The power of positive coaching: Feel-good lip service or the key to building intrinsic motivation?

Over the years I have poured over literature that speaks of the keys to coaching young athletes. Each seems to have the same common themes: Keep the message positive, encourage mistakes, promote hard working habits.

Yet for years it has all read as fluff to me – my internal dialogue: “Have you ever actually coached a young kid? Do you know how little focus most kids have? Are you even trying to win or are you just satisfied with harnessing the Mr. Rogers within?”

I was extremely skeptical and settling in quite nicely to a style which involved a zero-tolerance policy and consistent repercussions for each mistake made. Execution of punishment would be my main focus. Consequences would be carefully designed to teach the lesson I was looking to instill.

While we can all imagine encountering that next teaching opportunity, laying out a brilliant lesson and watching our child or young athlete change before our eyes, it rarely works this way. The softer way often seems futile. Many join me on my plan to be the perfect “discipliner” steering children into great skill development and a hard work ethic. My heart was in the right place yet my actions were misguided.

But perhaps it is not so much the reaction to an undesirable action that is the part where we fail. Perhaps it is the time when the desirable behavior is displayed. Think about it – if you are anything like me, you are quick to point out the dropped pass, missed shot, or slow reaction with a detailed tongue-lashing of what was done wrong and why they were too lazy to do it right. But what happens with the other 90% of great effort? The hustle off ball, the cheers for the teammates, the selfless acts, and the great sportsmanship. Do we get as detailed with our praise? Do we reinforce publically? Are we meeting individually or writing letters to let them know? Do we inspire with stories? Do we listen and ask questions?

Today I believe strongly in the time gap that I have for so long rushed past. This forgotten space is the area where coaches and parents can have their greatest impact. Children (and humans for that matter) will always make mistakes, rarely will they mean to, and often they are their own strongest critic. Can we be there to show the love and compassion that seems to be diminishing in our results driven culture? Until we try, it is hard to criticize those Mr. Rogers coaching books. Until next time…

Ryan Klipstein