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Bradley Donohue Ph.D.
Bradley Donohue Ph.D.

Science Shows Appreciation in Sport Matters

The benefits of appreciation are grounded in science, and important.

Research suggests satisfying relationships occur when appreciation provided is equal to that received. For example, a coach and an athlete consistently practicing late together for a big game while acknowledging their efforts to one another.

To ensure positive behaviors are recognized and appreciated, we recommend using Reciprocity Awareness. This is a scientifically supported technique that was developed by Nate Azrin and his colleagues in the early 1970s and recently shown to work well with collegiate athletes as a component of optimization programming (e.g., Donohue et al., 2018).

Briefly, one individual states something another individual does that is appreciated, and the recipient of this appreciation states how it felt to hear the comment and says something appreciated about the other person.

Athlete: Coach, thanks for staying after practice to help me. I already feel more confident going into this weekend’s game.

Coach: You got it – I'm glad to hear it was helpful. You’ve got a strong drive for improvement and it’s going to make us better.

Athlete: That means a lot to me.

These exchanges strengthen relationships and reinforce desired actions to occur more often.

We recommend that this type of communication exchange becomes a norm in the athletic systems (e.g., team, club, department). The exchanges can be facilitated during workshops by professionals, or modeled and encouraged by coaches and athletic administrators during team meetings to enhance cohesion and positive communication. We recommend appreciation exchanges every now and then, and assign athletes to state appreciations during training and competitions. Parents can facilitate appreciation exchanges during family dinners or during car rides to practices or competitions. We do them at the end of each of our research meetings with students in an exercise called "catching our co-members being good!"

To summarize, Reciprocity Awareness involves two steps:

1) One individual expressing appreciation for a specific action that is liked.

2) The recipient expressing how the appreciation was positively experienced and reciprocating appreciation.


Donohue, Gavrilova, Y., Galante, M., Gavrilova, E., Loughrana, T., Scott, J., Chow, G., Plant, C., & Allen, D. A. (2018). Controlled evaluation of an optimization approach to mental health and sport performance, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 12, 234 – 267.

About the Author
Bradley Donohue Ph.D.

Bradley Donohue, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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