Coaching for Mastery

Positive Coaches care about the scoreboard, but they care even more deeply about instilling a Mastery approach in their athletes, which will help them win both on and off-the-field as well as throughout their lives.

When coaches focus solely on the scoreboard, players' anxiety increases, because players can’t control the outcome on the scoreboard.

Ultimately, that anxiety undercuts self-confidence, which affects performance and takes the joy out of sports. Anxious athletes spend their mental and emotional energy worrying about losing instead of focusing on the current play and focusing on the current play is necessary for mastery and winning.

The key to scoreboard success – and more importantly, keeping youth athletes encouraged and engaged in their sports so they can learn life lessons – is to help athletes focus on what they can control. Control is critical to confidence!

There are three key elements to a Mastery Approach and you can remember them with the handy acronym – ELM, for Effort, Learning and Mistakes Positive Coaches can remind players that to “climb the ELM Tree of Mastery” they must always 1. give maximum Effort, 2. they should Learn constantly so they can continue to improve, and 3. that Mistakes are OK, because mistakes help us learn.

Introducing the ELM Tree of Mastery to Your Team

At your very first team meeting, introduce your philosophy of Mastery to your team (and your team parents) and introduce ELM.  Start off by letting your players know that:.

  1. You will always be proud of them as long as they give 100% Effort (regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard).
  2. You want each of them to constantly strive to Learn and improve. This involves them comparing their own performance to their own performance (i.e., are they better than they were two weeks ago?).
  3. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the game. If they are giving 100% and trying new things (as they strive to improve), mistakes are bound to occur, and your best players are those who find ways to quickly bounce back from mistakes.
  4. Teams that give their full Effort, constantly Learn, and bounce back from Mistakes, actually win more than teams that focus just on the scoreboard.

Effort Learning Mistakes youth sports

Let your players know that you’ll have your eye out during practices and games for players that are climbing the ELM Tree.  And you’ll be rewarding players who are focused on mastering their sport.

More on Effort

In sports, you can take satisfaction from making maximum effort. Regardless of outcome on the scoreboard if you know you gave it your best, you can endure disappointment and re-double your efforts.
The best way to get effort from your players is to reward them for effort, even when they do not succeed. That will help them through hard times as they strive to learn new skills or improve their conditioning. Gradually, they will realize that effort is its own reward, a value they will carry with them long after their playing days, and can propel them toward success in other aspects of their lives, such as family and career.

Back in our Setting Goals article we talked about rewarding effort with Symbolic Rewards like the Dirty Shirt Award, the Sugar Shaker Award, or the Hard Hat Award. Or create your own.  You’ll be surprised how effective recognizing and celebrating effort will be in bringing up the overall effort and performance level of your team.

More on Learning

The emphasis on learning is important, because that is how players improve. Players can learn from success or failure. Remind players that they are not failing so much as they are learning. That will keep them encouraged and willing to try new skills and stick with it until they are proficient.

Again, this has a great payoff beyond the actual sports competition. In all other facets of their lives, your players will have to try new things. Sometimes they will succeed, other times not. The better you equip them to learn from success and failure, the more able they will be to adapt, learn, and improve through whatever life throws at them.

More on Mistakes

Mistakes often result from pushing the envelope, taking chances, stretching limits, growing and learning. But coaches who overreact to mistakes cause their players stress and make them nervous about mistakes that they end up making even more. Or, players become so intent on avoiding mistakes that they play too tentatively to make the great play.

To combat the effects of mistakes and reduce the fear of making mistakes, consider implementing a Mistake Ritual, a physical motion you and your players use to remind each other to get past a mistake and focus on the next play.

For example, players can "flush" mistakes (by making a fist with one hand, raising that fist in the air, and then bringing it down in a flushing motion). Talk to your players about what ritual they want to use.  Some players like "no sweat," signified by running their fingers across their brow, while other like "brush it off," signified by pretending to dust off their uniform.  Get your team onboard to consistently use the Mistake Ritual during practices and games.  And share with your players the stories from world class athletes who use the visual of a ‘clear key’  that they press in their mind to forget a mistake and move forward.

Using all three elements of ELM, Positive Coaches help their players go for greatness. Emphasizing Effort and Learning are terrific starts. The finishing touch is to let them know Mistakes are OK, especially if they Learn from their Mistakes and continue giving full Effort.


In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Insurance Play Positive program powered by Positive Coaching Alliance.

©2014 Liberty Mutual Insurance and Positive Coaching Alliance. All rights reserved. This material may not be distributed without express written permission. Any reproduction in whole or part by and individuals or organizations will be held liable for copyright infringement to the full extent of the law.

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