Grab Bag: Are you pulling the right words to fuel your young athletes?
By Greg Bach
Tangela Smith, one of the WNBA’s all-time greats, remembers the low points in her basketball journey with striking clarity.
There was the airball while attempting a free throw during a big high school basketball game.
And her disappointing shooting performance during an NCAA Sweet 16 loss that was “the most terrible game of my life,” she says. “I missed all my shots.”
But you know what else she recalls?
Those words of encouragement and positive reinforcement from her coaches every step of the way.
What they said mattered.
And it was powerful.
It’s a terrific reminder for coaches of all sports that what they say – and how they choose to say it – really does impact their young players.
“You have to keep encouraging your players and just motivating them that they can be the best player out there,” says Smith, an assistant coach for the Northwestern women’s basketball team and a two-time WNBA champion. “You always have to give them positive feedback. You have to let them know that they can do what they set out to do.”
Getting to that point requires pulling them through those bleak moments where shots aren’t falling and the prospects for improvement seem impossible through a young player’s eyes.
“I’ve been through it,” says Smith, who starred at Iowa and ranks in the Top 10 in school history in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. “I know that sometimes when you miss a shot, or several shots in a row, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m terrible’ and things like that. So it goes back to that positive feedback and encouragement.”
Coaches aren’t the only ones who can be instrumental in boosting a player’s morale or confidence. Teammates can make it happen, too.
“Players need to hear it not only from their coaches but also their teammates,” says Smith, the 1998 Big Ten Player of the Year. “Coaches have to constantly be in their ear that ‘you can do it. Don’t put your head down.’”
BODY LANGUAGE: WHAT ARE YOUR PLAYERS SIGNALING?
During her teen years playing at George Washington High School in Chicago she struggled with something many young players do – exhibiting bad body language when rough patches were encountered.
It’s something coaches must continually stress to young players, because it signals weakness and can even be contagious throughout the team.
“When I was younger my high school coach said that I didn’t have the best attitude,” Smith says. “I think nowadays that is so very important no matter where you are – on the bench or out on the court – your attitude and your body language has to be the best for yourself as well as for your teammates.”
During her 14-year WNBA career Smith was a dominating performer, and team-first player. She became just the seventh player in league history to score more than 4,000 points, and when she retired in 2012 she ranked in the Top 10 in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, made field goals and minutes played.
She played hard. She contributed in every way possible.
And she encouraged and supported her teammates along the way.
“You need to be encouraging yourself and your teammates to go out there and do a good job,” she says. “If you’re out on the court and you have bad body language that’s not going to do it. You have people watching you all the time so remember there’s always somebody watching your attitude and your body language must be the best.”
That’s pretty good advice from one of the game’s best.
Long-time college football coach and author of Coaching is Teaching at its Best on being a difference maker in young lives through the power of sport
Princeton basketball coach Courtney Banghart, the 2015 Naismith Coach of the Year and widely recognized as one of the game’s great leaders, on what you need to know to get the most from your young athletes
Former college soccer midfielder and long-time youth coach Jillian Carroll on inspiring young athletes to work together and perform at their best on the field and in their lives
Former Stanford great Nicole Powell, head women’s basketball coach at Grand Canyon University, on creating team cultures where players genuinely care for and support each other