* Important clarification: we are not talking about poor skill execution, but more about poor game-decisions.
Let’s get the facts right:
I have never coached a game or a practice where a player (or a coach!) has not made a mistake
I have never come across a player who makes mistakes on purpose
I have never seen a player learn anything from doing something he could already do
I have never shouted at a player for making a mistake…
Actually, the last fact is not true. It is actually a BIG LIE… I’m an animated coach, brought up in a ‘shouty Mediterranean culture’, a coach that has many times in the past (and continues to do so sometimes to my own dismay) mistaken being animated with being supportive. Hence the reason for having thought long and hard about this issue and coming up with my own little strategy to get better at doing just that: supporting my players through the inevitability of well, getting it wrong. It will happen and we need to be prepared for when it does.
During my own practices and games, and when I’m watching others play or train, I have developed this obsession with observing what children do when they make a mistake. I have come to my own completely unscientific typology of four post-mistake player behaviours.
The Ruminator: this player makes a mistake and everything comes to a halt. They are consumed by the mistake. They go over what just happened time and again. A sense of shame may play a big part in this kind of behaviour. Head and arms drop, and for the next few plays they become more like souls trapped between heaven and earth in some kind of personal purgatory until something or someone makes them snap out of it (if they actually ever do…).
The Angry Bird: you know this one, you may have been one yourself. I was. After the mistake happens they are livid, mad. They may moan at the referees, at defenders, or at their own teams. Or they may just become whirlwinds of activity and try to make up by all means necessary. But like Yoda says: Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. No good. They end up making bad decisions and in fact this behaviour tends to lead to a sequence of mistakes, normally worse than the one that got it all started.
The Guilty as Charged: this kid gets it wrong and immediately sits on the dock ready to be tried and sentenced. He probably looks at coach or mum and dad in one of two ways:
Anticipating a ‘telling off’ or at the very least some kind of recrimination
Expecting a solution or some kind of wisdom pearl to make it all better
These three are what I would call dysfunctional types. Their reaction to the mistake takes away from their performance (and also, perhaps more importantly, their personal wellbeing!).
The fourth type is the ideal one:
The Jedi Knight: this is where I’d love all my players to be. This kid makes a mistake and he doesn’t even flinch. He just carries on. Business as usual. If anything, you may see him stop for a split second, a little flicker of light appearing in his eyes, like the price scan at the supermarket cashier, you can even hear a ‘bleep’. They have understood what was wrong, put it in the filing cabinet under a specific category, closed the cabinet and run back onto the court to get on with the next action of the game.
The thing is, as a coach, you cannot react the same way to the three dysfunctional types, because they are different. To be more precise, the root cause of the behaviour is different.
Shouting is not the answer
There are very few certainties in coaching. For me, one of those certainties is that as coaches we are meant to help our players, so it follows that our actions should always be guided by a simple question: ‘What is the best thing I can do now to help this player?’. Shouting is out of the question. ALWAYS (OK, with older players and adults, there may be times, very sparingly, where a loud word may be what’s needed to ‘snap out’ of a negative run in a game. Even in that case, it should be done in a respectful manner. Never in a personally denigrating way. With young children, IT SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN.)
Incidentally, be mindful that when we shout at children, even if we are only communicating neutral information, there is a strong chance that it may come across as aggressive and threatening. This happens a lot in noisy environments where we have to be loud or they can’t hear what we say. For instance, the gym I coach in is a three-court facility. The level of noise can at times be deafening. I have learnt to be very careful and monitor the kids’ eyes and face expression when I am shouting instructions across the floor. And most times I end up hudling them up close to me even if that ‘wastes’ practice time. I don’t want fearful children around me. I don’t always get it right. You really have to monitor it, because science shows us that body and mind are truly connected and that continuous shouting, even if the message is instructional, even if you are shouting I LOVE YOU, will make you angry and upset, and from there to saying or doing something really stupid there is only one step.
So anyway, what should we do when a player makes a mistake…??
The truth is that most times we should do NOTHING. Yes, right when it happens we should do NOTHING. Remember, I’m not talking here about technical deficiencies, I’m talking about bad-decisions in the middle of a game or practice. Why NOTHING…??
Doing something reinforces (I dare say creates!) both the Angry Bird and the Guilty as Charge
Doing something rewards The Ruminator: i.e. ‘Gosh, it must have been quite bad when my coach is having to fix it’
Doing nothing allows players to get on with it, it trains the Jedi Knight…
What if you have players already stuck in one of the three dysfunctional reaction types…?
For these players, every mistake is a mini heart-attack (sometimes massive coronary failure!). What are we taught to do if we find someone on the street having a heart attack? We don’t start yelling at them, ‘come on man, this is all your fault; you shouldn’t have eaten that double-burger; you should have exercised more and stopped smoking.’ No, we don’t do that. What they need is first aid, so we give them CPR. And that’s exactly what we need to do when our players make a mistake and get into a heart-breaking dysfunctional mood.
What does CPR look like when coaching:
C for Clap: sounds stupid, but I have found that just creating that anchor between my player making a mistake and me clapping straight away diffuses any trace of anger I may be experiencing (yes, feeling angry or frustrated is a legitimate reaction, but our job is to control it and rein ourselves in). For the player, it tells them that I’m OK with it, and that so should they. It is simple, but it works.
PR for Please Remember: most times I will try (and I stress TRY) to do nothing, or just Clap and say nothing. But sometimes, if the flow of the game allows (dead ball, free throw, time out, bench) or the player really needs it, I will choose a bit of instruction to give out, but always precede it by the ‘Please Remember to’. For example, in this way ‘Come on guys, you need to box out’ becomes ‘Clap Please Remember to box out’.
I don’t know if it works for the players, I think it does. It definitely helps me keep my emotions in check.
And if I am emotionally stable, I am a much better coach and thus the kids are better off.
And yes, for kids that have deep-rooted dysfunctional moods at the ready when something goes wrong, you (or someone else) will have to work with them to help them build strategies to get rid of them, but the C-PR principle applies. It may be that your C-PR message to them is not a ‘game message’, but more along the lines of:
Please Remember to get back on defence after a missed shot
Please Remember that what you do after a mistake is more important than the mistake itself
Please Remember that after something happens I’d prefer you to not look at me and just keep playing.
You get the message… That’s the C-PR Method. Believe me, it does bring kids back to life.
Please Remember to try it out next time you are coaching if you enjoyed reading this. You can now Clap too. :)
PS. A further thought… I feel it is always best to take responsibility for your players’ mistakes… after all, you coach them don’t you…? In fact, it is probably better to not talk about mistakes, but to think about them as ‘developmental markers’ of the stage of development of a particular skill or concept your players are at. Valuable information to guide your planning and practices. But, that one is for another day.
Professor Sergio Lara-Bercial
Sergio is a Professor of Sport Coaching at Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the Vice-President for Strategy and Development for the International Council for Coaching Excellence. He has published widely on a variety of sport-related topics including youth sport and coach development. Sergio is also the co-founder of ICOACHKIDS. Sergio is recognised globally and consults for multiple high-level organisations such as Nike, UEFA and FIBA. He is also a former international basketball coach for Great Britain and has coached national league for over 25 years winning 18 National Titles with both male and female teams.