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Winning with Kindness and Positivity

When it comes to correcting player mistakes or doling out discipline, coaches are in a tough spot. Today’s athletes often don’t respond well to negativity—and neither do their parents. The solution? Keep it positive. Here are a few tips for crafting an effective approach for working with athletes.

Never humiliate players

Whether a coach is name-calling or poking fun at a player’s performance, humiliating athletes is not an effective or permitted method for motivating players. And it’s not always expressed verbally. Dr. Sue Wiley, Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Indianapolis is a former volleyball coach and she recalled a drill that she used to run that she would no longer consider appropriate. A player who missed a serve was told to stand on the sideline while her teammates were told to run. Wiley was trying to make the point that the player’s error impacted the whole team. She states, “But now, I would not allow any of my coaches to run a drill like that. It could be construed as demeaning for the player and there needs to be another way to teach the lesson.”

Avoid sarcasm

Dr. Greg Dale, Director of the Sports Psychology and Leadership Programs for Athletics at Duke University, explains that you can’t always tell which players can handle sarcasm. While one might shrug it off, another is hurt deeply. He suggests that you can use it when discussing yourself or the situation, but never directed toward an individual.

Think before raising your voice

Understand the difference between yelling during the game to communicate versus yelling at an individual. “Today’s players do not respond well to being yelled at, and it isn’t as accepted as it used to be,” says Pat Coons, Head Boys’ Basketball Coach at Westview (Ore.) High School.

Stop cursing

Wiley tells her coaches, “If you can’t communicate without cursing, educational athletics is not the place for you.” Dale concurs. He says, “Cursing at players is not acceptable. I invite coaches to make the argument, ‘There is no way I can be a great coach without swearing at the kids.’ No one has been able to argue that successfully. Cursing has no place in a positive team culture.”

Remain in control

When a coach loses his or her temper, yells, or throws things, it does not positively impact the players. Coons remembers such an incident and says of his players’ reactions, “They were not inspired—they were terrified. I thought afterward, ‘I can never let anything like that ever happen again.’”

Reconsider punishment

While tasking players with strenuous physical activities for mistakes during games or other rule violations is a common practice, coaches now need to use it judiciously. For example, Wiley says that her coaches are no longer allowed to run players until they vomit—she would consider that abusive.

Coons, meanwhile, finds that he is shifting away from player punishments. “I’m using it far less these days,” he says. “In the old culture, motivation was based on the fear of punishment. Fear isn’t the way I want to motivate my players anymore, and it isn’t as accepted. There are a lot better ways.”

Assess your coaching style

Coaches are asking colleagues for help, and providing it in turn. “A lot of coaches have asked me to come watch their practices and give them my thoughts, and it can be eye-opening,” says Steve Donahue, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of Pennsylvania. “Most of the feedback I provide revolves around the words they use. I count how many times they curse at players or say something in a derogatory way. I watch their body language and the body language of their players. When I tell them what I’ve seen, they’re often totally surprised.”

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