Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part I)

When I speak with Sports Parents one of the first things I do is ask them what their initial goals were for their child’s participation in youth sports. Invariably one of the answers is to increase self-confidence. Sports is a great place for a young player to develop or improve their self-confidence. However, it’s also a place where that confidence can be shattered if the road is not navigated properly.

Ultimately, confidence comes from knowing you practiced long and hard…and have achieved repeated success during that practice time.  Coaches can go a long way in establishing how those things register in a player’s mind. It’s important to teach and set up drills or games that are within the appropriate progression. That way the players can execute the skills that they’re being asked to try. When we try to push them too fast and skip steps along the way, or ask them to do things beyond their capabilities, they can feel inadequate and get anxious about their performance.

If they are put in situations where they can have a little success, they develop some confidence along the way and at that point it is time to move on to the next step in the teaching progression. While you’re doing these learning activities it’s important to make sure that they aren’t judged based on the outcome of the activity but more on their mastery of the skill or strategy being taught.

If a drill is competitive, players are more apt to do things they feel have been successful for them in the past in order to “win” the drill and may revert to some habits the coach is actually trying to break. I used to work with a great coach at Pomona-Pitzer College, Charlie Katsiaficas, who says it’s sometimes difficult for players to play hard and think at the same time. Only through repetition, when skills become  more automatic, can a player execute the learned skill and play hard at the same time.

When I construct a practice I try to ensure my staff knows which drills, games, or activities are focusing on *teaching* and which we would like to be more competitive. In a *teaching* drill we want to stop instruct a bit more often than during a more competitive phase of practice. I like to treat these competitive sessions like a game, and you can’t stop a game to correct every single thing. We want players to develop the confidence to be able to self-correct without waiting for a coaches instruction.

The best way for a coach to assist this process is to create “Effort Goals” instead of goals that are result based. Learning and improvement is more about the process than it is the outcome. For example, in basketball, we have a few non-negotiables that are all effort-based in nature. I encourage players to Be Big on the Little Things.

#1 – Stay in Stance – Always stay in stance. It is your point of maximum explosion. Be just like a track sprinter coming out of the blocks. Be ready to move. You will get open on offense more often. You will guard your man on defense easier. The lowest person usually wins.

#2 – Contest EVERY Shot – The only person who can score is the one with the ball. Go guard him even if he is not your man. Help your teammates when there man is open. Go guard him. Get a hand up on every shooter and contest the shot –  even if it means leaving your feet, but don´t fall for a head fake too easily!

#3 – Two Hands – Catch the ball with two hands–concentrate on the catch before you do anything else. Rebound with 2 hands–and try for every one. Pick up a loose ball with 2 hands–pick it up, don´t dribble it. You will get more possessions for your team and each possession is another chance to score.

#4 – Run Hard – You will usually break the opponents will with your first three steps. Get ahead of the defense and your teammates will throw you the ball. It will help you get easy shots on offense with your fast break. If you beat the offense back, they may not even try to run their fast break. Getting back on defense will help stop their fast break

#5 – Pass to the first Open Teammate – Passing the ball is faster than dribbling it. If you move the ball, you make the defense adjust and they might make a mistake and leave someone (maybe you!) open. If you see an open teammate–throw them the ball. Don´t wait for a better pass. Remember – “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Each of these five “non-negotiables” are effort based and something any player can decide to do without getting any better at any one particular skill. Just by making the effort to do these things, a player can actually be better – right now! When the player feels that improvement they will begin to develop more and more confidence. There are “little things” like this in all sports – and it’s up to the coach to find them.

When the player is making the effort, the coach has to “catch them doing something right” and let them know. If I had a one-floor elevator ride with a novice coach and they asked me the secret to getting the best out of his players, I’d tell him to Reward Desired Effort… relentlessly! If players are giving the effort to do what you desirereward it! Simple. They’ll do it more often.

In my recent DVD, The Fundamental Factory  there was a segment where we took the five oldest (best players and put them on offense with five younger players defending them. We told the younger players not to worry if the opponents scored, but to concentrate on exactly where they were supposed to be on defense and in what stance they should be in. It was amazing how many times the younger kids stopped the older ones – and how excited they were to do so.

 Control the Controllables

When we are in control, we feel a whole lot better. We are less nervous. We are more confident. Consequently, we perform a whole lot better too. Knowing that, it only makes sense to do things that help players become less nervous and more confident. How can we do that is the question of the day. More often than not it is the scoreboard and how mistakes, setbacks, and failures impact the result which makes players anxious. So how do we take the focus off the scoreboard and onto something more in a players control.

Positive Coaching Alliance narrows this pursuit of personal excellence into three things we can focus on during that journey in what they call “The ELM Tree of Mastery”, with ELM as an acronym to remember what we need to place most importance on. The first thing that is important is a player’s individual Effort.  Can a player do more than their personal best? Coaches sabotage themselves and players a little with the whole “give 110%” pitch. It’s obviously not possible to give any more than 100%… at least that’s what my accountant keeps trying to tell me!

The second thing that is really important is a players commitment to Learning. A player needs to make sure that they focus and listen to try to learn. Bob Knight said the following about concentration:

 “To me, concentration is basketball in a nutshell. Concentration leads to anticipation, which leads to recognition, which leads to reaction, which leads to execution.

The concentration I’m talking about involves four key words.

The first two are “look” and “see.” Everybody who plays basketball looks, but very few players see. Very few players train themselves to use their eyes. Not everybody has the same shooting ability as everybody else, nor the same size, nor the same quickness.

But each person who’s playing this game can develop the ability to see what’s happening on the court — see the open man, see where to take the ball, see the guy who’s being defended, see who’s open on the break.

“Hear” and “listen” are the next two words. Most people only hear. The key is listening to what you’re being told, what’s being said, what is expected of you in your role as part of any team.

A basketball player who learns to see and listen has improved tremendously without doing a single thing involving physical skills. Once learned, seeing and listening are valuable traits for anyone doing anything.”

So the player needs to make a commitment to try and learn, but the interesting thing about learning is that it’s a two-way street. When learning isn’t apparent, we need look at both sides of that equation…the player and the coach.  John Wooden and his former player, Swen Nater wrote a great book titled “You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned”. It’s really important in developing a confident and coachable player to make sure there’s recognition of the  learning and improvement along the way, however slight it may be. That is the seed of confidence. I believe that it is just as true that “when the teacher is ready the student will appear.” Be ready!

Players may give their best effort, and they may try to do what  they’ve learned. Still, Mistakes will happen. When a mistake is made, players have to learn to manage their mistakes, recover from their setbacks, and bounce back from their failures. This is something they can learn to do if they are willing… but they need plenty if help doing it too.

Each of these three things; a players individual Effort, a players personal commitment to Learning, and in their ability to manage Mistakes are all 100% within the players control while they climb the ELM Tree of Mastery. They can’t control whether the opponent is bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced…better – and that’s what determines the result a majority of the time. That being the case, there is no reason to worry about the scoreboard and only Control the Controllables.

The coach is paramount in this process. We’ll discuss in Part II how the player can “Rinse & Repeat” … and some of the ways the coach can help

Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part I)

Rinse, and Repeat : 5 R’s of Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part II)

One Play at a Time : Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part III)

“Magical” Steps to Creating Confident and Coachable Players (Part IV)





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  • Another great piece Ray. Love the concentration on things one can control, the importance of ones training, and the ELM analogy. Many either forget or don't focus enough on the things you have pointed out here. Looking forward to Part II Monday.

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