Beyond “Positivity” Part I: What Coaches Say Matters

“The difference between the right and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug.” –Mark Twain

Coaching requires more than the transmission of technical and tactical knowledge from coach to athlete. Coaches’ beliefs, expectations, and behaviors impact their players; and, their attitudes and actions shape the broader motivational climate to make an equally indelible mark on youth athletes (Horn, Lox, & Labrador, 2010; R. E. Smith et al., 2009).  As coaches, there are several ways we can influence athletes. One pertinent factor is coach feedback and instruction. The next series of posts will take a deeper dive into coach feedback. What coaches say matters. Today’s response regards the substance of that instruction. Along with what we communicate, recent research underlines how and when coaches offer feedback as also salient to our athletes’ development trajectories. Part II will consider the subtleties of how/when we offer feedback and their powerful psychological effects. I am staying quiet about Part III. Hopefully, you’ll catch that pun later.

What coaches say. To combat the negative, win-at-all-cost culture of youth sport, some organizations and stakeholders have recently begun to promoted “positive” coaching philosophies and practices. Overall, a strength-based, or positive psychological, approach to sport coaching has robust empirical support. A strength-based approach that encourages coaches to catch what players do well, build off those strengths, and use mistakes as opportunities for learning has clear, practical advantages (e.g., enhanced self-perceptions, effort, persistence, and performance). Coaches, however, should avoid equating a positive psychological approach with blanket “positivity”. Doing so dangerously misconstrues and oversimplifies the complex, nuanced craft of coaching. While positive reinforcement and praise can effectively reinforce favorable behaviors and bolster an athlete’s self-perceptions and motivation, positivity is NOT some magical elixir for athlete development. Positivity can have a downside: excessive praise from coaches, such as after success on an easy task or performance, can backfire. When coaches deliver unwarranted compliments, players can interpret that communication as disingenuous or an indication that their coach holds low expectations for them (Horn, 1984, 1985; Horn et al., 2010).

Coaches need to offer players appropriate praise and task-contingent feedback. Praise and informational feedback should correspond to task or performance behaviors (Horn et al., 2010). After successful performances, coaches should deliver appropriate levels of praise that reinforce desired behaviors such as effort and technique—not just the outcome. Catching behaviors that players execute well and using specific (e.g., “Way to bend your knees to stay low!”) instead of general praise (e.g., “Way to go!”) to recognize those actions will not only increase players’ perceived competence, but the likelihood that athletes repeat (and build off of) those strengths later.

After players make a mistake, coaches should acknowledge the behaviors that their athlete performed successfully and offer corrective instruction to use mistakes as coachable moments: opportunities for youth to learn and grow and for coaches to convey their belief in their athletes. Layering mistake-contingent feedback with technical instruction and encouragement can enhance players’ self-perceptions, enjoyment, and motivation (Black & Weiss, 1992; Horn, 1985; Horn et al., 2010). A practical tool that coaches can use to effectively deliver corrective instruction is Good-Better-How feedback, which consists of positive reinforcement for a desirable action and instruction for continued improvement (Weiss et al., 2013). First, communicate to the athlete what he/she did well (e.g., “Jane, well done to angle your run to get behind the defense”). Second, follow with what they can do better (e.g., “You can still delay your run a bit more to avoid being off-side”). Last, offer specific instruction as to how they can improve (e.g., “If you run alongside the defense before you get behind them, then you’ll stay on-side”). In delivering corrective instruction, consider the developmental stage of your athlete. The type of specific feedback coaches give to U-7 players should sound different from the instruction given to U-15 players given their cognitive maturity. For younger players (11 and under), concrete, specific instruction on a simple task will suit their developmental strengths; for older players (12 and up), the gradual, increasing use of abstract instruction on complex tasks is developmentally appropriate.

Leveraging an athlete’s strengths and using their mistakes as coachable moments to learn and grow accurately embodies a positive psychological approach to coaching. More than bombarding kids with generic, blanket positivity, coaching requires careful, deliberate attention to what we say in order to empower student-athletes. Just as what coaches say matters, how and when we offer feedback can have an equally significant impact on athlete development. We will explore when and how coaches deliver feedback next time!

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