COACHING CROSS COUNTRY

MOTIVATING AND COMMUNICATING WITH YOUNG ATHLETES

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Sport psychologists have learned that two of the most important needs of young athletes are the need to have fun and the need to feel worthy. Certainly, it is easy to see when athletes have fun. They appear to be challenged, excited, stimulated, and focused. They express feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and enthusiasm.
    Athletes also have a need to feel competent, worthy, and positive about themselves. Sports can be threatening to young athletes when they equate achievement with self-worth. As youngsters, we learn quickly that others judge our worth largely by our ability to achieve. To win is to be a success and to lose is to be a failure. This attitude causes tremendous anxiety in young athletes.

    Social evaluation and expectations of others are also major causes of anxiety. Athletes become anxious when they are uncertain about whether or not they can meet the expectations of their coaches, parents, peers, or even themselves. The more uncertainty athletes have, and the more important they perceive the outcome to be, the greater their feelings of anxiety.
    The very nature of sports involves an extensive evaluation of the skills of the participants. Any situation involving social evaluation of abilities that a youngster considers important can be threatening if he anticipates failing or receiving negative evaluations. Most youngsters place great value on athletic competence and are particularly sensitive to appraisal of their abilities by others. Mistakes and errors which are a natural part of the learning process can be misinterpreted as failure or incompetence. These competitive pressures can result in youngsters setting unrealistic standards of near-perfect execution, which virtually assures they will fail.
    As a coach, you must help your athletes meet their needs to have fun by structuring their sport experience so it challenges and excites without being threatening. Motivated athletes have a strong desire to master skills and demonstrate their competence. Similarly, you can help athletes meet their need to feel worthy by creating situations where everyone can experience some degree of success. The continual process of achieving incremental goals that are challenging, yet attainable, provides motivation. When athletes experience a taste of success, it reinforces their feelings of mastery, competence, pride, and self-worth. This in turn stimulates their desire to pursue new levels of personal achievement.
 

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HELPING ATHLETES REACH FOR THEIR BEST

    The ability to teach, communicate and motivate athletes is the "art" of coaching. Teach your athletes to focus on things they can control: their own performance and readiness to compete. When athletes allow themselves to worry about their opponents, they misdirect their focus to things they cannot control and limit their ability to compete well. Athletes who tend to worry about performance must be taught to focus on "what" they want to do (skill or strategy execution), instead of "how" they are going to do. Athletes should also recognize that winning is sometimes sabotaged by external factors beyond their control, such as an oncoming cold, bad weather, or outright bad luck. Over time these things even out, and they will be the beneficiaries of such occurrences as often as they are the victims.
    Let your athletes know it is all right to make mistakes. Many young athletes fear making mistakes because they have been ridiculed or punished for making mistakes in the past. Coaches must create a supportive atmosphere in which athletes view making and correcting mistakes as a natural part of the learning process. Some athletes become so frustrated and angry at themselves when they make a mistake during competition that they lose their composure and perform far below their abilities. Teach your athletes that one of the things that separate champions from average athletes is the ability to let go of a mistake quickly and refocus on what needs to be done next.
    Communicating is the most important thing you do. This fact cannot be overstated. Effective communication involves the explicit expression of instructions, expectations, goals, ideas, and feelings. Doing so enhances mutual understanding and is the first step in meeting the athlete's and coach's needs. Communication is a two-way street: both coach and athlete must listen and speak up to make it work.
    As a coach, you must be credible in the eyes of your athletes in order to communicate with them. Your credibility is the perception of the trustworthiness of what you say and do. To establish and maintain it with your athletes, you must be knowledgeable about Cross Country, enthusiastic about coaching well, and consistent and positive in the way you deal with them.
    A positive coaching attitude projects your desire to understand your athletes, accept them for who they are, and treat them with respect and affection. It requires refined listening, clear speaking, and the ability to give feedback and constructive criticism in a non-personal and instructive manner. A positive approach is characterized by the liberal use of praise, encouragement, and positive reinforcement. Constant criticism, sarcasm, or yelling at your athletes will increase their anxiety over making mistakes, decrease their senses of self-worth, and discourage them from continued participation.
    Another important component of a positive approach is empathy. It is not the same as sympathy. Empathy is being aware of the feelings and emotions of your athletes. Coaches who are empathetic listen to their athletes and try to understand what is going on in their lives outside of athletics.
    Praise must be sincere. When coaches are not sincere, they risk losing the respect of their athletes. It means little for athletes to hear "good job" when in fact they know they have not done a good job. If the athlete or team has not performed well, the coach should be honest and acknowledge the fact that they did not perform to their potential. However, athletes should also be complimented for things they do well. Remember to praise deserving efforts, not just final outcomes.
    Attitude is the key to success. Let your athletes know that champions expect to do well. They believe they will succeed and they recognize the important role that hard work and sacrifice plays in the quest for athletic excellence. Champions focus on goals and how to achieve them. They don't surrender their goals easily. They identify their areas of weakness and work hard to eliminate them.
    Athletes should be taught that the most important kind of success resides in their personal improvement, giving their maximum effort, being willing to take risks, and striving to do their best.
    If you can impress on your athletes that they are never losers when they give their best effort, you endow them with a precious gift that will see them through many of life's most difficult endeavors.

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