I have said before that I believe that self-esteem plays an extremely important role in the success of both an individual and a team in cross country. In fact, I am more convinced than ever that the effort to build self-esteem is one of the most important elements of the cross country program at Irvine High School. I continue to find that the easiest way to begin to build self-esteem in an athlete is through the use of continual positive reinforcement. I always make an effort to praise each one of the Irvine athletes as often as possible on a daily basis. I have coached the girls at Irvine High School for the past 17 years, and I feel more strongly each year about the benefits of using unconditional positive reinforcement with the female athlete. Although I have much less experience coaching the boys, I feel that this approach can easily be adapted to coaching the male athlete. In "Building Self Esteem II", I would like to discuss the value of positive post-race feedback and positive race analysis.
There are as many approaches to post-race feedback as there are cross country coaches in the U.S. today. I'm certain that this topic can easily stir up a lively conversation at any gathering of coaches. The following is a quick look at what I do to try to build self-esteem in the post-race setting.
I have found that the post-race analysis can be divided into two different formats -- verbal and written. The verbal post-race analysis usually consists of a conversation between the athlete and I soon after the race. The written post-race analysis form is completed at home by the athlete following the race, and turned in with the Daily Running Journal each Monday. The Irvine Race Analysis form is a product of one that I received at a coaching clinic, and then adapted with the input and recommendations of my athletes over the years. There is a good sample of a race analysis form in the appendix of the AAF/CIF Cross Country Coaching Manual.
I try to meet with each athlete at the finish chute after every race. I immediately celebrate team success and individual success or improvement. I congratulate each athlete on her race. The positive reinforcement is unconditional. Regardless of her time or her finish place, each athlete receives strong positive reinforcement. I then briefly discuss the race with each girl. After the individual conferences, I decide who needs the most immediate attention. If an athlete is excited and elated, it is easy to give immediate positive reinforcement. I try to point out as many of the positive elements of her race performance and strategy that I can. This may also be a good time to reassess the athlete's race goals and encourage her to step confidently up to the next level or a higher challenge.
If a girl is deeply distressed about her race, then I have a more extended conversation with her regarding her specific concerns about her performance. I always treat each race as a learning experience. First, I will attempt to diminish her negative feelings. I will find a positive element of her race and assure her that the race was not the total disaster that she perceives it to be. I will always try to turn a disappointing race into a positive learning experience for the athlete. I feel that it is important that the athlete analyze the race in order to learn from her mistakes. I will instruct her to examine the mistakes, highlight the lessons to be learned, and release the negative or self-destructive feelings to be forgotten forever. I feel it is essential that the athlete not be allowed to "beat herself up" over a disappointing race. I have a friend who loves to remind me that sports really only represent the "toy department of life" and, consequently, we should not allow sports to be blown out of perspective.
The Irvine Race Analysis form is required of every member of the team. The race analysis form offers the athlete the opportunity to examine her race and a chance to record her observations. The athletes must complete a race analysis form for each race in which they run. The analysis is due on the Monday following the competition or competitions. On Monday night I read each of the race analysis sheets and write a response to each athlete's comments. I find this to be an excellent opportunity to give additional positive reinforcement to the athlete. In the event that I find an athlete who still harbors negative feelings about her race, I can again provide her with positive reinforcement, encouragement, and the instructions to learn from the race and forget all but the positive. I assure them that they can learn from the experience, and then begin to work immediately so that it doesn't happen again. I return the journals to the girls on Tuesday after practice. I have noticed that Tuesday after practice when I return the journals to the team, they turn immediately to the race analysis page to read what I have written.
The post-race feedback and positive race analysis can be conducted in an endless variety of settings. When celebrating a great team race or a great individual race, the conversation should be conducted in as large a group as possible. The elation and the joy are contagious. Share the excitement with as many members of the team as possible. I try to congratulate the team and the athletes numerous times throughout the duration of the meet to reinforce the positive, confidence boosting effects of the good race. I congratulate the parents of the athlete and share the excitement with them as well.
If an athlete is distressed about her performance, I usually take a moment to assess the situation before deciding where to hold the conversation. If the athlete is expressing great disappointment and negative feelings at the finish chute, I will walk with her toward our team camp and begin to reassure her. I immediately try to guide her toward a positive race analysis and the revelation of any positive lessons to be learned. If the dissatisfied athlete is already in our team camp, I may hold an individual conference with the athlete a few feet away from the team camp. There are also times when I find it advantageous to speak with a disappointed athlete while she is surrounded by her teammates. The support offered by her teammates is often very beneficial in helping the athlete to overcome her disappointment, and to begin to find the positive lessons to be learned.
In the event that the entire team appears to be distressed following a disappointing race, we will hold a team meeting as soon as possible. I will take the team on its post-race jog down soon after the conclusion of the race, and I will select a unique location for the team meeting. During the meeting, I will try to put the race into perspective for the team. I will highlight the positive things that the team did during the performance. I will ask each girl to share her distress or disappointment with the group. Once every member of the team has had a chance to share, I will try to help them to refocus their energy on the positive. I remind them of the good things that they have done, and I guide them toward identifying the things that they can begin to do to prevent these same mistakes from happening again. These team meetings are held only in case of extreme team distress. However, the team meetings that I have held in the past have produced very positive results. Invariably, the team will bounce back from the disappointment with greater dedication and greater desire to achieve their goals.
Away meets provide another excellent opportunity to provide each athlete with positive post-race feedback. As the athletes descend from the bus, I stand at the door so I can shake each girl's hand and congratulate her on her performance. I feel very strongly about this activity because it provides each athlete with one more positive thought as they leave for home.
In my opinion, it is never acceptable to use criticism nor negative post-race feedback with a female athlete. Regardless of the inner thoughts I may experience, I feel that it is essential to accentuate only the positive. If I am disappointed in the outcome of a team or an individual race, I strongly attempt to put those negative feelings far aside. I force myself to think carefully about the message I want to send, and the long-term impact or effects my comments may have. I have learned, over the years, that relentless positive reinforcement pays enormous dividends throughout the course of the season and beyond, while negative post-race feedback wreaks havoc with teams and individuals.
Negative or destructive post-race feedback include, but are in no way limited to: criticism, the "cold shoulder", yelling at an athlete, berating an athlete, the silent treatment, team and/or individual punishment of any kind for a disappointing performance.
This does not mean that it is not necessary to offer constructive criticism or guidance to an athlete. As I mentioned earlier, I try to make every race into a learning experience. However, if the lesson is presented in a positive, nurturing way, I feel that the lesson will be better learned and more easily internalized.
Positive reinforcement can assume an infinite variety of forms. I try to be creative and original in finding ways to communicate positive reinforcement to my athletes. Any way that a coach can say "good job, nice job, great job, phenomenal job, spectacular job, extraordinary job, superb job . . .!" to an athlete is most excellent.
Building self-esteem is an extremely important element of coaching cross country. One of the simplest and most effective methods of improving or building self-esteem is unconditional positive post-race reinforcement. At Irvine High School, I try to offer this boundless positive post-race feedback in as many ways as I can imagine. I praise each athlete before and after each race, and again through the post-race analysis in the running journals.
At first, I was afraid that such constant praise may produce a negative result. However, I have yet to detect a point of diminishing returns with positive reinforcement. It never loses its value, and it pays extraordinary dividends throughout the course of the season, and well beyond the conclusion of the last race of an athlete's career. The more positive post-race feedback and praise you lavish on your athletes, the more positive the results.