It all starts with your commitment to being positive. You must keep your emotions in check, focus on intent and deliver clear and concise feedback. When your athletes perform the way you want them to, a simple “good job”, “great pass” or “that’s exactly what we’re looking for” is enough for your athletes to receive your message. More importantly, though – when you can identify that your athletes are trying to do the right thing, but they’re struggling to get it exactly right, that’s when it’s EVEN MORE IMPORTANT to give them that positive feedback. Let them know you recognize they’re trying to do the right thing and give them a quick adjustment (or even better – ask them a question to get them thinking about what to adjust themselves) and let them know they’re close to getting it. That sends 2 big messages:
1. You believe in them
2. You know how to help them do it
Those are the two most important messages a coach can send to their athlete. If you can communicate those two things, you’ve got a foundation for success.
On the flip side, negative feedback or a negative emotional response often has the opposite effect. It typically leads to a loss of motivation and tuning you out, coach. We’ve all had that coach we hated being around. They yelled a lot, did a lot of blaming, didn’t make an effort to know what was going on outside of sport. Sometimes we’d play in spite of them, because we loved the game, but the longer we were around them, the more the negative feedback compounded, the more likely we were to leave. This is what we don’t want. It essentially sends the opposite message to our players:
1. You don’t believe in them
2. And you also don’t know how to help them do it
That’s a pretty bad combo right there.
You might now be asking yourself "Well, if I'm only supposed to give positive feedback, what can I say when my athletes perform poorly? Or what if they are giving poor effort, or have a bad attitude?" Those are all fair questions. When the time comes to deliver constructive criticism, take as much emotion out of your delivery as possible and assume their best intent. My experience has been the less judgment my athletes can feel, the more likely they are to try what I suggest. The "auto-turnover" has been a revelation for me. We put the constraints in at the start of a segment (the rules of the drill), and whenever there's a violation I quickly blow the whistle, call out the turnover, the other team (or next team up) takes the ball and we resume play as quickly as possible. It takes the emotion or judgment out on my end, makes it abundantly clear to the athlete what they need to do differently, and it allows practice to keep flowing with minimal down time.
Poor effort needs to be addressed when you see it; I follow the same rule - take as much emotion out as possible, while making it clear we are not meeting the team standard. Sometimes I'll use questioning here, too. "Is this our (or your) best effort?" They almost always say no, but when they say yes, a quick "I disagree - I've seen you move faster/communicate better/push yourself harder" will suffice. We don't know everything out athletes are dealing with outside of practice on a day to day basis. The more we approach our coaching from an open, understanding perspective, the more trust we build in the long run.
Bad attitudes cannot be tolerated either. If one of your athletes doesn't respond to your positivity, you have to hold the standard. Whether that's substituting them out, conditioning, or some other form of punishment, the principle still holds: try to take emotion out of it as much as possible. If a good kid has a bad day, you can't ignore the behavior, but you can speak about it as temporary. Let them know the person you saw today isn't the person you know them to be. They may not transform in that moment, but transmitting your belief in them, especially at one of their lowest moments, creates the opportunity for growth and trust.
In short: Make positive feedback your default. Send the message that you believe in your athletes as often as possible. Remove negative emotion from your reactions and feedback as much as you can. These pieces are especially crucial in the moments when your athletes are struggling.
Join us tomorrow when we’ll discuss strengthening your team culture by teaching your athletes how to communicate more positively with each other.