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Sport and Competition

How a Coach's Attitude Can Affect an Athlete's Mentality

Coaches should create a positive environment.

Key points

  • Coaches should continually evaluate and improve their coaching style, just like players continually evaluate and improve their skills.
  • Coaches should avoid inadvertently projecting their own anxiety onto their players.
  • Allowing players to be creative can help build team chemistry. 

As a coach for over 30 years, I often reflect on when I was a younger coach; my style was very hard-core and old school. I pushed my players but also created a bond with them. They always knew that it came from a good place no matter how hard I was on them.

Laura Miele, PhD
Source: Laura Miele, PhD

In retrospect, I am not the same coach today as I was then. I was very green and did not consider the differences in learning styles and extenuating circumstances of my players. However, my players always gave me 150 percent effort. I do not find that a coincidence.

Recently, I have gone out to watch high school and club coaches work with their players in various sports. Some coaches seem to communicate in a manner that creates a positive environment. In contrast, other coaches were berating players and creating an environment governed by fear.

Experience and reflection

When an athlete is in an environment where they can take risks or make an error without being reprimanded, it helps them grow. Athletes learn by their mistakes, just as coaches learn by their mistakes. It is all about the experience.

Many coaches will yell at a player and immediately take them out of the game. Then, the coach wonders why the player made the same mistake during the next game and is not growing. When an athlete is not told the "why" and "how," they repeat the same errors. The coach needs to pose the question: Am I asking too much of my player? What am I doing as a coach that's making these mistakes keep happening?

I have seen coaches take a player out after one error and leave other players in after several. When they take their players out, coaches should let their players know that they believe in them and tell them to stay focused, what to do better next time, and play with confidence.

Coaches often feel the pressure to win throughout the season, sometimes inadvertently projecting their anxiety onto their players. Regardless, this can break down a player mentally and physically. It will eventually generate a domino effect where one player will shut down, and then another, etc. The player will begin to second guess their every move resulting in poor decisions and errors. Consequently, the team starts losing cohesiveness, quality of play, and overall confidence.

When this happens, the coach's job is to recognize and correct what is happening with the team. Now, I am not saying that players do not deserve to be taken out of games for specific mistakes. The point is that in order for a player to grow, they must identify their weaknesses and work on them. The coach must do the same regarding their coaching. There is a balance. Coaches and players alike get better through reflection and experience.

Coach Dee Stephan
Source: Coach Dee Stephan

How to help athletes with coaching styles

When I work with athletes questioning their self-confidence, I provide them with different mental strategies for their psychological toolbox. Often, a player's lack of confidence is a feeling created and manufactured by the coach. Although some coaches might be great at the X's and O's of the game, some fail to see the harm they cause with their coaching style. Oftentimes, a coach will negatively interact with their team with a "you better or else" mentality. A perfect example is when they take a player out of a game after a mistake without explanation and continue to do so throughout the game thereafter. This behavior leaves a player confused, wondering why they came out of the game and what they are doing wrong.

So, what do I tell my athletes to do when this situation arises? I tell them that they all have roles on the team. But, if the coach is shutting the player down and they are one of the premier players, they should continue to create opportunities and score when an opportunity presents itself. Athletes need to believe in themselves and their abilities. If an athlete feels their coach does not believe in them, they have to show the coach confidently and respectfully that they can. This does not mean the athlete should be a selfish player; it means they should be confident and play "their" game. Being able to do this requires mental training. An athlete must know what they can and cannot do and play with relentless effort and confidence. Athletes should understand that training the mind is just as important as training the body.

Coaches at the middle and high school levels should not limit their athletes. From my coaching experience, some athletes will continue to grow and aspire to play at the collegiate level, where some will stop putting forth the effort. Coaches should recognize the difference in their players and not sell them short of their dreams. It is pivotal for a coach to recognize who should be on the field and/or court and who should not, based on their attitude and effort. A coach can change the athlete's mindset either positively or negatively.

As a coach, allow your players to be creative; this will build team chemistry. Players should not be questioning their every move and fear being pulled out of the game. These athletes have practiced enough that they could run the plays in their sleep. So, in order for them to get in the zone, all fear needs to be eliminated. A coach can be tough and still build up their athletes. This will promote a relaxed team that is playing hard and having fun doing so.

Laura Miele, PhD
Source: Laura Miele, PhD

Coaches can breathe life into the sport experience and play the most crucial role in shaping the sport mentality for athletes. A coach can be challenging and have high expectations, but it is essential to know that even professional athletes make errors. Positivity is contagious. The more a coach inspires their players and allows for open communication, the more successful a team will be.

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