Athletic success: a fine line between discipline and encouragement

Go to any youth’s sports competition: a third grade soccer game, a high school tennis meet, a YMCA floor hockey game; a recreational district baseball tournament. What do you see?

I see nervous athletes, trying to lose the jitters through their routine warm ups. I see gatorade bottles and water coolers. I see trainers’ tables and scorekeepers. I see teams stretching, huddling, and cheering. I see them size up the competition. I also see coaches.

They are what really determines the mood of the competition.

The athlete wonders, “What do they want from me today?”

Coaches. Yelling. Cheering. Directing. Suggesting. Analyzing. Recording.

There are two kinds of coaching, helpful and destructive. The difference between the two depends on the precarious balance between discipline and encouragement.

A helpful coach is the one who guides the athlete on his way to success, the one who encourages. On the other hand, a destructive coach is the one who tries to “fix” the athlete by punishing flaws, the one who abuses the power to discipline. Although some discipline is needed in order to help the athlete push through physical and mental barriers, encouragement is absolutely essential to the athletic success and the mental and emotional health of the athlete. The athlete should be rewarded for his successes, not punished for his failures. Nobody wants to fail.

In practice, discipline needs to be used to help ensure that the athlete does the necessary work. When an athlete messes around or complains about a certain training exercise, discipline keeps things organized and on track.

However, once the competition comes, the athlete needs to be encouraged. Some athletes like to be yelled at during their performance because anger makes them work harder, and they are able to achieve their goals. Though this is logical, it doesn’t make sense for a coach to tell that athlete, who has just performed to the best of his ability that day, that he wasn’t good enough. Yelling at the swimmer after the race isn’t going to make him faster. But suggesting that he has greater potential and helping him through training might. Each athlete has his a unique formula for success, and it’s the coach’s job to help him find it.

These are youth athletics, not professional; they should be fun. Unlike in professional sports, these athletes and teams are not getting paid to win. Therefore, the result of a youth competition does not have high stakes. The athlete should enjoy his team and be proud of his accomplishments rather than stress about a performance. Sure, if the athlete is prepping for higher level sports, a greater level of harshness might be necessary to get him ready for his future. However, it should be up to him to ask to be disciplined more.

So, I’m not saying discipline should be eliminated. Not at all. Discipline is essential. It keeps athletes on track and teams organized. But discipline should not go without encouragement. Discipline alone cannot help the athlete grow. Encouragement allows the athlete to be happy with his work and look forward to future success. If the athlete does all the coach asks of him to the best of his ability, he deserves to be rewarded. Athletes look up to coaches who offer support, and even the smallest bit of encouragement can assist the athlete in achieving his dreams.