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The Effective Use of Positive Statements with Athletes

Article By: Brad Donahue Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada

As indicated by Randy Rossi in the Psychology section in the coacheseducation.com web site the use of positive feedback is essential to the effective development of athletes. At all levels, positive statements (i.e., words of encouragement and support) are associated with enhanced performance in training and competition, less stress and anxiety, greater enthusiasm to pursue sports, greater motivation to train hard, greater resistance and recovery to injuries, longer and more pleasant sport careers, and better team cohesion. Of course, the use of negative statements (harsh criticism, pointing out weaknesses) usually lead to opposite effects. Given the benefits of positive statements in athletics, the focus of this article will be on the use of positive statements that may be administered to athletes immediately prior to, and during, athletic training or competitive events.

Positive statements in sports are usually best administered to athletes immediately before, during, or after sport specific actions/events, but may also be provided during non-athletic situations. Ideally, positive statements should be individualized because a statement that is motivating to one athlete may be aversive to another athlete due to unique associations of the statement with past events. Indeed, one athlete may experience stress when his coach tells him that he's going to win the upcoming race, but for another athlete this statement may instill confidence. Moreover, statements are often experienced differently by athletes depending on who provides the statements. For instance, an athlete may get distracted due to embarrassment if her father exclaims, "You go girl!" But, if a teammate states, "You go girl" this may be interpreted very favorably by the athlete (i.e., feelings of support lead to comfort and relaxation). Athletes also have different preferences regarding the types of statements that are provided to them. Some athletes prefer statements that are associated with relaxation ("focus on being warm and relaxed," "God's looking down on you"), while others prefer statements that assist them in focusing on tasks that are relevant to the event ("remember to run through the finish line"). Of course, coaches can use positive statements in both training/practice and competitive situations. Although athletes usually prefer the same statements in both situations, differences do sometimes exist. For instance, some athletes prefer statements that help them to lower their arousal during "competition" due to excessive anxiety, but prefer feedback to arouse them during "training" due to relatively lower motivation to perform in training.

Therefore, although positive statements appear to be beneficial to athletes, maximum benefits may be derived if coaches and other significant others (e.g., teammates, parents) are selective in their choice of statements, perhaps by asking athletes what statements they would like to hear in various situations (e.g., before, during, and after competition and training), or verifying from the athlete that statements provided are indeed "positive." The following strategies may assist in deriving maximum benefits in using positive statements with athletes by creating an environment that fosters a high rate of supportive, encouraging, and motivating statements. It is expected that coaches will modify these strategies to best fit their unique styles.

1) In a team meeting have athletes, coaches, and perhaps relevant family members talk about the importance of using positive statements and not using negative statements (let athletes define positive and negative statements in this process).

2) In a team meeting have athletes brainstorm a list of statements they want to hear immediately prior to, during, and after training/competition.
a. get specific as to what type of statements each athlete would like to hear in particular situations.
b. point out similarities and differences in statements that are preferred or not preferred among teammates.
c. distribute copies of the developed list to all teammates, parents, and relevant family members, and instruct these persons to disclose these statements more often.

3) In a team meeting with teammates, coaches, and perhaps relevant family members disclose at least one positive behavior or characteristic that is appreciated about all teammates (e.g., things each athlete does to contribute to the team, personal strengths).
a. have athletes practice accepting these statements appropriately (i.e., "thank you, I appreciate you saying that to me.").

4) In a team meeting with teammates, coaches, and perhaps relevant family members, establish a team rule that negative statements (e.g., "You need to get better or you're going to sit the bench," "You're looking lazy today") or behaviors (e.g., frowns, walking away, derogatory comments) are not permitted. This includes negative self-statements by the athlete (e.g., "I always mess up in pressure situations").
a. in general, get in the habit of saying what was liked about the athlete's performance, not what wasn't like.
b. if corrective feedback must be provided to the athlete, start by stating something that was liked about the athlete's performance, then ask the athlete if there is anything the athlete can think of that could be done to improve performance, and then add corrective feedback, if necessary.

5) In a team meeting, teach athletes (and coaches) to end tasks, practices, or competitions by stating what they learned or liked about their performance (e.g., "I liked how I got off at the start of the race"), NOT what they wished or desired they do better in the future (e.g., "I should have maintained my pace at the end"), or much worse, what they didn't like about their performance (e.g., "I dropped back too early).
a. It is easier to memorize, and subsequently repeat, positively experienced images. There is plenty of time to discuss/practice things that need to be improved the next day by viewing objective films or gaining feedback from others. What is most important is to reinforce the positive aspects of performance immediately after the event, since focusing on things to improve the next time, or things that were not liked about performance, increases the chances of "choking" or performing worse in the future.

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