What is Positive Coaching?

For Coaches

What Is Positive Coaching – Really, What Is It?

What factors distinguish positive coaching from negative coaching? The distinctions are far more complex than simply being nice or nasty.

Positive Coaching vs. Negative Coaching  

Positive coaching increases motivation and inspires athletes to improve their skills and their teamwork—and by doing so, to develop self-control and mastery. Positive coaching includes effective communication, an understanding of the proper use of rewards and punishments, setting clear, realistic, yet demanding standards, and efficient strategies for error corrections. Some very “nice” coaches who lack these skills are negative coaches.

Negative coaching decreases motivation and erodes the coach-athlete relationship. At first glance, the phrase “negative coaching” may elicit the image of a coach yelling at athletes and making them run laps. Negative coaching is far more than that. Raising one’s voice and requiring demanding conditioning drills are not, by themselves, negative coaching. In fact, they may very well be essential to positive coaching. Entreating a soccer player 80 yards away across the field to “Mark your man!” requires more than a whisper to heard.  It can be positive if it provides instruction about what to do and if marking the opponent is within the young athlete’s ability level. Instruction in a soft voice that sarcastically asks athletes to perform skills beyond their current ability levels is far more negative than yelling. Negative coaching literally expends the athletes’ energy and motivation ineffectively as it steals the joy of participation.


So, what can you do to avoid negative coaching and coach positively?

  1. Avoid Teaching “Learned Helplessness”

Asking athletes to perform skills beyond their ability or outside their ability to control is negative because such instruction leads to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness refers to situations in which athletes learn that their efforts to improve a skill make no difference. They have tried repeatedly without success. Eventually they come to believe that they cannot, in fact, succeed. As a result, they exert less effort and less perseverance. Their reduced effort lowers the probability of success, and the lack of success further reduces their effort. This negative cycle produces an athlete who believes he or she cannot succeed. Such a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy may develop when an athlete with great potential is progressing too rapidly and is attempting a skill for which he or she is not yet ready. The athlete may be quite capable of learning the skill when older, more mature, or more experienced, but the attempts to master the skill before having the prerequisite skills leads to the perception that additional efforts are futile.

A young quarterback on a youth sport football team is asked to select the sequence of plays during a competition. Such a task is beyond his current ability level. Later in high school or college, when he has mastered the basic football skills, has the cognitive maturity to remember multiple plays, and can recognize the many variables that determine the best options, that young quarterback might easily become an excellent play caller. However, because of his early failure and frustration, he comes to believe that he is just not very good at calling plays. A tentative approach to calling the plays results in poor play selection and self-doubt, which, in turn, may interfere with his actual performance in carrying out a given play.

Coaches who work with special populations, such as Special Olympians, may find that the typical breakdown of skills is not sufficient to permit a slower learner to progress at a noticeable rate. Continued practice of skills that are not being mastered leads to learned helplessness and reduced effort. The belief that the coach should simply “be patient” does little to promote a feeling of success on behalf of either the athlete or the coach. Re-analyzing the skill and the capacity of the athlete may develop skill progressions in which significant daily progress can be achieved, thus, combating the learned helplessness syndrome. It is also a sign of “patience” that the coach spends the necessary time analyzing skills and designing the workout to allow recognizable progress rather than simply accepting the belief that skill progressions with Special Olympians “take a long, long time.”1

  1. Avoid Blaming Slow Learning on a Lack of Motivation

Motivation is a convenient fiction. While it is an extremely important concept, you cannot see it, hear it, touch it, or directly manipulate it. This essential concept is an abstraction that represents the many factors that energize, direct, sustain, and influence the quality of an athlete’s behavior. Because of its abstractness, motivation often becomes an easy scapegoat to blame when both the coach and the athlete are frustrated by a lack of progress or by disciplinary problems.

Very few, if any, athletes lack motivation. They may be motivated to do things other than what the coach wishes but they are rarely unmotivated. Often the very behavior that appears unmotivated is a highly motivated attempt to protect their self-esteem. A youngster who lacks the confidence that he or she can be successful may very well respond by clowning around, by avoiding adequate preparation, or by disparaging teammates who are working toward success.

The learned helplessness discussed previously may appear to be the absence of motivation when, in fact, the athlete is highly motivated. The desire to learn has been overwhelmed by the realization that “no progress has been made over a long period of time” implying that the task is beyond the ability of the athlete. The reduced effort, often accompanied by depressed moods, gives the appearance that the athlete is not trying. Equating this lack of overt effort with a lack of motivation ignores the fact that the depression and lack of effort develop directly from the athlete’s strong desire to learn the “impossible” skill.

Motivation is the result of many factors, some of which may conflict with each other. “I want to learn, but I’m afraid.” “I want to be attentive, but I don’t want to be made fun of as the ‘coach’s favorite’ by my teammates.” “I want to get better, but I don’t understand how this drill makes any difference — and it hurts!” Instead of assuming the absence of motivation, coaches may be more effective at energizing their athletes by looking for demotivators and helping their young athletes with solutions to combat those demotivating factors. For example, an athlete who fears falling and being hurt can be taught specific falling techniques to minimize risk and to enhance safety should a fall occur. The coach who has an athlete who is concerned about “fitting in” with his or her buddies might avoid singling that athlete out for public praise or demonstrations.

Finally, a lack of progress can be due to many non-motivational factors: a lack of flexibility, strength, conditioning; a lack of prerequisite skills; biomechanical errors; failure to understand instructions; ignorance of the importance of drills to competitive success. Motivational concerns are often assumed to be the problem long before these other factors have been considered and ruled out. Blaming motivation is easy simply because the concept is so abstract. In fact, motivation should be the last of the potential factors to which a lack of progress is attributed.

  1. Avoid the Misuse of Praise

Excessive praise for non-accomplishments can actually undermine self-confidence. How can something as positive sounding as “praise” be negative? As children reach the maturity level necessary to begin thinking like adults (between 7 and 12 years of age), they begin to recognize that teachers and coaches often “are nice” to the less talented children both in school and on the playing field. After working with the klutzy kid who has had trouble mastering a skill, the coach may finish with a gratuitous complement such as “Good enough. Now let’s move on.” With a child who is more talented, the coach may very well say something about the non-progress: “Focus and pay attention. You can do better.” The expectation is that the klutz can do no better while the more talented athlete is chastised for not making sufficient progress. The young athletes see this differential application of praise and recognize how the less talented athlete is treated differently with praise for non-accomplishments. They recognize that praise for non-accomplishments often indicates that the teacher/coach believes that the athlete can do no better. Therefore, they judge the recipients of undeserved praise (both themselves and others) as less competent.

This example is not to say that positive encouragement of less talented athletes is unwarranted. Just the opposite. However, the encouragement should be for accomplishments, no matter how basic. A good effort, even if unsuccessful, can be praised specifically for the effort made while still acknowledging the lack of success. “Good effort. We need to work on that skill more to improve, but that was a strong effort.” The athlete knows from the comment that the coach recognizes the athlete’s lack of success but was still impressed with the athlete’s effort. Effort might be the only aspect of the task under a low-skilled athlete’s ability to control. Further efforts by the athlete might be better directed by the coach to prerequisites of the task – e.g., getting stronger, more flexibility, earlier preparation.

  1. Avoid Rigid Authoritarianism

The legitimate use of authority is not the same as being an authoritarian. There is an important distinction being an authority who is in charge and who effectively uses an autocratic decision-making style as opposed to being an authoritarian who uses an inflexible, rigid approach to coaching. Athletes often look to coaches to be decisive and to provide clear, unambiguous directions. They want decisiveness and predictability but not rigidity in their coach.

  1. Avoid Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a lazy way of making corrections. Its embedded humor is lost on the very young and for those athletes old enough and mature enough to sense its meaning, sarcasm is more likely to foster resentment than to encourage a redoubling of effort to succeed. It serves as a put-down to athletes who are struggling to master the skills that they legitimately expect the coach to teach.  Avoid asking unanswerable questions such as “Why did you make that mistake?” or “How many times have I told you to . . .?”


So, what are the skills and attributes of positive coaches? Positive coaches display empathy. They use rewards and punishments effectively and fairly. They are strict and demanding without being harsh and punitive. They are consistent but not unyielding with their rules and discipline. These attributes are just as important for positive coaching as the following concepts which deal with the use of reinforcements and praise.


Positive coaches understand that rewards can be made contingent upon different types of behaviors. Specifically, rewards can be categorized in a progression:

  • Participation: rewards for simply getting involved; for being there; for taking part.
  • Effort: rewards for trying hard, for hustling, for doing one’s best.
  • Mastery: rewards for learning the skills, for improving one’s performance, for an accomplishment.
  • Rank: rewards for being the best, for performing better than others, for winning.

Rewards for participation are appropriate for very young, very shy, or very hesitant children who have had little or no expertise in the sport. Rewards that are symbolic of special group membership are very effective when the group or sport carries a substantial amount of prestige or value to the young athlete. Belonging to a sports team, for example, can provide a strong sense of identity to many youngsters. Rewards that signify that “I belong” or “I’m part of a special group” can be quite satisfying.

Rewards can also be given for effort. Such rewards are very appropriate for children below the age of 10 for whom “trying hard” is equivalent to “being good.” Rewards for effort have less effect upon older children unless that effort is coupled with success. Rewards for effort when the outcome is failure can be quite demotivating for older children.

With older children, rewards for performing well are quite motivating because they reflect mastery such as the learning of new skills or accomplishing a meaningful task. Such awards are particularly valuable because they can be earned regardless of how well others do. Furthermore, the coach can set the criteria for mastery higher or lower based upon the ability, age, and experience of the athlete.

Finally, rewards can be given based upon rank. Making the All-Star Team or being selected as the most valuable player tends to be motivating for highly successful athletes who believe that such rewards are within their capacity to achieve. Such rewards, by their very nature, are available only to a select few and as a result tend to have motivational value only to those athletes who believe they have a realistic chance for such awards.

As a general rule, coaches should gradually shift their emphasis from (1) participation to (2) effort to (3) mastery to (4) competition as the athlete becomes more skilled, more mature, more self-confident, more aware, and more experienced. These categories are not mutually exclusive, nor should the emphasis be all-or-none. Even a mature, skilled, experienced athlete should be rewarded for effort and participating, but some praise can also be withheld until performance reflects mastery (successful completion of a skill) or a competitive achievement (ranking in a competition).

Coaches who confuse positive reinforcement with the indiscriminate use of praise are often frustrated that little progress is made in skill learning. An athlete who can earn sufficient praise simply by being there (participatory rewards) may not exert the energy necessary (effort rewards) to learn the skill (mastery rewards) to rank high among his opponents (competitive rewards). His behavior may very well be arrested at a point far below his capabilities simply because the coach, in an effort to be positive, is giving rewards for behaviors that require little or no effort on the part of the athlete.

Often athletes must work on a difficult skill or technique without seeing immediate improvement. As a coach, avoid saying “Good,” or “O.K.” for progress when you have not seen an improvement. Praising learning when none has occurred is not positive reinforcement. Phrases that reflect an understanding of the athlete’s efforts despite a lack of progress might be: “Way to hustle!  That still needs work. We’ll come back to that tomorrow. Let’s move on for now.”

Positive motivational programs do not eliminate the use of all punishments. In fact, rewards and punishments are intimately related and are merely different sides to the same coin. Withholding an expected reward is a form of punishment and removing an ongoing punishment is form of reward. These points are important because positive reinforcement is sometimes mistakenly thought to be the essential aspect of a positive coaching program while punishment is thought to be part of a harsh or negative program.  Both rewards and punishments are essential parts of positive instruction and both can be misused and, thus, be ineffective and negative.  Unearned praise and rewards can be just as disruptive in the long run to the development of a positive coaching climate as can harsh, inappropriate punishment.

What Gets Rewarded Gets Done

The behaviors that you acknowledge ad praise are likely to be those behaviors that the athletes focus on. For example, after a new skill has been learned, if you want the athlete to perform it consistently, then you praise consistency, even when the skill is not always performed at a maximal performance level. If you wish to teach young batters in baseball to avoid taking called third strikes, then praise the athlete’s swing even if a strikeout is recorded or she hits into a double play. If you want your young soccer players to increase the number of shots on goal, then praise the shots whether a goal is scored or not or whether the shot is near the goal post (desirable) or straight at the goalie’s chest (undesirable).


Praise is an important tool for good coaching and the backbone of any successful motivational program. By itself, however, praise is not positive coaching and can, under certain circumstances, undermine learning and enjoyment of the activity.

  1. Specific vs. General Praise

Praise is a form of feedback. Generalized praise such as “good job” is a common style of feedback from low-skilled coaches. Such praise lacks a reference to specific behaviors that you want the athlete to learn. Expert teachers are more likely to provide specific, credible, and directive feedback “geared to the students’ motivation and ability level.” Such specific praise tells the athlete what he or she did to earn the praise. Therefore, the athlete can duplicate those behaviors that earned the praise. Here are some examples of general vs. specific praise:

  • “Nice job” vs. “Excellent, that’s the way to get your glove down with the thumb out and hand over the glove to protect yourself from the ball.”
  • “Wonderful” vs. “Super, you anticipated well and were in the right position to field the ball.”
  • “You’re doing great” vs. “Good. That’s the way to follow through as you shoot the basketball.”
  1. Praise in Public; Criticize in Private

While public shame can quickly change behavior, it also has numerous negative side effects such as resentment, fear of taking chances, and teammates rallying against the coach to defend a teammate. Public praise that is deserved helps establish a positive team climate where athletes work for acknowledgment rather than shy away from potentially negative recognition from the coach.

  1. Develop Respect and Rapport with Your Athletes

Predictability is an essential step in the development of a trusting atmosphere. When the athlete perceives that good things (rewards) consistently happen because of their efforts, trust develops. The rapport and respect a coach develops with his or her athletes is a direct result of the consistency the coach uses with the athlete. Coaches often believe mistakenly that they must first develop a rapport with the athlete and then begin teaching. In fact, those coaches who begin with consistent teaching and predictable reinforcement contingencies quickly develop the rapport that makes their teaching even more effective.

  1. Coaching Abstract Behaviors

The behavior you wish to teach or modify (the target behavior) must be defined in observable, measurable terms. Performing a fixed number of skill attempts or regular attendance patterns are easily defined types of behaviors. Measuring them is clear-cut. Defining concepts such as “trying your best,” “intensity,” or “sticking to it” is much more difficult. Ambiguous, but important, concepts must be clarified to athletes and coaches by listing specific types of behaviors that illustrate the concept.

Give very explicit and specific instructions: Do not assume that your athletes have the same perceptions initially as you do. A coach who continually asks athletes to “hustle” or “work harder” may sound specific, but many athletes may already feel as if they are working intensely. On the other hand, saying “Do 5 sets of these exercises in the next 15 minutes,” gives both the athlete and the coach a very clear idea of what is to be done in what time period and a very clear idea of whether the task was completed. Rather than saying, “You must try harder,” the coach should state minimal acceptable standards, for instance, “You must complete two routines before you can rest,” or “You must complete all the specified warm-up exercises before the game begins.”

  1. Clarify the Relevance of Practice Drills

Coaches should regularly point out the purpose of a specific exercise or drill. Drills, especially, in the early stages of skill development, are often only a small portion of the skill ultimately being taught. The more removed a drill is from a competitive use, the more important it is for athletes to learn the drill’s relevance. What may seem obvious to the coach, may appear quite irrelevant for a young, inexperienced athlete.

Showing a young gymnast the relevance of a split for staying on the beam during a side aerial or showing a shortstop in baseball the importance of an agility drill for pivoting and throwing during a double play takes only a few seconds but may dramatically increase the athlete’s commitment to improvement.


1Many thanks to Marc Edenzon, Director of Sports and Training, National Special Olympics, for pointing out to me that patience is not simply accepting no change or slow progress, but rather it is a willingness to take the time to plan sufficiently so that every athlete can experience significant success.

Resource Author

David A. Feigley, Ph.D

Publish Date

September 2, 2020

Resource Link