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How Coaches can Facilitate a Positive Sports Environment

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From coaching, parenting and players there is a growing interest in bringing learnings from positive psychology to the sports field. Before we talk about how to facilitate positive sports environments though, we need to address the issue of why we should do this in the first place. Should coaches even play a role in facilitating positive youth development? Should they build character in their young athletes as well as technical skills? After all, coaches are primarily trained to impart knowledge that leads to game, not psychological and social skills.

The role of the coach is evolving, they face a number complexities of their role, such as:

·       Helping players deal with frustration on the field

·       Teaching players how to lose well

·       Teaching players how to play in the right spirit

·       Dealing with interpersonal issues on the team

·       Teaching players to respect teammates, the opposition and officials and the importance of mutual respect

·       Helping players with core life skills such as goal-setting, communication skills, leadership skills and interpersonal skills

·       Ensuring that players enjoy their training and matches

·       Building confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, self-belief and self-respect in young players

These issues can be deemed by coaches as more important than dealing with technical aspects. Therefore, positive psychology can provide a rich ground for coaches wishing to apply a solution-focused approach to complex individual and team issues.

If we accept there is a need for coaches to manage the psychological and social issues that arise in their teams, it raises the question as to whether this is too much of a burden to place on them. Coaches, after all, only have limited time with their players and often coach education does not equip coaches with the skills required to navigate these issues. Adolescence is a complicated and sometimes vulnerable stage in a player’s development. Would it not best to leave such issues for parents deal with?

The current direction that positive psychology is taking points towards a whole systems approach. In other words, the education of character and wellbeing in young people should be addressed by whole communities, parents, schools and anyone involved in the lives of young people. Coaches are a part of this. They are, in a sense, role models for young players and should demonstrate the behaviours they desire in their young athletes through their own behaviours. They should also cultivate these behaviours in their players. The key is clearly defining what the desired behaviours are and the ways to develop them. How should this be approached though?

In an ideal world, the identification, development of desired behaviours would occur through formalised training programs for coaches.

Coaches need to become thorough consumers of the information.

Beyond written resources, coaches can seek advice from qualified sports psychologists. Practitioners who holds a qualification in sports psychology and are registered as sports psychologists should be approached. Some sports psychologists will run short courses for coaches that draw on positive psychology principles. When applying positive psychology to coaching settings, it is important for coaches to remember that they are not qualified to diagnose or treat mental health conditions in their young players; boundaries should be established.

With all of these points in mind, a coach can proceed in selecting areas to explore. The following list is a summary of some potentially good areas to begin. It is acknowledged that many of these have their origins outside of positive psychology, but that the field has contributed to a scientific understanding of their effectiveness.

Where to Start

·       Start to build a language around strengths.

·       Explore the role of positive emotions

·       Get curious about the role mindfulness in sport.

·       Learn to write player development goals.

·      Explore the concept of flow with players

No matter where a coach chooses to start, knowing why they are introducing any strategies aimed at addressing psychological or social issues is an important first step. Ensuring that chosen approaches are evidence-based as well as having clear outcomes and boundaries established is also key, especially in the absence of formalised training. Exploring positive psychology can be energising and lead to personal growth.

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