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Developing Passionate Athletes: The Role of Parents and Coaches


Dedication. Ambition. Tenacity. Enthusiasm. These are some of the key qualities that high-level athletes possess, and they all have one thing in common: the driving force behind them is passion. While we assume high-level athletes are passionate about their sport, we do not often question how their passion developed. However, identifying specific factors that influence the development of passion can help us better understand athletes and the impact of passion on their performance. Parents and coaches both play an influential role in developing and maintaining passionate athletes. Therefore, parents and coaches who better understand the development of passion can shape the experiences of young athletes from a more holistic perspective.

Harmonious vs. Obsessive Passion

Passion can develop into two distinct forms: harmonious or obsessive (Vallerand et al., 2003). Harmonious passion (HP) is associated with positive emotionality in sport and allows the individual to value sport for the intrinsic satisfaction it brings. Conversely, obsessive passion (OP) is associated with negative emotionality in sport and can cause participation to become attached to contingencies (e.g., self-validation or external approval). This often results in burnout, decreased motivation, and low self-esteem (Vallerand et al., 2003; Mageau et al., 2009).

Crucial Factors in Passion Development

An examination of athletes’ sport journeys from youth to college reveals several key factors that point toward the emergence of HP in some athletes and OP in others. The primary differences between the two outcomes are seen in three factors: motivation, support/pressure, and basic need fulfillment (Stokes et al., 2022).

Athletes with OP tend to have more extrinsic motivation than athletes with HP. This extrinsic motivation often takes the form of external recognition and external validation, and it is heavily influenced by parents and coaches. For example, many athletes are motivated by a desire to make a parent/coach proud and/or a desire that their athletic efforts would be meaningful to the parents/coaches who support them (Stokes et al., 2022). These extrinsic motivators are more prevalent in athletes with OP because many of their performance goals are attached to contingencies, such as recognition or self-validation. In contrast, athletes with HP tend to be more intrinsically motivated because their performance goals focus on personal improvements in sport (Vallerand et al., 2003).

Athletes with obsessive passion tend to experience more pressure (from parents, coaches, and themselves) than athletes with harmonious passion (Stokes et al., 2022). This distinction is expected because pressure hinders intrinsic motivation, sport enjoyment, and need satisfaction (Mageau et al., 2009). However, a less obvious distinction between athletes with OP and athletes with HP is seen in how they perceive support. Athletes with OP commonly internalize support from parents/coaches in a manner that creates pressure. For example, these athletes may put pressure on themselves to perform well because they fear “wasting” the support they have been given and disappointing a parent/coach (Stokes et al., 2022).

Basic Need Fulfillment
Overall, athletes with obsessive passion report more negative sport experiences than athletes with harmonious passion, and these negative experiences stem from a lack of basic need fulfillment (I.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness). When athletes feel supported and capable in their environment, their needs are likely fulfilled, and HP is fostered. However, when athletes feel controlled, undervalued, and unable to openly communicate in their environments, they experience a lack of need fulfillment and OP can develop (Mageau et al., 2009; Stokes et al., 2022).

Implications for Parents and Coaches

To facilitate sport enjoyment, healthy valuation of the activity, and well-being in athletes, it is important to promote the development of harmonious passion rather than obsessive passion. Here are some practical applications for parents and coaches who wish to have a positive influence on passion development:

  • Athletes are more likely to develop HP if they are participating in their sport for intrinsic satisfaction, not external rewards. Parents and coaches are encouraged to foster supportive environments in which sport performance is primarily motivated by personal enjoyment and a genuine desire to improve competency rather than external recognition or validation. For instance, parents and coaches are encouraged to affirm displays of gratification and skill growth while avoiding punishment for poor performance.
  • Athletes are more likely to develop HP if they receive ample support from parents/coaches rather than pressure. However, because support can be internalized as pressure in some athletes, parents and coaches should make it clear to the athlete that the support is unconditional, not attached to contingencies like performance quality.
  • Athletes are more likely to develop HP if they have an environment that fosters need fulfillment. Coaches should be aware that negative coaching behaviors can thwart need fulfillment and consequently have an adverse impact on athletes’ sport experience and passion. Coaches are urged to promote a need-fulfilling environment through open communication, constructive (rather than overly critical) feedback, and making athletes feel valued for more than just their performance.

In sum, passion is an integral part of an athlete’s journey through sport, and this journey may include more favorable experiences when passion develops harmoniously. Parents and coaches have a uniquely influential position in which they have the power to make a positive impact on their athletes’ passion growth and overall sport experience.

photo of Alexis Stokes

By Alexis Stokes
Indiana State University

Alexis is an incoming doctoral student at Indiana State University, where she will be pursuing her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology. She is a former Division I gymnast at Boise State University, where she graduated with her Bachelor's in Psychology in 2022. During her undergraduate studies, Alexis researched the development of passion in collegiate athletes under the mentorship of Dr. Eric Martin. Alexis, Dr. Martin, and a fellow student, Ellie Cain, constructed and executed a research study entitled "I Can't Imagine Not Being an Athlete: Factors Influencing the Development of Passion in College Athletes" that is currently in the process of publication. Alexis can be contacted via email at

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