Editor’s note: This is the first of a new series “Coaches Corner” that will appear in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel occasionally throughout the winter and spring.

If you are interested in submitting a piece for publication, please contact Sports Editor Bill Stewart at 621-5618.

Most people think that coaching is a series of corrections, that we tirelessly and relentlessly iron out flaws in a dedicated athlete or a team working together to master a tactical concept.

“C’mon, that’s not good enough, we need to run that play again.”

And in truth, that does happen, although surprisingly most good coaching happens when we point out exactly what went right in an individual’s performance or a team’s play.

The National Soccer Coaches’ Association of America suggests a ratio of four positive or encouraging comments for every one critique. Some organizations go further, as many as 10 to 1.

Tony DiCicco, coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team that won the 1996 and 1999 World Cups, calls this practice “catch them being good.”

So how can improvement happen when coaches praise the efforts of athletes endlessly? Isn’t this just more feel-good fluff? The concern, of course, is that athletes will perceive they’re doing great on the practice field but in games get steamrolled because they haven’t been shown what skills they need to improve and how to get there.

But there is a way, and it’s incredibly effective.

Say a soccer team is working on striking the ball. Coaches do something called whole-part-whole, which means we demonstrate the whole skill, then break it into its parts. We work on them and finally perform the improved skill as a whole. When the kids begin working on the skill, some will pick it up faster than others, or maybe some kids have had more training at striking the ball. Coaches often stop the practice, have the kids who are doing it well demonstrate, praise them, high-five them, whatever they do, and the kids return to their drill. The response is typically tremendous. Kids knock themselves out to strike the ball correctly.

The same approach works when applied to group tactics. Overlapping runs require precise timing and trust between players. If the overlapping player doesn’t get the ball a few consecutive times, she stops making the run, feeling that it’s useless. But the play is important to developing a good attack. So how do coaches do this without nagging the players and pointing out where they went wrong? A coach might point out what leads to success in the play — dribble in-field, hold the ball, play into space. When players start to execute the run correctly, they let them know.

And when it happens in games, coaches do cartwheels.

Without a doubt, there are times when an athlete and team need to hear the things that have to be fixed. Every coach does this, and some coaches do this more than others. How often and forcefully a coach points out errors actually has more to do with the relationship he has with the team than anything else. A team that has tremendous trust and respect for a coach will respond quickly and well when a coach points out a flaw and demands it gets fixed.

But the danger is in doing this too often. If this is the everyday atmosphere in practice, the athletes tune the coach out and lose enthusiasm.

All coaches have made the mistake of using too much corrective input at times. Those are the practices we don’t enjoy, and if they’re no fun for a coach, imagine how awful they are for athletes.

When athletes go home feeling energized and great about how a session went, you can be sure the coach was focused on an element of play and praised it when she saw it. This is one of the most common practices when coming off a loss, and the bigger the loss, the more positive the next practice usually is.

Ian Wilson is an English teacher at Waterville Senior High School. He coaches the Waterville girls soccer team as well as the Colby College track and field teams.


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