Ten Ways to Coach with More Positivity

This is a follow-up to a conversation with Burlington High girls basketball coach Pam MacKay. Coach MacKay offered several concrete examples of coaching with positivity. Here are five that can change the way that you coach in a meaningful way.

  1. Write a Message.

Texting is effective, but it is also the norm. Coach MacKay at an adverse moment in a past season wrote an affirming message to each individual on the whiteboard before practice. For each player, the theme of the message was “The Reason I Love You.”

Coaches can determine for themselves if they want the message to be on the court, off the court, or both. Regardless when your team hits a rough stretch, this is a great way to affirm them in their low moment and model for them how to battle adversity. One of Coach MacKay’s players took a photo of the whiteboard with her phone and showed it to her years later. Clearly this type of communication makes an impact.

2. Scouting and Film.

Coach MacKay told me that as a result of showing a future opponent be successful on film, some team members perceived the information negatively. The purpose of film is to help players prepare, but often film leads to fearful players.

When possible, Coach MacKay shows an opponent struggling instead. She still shows the opponent’s offense, but will show the opponent with a negative result to give the team confidence. Finding this type of film can be problematic for coach’s on short notice. If the opponent’s personnel or scheme is going to be constant from one season to the next, you can always pull up film from the prior year in the off-season. That way, you show the opponent fail against your team executing and inspire belief and preach what you want.

3. Stop the Action in Practice When Something Good Happens.

I am guilty of stopping action when something bad happens. That creates two negative results. First, players stop playing the game. They like playing the game. You ruined it.

Second, once the action is stopped they suspect bad news is coming. If we turn the equation around sometimes, at least when action is stopped players are receiving positive feedback. Special players do solicit feedback whether it is good or bad, but all players crave positive feedback. If it weren’t for positive feedback, even the most mentally tough player will eventually lose interest in the game.

4. Use Positivity in a Negative.

Next time a player over-dribbles your team into a bad possession, start by commending the dribbling. There are times when that player’s dribbling can help the team in small amounts.

If a player makes a great move to get to the rim, but misses the lay-up, credit the decision to go to the rim. Missed lay-ups are unintentional. After fourth grade, players know where to aim. They are failing to execute by middle school and high school. Let players get more reps at it, but do not strip them of the confidence to try again and again.

5. Don’t Overreact to Players Not Doing the Right Thing.

There are roughly 150 possessions in a game. Ten players are making several decisions within each of those 150 possessions. You will always find mistakes. It is ok to tell players about these mistakes if you suspect that they are unaware of them. Telling them is different than humiliating them. Positivity one hundred percent of the time is unrealistic and not productive, but there is a way to be graceful about delivering improvement plans.

6. Be Specific in Helping Players Move on.

A phrase I stole from the late Saugus High School boys coach Mark Bertrand is, “Make the Next Play.” Give players cues as to what the next play is. After a live ball turnover, implore the player sprinting back where on the floor they need to be. That player might be inclined to react to the negative play, but offering them immediate feedback on what the next play is will help increase their transition speed and decision-making.

7. Resist Talking about the Past Results in Timeouts.

From a scheme standpoint, you must talk about the past in timeouts. Coaches don’t need to recap every step of why a turnover was committed the last two possessions. Morale is already low, the coach’s job at this time is to remind players that the problem is fixable. For example, if the opponent is causing havoc in a half-court trap, your team needs to adjust. In communicating the message to the team, there is no need to single out individual mistakes in the past one or two possessions.

In other words, resist, “Gabby stop walking the ball up the sideline over half-court.”

And say, “Girls next time we see the half-court trap, let’s space the floor so we give the player with the ball three targets and if we need to attack on the dribble do so quickly and decisively.”

8. Keep Everything in Perspective.

Coach MacKay cited the passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter as a moment where her and her players’ perspectives changed. Gigi Bryant died at roughly the same age as the players on Coach MacKay’s team. The event certainly does not fit the focus of the other items in this list for being positive events. Given the full life ahead of Gigi Bryant on and off a basketball court, it was a tragic and crushing loss. Coach MacKay reminded players to enjoy the precious moments they have.

The world never stops moving during a basketball season. We can be so immersed in helping the team get better that we tune out the rest of the world. Be mindful of the external circumstances during the season especially those that impact the players directly. A more reflective outlook will increase your patience as a coach and guide you to be show more positivity when tempted to slip into destructive negative talk.

9. Recognize Playing Time Is Not the Only Currency

Coach MacKay told me the basketball experience cannot be based on playing time, a player’s status as a starter, or their title as the best player.  Instead the experience needs to be based primarily on relationships. Remind players about this constantly.

Parents are bound to miss the point even if you make them aware of it initially. The only time parents see their kids and you together are during the game. They miss out on many of the finer details (the film room, practice, pasta parties, bus rides, etc.). The player’s experience and the player’s value does have a correlation with playing time, but it is only a slice of the pie. The parents might hate you, but to stay sane and motivated as a coach remember to invest in the relationship with the player.Positivity in adversity is a long term investment. The players might disagree with your playing time, but in the end they will still know you cared.

10. Deliberately Be Uncomfortable

Burlington was ahead late in a game in the state tournament. Then, things went south. A key player fouled out. The lead vanished down the stretch and Burlington lost.

Coach MacKay admitted that the team was not conditioned for the unexpected. The mental part of the game got the best of them. In order to learn to be uncomfortable this past season, Coach MacKay put players in unfamiliar situations. Occasionally she threw five guards on a team at practice or gave a defensive assignment that a player was not accustomed to. She did not anticipate using some of the practice schemes in games, but being able to react to unfamiliar situations would help players mindset when they inevitably did crop up.

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