Positive Coaching

by | May 21, 2014, 8:45am 21

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.

Growth Mindset

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.

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  • Joe

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

  • Great article!

  • Nathan

    Do you believe this applies to all levels of Ultimate?

    For example… do you need to fill the Emotional Tank of say someone playing on a Master's team if you were a coach?

    Is someone playing for Sockeye or Riot in a "Growth Mindset" or do they concentrate more on execution and focus?

    This article reminded me of coaching 5 and 6 year olds in soccer… always encouraging… celebrating the victories… guiding through the positives. Honestly, I'm taking a very similar approach on the high school team I help with. It's a brand new team with a lot of players who have never played Ultimate before. While we want to get better, it's almost more important to get them to fall in love with the game first..

    But that made me wonder when you start to switch gears… is there a difference between a 17 year old high school Senior and an 18 year old college freshman? Is there a difference between someone playing on a High School A team looking to win the state championship versus a High Schooler in a development program?

    I know at some point I would have gotten annoyed by someone trying to fill my emotional tank. I'm not sure if it stays full based on experience, maturity, or some other "stuff"… but regardless, at some point I didn't need the coddling and wouldn't want a coach wasting time with that… instead I'd want him to cut to the chase… what did I do wrong and how do I get it right next time? Can you maybe touch on when that cross over is recommended?

    • As I mentioned in the article, Phil Jackson used this approach with his players while winning 10 NBA championships so I think that this approach would work well for all levels of the game. I do think that it will look different at different levels of the game because you begin to have more and more players who are able to self-motivate. I think that the crux of the issue comes from what kind of coach do you want to play for. Do you want to play for someone who is constantly harping on your every mistake or for someone who yes does correct your mistakes, but also encourages you for doing well. Players of all ages (and really every single person) wants to know that they are playing well and that they have approval from an authority figure. Coaches who fulfill this need are going to get more effort from their players because their players are going to feel freer to simply go out and play since they aren't worrying about whether or not they have the coach's approval. Again, I would argue that this is applicable at all levels, but would certainly look different.

    • Sly

      I recommend you to watch some NBA "Inside Trax" and some NBA Mini Movies. There are some scenes where you can hear what the coaches say. Most of the time i´m astonished how many platitudes they say to their players: "This is our game, run as hard as you can, move the ball, be aggressive, put everything you got on the line, we have to get some stopps, we have to get them out of the paint, trust each other, trust yourself, we have to make some shots, rebound, rebound, rebound…" All the advice given is about the future, the next point. They never talk about mistakes the team or a player has made. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBG-9JdftZc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zBQORTCbqI

    • Victor

      Here is my point of view concearning differences between levels and program goals. Coaching is a really tough and beautifull thing to do. When we all talk about the Jackson's and Wooden's we want to replicate their successful models. I agree with all the positive reinforcement and whatever model that uses this kind of approach. I have used with my students at school and it works wonders. But we can't always rely on that all the time. We have to test the response of each and every player/student. Some respond better to hollering and others don't. While I am sure that Jackson would use the same approach with all his players, I am also sure that he had a different way of talking to the Kobes or Jordans and Rodmans or Shaq

      What I mean is, use the model but don't think that the exact same type of talk will work the same for everybody.

    • Josh Greene

      There is little difference in my coaching style from U13 Summer League to U19 YCC…and if I were coaching a Masters team it wouldn't change that much either because it's all about treating players with respect while trying to improve their game. I couldn't agree more with the "praise in public", "chide in private" approach. I will be a little more instructive during play at practice but never, ever negative on the field with the one exception being a display of poor spirit.

      There is a huge distinction between building someone up emotionally and "coddling". Coddling implies that you are ignoring obvious problems in a players game which is disrespectful to everyone involved including the rest of the team. It's easy to spot because everyone's BS meter goes crazy when a coach does this. So my answer to your question is that there is no cross over, there's no time for it. I probably yell and cheer 18 positive things during a single point, but as soon as it's over take a player aside and explain what they could have done better…or use one's mistake as an example to sideline players to improve their knowledge.

      Unless you are one of those people who just has infinite confidence no matter what happens we all know that building and maintaining our own can be challenging. So as coaches our job is to help players find that ability in themselves. You have to "prime the pump" so to speak, which takes loads of energy to do for a whole team…to build them up as individuals with praise when it is due so they have that in reserve when it's time to let them know there is something they need to work on. Then you praise each step in their progress until it isn't an issue anymore…and start the cycle over with something new.

      It's not easy, you have to be tirelessly attentive to each player, what they need to hear, and when they need to hear it. Sports are a metaphor for life, good coaches improve your game, great coaches improve your self. They are easy to spot because you feel better being around them and Zog is one of several I've had the joy of being around at TYUL.

      • Hart Matthews

        Agreed. I've met very few players of any age who don't respond well to constructive appreciation. Nice article, Zog!

        Sorry about the thumbs down, Josh (dang touchscreen).

    • MRB

      I think those are good questions to ask. I played other sports in high school and the attitude was that we're always working towards perfection and that mistakes – mental ones, especially – we're simply unacceptable. Speaking for myself, I like that attitude from coaches – it's what motivated me to put in time outside of practice and only accept my best. It also helped that I knew there would be 12 other guys who would be doing the same and that if I didn't like it, well, there was a JV team. I wonder how good ultimate would look if they started adopting that mindset around 12/13/14 years old the way they do in other sports, where competition for a spot on the team, and for PT, is fierce, and the prospect of spending an entire season on the bench – unheard of in ultimate, de rigeur in every other team sport – was a possibility for those that didn't play well enough or practice long/hard enough.

  • Awesome! I love how you explain the theory and also tell us about specific examples of using (or failing to use) it. Great work, Zog!

  • Singles

    Great article Zog! Proud to have such a great coach form the triangle.

  • sowmya sridhar

    Perfect article Zog ! I ve been trying to articulate the similar stuff for sometime now . you ve helped me ! its time to share now :)

  • This is a great post, but I'm confused about what happened. Was the issue with calling the timeout that it stopped flow and allowed the opponents to rest/reconfigure their defense?

    • Ken

      No, the issue was that in ultimate a time out does not actually stop the clock. So, with hard cap a few minutes away a good chunk of the remaining playing time was spent during the time out. The game went into hard cap before Hammer could score.

    • Hart

      Although, with plenty of downfield space and having already broken through the cup, a timeout is generally not a wise call. Brings you back into play with a fully set defense, covered receivers and fewer than 10 seconds in the stall.

  • Martin

    How would you approach it if players constantly make the same mistake. After the positive approach, the explanation and even sometime the 'confrontation', if a mistake keep being repeated what options are you left with as a coach?

    • Josh Greene

      At that point I would go from the "chide in private" approach to having a frank discussion with the team about how that player is hurting the group as a whole. Peer pressure can be a positive tool too…and it gets everyone involved so that you are not the sole source of correction. A player can tune one person out easily, but if the group starts letting them know it's harder to ignore.

    • To build on what Josh was saying, I think it all comes down to understanding that you can't make major changes to a players game during games. Whether it is an execution error or a mental error, you are going to have to wait until practice because getting on a player about repeated mistakes isn't going to make them magically fix the issue. It really comes down to evaluating what your team is doing during a game, and then designing practices to work on those errors. If a player is struggling to catch and throw, then they need to catch and throw more during and outside of practice. A good strategy to implement is to have each of your players identify 2-3 goals that they want to improve upon. Generally they are going to recognize their major issues and then you can remind them of those goals, and then they have ownership of those goals.

      If it is a team issue where there are lots of players making the same mistake then I think you have to look at how you are teaching the skill/idea and look for a different method. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because you are a coach that you have all the answers. Seek out help from other coaches, or maybe even try asking the captains on the team. Sometimes they might have great ideas that work really well.

  • Ken

    Great article Zog. Lots to think about as summer league coaching approaches. Thanks!