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 > Little League Online > Learn More > Newsletters > Coach's Box Newsletter > 2013 > Coach's Box - May/June > Positive Coaching: 14 Ways to Keep Youth Sports Positive

Positive Coaching: 14 Ways to Keep Youth Sports Positive

Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D.

1. Concentrate on positives.
2. Over Teach
3. Amplify successes.
4. Compliment specifics.
5. Have fun.
6. Instill laughter.
7. Never presume anything.
8. Get into their shoes. Empathize.

9.   Set an example of good sportsmanship.
10. Promote team spirit.
11. Organize to avoid confusion.
12. Recognize progress.
13. Teach and assess skills.
14. Set reasonable expectations.

© Darrell Burnett, Ph.D. Funagain Press P.O. Box 7223
Laguna Niguel, CA 9267 www.djburnett.com

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“Positive Coaching” is the buzzword in almost every youth sports program advertized today.

Here’s a list of 14 ways to measure how you’re doing as a “Positive” Coach.

1. Concentrate on positives.

It seems obvious, but sometimes, unless a coach makes a deliberate effort to look for positives, that coach can fall into the “criticism trap.” It has been estimated that employers in the workplace miss 83% of the positive things going on in the workplace because they’re focusing on negative issues, and problem behaviors. When we come to the practice field or the game, it’s important for us to avoid the criticism trap. We’ve got to gear ourselves to catch the kids doing well. We’ve got to keep at least 4-1 ratio of positives to negatives. Research shows that if kids hear positives about themselves, it helps promote self-esteem.

2. Over Teach

Most kids are not one-trial learners. That’s why it’s important to 1) repeat instructions; 2) use “what if” scenarios (e.g., “There’s a man on first. The ball is hit to right field between first and second. Where does the right fielder throw the ball?”) over and over; and 3) get the kids to practice, practice, practice.

3. Amplify Successes

Kids respond to action, commotion, and emotion. That’s why it’s important to use lots of animation when noticing positive behaviors. Unfortunately, many coaches tend to show more animation when negative behaviors occur.

4. Compliment Specifics

Kids remember specifics. “Good game!” is less likely to register with a kid than “That’s the way to hit the cut-off man!” Unfortunately, coaches are often more specific in their corrections than in their praise. As a result, kids often tend to recall negative memories from youth sports coaches.

5. Have Fun

When I was coaching a AA team many years ago, one of my more “relaxed” players had his own mantra when he found himself, or his teammates, getting upset in practice or a game: “After all is said and done, Having Fun is #1.” Interestingly, his idea of fun was not just “fun and games.” He said he kept having fun because he was getting better and learning skills. If we coaches keep it “light” while continuing to teach skills, we’re helping the kids have fun.

6. Instill Laughter

That same player was struggling as a pitcher one game. He started off the first inning walking every batter until the team had 5 runs and, mercifully, the “5 run” rule applied, and we came in to bat. The teammates were hanging their heads as they entered the dugout. The pitcher came up to me, smiled, and said, “I’m glad we’ve got the 5 run rule. I’d a been out there ‘til tomorrow!” He laughed, the team laughed, and we got on with the game. Laughter can be a great stress reducer. A good coach keeps a sense of humor, doesn’t take himself/herself too seriously, and helps the kids relax.

7. Never Presume Anything

I remember when I was coaching t-ball. As I gave instructions to an outfielder to “hit the cut-off man”, he proceeded to walk over “hit” the cut-off man, on the arm. A good coach knows not to presume anything when communicating with the players, especially the younger ones, and will ask the players to repeat an instruction. A good coach uses as many senses as possible when teaching a skill: visual walk-through examples of base-running, hitting, fielding, etc.; erase boards to highlight issues; “what if” quiz games, etc..

8. Get Into Their Shoes. Empathize.

One thing that separates adults from kids is the ability to empathize, to see the world as a child sees it. So, as the season progresses, a good coach tries to look at any “problems” in youth sports through the eyes of the youth leaguer. For the very young, it’s often the first time they’ve had to “take turns.” For others, it’s a matter of playing only because parents need a baby sitter. For some, there are behavior issues, or family issues, or low self esteem. A coach is not expected to be a therapist, but should at least not take a player’s “problem behaviors” personally.

9. Set an Example of Good Sportsmanship

A good coach leads by example, when it comes to sportsmanship: 1) winning without gloating; 2) losing without complaining; and 3) showing respect for opponents, teammates, and officials. A good coach expects his parents and players to be good sports. A good coach is intolerant of any “bullying.”

10. Promote Team Spirit

A good coach works hard to get players to think “we” instead of “me.” Often the better athletes on the team receive most of the adulation, while the rest of the players are expected to stand by and cheer. A good coach will 1) teach the more gifted athletes to work with the less gifted, cheering them on, not belittling them; 2) encourage parents to cheer for all the team members, not just the “stars;” 3) spread out his “game ball” awards to notice all players on his team over the season; and 4) encourage positive nicknames for each player.

11. Organize to Avoid Confusion

Kids learn better with structure and consistency. A good coach will spell out expected behaviors at practice and games, along with consequences (positive and negative) for behaviors. All coaches on the team need to be on the same page. A good coach is pro-active, and has equipment ready beforehand at practice and games. Practices keep standing-around time to a minimum, with rotating “stations.” Positions and batting order for game are listed for all to see.

12. Recognize Progress

Many young players play the “compare” game, comparing themselves with the other players on the team (“I‘m not as fast…” “I can’t hit…” I can’t throw as hard…” as my teammates.”) A good coach teaches players to compare themselves with themselves, noticing their progress in “getting better” in terms of frequency (“good stuff” is happening more often), duration (“good stuff” is lasting longer), and intensity (putting more energy into the “good stuff.”

13. Teach and Assess Skills

There are two ways that athletes are motivated. 1) Ego. “I’m only as good as the opponent I defeat. Every time I lose I’m a loser. There’s no place for second place. “ 2) Task Mastery. “I’m as good as the skills I continue to develop regardless of the outcome of the event.” Athletes motivated only by ego tend to drop out of sports as they come up against tougher, more talented opponents. Athletes motivated by skill development are more likely to continue in sports. The goal of youth sports is to keep the kids coming back. A good coach, who emphasizes the development of skills (physical, mental, emotional), increases the likelihood that youngsters will continue to play youth sports.

14. Set Reasonable Expectations

Many youngsters drop out of youth sports because they feel they can’t live up to the expectations of adults. A good coach teaches to the developmental level of youngsters, expecting age appropriate skills in the areas of concentration, coordination, dedication, and motivation.

One final note: Positive coaching in youth sports is an ongoing process. Accordingly, these 14 items are meant as a “blueprint”, not a “scorecard.”

(This article is an adaptation from Dr. Burnett’s Audio CD “Positive Coaching: 14 Ways to Keep Youth Sports Positive.” Funagain Press, P.O. Box 7223, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677. Available at www.djburnett.com)


Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice in Laguna Niguel, California for 25+ years. He is a member of the Little League International Board of Directors. The Institute listed him among the “Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America” for International Sport. His book, IT’S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), and his Sportsmanship Card Game, GOOD SPORT! are described at his website, www.djburnett.com, along with his other books, booklets, and CDs on youth sports and family life.