Youth sports administrators talk a lot these days about being positive: positive coaching, creating a positive sports culture, and positive spectator behavior are priorities for just about every organization that serves kids.
There are good reasons for this. Kids enjoy themselves more when those around them are positive, they are more likely to continue playing a sport when they feel good about what they are doing, and research suggests that praise promotes skill acquisition both in the classroom and on the playing field. In short, being positive does more than make kids feel better; it helps them learn better and, eventually, perform better.
Unfortunately, we all have seen young players reprimanded by a coach in front of teammates and spectators for making a mistake during a game. Some argue that "this is how kids learn," but we now know that such an approach is both inappropriate and counterproductive if the goal is to help players learn and enjoy a sport.
That is not to say that coaches should not instruct, correct, and occasionally point out mistakes. These are necessary aspects of coaching, and should not be replaced with team hugs, false praise, and a chorus of Kumbaya at every practice. The challenge is to instruct in a way that promotes learning and enjoyment of the game by situating corrective instruction within a positive, supportive context.
There are simple and practical ways of doing this. For example, the Positive Coaching Alliance suggests a model of Filling Emotional Tanks, in which coaches, teammates, and spectators strive to provide all players with specific, truthful praise on a regular basis. The idea is that kids will be more responsive to criticism and instruction if their "emotional tanks" are constantly being filled with supportive comments. This approach can be coupled with more focused techniques such as the Criticism Sandwich, in which corrective instruction is sandwiched between specific and truthful positive comments.
Techniques like these are surprisingly effective, and that is why they are important tools in every coach's (and spectator's) toolkit. But their success depends upon participation from everyone--coaches, spectators, and teammates. So next time you're out coaching, watching a game, or kicking it around with the kids, say something positive. Every little bit helps.
President, Milltown United Soccer Club