How Coaches can Manage Criticism with their Teams
Coaching young athletes is a difficult task. You have to manage the personalities and goals of all of your players, all while making sure the team runs as a well-oiled machine.
One of the biggest challenges for coaches and their teams is handing out and dealing with criticism.
There is no sure-fire way, or full-proof plan to implement when criticising the players on your team. One thing a lot of elite-level coaches agree on though, is that you have to come from a place of positivity.
On this topic, Jack Clark, one of the most decorated rugby coaches in the United States (has led the California Golden Bears to 28 national championships in 35 seasons as the head coach, along with an astounding .880 winning percentage), spoke to the Positive Coach’s Association for how he handles the criticisms of his team and players.
Changing Your Approach
“You know, when you first start coaching, you aren’t afforded an apprenticeship, you just start. You don’t know what you don’t know. For me, I was probably focused on the weaknesses of individuals as opposed to their strengths. I looked at my job as to fill every skill gap, to fill every character flaw. I do less of it now.”
The self-growth that Clark talks about is a major turn for most coaches. Like we discussed in the article about unlocking athletic potential, one of the major adjustments for coaches is seeing their players for the positives they bring to the table, as opposed to seeing them for what they can’t do.
As Clark puts it, his jobs has changed in his own mind from controlling every gap he sees in his players to focusing more on their strengths, which has ushered a change in how he doles out criticism to his team.
“I focus on people’s strengths. It’s improved my team’s competency on the field, our performance, our results. And I think it’s improved our enjoyment of participating in sport, it’s supposed to be fun. There is some hard work involved, but that hard work is even meant to you know, give you the satisfaction that you accomplished something.”
The point about sports being for fun is something that often gets lost in today’s ultra-competitive world of youth sports. There are a plethora of examples of coaches across the country who have ditched the “fun” side of sports and instead, have adopted a no-nonsense and virtually unenjoyable system for their teams.
What’s worse is that oftentimes, coaches disciplining or criticising the members of their team will go after one player at a time. According to another legendary coach, focusing on team criticism as opposed to individual criticism is a key in the functionality of a team.
Criticising the Collective is more Effective
“My general rule is to criticise the team and not the individuals. And then, if you’re going to criticise individuals do it in a one on one, as often as possible,” George Karl says. “That script can not be fulfilled everyday, there are days where you have to take on individuals for being lazy or not in tune to the practice in the correct way, and sometimes that individual needs to be singled out.”
Obviously, there is going to be instances where an individual on your team will needed to be used as an example when they are loafing or not taking practice or instruction seriously, but as Karl says, it’s best to focus smaller criticisms on the whole team for a few reasons:
- No one likes being singled out, and that can definitely lower morale, if players keep getting called out.
- There are plenty of times where the criticism of one person can be a lesson for the whole team, so if possible, it’s best just to make the message about the whole team:
- Example: You’re the coach of a basketball team and your starting point guard had seven turnovers in your last game, it’s probably best to just make a team-wide critique about taking care of the ball on the offensive end, since that is a message that can apply to all players anyways.
- Example 2: You are the coach of a soccer team and one of the more timid players on the team cost the team a win after hesitating to shoot during your last game. This would be a good time to remind the whole team about shooting when the opportunity presents itself.
Jack Clark details a way he believes this kind of team-based criticism and learning can occur, based on methods he has implemented with Cal Rugby.
“We say sport is study– it’s the term we use on the field. We’re not afraid to like, look at where we need to get better. You know, my favorite day of the week is the morning after the game, where med-check is done, our regen is done and now we’re in the meeting room and we’re just on the whiteboard and I say, ‘Okay, so what did we do well?’. The hands start flying up and people want to talk about what the team did well.”
It really boils down to avoiding singling anyone out in front of the team, unless it is absolutely necessary.
Getting your players to admit to their own mistakes in the way Clark describes can also help them reform and improve their game mentally, as they will be more aware of mistakes they have been repeatedly making.
“So, sport is study– you can look at things in detail, you can be honest. It doesn’t have to be ‘Everything is okay’, or everything being super positive,” Clark said. “We can have problems, we can look at things in detail. But, it doesn’t have to be personal, it can be ‘Us’ that we’re talking about in the collective.”
Rely on an “us” mentality with criticism, but leave space and time for individuals on your team to reflect on their own performance so they can develop the important skill of self-evaluation. This will be a good way to see which players are most committed to make themselves better as well.
“Individuals will say ‘I need to do better’– and I think that’s good. I mean, it’s honest. If you care about something, I don’t care if it’s the violin or a sport– you’re going to invest yourself in improvement,” Clark said. “We just want to value improvement. We say one of our values is constant performance improvement, we just want to keep getting better. If we’re doing that, we’re typically pretty happy.”
If it becomes apparent that individual criticism is necessary, take a page out of George Karl’s coaching playbook and package those criticisms in an effective way.
“I think the more you can buffer severe individual criticism– I’m a big believer in, there’s a sandwich there, for every criticism, there should be two slices of positivity along the way,” Karl says.
Critiquing your players and team is undoubtedly an important part of coaching at any level. How you handle those situations can go a long way in the morale and direction of your team as you move forward.
Shooting for group criticism to encourage the whole team to work harder on certain aspects that need sharpening could be the best route. If you need to critique players individually, try to do that with just the individual present, if possible– no one enjoys being criticised in front of a large group of their peers.