease overall coaching effectiveness when it is used to emphasize criticism, coaches should be particularly cognizant of their language when critiquing players. Additionally, coaches of mix-gender teams should be especially aware of their expletive use. That is, because men give harsher ratings to a coach who uses expletives at females, it is possible that a coach who uses expletives in a mixed-gender setting will offend male players (because of their felt need to protect women; Glick & Fiske, 1997) and will therefore lose player respect. In short, coaches of all types should be aware of their language choice, as expletive use plays a key role in determining individual's perceptions of coaches and coaching tactics.


Background Information

The Lakeshore High School Cougars women's [men's] basketball team is taking on their biggest rival, the Pine Forrest High School Bearcats. At halftime, the Cougars are down by 8 points and their coach, Walter Rhodes, takes them into the locker room and delivers a half time speech, which is presented below.

"Okay ladies [gentlemen], I know we've been playing really hard but our effort just isn't cutting it. We really need to start shooting the ball more and moving more. You can't just stand there and expect to win this [damn] game--it won't just fall in our laps! We need to pick up the pace--we're perfectly capable of beating this [shitty] team and you know it. But it'll take some serious effort. We need to get back on defense and rebound the [fucking] ball! They're getting rebounds, and they're getting second and third chances to score, but they're only giving us one. So lets go back out there and put some [fucking] effort into this game instead of acting like quitters! There's a huge difference between what you ladies [gentlemen] can do and what you're doing, so lets stop slacking and play like I know we can [damnit]!


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Jennifer L. Howell and Traci A. Giuliano

Southwestern University

Address Correspondence to: Jennifer L. Howell, Department of Psychology, P.O. Box 112250, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 32611-2250. Email:

Author's Note

Jennifer Howell is now at the Department of Psychology, University of Florida.

We wish to thank Patrick Egan, Abigail Riggs, and Braden Ackley for offering advice and comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. We also wish to thank Hailey Ormand for her assistance with the research process.
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