Why Coach through Positive Reinforcement?

I recently spoke with Burlington High girls basketball coach Pam MacKay. Coach MacKay’s team is coming off an undefeated league championship season, which propelled them to the #6 team in The Boston Globe’s end of year rankings. I wanted to see what was in Burlington’s secret sauce. After speaking with Coach MacKay, I rediscovered the meaning and value of coaching through the lens of positive reinforcement. Or as Coach MacKay framed it, articulating your message to the team through your body language and verbal language.

From Enthusiastic to Reflective

Coach MacKay was thrust into the head coach position in 2010. She played for a successful Burlington program in high school, walked on collegiately at Emerson College, and knew the players in Burlington as a member of the outgoing staff. Her resumé offered a lot of promise and potential. Unfortunately, the program was struggling to win games in 2010. Going back to when she was in college, Burlington finished below .500 seven consecutive seasons.

Initially her mindset as head coach was to bring energy. If she brought energy, the players energy would surely follow. And to an extent it worked. The team bucked the trend of focusing on winning and chose to focus on competing instead. Improvements were tangible in practice, but in games the transfer was less evident. Eventually three events helped shift her coaching style and the team’s performance in games.

First, someone offered her positive reinforcement when she handled a player’s mistake in a game. Second, her personal life forced her to rethink her coaching style. And finally, she read a 600-word article about what type of feedback increases confidence.

Controlling Your Body Language as Coach

Coach MacKay gave me one concrete example to illustrate the importance of a coach’s body language. A high school crowd decided to punk one of her players. With plenty of time left on the game clock, the fans yelled in unison “five, four, three, two, one!” Coach MacKay’s player took the bait. She heaved a horrible shot that essentially resulted in a turnover. Neither the fans nor her player’s decision rattled Coach MacKay. She implored her team to get into their defense and reiterated one of the key’s going into the game.

After the game, someone without a horse in the race commended Coach MacKay for how she handled the situation. Until she received that feedback, she was oblivious to her response. After the feedback, Coach MacKay connected the dots.

Basketball is a fluid game. The individual mistakes are of little consequence because they are inevitable. Responses to these mistakes serve as opportunities to differentiate you from the pack.

Taking Her Energy out of the Equation 

A few years ago, Coach MacKay had her first child. While she was pregnant with her son, she realized that coaching with the same physical energy she had early in her career was not possible. The players needed to take control of the physical energy. Unable to offer the same output physically, she took an opportunity to shift her mental focus in her coaching. The lesson from the false countdown morphed into a microcosm of the new version of the coach she wanted to become.

Instead of focusing on her physical energy, she shifted her focus to the psychology of the players. She focused especially on the language she used. For instance, many coaches advocate the ball needs to find the team’s best scorer at the end of games. For some teams and players that language works. It’s a strategy as old as time. Coach MacKay deliberately spoke in language that affirmed all players. Here is what this might sound like.

“We are going to get the ball to [best player] here. Sarah you set the screen on the wing since you are our best screener. Adaliya and Megan you are our best shooters and drill these types of shots in practice routinely. Space out to the corners and be ready to stick it. Lex, crash hard because they have not been able to box you out all game.”

The best player still has the ball and the freedom to make the decision in crunch time. There is no need to single her out though and definitively declare that she is the best player. All players feel valued and all roles are celebrated.

The Article

The article really drove home the point about what drives confidence for players. During one closely contested game last season, Coach MacKay took a deep plunge into offering positive affirmations. In the second half of a close game, she reminded the players how well they move the ball and make great decisions in a confident tone. The players responded immediately and rattled off three straight baskets before the opponent called timeout. Burlington ended up shooting 64% in the fourth quarter.

Coach MacKay does not tell a player to be more confident. That is obviously the right intention, but she addresses why a player should be confident. A player that is struggling to shoot needs to hear that they put the work in. They need to remember a moment they shot well. They may even need the coach to say, “When that elbow is up, there’s nobody I’d rather have shooting.”

The Larger Message

The expectations in Burlington were high coming into this season, but nobody in the program ever spoke out loud about going undefeated. Coach MacKay called it more of an unspoken goal. Players talked about it outside the gym, but Coach MacKay chose to focus on small things and let the bigger picture take care of itself. What’s more, Coach MacKay did not suddenly turn into a coach that tears down players or celebrates only one individual. The messaging that she had been using for a couple seasons going into this helped spurn success.

Hearing Pam MacKay speak on Zoom reminded me a little of Ted Lasso (if you have not seen the show, give it a shot). It is impossible to measure the impact of framing language and body language almost exclusively through positive reinforcement. That said, if painting every individual in their most positive light and winning are not mutually exclusive, it might be worth emulating her coaching style.

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