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Making It Positive

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 Issue: 17.05 August/September 2005

Choosing to be positive over being negative is not a skill we are born with. But it is something we can teach on our athletic teams.
By Mitch Lyons
Mitch Lyons has recently retired after coaching youth, high school and college basketball for 22 years. He is the President and founder of GetPsychedSports.org, Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Newton, Mass. He can be reached at: mitchly@comcast.net, or www.getpsychedsports.org.
Across the country, athletics has suffered ever-increasing unsportsmanlike behavior. Anger and frustration regularly mark our contests. In response, schools have set up many programs to foster sportsmanship.
Most are excellent programs that teach the definition of fair play to students, coaches, and fans. But most of these programs are missing an important element: They are not providing tools and practice times for athletes to learn how to actually control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior in practices and at contests.
Traditional programs penalize athletes for unsportsmanlike acts, reward exceptional conduct, and provide positive role models. But the message is not drilled everyday on the field of play.
If we want a better environment in sports and society, and if we want our children to develop emotionally healthy habits, we must teach our athletes how to be positive. Being positive is a skill and can be a struggle for many to acquire. But fighting anger and frustration is worth doing. All coaches across the country should be teaching this lifelong skill as part of their students' educational athletics program.
Here are some ideas on how to teach self-control and positive thinking on any team:
Talk about the concept at the beginning of the season. Explain that it's normal to get angry, but that it takes a tough person and a tough team to get re-focused. A kick in the pants will only go so far. After the effect wears off, it takes self-motivation and mental toughness for athletes to change their attitudes.
Make positive thinking a focus for the entire season. Teach your athletes to refocus negative thoughts in every situation they encounter. When the idea is understood and practiced every day, athletes will be able to accept a bad call and move on to the next play.


Make it a team goalto maintain a positive atmosphere. Explain to your athletes that being positive is something everyone will work on together. Take the time in each practice to praise positive acts, and put consequences in place for negative behavior. As often as possible, evaluate whether the team is accomplishing this goal.
Coaches should also work toward the goal in their own behavior. They need to enter practice and games creating a positive environment and actively exhibiting self-control in front of their athletes. They need to act positively during games, and acknowledge when they don't.
Practice being positive as a skill every moment you are together. Frequently ask your players, "What are you thinking about?" Read their negative thoughts. Tell them, "Let's be tough enough to beat negativity."
For example, if the point guard makes a negative comment about a player who dropped a pass, I ask, "Do you think your teammate will do better or worse if you get mad at him when he misses the pass?" They always know the right answer. I also say, "Stay positive with him. Give him your unquestioned support. He will do better when he knows you are behind him all the way."
Everyone on the team should project positive behavior. Encourage loud and frequent support for one another during practices. Actively encourage people to find the good in others and see past differences.
Correct negative behavior as soon as you see it. Both coaches and players must recognize and address any self-defeating thoughts then work hard to correct them. However, it's important that corrections are communicated positively. For example, I say, "I understand your frustration, but we will all do better if we stay positive and encourage others. Instead of being angry, think about how to improve. Practice changing your thoughts."
Every team member should be responsible for correcting negativity when it is noticed. Impatience with others, sarcasm, rolled eyes, and negative body language should be corrected without exception. Do not be afraid to bench a player who remains negative, if this is the only way to change his or her behavior.
Build on what was done right before being critical about what went wrong. It's easier to focus on mistakes than on the progress being made. But, by pointing out the progress being made, we are building on something positive that increases confidence.
During practices, coaches can instruct their athletes by saying something positive about what they are doing before giving instructions. If they're not doing anything right, then say that, too. Being positive doesn't mean lying—it means giving encouragement so people can correct what is wrong.


In giving feedback after a game, let your emotions subside before talking to the team. Analyze the game as if you were not involved. Then, give direct instruction on how to improve, without any anger or sarcasm. Rather than being negative about mistakes, talk about them as actions that can be overcome with goal setting, visualization, and
positive thinking.
At the same time, teach athletes to practice taking criticism. Help them understand that constructive criticism is not about them personally, but about their performance. Point out when they are defensive. Praise them when they are positive in accepting criticism.
Remind bench players that their thoughts are crucial to the gameplan. Acknowledge that the bench has the most difficult job on the team. Have them work on replacing negative thoughts ("Why aren't I playing?") with helpful thoughts ("How could we do that play better?"). It is difficult to have a positive team without a happy and involved bench.
Don't forget the joy of competing. One way to teach athletes to be positive is to show them how much fun their sport is to play. Be enthusiastic when they accomplish something for the first time. Play as many games as possible within drills, keeping tallies and scores, and correct negative behavior when they lose or the play gets rough. Set up some drills to give your less-skilled athletes a chance to do well—and have starters give bench players positive reinforcement regularly.
Teaching our athletes to control their anger and frustration should be a major goal of sports in America. Tougher than the struggle on the field, the struggle to remain positive in our thoughts, feelings, and behavior is a lifetime endeavor, and our children can use all the help we can give them. Make your school a resource for emotional health by having students, coaches, and parents know that if we want success in any part of our lives, we first have to defeat our own negativity.