Developing a Positive Culture and a Proactive Learning Environment


This article is a third installment on successful principles of coaching young athletes. The previous two articles focused on effective coaching of fitness and conditioning and skills and strategies (click on hyperlink to view these articles).

Throughout my coaching and teaching career, I’ve seen many very knowledgeable and experienced coaches not succeed as expected. Their shortfall was not a lack of knowledge or even their passion for their chosen sport. It was in their failure to create an environment for their athletes that was worthy of their time and effort.

How many times have you heard new, successful or ‘winning’ coaches make comments similar to these below?

“Our kids are buying into our program.”

“Our players believe in what we are doing.”

“Our athletes believe in themselves and it’s beginning to pay off.”

“We are winning because our players believe in themselves.”

What exactly are these remarks referring to? And importantly, do you really know why new coaches and successful coaches in winning programs make these statements?

If you teach in a school you‘ve most likely heard your principal talk about developing a culture of learning or what many administrators now refer to as a “learning focused” environment. Similarly, highly successful corporations and businesses strive hard to develop a “culture of excellence” or an environment where their workers feel they are a part of something special: A place where they enjoy coming to work every day. Much has been written in the education and business sectors about how to develop this culture of learning and excellence.

Every coach wants to win, as does every competitive athlete. But what most coaches are seeking beyond winning is to feel that what they are doing today, tomorrow, next week or next month is both enjoyable and worthwhile. Now, don’t confuse enjoyment with happiness. Enjoyment is “the action of possessing and benefiting from something.” Put another way, enjoyment is the feeling one gets after accomplishing something that may have required long hours, hard work and, heaven forbid, even mental and physical stress and pain.

Additionally, we all want is to feel and believe that our time and effort spent is worthy, “of value and importance.” When you have both coaches and athletes coming to each practice or workout believing that their time and effort spent will be worthy to themselves and to those they care about, you‘ve created the essence of a positive athletic culture—a proactive learning environment.

In the remainder of this essay, I’m going to share a few principles and traits that are characteristic of athletic coaching environments that have a culture of positive expectancy, worthiness and enjoyment. As in my two previous essays, these principles will be presented in axiomatic terms that I hope will be easy to understand and to put into practice.

Creating a culture of excellence or positive expectancy for your athletic program involves several areas that will require your attention, time, and effort to integrate them fully into your program. I’m going to focus on three areas where you can impact your program immediately: 1) Planning, 2) Motivation, and 3) Engagement.


“The more thorough and comprehensive your planning, the greater will be your results and the more productive will be your program”

This is one of the prima facie axioms in both teaching and coaching. In school administration we want our instructors to teach “bell-to-bell.” Administrators also want teachers to have complete control of their classes and to have a disciplined environment. The tool that gets this accomplished more than anything else is thorough and comprehensive planning. The same goes for athletic coaches, regardless of the sport.

Planning starts with the coach and his or her strategic plans first for themselves and then for the team’s full year. Strategic plans are built on core values and belief statements about what vision coaches or players have for the team. These strategic plans are long-term in nature. Tactical planning—short term in nature—breaks down what the objectives are for each week, each day and each competition and what actions (practice plans, instruction, drills, exercises, etc.) need to be accomplished in order to achieve the objectives for that particular day or week.

Getting your athletes involved in the process of defining their beliefs about their sport and what they envision for their efforts and team is a must. Athletes must know where they are going before they can get there (“You have to know where you are going before you get there and you have to plan your work and work your plan!”). If the athletes are personally involved in their team’s strategic plan, then they are vested in the plan. When they “buy-in” they take ownership.

In tactical planning you as coach are the leader. The objectives of thorough planning are to maximize learning of skills and strategies with the highest quality and volume of repetitions within the time frame you have each day and week. A corollary axiom pertaining to detailed planning is, “The more detailed the plan, the greater will be the quality and volume of repetitions” (And of course the result of these is greater learning, retention, and execution in competitions!).

Knowledge of teaching strategies, employing a variety of strategies that engage all learning styles, and using time creatively to fully engage all of your athletes are all part of the planning process. Thorough planning should include providing the instruction and teaching strategies and drills for each skill set necessary to give your athletes a competitive edge and confidence. I encourage you to involve all of your athletes in the practice plans regardless of their talent or skill level. The greater the number of athletes you have in your program, the greater the degree of detail necessary in your practice planning.


“The greater the level of motivation, the greater the level of focus and effort at practices, workouts and competitions

All coaches can see the common sense in this axiom. Motivating young people is about providing them with high expectations, guidance, leadership, and incentives. However, unless one has a full understanding of the needs of young people, what drives them, and the knowledge of the principles of motivation, the techniques a coach may employ will not be as productive as desired.

The first concept a coach must employ, discussed above in the planning section, is to get your athletes to have a vision and goal as to what they truly want to achieve. Goal(s) must be crystal clear, realistic, measurable, and achievable. If a goal is unrealistic, nebulous, or unachievable, kids (or anyone else) will not work very hard to get there.

There is huge motivational value in goal setting and coaches need to understand how to do it correctly. When an athlete or a team has a goal they have bought into, the incentive to work hard toward its accomplishment will come from within and it will be long lasting. Remember this corollary axiom about motivation, “The more an athlete is motivated from within, the more sustained and greater will be his or her commitment and effort.”

A popular method of motivation is to give rewards for effort, achieving personal goals or benchmarks, and outstanding performances in competitions (stickers, t-shirts, etc.). These types of motivational rewards and incentives frequently work, but since they come from you they are external and have a short-term effect. To work, these types of rewards must be given consistently and continuously throughout the season and year.

An area of motivation not widely used is to provide your athletes with resources and amenities commensurate with their expectations. This refers directly to facilities (fields, courts, gyms, etc.) and equipment (balls, implements, uniforms, etc.). Specifically, are you providing the highest quality care for your facilities and equipment that is within your capacity? Are your practice fields and courts in good condition and are they clean, safe and maintained well? A corollary related axiom is, “The better the facilities and equipment, the greater will be the level of expectation for the athletes.”

Every great teacher I have seen has a classroom that literally speaks volumes about the level of expectation this teacher has for his or her students when they walk in each day. Great teachers have their rules posted, student work is displayed everywhere, posters and projects adorn the walls and even hang from the ceiling. When students first walk in. the daily activities and work are already posted on the screen or wall. This type of classroom environment causes students to subconsciously think to themselves, “This teacher means business” or “Wow, I’m going to have to work hard to keep up with this teacher,” or “This place is inviting and respectful . . . I’m going to like coming in here every day.” Ask yourself what your coaching environment is communicating. Is your practice plan posted and do your athletes know exactly what is expected of them each and every day? Better yet, are the daily routines for your athletes communicating high expectations?

What about your locker room? Does your locker room communicate high expectations? Are you taking advantage of this valuable space where your athletes will spend a minimum of twenty minutes a day? Do you have posters and motivational sayings posted? Do you have nameplates on each athlete’s locker? Is your locker room kept clean and neat? Do you have expectations for the orderliness of this area and other areas where your athletes will be spending their time learning and socializing with their teammates? Are your daily routines for your athletes consistent and raising the level of expectation? Think about this, do your athletes stroll out onto the practice court or field or do you require they run or sprint? What routines can you establish for your athletes that will cause them to think that being a part of your program and their team is special, worthy, enjoyable and of important value to them and their teammates?


“The greater the level of engagement of your athletes, the greater will be their belief in each other, the team’s mission and in your teaching and coaching”

Engaged athletes are those who are fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their role on the team. These athletes will willingly take positive action to further the team’s reputation, interests, and mission. This powerful explanation should enlighten any coach about how important this trait is in the competitive sports arena.

Because you are the instructional leader of your athletes I encourage you to learn all you can about how to effectively engage your athletes in their roles, performances, and the team’s goals and objectives. Engagement is directly related to the setting of a team goal. Engagement level is immediately raised when athletes buy into the team goal. This is why it is so important that players should be involved in team goal setting.

When you plan practices that get more players doing more repetitions, you raise each player’s level of involvement—or engagement—in accomplishing the goals and objectives of the team. Practices defined by these traits have a higher degree of worthiness and result in higher levels of satisfaction for all participants. Every player will feel they are contributing to the team’s goal and this will result in engagement growth.

Related to engagement is the coach’s role in leading, guiding, counseling, and teaching his or her players. The saying, “Kids won’t care unless they know you care,” explains what is required of each coach in developing a meaningful relationship with his or her players. Do your best to know your athletes, their parents, their grades and as much about their background as possible. Caring is also an important quality in player-to-player relationships. Team building exercises and strategies can do wonders for your team that will grow the level of engagement.

There’s a huge amount of information available on ways to grow engagement during practices and workouts. Informational feedback reinforces proper technique and execution. When players are receiving thoughtful, personalized feedback, they’ll know you are watching them and care about their improvement and performance. One cannot overstate that positive feedback on athletes’ efforts and individual performances cannot be overdone. Know that positive feedback always trumps the negative.

When the hard parts of being an athlete—conditioning, strength training, off-season training, etc.—are being undertaken, take the time to explain to your athletes why they are doing this hard work. Be able to clearly explain how their conditioning and off-season workouts relate to raising their personal performance and ability levels and how this leads to achieving the team’s goal. These explanations raise worthiness and also results in higher levels of engagement.

In summary, to be an effective coach you must demonstrate a professional obligation to your athletes. Your integrity, character and honor matter greatly. Young people need and want positive leadership and guidance. Doing what you said you would do (“DWSD”) in your day-to-day dealings with your players is critical. Planning a practice that is scheduled to last two hours but goes for three does not cut it! Requiring discipline and orderliness for players requires you as coach to expect the same of your conduct. Setting an example and providing a positive role model for young people is and has always been a standard expectation for coaches of young people.

The stronger your character and integrity, the more likelihood your athletes will follow your guide and lead.

Likewise, routinely showing your athletes that you truly care about each of them will also lead to higher levels of engagement, productivity, enjoyment and fun for all participants.


50 Million Strong Case Studies

Read how your teaching colleagues are showing their commitment to increasing physical activity and bringing good health to their students! Remember - It begins with US (and that includes physical and health educators everywhere!)  


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