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The Mastery Approach to Coaching

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Chinese proverb

Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington


The positive approach is designed to increase desirable behaviors by motivating athletes to perform them by rewarding, or reinforcing, the athletes when they do. This is considered the "relationship style" of coaching and it goes hand-in-hand with the healthy philosophy of winning. It also creates a mastery-based climate and is referred to as the "Mastery Approach to Coaching."



The negative approach, often seen in an ego-based climate, involves

attempts to eliminate athlete' mistakes through the use of punishment

and criticism - a la Bobby Knight. Fear is used as the primary

motivational factor in this approach. Punitive coaching behaviors have

many undesirable side effects that can actually interfere with the coach's

true goal. This approach is a quick and effective method to instill a

fear of failure, creating a climate of hostility and resentment. 


You'll see both styles represented at nearly all levels of play, in most

sports. Although you still see coaches using the negative approach,           Dr. Frank Smoll

it is the positive approach that is supported by scientific research

with its effectiveness regularly validated. 


"I try never to plant a negative seed. I try to make every comment a positive comment. There's a lot of scientific evidence to support positive management." - Jimmy Johnson, Super Bowl winning coach of the Dallas Cowboys


The behavioral guidelines (leadership principles) comprising this mastery approach were derived from research on the way coaching behaviors actually affect young athletes. The guidelines were also evaluated in numerous studies conducted in real-life sports settings. In these studies, groups of coaches were randomly placed in either:


Group A - an experimental (training) condition in which they learned the guidelines of the Mastery Approach

Group B - a control condition in which training did not occur


Athletes' attitudes and psychological characteristics were measured at the beginning and end of the season so that the effects of the training and control conditions could be compared. The results consistently confirmed that the Mastery Approach to Coaching produces the following outcomes:


  • fosters positive coach-athlete relations and greater mutual respect

  • increases the amount of fun that the athletes experience

  • creates greater team cohesion and a more supportive athletic setting

  • promotes higher mastery-oriented achievement goals in sports and in school

  • increases athlete's self-esteem

  • reduces the performance-destroying anxiety and fear of failure

  • decreases athlete dropout rates from approximately 30% to 5%

  • produces an equally positive effect on boys' and girls' teams


Seeing all of that, it's not surprising that prominent coaches recognize and practice the power of the Mastery Approach.  












Here are three important points to emphasize about the leadership principles that comprise the Mastery Approach. First, they are not sport specific; they can be applied to all sports. Second, they are not age specific, so they can be used at all levels of competition. Finally, they are not restricted to use in sports. They are leadership principles and can be used in any leadership forum.















Here are the Guidelines of the Mastery Approach to Coaching




Reactive coaching behaviors occur immediately after individual athlete or team behaviors. They include responses to (a) a desirable performance and effort, (b) mistakes, (c) misbehaviors by athletes, and (d) violations of team rules.


     Reacting to Good Plays and Effort: The "Reinforcement Power" of Coaches

Our concern with influencing athletes' behavior in a desirable way involves the process of learning. it is well known that people tend to repeat behaviors that produce pleasant outcomes. In this context, reinforcement refers to any event occurring after a behavior that increases the likelihood of that behavior. The cornerstone of the Mastery Approach to Coaching is the skilled use of reinforcement to increase athletic motivation and to strengthen desired behaviors.


The most effective way to build desirable behaviors

is to use your "reinforcement power." 


Social reinforcers are most often used in sports. The coach must decide what is most likely to be effective for each athlete. One athlete may enjoy praise given in the presence of others whereas another may find it embarrassing.


The best way to find an effective reinforcer is

to get to know each athlete's likes and dislikes.


In some instances you may elect to praise an entire group of athletes, while other times reinforcement may be directed at one athlete. Below are some principles for the effective use of reinforcement.


  1. Be liberal with reinforcement - reinforce desired behaviors early and often; vary the types of reinforcement; combine reinforcement with description of desired behavior ("Great job, Brandel! Hold that follow through just like that!"); apply reinforcement to psychosocial behaviors, also (teamwork, sportsmanship, leadership); reinforce smaller things that others may not notice

  2. Have realistic expectations and consistently reinforce achievements - gear expectations to each individual skill level; start with what the athlete can currently accomplish and gradually expect more; once skills are learned begin to reduce reinforcement schedule

  3. Provide reinforcement immediately after desired behavior occurs - timing is important; research shows the sooner after the desired behavior occurs, the better

  4. Reinforce effort as much as results - reinforcing effort creates desired results often; effort can be controlled - results can't always


     Reacting to Mistakes 

Many athletes are motivated to achieve because of a positive desire to succeed. They appear to welcome and peak under pressure. Unfortunately, many others are motivated primarily by fear of failure, and consequently, they dread critical situations and the possibility of failure and disapproval. Fear of failure is an athlete's worst enemy.  It can harm performance, and it reduces the enjoyment of competing. The way you react to athlete's mistakes plays a major role in either creating or combating the fear of failure. 



If you manage things right, mistakes can be 

golden opportunities to improve performance.


A typical attitude towards mistakes is negative, not recognizing that they are unavoidable, and are what legendary coach John Wooden called, "stepping stones to achievement." They provide the necessary feedback required to improve performance. The way coaches react to mistakes goes a long way to show the players how they should feel when a mistake is made. Thus, coaches should deal openly and honestly with their own mistakes to model the correct reaction. Such a model is important for developing a sense of tolerance for human error and for reducing fear of failure. Remember, the positive approach is designed to create a positive motive to achieve rather than fear of failure. 

"You must know quite well that you are not perfect, that you're  going

to make mistakes. But you must not be afraid of making mistakes

or you won't do anything, and that's the greatest mistake of all. We

must have initiative and act and know that we're going to fail at times, 

for failure will only make us stronger if we accept it properly."

John Wooden, Basketball Hall of Fame player and coach


Most athletes respond best to immediate correction, and instruction is particularly meaningful at that time. However, some athletes respond much better to instruction if you wait for some time after the mistake. Know your athletes. 


  • know what to do - the technical aspects of correcting performance

  • know how to do it - the teaching-learning approach

  • know when to do it - timing


When you correct mistakes, a three-part teaching approach is recommended. The Positive Coaching Alliance calls this the "criticism sandwich."











Don't punish players when things go wrong. Understand the difference between a physical mistake and a mental mistake. This will help correct the deficiency. Punishment for a gameplay mistake only teaches the player he or she should be afraid of making mistakes in fear of further punishment. Fear creates anxiety - which creates high stress and nerves - which creates tight, unathletic muscles - which creates a poor performance. 


     Misbehaviors, Lack of Attention - Maintaining Order and Discipline

Problems of athlete misbehavior during practices and competitions can become serious. In dealing effectively with this, recognize that youngsters want clearly defined limits and structure. They do not like unpredictability and inconsistency. On the other hand, they do not like it when you play the role of a policeman or enforcer. Thus, the objective is to structure the situation so that you can teach discipline without having to constantly read the riot act to keep things under control. 


The coach should outline the team rules at the beginning of the season, involve the athletes (age dependent) in forming the rules and behavioral guidelines, and strive to achieve a balance between freedom and structure. 


In addition to the formulation of the team rules, ensure you discuss the penalties for each broken rule. Again, athletes can be a part of the group determining the penalties. 


     Dealing with Team Rule Violations

Anytime you have team rules, plan on them being broken sometime throughout the season. Because this is a natural process, the coach should not take it personally. Here's how to deal with this problem.


  1. Allow the athlete to explain his or her actions.

  2. Be consistent and impartial

  3. Don't express anger and punitive attitude

  4. Don't lecture or embarrass the athlete

  5. Focus on the fact that a team policy has been broken, placing the responsibility on the athlete

  6. When giving penalties, it is best to deprive athletes of something they value

  7. Don't use physical measures (running, pushups, etc) that could become aversive by being used to punish 




     Getting Positive Things to Happen

  1. Set a good example of the desired behavior

  2. Encourage effort, don't demand results

  3. In giving encouragement, be selective so that it is meaningful

  4. Never give encouragement or instruction in a sarcastic or degrading manner

  5. Encourage athletes to be supportive of each other, and reinforce them when they are


     Creating a Good Learning Atmosphere

Young athletes expect you to help them satisfy their desire to become as skilled as possible. Therefore, you must establish your teaching role as early as possible. In doing this, emphasize the fun and learning part of the sport, and let your athletes know that a primary coaching goal is to help them develop their athletic potential. 


During each practice or competition, be sure that every youngster gets recognized at least once. Athletes who usually get the most recognition are (a) stars, or (b) those who cause problems. Average athletes need attention too! A good technique is to occasionally keep a count of how often you talk with each athlete to make sure that your personal contact is being appropriately distributed. 

  1. Always give instructions positively

  2. When giving instructions, be clear and concise

  3. Show, or demonstrate, the correct technique

  4. Be patient and don't demand or expect more than maximum effort



When an athlete has had a poor practice or a rough competition, the youngster should not go home feeling bad. He or she should get some kind of support from the coach - a pat on the back, a kind word, or a high-five. 



There are two keys to gaining the respect of your athletes. 

  1. Show your athletes that you can teach them to develop their skills and that you are willing to make the effort to do so. 

  2. Be a fair and considerate leader. Show them that you care about them as individuals and that you are glad to be coaching them. 



"Treat athletes like they are your family. Your program discipline breeds self-discipline. Love: find something in each player to love them for. Don't spoil them - no special deals or star treatment." 

Don James, College Football Hall of Fame Coach

Set a good example by showing respect for yourself, for them, and for others - opponents, parents, officials. You cannot demand respect. True respect is earned. ​​​

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