Good Coaches Give A “Positive Sandwich”
Coaching is a kind of teaching, and it can be done in ways that focus on learning and growth, or on performance and winning. In two new books, Frank Smoll and Ron Smith, both University of Washington sports psychologists, sum up what they’ve learned about effective coaching from nearly four decades of research and about 500 training workshops for 26,000 youth-sport coaches. “We find that good coaching skills are similar to good parenting skills in that, when done well, kids are happier, less anxious and have better self-esteem,” says Smith. Rick Nauert of PsychCentral reports:
“In Parenting Young Athletes and Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches, the psychologists describe a coaching method that emphasizes giving maximum effort and improving skills. They say it’s the only educational program for youth-sport coaches that’s been scientifically shown to decrease kids’ competitive anxiety and increase their self-esteem and enjoyment of sports.
In the books, the psychologists focus on techniques for providing positive reinforcement as the best way to benefit both youngsters’ athletic as well as personal development. ‘If an athlete makes a mistake, give encouragement and demonstrate how to make it right,’ Smith said. ‘What doesn’t work is promoting the mentality of winning at all costs.’
He added that ‘winning takes care of itself when you create kids who feel good about themselves, gain more skills, are engaged in the activity because they’re having fun, and aren’t shackled by fear of failure.’” Read more here.
An article from the Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association, offers more details of the psychologists’ approach:
“Smith and Smoll developed Coach Effectiveness Training, a two-hour program that teaches coaches how to monitor their behaviors, offer encouragement and technical instruction, and avoid yelling and expressing frustration. The coaches complete a self-monitoring form after each practice and game that enables them to estimate the percentage of instances they provided technical instruction when a player made a mistake, offered encouragement, and praised good performance and effort.
The training also teaches coaches a technique Smith calls the ‘the positive sandwich’: When a player makes a mistake during a game, instead of getting angry or expressing frustration, the coach first finds something to commend about the play, follows with a specific, technical instruction about how to correct the mistake, and ends with a note of encouragement.
When teaching coaches, Smith and Smoll make clear that they understand winning is an important objective, but they always stress that promoting fun, reducing anxiety and improving performance gives a team its best chance for success (Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 1).
In a study of the intervention published in 1993 in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 78, No. 4), Smith and Smoll found that when coaches used the sandwich technique, their young athletes liked their coaches more and got along better with their teammates. In addition, by season’s end, children who had scored low in self-esteem showed gains in this area.
The intervention also kept more children playing ball. On average, about 35 percent of young athletes drop out of sports by the next season, but among children playing on teams with the trained coaches, only 5 percent dropped out of sports the following year, according to results published in 1992 in The Sport Psychologist (Vol. 6, No. 2).
In a 2007 study, Smith and Smoll found that the intervention works for female athletes, as well. Anxiety decreased for girls playing basketball for trained coaches, but increased in girls playing for coaches not trained in the mastery approach.
Over the years, Smoll has worked closely with youth athletic programs in the Seattle area, and estimates that he’s delivered about 500 workshops with 25,000 coaches in attendance in the past 30 years.
Frank Cammarano, who serves as the youth athletics program coordinator for Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation, first got to know Smoll back in 1989, when he helped run the Catholic Youth Organization’s sport programs in the Seattle area.
There’s a noticeable difference between coaches trained in the mastery approach and coaches who didn’t get the training, Cammarano says.
‘What we found was the coaches had a better understanding of how to handle the kids, so there were [fewer] arguments and more teaching,’ he says.” Read more here.
Smith and Smoll’s approach makes sense, and yet coaching and parenting behaviors around kids’ sports are so often focused on winning. Sports can be another area of life where children develop a learning and growth orientation—if their coaches and parents encourage it.