Last summer I made a mistake. I was coaching Triangle Youth Ultimate League’s U-16 boys team NC Hammer. In the finals versus Seattle Dynasty we were down by two with hard cap fast approaching. We had to score that point in order to give ourselves a chance. Seattle came down with a zone, which we were able to eventually break through. As we were passing the disc between our poppers and deeps with lots of open field in front of us one of the players inexplicably called a timeout. Seattle was able to reset their zone and held on for the hard cap horn to sound.
My mistake had nothing do to with how we prepared for the tournament, or who gave PT to, or what defense we used that game. My mistake was how I reacted to my player calling that late-game timeout. I berated him for making a bad decision, as if I have never made a bad choice on the field before, rather than focusing on what we needed to do next in order to keep playing. Rather than remembering all of the contributions he had to the team up to this point, I focused on this one mistake in the moment.
Recently I attended Bay Area Disc’s Youth Ultimate Coaching Conference in Oakland. The presentation that had the greatest impact on me was given by Tina Syer of the Positive Coaching Alliance, whose system is implemented and endorsed by Phil Jackson. Their goal is to help increase performance on the field by empowering coaches to get the most out of their players. This is accomplished by creating a team culture that is focused on building up players that are able be stay mentally focused on things that they can control. The three main tenants of the program are 1) focusing on a growth mindset, 2) filling up player’s “Emotional Tank,” and 3) honoring the game. I am going to provide a little more insight into the first two pillars as I think that they are the most important pieces and are easy to implement.
The basic idea behind a growth mindset is that while yes we all have a certain set of gifts that we are given through our DNA, every player can learn how to play better through practice and hard work. An example would be that instead of saying to a player, “Wow, that was a great flick, you’ve got talent,” saying ‘Wow, that was a great flick! I can see how your hard work is paying off.” What this does is acknowledge that you have seen the hard work that the player is putting into their play and also shows the player that they have control over how well they can do. Having players focus on the things that they can control is huge, and you should reinforce that idea whenever you can.
Another critical component of the growth mindset is to help players understand that mistakes are okay. Too often our society focuses on being perfect and doesn’t celebrate the process of learning through our mistakes. It is only through making mistakes and practice that we can achieve mastery of a skill. Making sure that your players understand from the beginning that mistakes are okay will help them be more relaxed on the field, and allow them to focus on playing, rather than worrying about not messing up. One tool to help your players move past a mistake is to develop a mistake ritual. My teams pretend that their mistake is a balloon and they physically let the balloon go after a mistake immediately after. This allows them to come back to the moment and make the next play, which is the only play they can control at that point. Showing your players that you are not worried about mistakes on the field leads us to the next pillar: filling your players Emotional Tanks.
Filling Emotional Tanks
How many times have you heard the phrase “catch your Ds” or “use two hands” from the sidelines during a game? As a coach, I have grown to dislike those phrases, although I sometimes fall into the trap of saying them. My reasons are two-fold: first, the player needs to focus on making the next play and not worrying about the mistake they just made (see above). Second, those phrases drain a player’s Emotional Tank, which can be thought of as the emotional state of the player. Players play better when they feel like the rest of the team, especially their coach, is supporting them. Training yourself and your player to focus on the effort that the player has put into the play is an important step to filling your players Emotional Tanks. Rather than saying “catch your Ds” say “great defense, I love the way you stayed with your man.” Praise the behaviors that you want to see out of your players and they will do those actions more.
Of course, if there is an action that would make the outcome better (like catching a disc rather than slapping it), you want to teach players to correct their mistake. But that correction will be quicker and longer-lasting if it comes from an affirmative place. It is important to think about how you phrase your words and the context that you give them in.A rule of thumb to go by is praise in public, chide in private. While the player is walking off the field loudly praise them for something they did well, and then take them aside after and explain their mistake. This way, you are able to positively reinforce the behaviors you want to see, and correct the ones you don’t without draining your player’s Emotional Tanks.
Here’s an example from the girls team I coach. We have a lot of young players whose instinct at the beginning of the season was to slow down before catching the disc. At practices throughout the season, I went out of my way to praise their cuts when they ran through the disc regardless of whether they caught it or not. The results paid off this at Southerns, where there were no run through Ds by the other team, and we were able to generate a bunch of our own.
I do not know if the outcome of the finals game would have been different had I been using the PCA system, but I know that my players would have been more likely to learn from their mistake, and they would have had more fun playing for me. Our sport in general has a culture that is very supportive and positive, but as we continue to grow and become more and more competitive it is important that we remember that sports are a joy to play and that winning at all costs is a destructive attitude that takes some of that joy away. The power of a positive coaching approach is supremely illustrated by a study done during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Athletes that were focused on mastery or task outcomes were significantly more likely to win medals than those who were focused on winning. Coaching your players to focus on the things that they can control and to master specific skills will give you a competitive advantage, because they are going to feel more successful while they are struggling to learn the skills necessary to compete at a high level. If you are interested in more information about the Positive Coaching Alliance, go to www.positivecoach.org.