Tips on creating an effective coaching environment

Most of the time when you hear about what a good coach is the conversation centers around technical matters: How much does the coach know about the sport; how long has he been coaching; is, or was, he a good athlete? But when it comes to youth sports and building the foundation for high performance a coach's technical know-how or ability in the sport is not as important as some might think.

Technical expertise is of little value at the novice level, which, as I often argue, is the single most important level of sport development. This level of sport takes a certain kind of knowledge and individuals who know how to deliver it, and most important of all understand what they are doing, i.e. what their role is in the development process.

I've written a lot about the sport coach being responsible for creating a learning or training environment conducive to athlete development. In this article I want to describe what that environment might look like in practice.

As every teacher knows the environment in the classroom sets the tone for what happens there. In good learning environments children are happy and excited about learning the subject matter. Teachers create these good environments. In sport the coach creates the environment where instruction and practice occur. It can even be argued that coaches are responsible for the young athlete's total sport experience, especially at young ages.

To create an environment conducive to good instruction, enthusiastic efforts, and long-term participation a coach needs to provide the following:

Positive style

Young athletes participate in sport to have fun. Coaches should support this participation by being positive about efforts and results from youngsters. When I was coaching swimming I knew that the environment was good if athletes left practice and came back the next day. Sport is a voluntary activity, nobody has to do it, so if they keep coming back for more it must be because of a good environment.

Offer constructive feedback

Feedback given to youngsters should be mostly positive but it has to be honest. Kids see through empty praise pretty quickly. Saying things like "Good job" all the time eventually becomes meaningless and signals that the coach isn't really interested in that athlete. Feedback that provides knowledge of performance is essential. Knowledge of results is usually obvious but the athlete needs the coach to help analyze performance.

Let them know when they do something right

The image many people have of sport coaches is of someone who is always yelling about things athletes do wrong. This doesn't work at any level but is especially harmful with youngsters. It's important that you let them know when they perform properly. And not just sport skills. Anything they do that is good like supporting a teammate, helping with equipment, etc. should be noted.

Praise the effort, not the result

Help create a growth mindset with your athletes by praising their effort. Youngsters will reproduce actions that get positive responses from adults. Effort is key to improvement in sport so we want them to always work hard. Praising effort is the way to help this happen. Praising results, on the other hand, does not usually get the response we want. It encourages a fixed mindset because the result we praise may not be something a youngster is able to reproduce, thus they are reluctant to put hard effort into performance for fear of failure and loss of our praise.

Be consistent and fair

Young athletes expect their coaches to be fair with everyone and consistent in their actions, moods, behavior etc. This is one of the factors that will determine if athletes come back to practice day after day. A coach who shows favoritism, has unpredictable moods, or is late or absent can't be relied upon to support a good training environment.

Show them that you care

Young athletes what to know that you care about whether they are there or not. Somehow coaches have to communicate this to their athletes. This is best done through actions. Smile. Talk to kids everyday. Be on time. Make the effort to design practice sessions that are both challenging and fun. By making the time the athletes spend with you fun you are, in their minds, making the sport fun.

Understand that you are cause in the matter

Coaches should realize that they are in control of the environment that athletes experience. If athletes leave a training session looking forward to the next day's practice then it is because the coach created something that they're looking forward to doing again. This is the essence of coaching at the youth level. The coach's main job is to keep athletes involved in the sport long enough to make a difference. If your young athletes leave a session looking forward to the next one then you are doing a good job.