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Inspiring Athletes Through the "Rule of One"

No matter the sport or level of competition, coaches have the power to inspire athletes and teach them things that they may not have otherwise learned on their own. All it takes is one person, one comment, one time. This “Rule of One” is often underestimated, but with over two decades of coaching experience, John O’Sullivan has experienced firsthand the power of coaches to change lives with a single comment.  O'Sullivan provides this advice in an article on

A major part of any coach’s job is recognizing teachable moments. Often these are the toughest and most emotionally challenging times for young athletes. Therefore, coaches should always be conscious of the role they can play to help athletes though difficult situations. If not handled properly, a tough loss or falling short of a goal can compound into a series of discouragement. In order to make sure that you take advantage of these moments and use the “Rule of One” for a positive effect, consider following these three guidelines.

Be Aware

Coaches can have a lot of influence over their player. Whether good or bad, this position of power is never neutral. Always be aware of the impact your words and actions have on others. When you’re in a position of authority, athletes look to you for instruction and advice, and this role needs to be taken seriously. Especially during highly emotional times, like the end of a game, after a mistake, or following a great play, your words can make a tremendous impact.

A key to taking advantage of these moments is being aware of timing. “Catching an athlete doing something great after overcoming adversity, or a word of encouragement after a disappointing outcome can be very powerful,” O’Sullivan writes. “Similarly, the opposite can be true. A harsh word after a major disappointment rarely helps, nor does strong criticism right after a player just did something very well.”

Be Intentional

Whether an athlete is doing a great job or struggling, there are a number of things a coach can do to acknowledge their effort. Even when you might know what a player should or shouldn’t be doing, don’t let your decision seem arbitrary. Make sure that your players know that you are coaching with intent. If an athlete is doing well, tell them and encourage them to keep getting better. If an athlete is not doing well, tell them to keep their head up and offer a suggestion of how they can improve.

“This takes a bit more effort than many coaches care to exert, but the difference it can make in the life of your athlete can be huge,” O’Sullivan write. “Everyone gets acknowledged. Everyone gets a reminder to focus on the process. Every time.”

Be Transformational

Not every player is the same, so it’s crucial to focus on coaching the person, not the sport. While some athletes may need a hug, or a quiet word when they’re struggling, others might respond to louder verbal instruction. As the coach, it’s your responsibility to realize what every individual needs, and do your best to deliver it. Failing to do so means failing to inspire your athletes.

If you shout at a player who responds better to quiet instruction, they may become discouraged and start to tune out what you say. Nothing could be more devastating for a player-coach relationship. In order to be transformational, you must show your athletes that you care about them as individuals. 

“A transformational coach values the things that are hard to measure,” O’Sullivan writes. “A life changing ‘Rule of One’ comment will rarely be about something easily measured such as ‘nice goal out there.’ But when you say to an athlete ‘I’m so proud of you, look at what you have become when you play with such energy and courage’ you can change a life.” 

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