How a coach reacts to players' mistakes is going to significantly effect how those players play in the future. As Dr. Robin S. Vealey says in the article "Communicating With Athletes: Timing Is Everything!" ; The wrong message at the wrong time can be a disaster. Even the right message is met with resistance if it's at the wrong time. The wrong message at the right time is a mistake that is tough to overcome, but it takes the the right message at the right time for success.
In Part I of "Creating Confident and Coachable Players" we presented the Positive Coaching Alliance principle of Redefining Winning by taking the focus off the scoreboard, which is how most define winning or losing, and turning it onto The ELM tree of Mastery, Effort, Learning, and what I like to call Mistake Management. A player may go the the process if giving their best effort and trying to learn - then still make a mistake. When that situation presents itself it is paramount that the coach, and others, help the player Rinse, & Repeat the process.
A big step to take in that process is to separate how the mistake might affect the score or result, and instead concentrate on why the mistake occurred in the first place. This will give you the best route to make sure that everyone is focused on learning from the mistake. Worrying about the scoreboard only diverts the players attention form the only W.I.N. that is worth concerning ourselves with, and that is What's Important Now!
The desired outcome of a mistake should be Learning from it and limiting the possibility of making that same mistake again. The fear of making another mistake hinders a players confidence, limits their effectiveness, and makes learning more difficult. There are a few steps that players must be able to take in order to most effectively learn from a mistake.
First, and most obviously, is to make one! A player who isn't making mistakes probably isn't trying to stretch themselves and improve. There have been multiple times when I've stopped a practice and thanked a player for making a mistake because it gave me the opportunity to teach it better. This may also relieve a bit of stress from the player by taking some responsibility for the learning process as opposed to placing all the blame on the player.
Most importantly, to learn after a mistake a player must first recognize they made one. More often than not, players already know that they made a mistake. If that's the case, it's not the coaches job to pile on. Too many times a coach will spend the first two or three sentences admonishing the player for a mistake - and that's usually wasted energy.
Early in my coaching career that was something I did too often, before realizing I needed some "self-control ritual". I figured I might as well do two things at once. I got myself under control by trying real hard to go straight into teaching mode. Once my first instinct was to teach, rather than scold, players began to bounce back and learn faster.
In the study, "What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher" (Tharp Gallimore 1975) it was found that John Wooden praised his players only slightly more than he scolded them. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work Coach's final basketball camp in the early '90's and asked him over breakfast about this. Coach Wooden said,
"When you take the time to truly teach your boys there is an implied confidence you have the belief that they can do it. That confidence is praise in itself."
When you look at the statistics in the study of thousands of acts of coaching closely, over 83% of Coach Wooden's communication in practice were either positive, or were simply information designed to teach. This percentage will be important to remember in Part III.
Certainly, if a player is oblivious to the fact that they made the mistake, it is in the coaches job description to point that out at some point. If it's something that can wait until a break in play, a time-out, or after the game or practice, that might be a good technique.
Once a player knows that they've made a mistake you can move on to the second step in that learning process and offer them some reassurance that the mistake is okay and you still have confidence in them. A few words of encouragement will en-able them to have the courage to stick to it and keep trying to improve.
When you have the player's attention and ensure their confidence isn't in the tank, they may need you to re-instruct them on what areas of improvement they might want to make the next time. I say "re-instruct" because if you haven't instructed them yet it's not a mistake - is it? So a catch phrase, a trigger word or two to give them some guidance is good, anything longer than that might not be. You sure can't talk a player into doing better right in the middle of a game.
The process is designed to hope they remember what is important, the part that helps them learn. It also, hopefully, helps them forget the mistake and have the confidence play without the fear of making another mistake. That next-play mentality (a Coach K-ism) has to kick in quickly in many sports. Thre is no time to dwell on mistakes because...
The bottom line is players need to get ready for the next play. If we can use some sort of method to allow them to do that as quickly as possible, it can be effective. You can use a routine, maybe a sign, symbol or phrase that says all of those things at the same time. Positive Coaching Alliance calls it a "Mistake Ritual" and suggest players "Flush" their mistakes.
When a player looks to the coach on the bench, a teammate, or their parents in the stands, they are looking for something - and it's our job to give it to them. A simple hand gesture as if you were flushing a toilet can symbolically, and mentally, help flush the mistake away. This has been used with great effectiveness by many coaches at all levels, most notably Cal State Fullerton's NCAA Baseball Champions in 2004 and their resident sport psychologist, PCA's National Advisory Board Member, Dr. Ken Ravizza..
This "Mistake Ritual" doesn't have to be a flush - it could be to "shake it off", "brush it off", "throw it away" or anything else that fits your personality. You probably already do something, and as long as it's not throwing a clipboard or something negative - it's probably ok. Whatever you decide, it is to give those players that little something they are looking for. With one quick sign you can help them Recognize the mistake, offer them Reassurance, Re-Instruct what's necessary, help them Remember what's important (and forget what's not), and get them Ready for the next play. Symbolically you can tell them, in seconds, you saw the mistake, you still have confidence in them, give them a short tip and get them ready for the next play. In time, using a Mistake Ritual, maybe we can wean players of the need to look and they will have the confidence to compete on their own.
I had a player who, in the third game of my first season with him, was having a horrible game shooting the basketball. My assistants implored me to take him out, but the reality was he was taking good shots and was just having an off night. I eventually said to them ,"He's going to have to make a big shot for us someday, and I don't want him looking over his shoulder every time he misses one." So we left him in the game.
We lost that night, but months later in March (...and if you're a basketball team playing in March - that's a good thing!) he had our final 7 points in the 4th quarter of a 3 point semi-final win over the #1 seeded team. The next week he scored 8 second-half points with a game-sealing basket in the final minute of the California Interscholastic Federation championship game. Had we pulled him in that less-meaningful pre-season tournament game, who knows how he would have performed in those pressure-packed playoff games.
Dealing with mistakes, setbacks, and failure poorly can shatter a players confidence. A coach who is adept at managing those situations can stop that downward slide and turn it into a learning opportunity. It also can determine whether the player develops into a coachable player - or the one who turns off to any further instruction if managed improperly.
Come back for Part III and some more tools to use in Creating Confident and Coachable Players.