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The power of positivity: A coach’s perspective

May 12, 2012

I watch a lot of  major league baseball and love watching how the coaches develop players; especially the young pitchers.  These pitchers have a ton of talent but need help transitioning to the major league level.  The persistent theme, that I have seen, is they always stay positive with their “young” players.  When a pitcher struggles, the pitching coach comes out and tells them something positive.  They may have just walked the last 3 batters but the coach will say something like, “Get one more ground ball and you are out of this inning.” They don’t point out the obvious negatives and instead direct the pitcher’s mindset to something positive.  It is something that has obviously worked at the major league level so my question is, “why is it that I so often see the negative coaching style at the high school level?”.

I’ve seen other coaches yell, swear, and flat out humiliate their players in order to get results.  Unfortunately, the only result that I noticed was tight players who are afraid to make a mistake for fear of being berated. I’m not saying that players don’t sometimes need a fire lit under them but the persistent negative approach is not effective.  The coaches are not creating hardened, mentally-tough players that are good under pressure like most argue.  The players that excel under that instruction would excel under any coach.

I have coached girls and boys volleyball from grades 8-12 for the past 9 years and I’ve always tried coaching through positivity.  I’m not perfect and sometimes my emotions get the better of me.  But, from what I have seen, the effect of those emotional outbursts is poor play and a degradation of the player-coach relationship.

This past season, I coached the Senior boys volleyball team at my school.  I had coached this group of young men since they were in grade 9 in both the fall, school season and the spring, club season.  Over those 4 years and 7 volleyball seasons, we built a trusting relationship were I tried to be positive during each practice and game.  Each season they continued to improve their skills until they surfaced as one of the top teams in the province.  Now enter their grade 12 year and they were ranked #4 in the Province to begin the season.  For the first time they had expectations to succeed (at least from the rest of the province).  Unfortunately, the players, and myself, got wrapped up in these new expectations and forgot why they were out there in the first place.  They played volleyball because they had fun doing it.  They were a close group and had a ton of fun off of the court as well.  The first few tournaments didn’t go as well as hoped and the pressure built.  The disappointment of the boys not playing to their ability got to me as well and, rather than continue to build on the positives, I focused on the negatives.  How did the players respond to this?

Not fun anymore…player-coach trust gone…playing tight…scared to make mistakes…compounded problems…wanting to quit

This went on for a couple of weeks and with about 3 weeks left until Provincials I called a meeting and apologized to the team.  I had turned into everything I said I wouldn’t be as a coach.  I was negative, I yelled, and I motivated through fear of losing playing time.

I was the reason why they were not having fun anymore.  The players, the reason why I coach, were not enjoying coming to the gym.

So, I changed my mindset and became that positive role model again.  I coached by celebrating their successes rather than pointing out their failures.

The team went to Provincials energized and confident.  They played to the best of their ability and finished 4th overall in the Province.  I know that the success of the season isn’t dependent on where they finish in the standings but it was a nice bonus.

Take away:

I can’t change what other coaches do or how they treat their athletes but I wish they would take time to reflect back on how their coaching style may impact their athletes.

For the vast majority of players, they are not going to play professionally.  They are going to play high school, or maybe college, before they move on with their lives.  If you are a new coach, or more importantly a veteran coach, think about why those players are playing and what they are going to take with them when they are done playing.

Just my thoughts,


3 Comments leave one →
  1. mrskirch permalink
    May 12, 2012 4:21 am

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for sharing such a reflective and thoughtful post. Being a former athlete and coach myself (basketball), I can completely relate. As a player, I loved playing for my high school coach – he was exactly as you mentioned you strive to be… I had fun and I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes because everything was a learning experience. Watching film was FUN because I knew I could learn how to get better and not get berated for my mistakes. When I went to play in college, my coach was the complete opposite. I turned into a timid, scared player and lost my confidence because I was afraid of making mistakes and getting yelled at. Seeing such a difference in my coaches and what it did to me as a player made me highly consider how I wanted to be when I was a coach.

    I coached our girls JV basketball team and helped out with Varsity for three seasons before I took some time off last year. I really feel like the success of my teams was built on the trust and relationships that existed. My expectations were high; I was strict, I didn’t let them slack… but they bought into my system and knew I was there to support them, to help them improve, and to help the team grow and succeed. I definitely had my moments of negativity, and I saw exactly what you did – a lower desire to play, to try, to challenge themselves. When I would have days like that, all that came to mind was how I felt playing for my college coach, and I would never want to do that to any of my players.

    Thanks again for the post and it makes me excited to think about getting back into coaching one of these days 🙂

  2. May 12, 2012 1:16 pm

    Amen to your post. I sometimes get from people that I am too positive and not “yelling” enough at our basketball players. It is refreshing to read that there are others like me out there 🙂 I heard a quote from coach Shaka Smart this year. He led VCU to the Final Four 2 years ago and to the NCAA tourney again this year. ” This year I was not nearly positive enough during games. I plan to be even more positive this year. I watch film of myself in games to see how positive my actions and body language is not just my words.” He is EXTREMELY successful and in demand around the country.

    Amen again

    • May 12, 2012 5:17 pm

      Hi pete,
      Thanks for your comment! It’s interesting how some people think yelling at players is the way to get results. I’ve had parents tell me after a game that “I need to yell at the players more”. Believe me sometimes I would like to. I know that my players are doing the best they can. I know that they don’t mean to make mistakes. I had a great coach tell me, “there is no need to say aloud what everyone else is already thinking”. Instead, be positive and focus on how to get better. It’s worked for me and my players and obviously, as you pointed out, a number of other successful coaches.

      Thanks again for your comment!


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