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Positive Coaching: Don't Forget the "12th Man"

By Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D.

Pick up a training manual for most youth sports programs and you'll find "Positive Coaching" as one of the major tenets. Research shows that kids respond to positives, and most youth sports coaches know that noticing and making a "big deal" out of positives in their players is important.

It's easy to find positives in the talented athletes, the kids with natural talent who are full of enthusiasm about the game and come to practice and games motivated to do their best. However, in recreational sport programs, where no one gets "cut" and "everybody plays," there are always those players who are picked last, or who show little enthusiasm for playing, or who simply don't have the athletic skills compared to other kids on the team.

A successful youth sports coach is one who makes every player, including the "12th man" who plays the minimum time, gets noticed with positive recognition. However, sometimes it's not easy.

One of my favorite comic strips is Andy Capp. I remember an episode where Flo and Andy had been having a spat. She is trying to find something positive to say about Andy as she enters their living room. Andy is reclining on the couch, hat over his face. The room is a mess; cluttered with bottles, newspapers, leftovers, open boxes of snacks, and a haze of cigar smoke. Flo looks around, desperately looking for something positive, then looks up, and says, "I see you kept the ceiling nice and tidy!" It was a stretch, but she found something positive to say. When you coach recreational league kids, there may be some days when finding something positive to say about each and every one of your players will be a "stretch." But it doesn't have to be. With a little effort, any coach can find something positive to say about every player.

When I was putting together material for my booklet, Positive Coaching: The Art of Being a Successful Youth League Manager/Coach, I brainstormed with managers and coaches about coming up with ways to praise the "fringe" players, regardless of their athletic skills. We agreed that rather than just looking at hitting, throwing, and fielding, we would do well to look at things like hustle, game awareness, spirit, sportsmanship, effort and punctuality for opportunities to make positive remarks to players. We also agreed that the remarks should be specific so the player can remember what was said.

The result of our brainstorming was a 20-item Positive Behavior Checklist:

  • __Hustles out to the field and back to the dugout.
  • __Tags up on a fly ball.
  • __Throws the ball to the correct base.
  • __Throws to the correct cut-off person.
  • __Gets under the ball to catch a fly ball.
  • __Gets the ball from outfield to infield quickly.
  • __Backs up a throw.
  • __Cheers for teammates while on the bench.
  • __Keeps up "chatter" on the field.
  • __Hustles while running on the bases.
  • __Watches the coach for signs.
  • __Slides into base on close plays.
  • __Encourages teammates ("Nice try!")
  • __Runs out every hit (grounder, fly ball, popup, etc.).
  • __Keeps track of personal equipment (glove, bat, etc.).
  • __Pays attention to the game (score, outs, inning, etc.).
  • __Shows good sportsmanship during and after the game.
  • __Helps pick up team equipment after practice and games.
  • __Comes on time for practice and games.

How many times have we seen this scenario? A tee baller playing shortstop fields a grounder with a man on first, turns to throw it to second, and throws a "rainbow" into right field. Suddenly the t ee baller hears adults yelling out instructions about the correct mechanics of throwing ("Point your shoulder and glove toward the target, then step, and throw!"). The tee baller fights back tears. A golden opportunity for saying something positive has just been wasted. How about noticing the fact that the tee baller KNEW TO THROW IT TO THE CORRECT BASE!

Or, how about the kid in right field who pats his/her glove waiting for a fly ball to come down, only to have it pop out of the glove? Once again the kid is likely to hear sounds of adults yelling out about the correct mechanics of catching ("You've got to use two hands!" "Squeeze it!"), and once again an opportunity for positives is missed. How about noticing that there was no awkward lung at the ball. The player had a better chance of making the catch by hustling to get UNDER THE BALL!

I have talked with some creative positive coaches. One said at every game he gave a copy of the checklist to the parents on his team. He assigned them to one of the players on the team (not their own kid) and asked them to check off each item on the checklist as it occurred. He said it kept the parents focusing on positives and helped them focus on all the players. He said at the end of the season he sorted out all the checklist reports and was able to cite specifics for each player as he handed out the trophies. I can only imagine how thrilled his "12th man" was when the coach gave specific positive examples of his/her play during the year.

Research shows the value of youth sports. Our goal as youth sports coaches should be to keep the kids coming back. Noticing positives will go a long way to keeping the "12th man" coming back.

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice in Laguna Niguel, California for 25+ years. He is a member of the Little League International Board of Directors. He was listed among the "Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America" by the Institute for International Sport. His book, IT'S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), and his Sportsmanship Card Game, GOOD SPORT! are described at his website, www.djburnett.com, along with his other books, booklets, and CDs on youth sports and family life.