Sports are black-and-white.
You either drained the shot or you didn’t. You either caught the ball or you didn’t. You either won the game or you didn’t.
It doesn’t take a great coach to praise the clear, obvious wins. But it’s the coaches who can find ways to deliver praise and positivity beyond the obvious who can really connect with young athletes and elevate a team.
Think about it like this—a kid isn’t exactly in need of a dose of positivity after they score a touchdown or rip a double in the gap.
But after they drop a pass or commit an error? Some uplifting words will mean a lot more.
Andy Ryland, senior manager of education and training for USA Football, recently pointed out how football coaches often treat every missed tackle like a complete failure on the part of the player.
No player is going to feel good after a missed tackle—not when it happens in practice, not when it happens in a game, and not when it’s being shown to the entire team on film.
But if you’re willing to break down such plays a little deeper, you’ll often find things the player did in fact do well. And by praising those things, you not only inject the athlete with some positivity they may be sorely needing, but you also make them more receptive to the feedback you provide on what they didn’t do so well. USA Football recommends grading attempted tackles on five separate criteria, and it’s rare a player will get every single one right or wrong.
“For me, it opens up more ways to praise the little things happening in there. Seldom, with any poor executed skill, it’s everything done wrong. So being able to subdivide it, you can see who your players are, where they’re at with their development, what aspects they’re really good at, what aspects they may be struggling with,” Ryland told STACK.
Additionally, taking the time to recognize what a player did right—even in situations where the outcome isn’t what you or they wanted—will help you both better understand what actually needs to be trained to elicit improvement.
Truth is, perfect doesn’t exist in sports. For that reason, coaches will always be able to find something their players can do better. And coaches should obviously be interested in helping players address their weaknesses. However, constant negativity or criticism can break a player down and drain their confidence and enthusiasm.
Instead of operating with a default mindset of “find what’s wrong,” why not integrate more of a “catch them doing something right” philosophy?
The late Tony DiCicco, former head coach of the U.S. Women’s National and Olympic soccer teams and co-author of the book Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls, outlined his coaching philosophy on an episode of the Way of Champions podcast.
“On the athletic field, if you raise self-confidence, almost 100 percent of the time, you raise performance,” DiCicco said. “I’ve been negative, but for the most part, I try to build on positives. Because it’s more fun to coach that way and it’s more fun to be coached that way. And I think it’s more effective coaching, not only for girls, but for boys and girls—to catch them being good.”
“If you bite your lip when you see a mistake, but you celebrate something that you see done well, like, ‘Julie, that was a great run. Because you made that run, you cleared that defender out of that space, and that’s why Tiff got in there. If Tiff gets in there, she’s going to score a lot of times. And that was a great run, a selfless run, thank you.’ When you coach that way, everybody on the field feels good.”
“Conversely, if you’re critical, everybody kind of shrinks a little bit. There’s going to be times when you have to use the classic coaching style of ‘Freeze. Let’s correct this. This was not what I want.’ That’s fine. But we’re never in your face, we’re never screaming. And for sure, we need to bring in ‘catch them being good’ as a coaching style.”
The philosophy helped DiCicco lead team USA to an Olympic gold medal and a FIFA Women’s World Cup championship.
In his book Creating Magic, Lee Cockerell, former Executive Vice President of Operations at Walt Disney World, reveals the leadership strategies that make the most-visited vacation resort on earth run like a well-oiled machine. Many of these principles can be applied to any leadership position in any realm. Cockerell devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “ARE”: appreciation, recognition and encouragement.
“ARE is more powerful than the fuels that make engines roar and space shuttles soar, because it propels human energy and motivation. And unlike costly, unrenewable fuels like oil and gas, its supply is inexhaustible,” writes Cockerell.
“Train yourself to notice the right stuff, not just the wrong. And when you see it, reinforce it quickly—immediately, if possible—because the smaller the gap between the behavior and the appreciation, the stronger the message. And make the feedback specific; let people know exactly what they’re doing right.”
That specific part is important, as it helps boost an athlete’s confidence much more than a generic “good job”. It’s also key you praise the athlete only when they actually did something you want to reinforce, lest your positive feedback lose its impact. No one wants to be the “rah-rah” coach who mindlessly compliments players without actually getting them better.
Many coaches could benefit from finding ways to praise more of their athletes, even if they’re not the ones scoring 20 points or four touchdowns a game. This is especially important at the younger levels of sport when one overly negative coach can turn an athlete off from the sport for life. Instead of constantly operating with an eye for criticism, open yourself up to taking a step back, letting them play the game, then occasionally catching them doing something right and celebrating it.
Photo Credit: FatCamera/iStock, U.S. Soccer