Imagine, for a moment, being 10 years old.

You just ran up and down a field for close to an hour, with only a few breaks. You’re in front of a crowd of parents, a handful of expectant coaches and intimidating referees with whistles giving constant directions and penalties. You’ve only held a stick in your hands for a few weeks, and the game is a little confusing.

There are phrases you’ re still learning, lines all over the field with different meanings, rules galore, new movements you haven’t heard before like cutting, spacing, mirroring, athletic stance. There are fine motor skills that are sometimes a bit out of your reach and now pressure to do those skills with another team chasing after you and all those people watching.

The other team keeps scoring, the coach is getting louder and you can hear your dad shouting to “get the ground balls!” and another parent yelling that the team needs to “wake up.” You’re thinking that you’re anything but asleep, running your heart out and trying to process a ton of new info. You feel overwhelmed, excited and yet still having a good time out there with your friends who occasionally pass by and share a giggle.

The game ends, and you’re feeling the pressure of losing by 10 goals. You’re feeling like maybe you’ll never get this game, thinking about your mistakes and trying to do that thing that kids do when they goof around to cover their vulnerability with jokes. You redirect attention away from the coaches that could be upset with you, that you fear you may have let down. The coach calls everyone in and you’re looking to your teacher—your leader—and ready to hear what wisdom he or she is ready to pass on, as your attention span slowly fades.

Now imagine that your coach tells your team that you aren’t in very good condition. You were breathing too heavy and moving too slow. You aren’t working hard enough outside of practice on your stick skills, you didn’t focus enough at the last practice. You aren’t listening to directions because you didn’t execute the skills on the field. You looked lost and you won’t get better if you don’t work harder. All the blame is placed on the players, and the game is all about where you went wrong.

Now you know why so many kids drop out of sports.

I heard four coaches post-game talks today as I hung around the rec field with my daughter after her game, and each one was a painful reminder that we have so far to go in understanding what positive coaching is really all about. These well-meaning coaches were seeking a performance boost by calling out shortcomings, but instead they gave the team a serious confidence problem.

Self-confidence is one of the biggest obstacles kids (especially girls) face that hold them back from playing at their best. Kids who are empowered not only keep playing sports, they also perform significantly higher and gain more skills. Adults have forgotten how intimidating the setup of games actually is, and just how much information we are throwing at our kids in short, sometimes cold and late-night practices. Hesitation to get the ball, make a cut, or play defense isn’t sleepiness—it’s fear and uncertainty.

To eliminate those obstacles, we as coaches and parents must supply and nurture a culture that builds instead of breaks.

I coach mostly females these days, and I can say with certainly that the worst thing you can do to a girl who already negatively self-talks herself in miserable circles is give her a list of failures, especially effort-based ones like not working hard enough or hustling. Reinforcing these sources of low self-esteem is asking for performance to decrease—the very opposite of the effect you’re likely hoping for.

End your games instead with celebrations, even if you lose, even if the team looked like one big hot mess from warm-ups to the final whistle, even if half the team was late and the other half was giggling non-stop. These aren’t college athletes, they’re kids.

They are, in fact, there to have fun. They signed up because they want to be there. They want to play, learn, and be somewhere with their friends other than school where they are always being told to stop talking and being silly. Direct the fun by offering fun activities during warm-up time and at practice. Celebrate the silliness with them (it keeps us young), and then ask them to respect the times when you are teaching, but keep those times short and concise and fill the other spaces with praise and celebrations.

Where did they try hard, who gets an effort point, who did something that maybe didn’t work out this time, but was on the right path? How did they make you proud today? Why do you love coaching your team? Remind them at every game and every practice why you show up again and again: because of THEM, because you care about THEM, because you believe in THEM.

Admit your coaching failures. Become human with them and learn from mistakes together. Ask them to call out what they thought others did well or what the other team did well that they can try to emulate. Ask them what they feel like they need help with at the next practice. You might be surprised just how much they actually understand, but are just struggling to execute because they need more experience.

Leave the corrections for the next practice, not the post-game talk. Let them leave that game still loving their lacrosse experience and believing that they are growing as players, even if they don’t have it all figured out just yet.

Your words as a coach can change a kid’s outlook on not only sports, but on how they feel about themselves and their abilities. That’s a lot of power and responsibility, and though we will always continue our journey to get better and win games, we can’t ever let that pursuit of winning overshadow the reason we’re out there in the first place.

Kate Leavell is a national coaching education trainer for US Lacrosse, as well as a high school varsity and NCAA Division III women's lacrosse coach in metro Atlanta, and a certified strength and conditioning coach.

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