Foundations for Athletic Success

Kirk Mango

Bio: Kirk is the author of "Becoming a True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence From the Inside Out" (forthcoming publication from Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), and the blog "The Athlete's Sports Experience: Making a Difference." Both his book and blog are written for the purpose of making a difference in the loss of perspective common in youth, high school and collegiate levels of sports.


Organizing practice and game strategy, knowing the X’s and O’s, proper drill work and conditioning — these are just a few of the various responsibilities that encompass the job of being a coach. And this doesn’t begin to touch on the coach as motivator, character builder, and sometimes counselor and parent figure to the multitude of young athletes under his direction.

Add to all of this the many game and practice issues (injuries, playing time, player position, field/gym availability and scheduling, etc.) that present themselves throughout a season and you have yourself one tough, stressful job. At least, that is, if you want to be good.

With all that goes on in a coach’s world, it can be difficult to stay focused on the right path to put young athletes and teams in the best position to reach their potential — something all good coaches want to do.

So, what if there was a way to enhance the probability that athletes would achieve success without adding a lot more coaching responsibilities to the mix? What if a shift in one’s philosophy or, better yet, a refocusing of one’s efforts might be all that is needed to put the odds in the athlete’s favor? And what if this shift in philosophy, or refocusing of one’s efforts, not only increased athletic and team potential but also made for a learning environment that was more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone?

I would say that would be a good thing!

With that in mind, listed below are four less-discussed coaching practices that not only encourage the proper mindset in young athletes but also help build strong connections among coaches, athletes and teammates.

Personal Responsibility

Creating situations so that athletes must take ownership of — and thus responsibility for — their own success will pay big dividends inside and outside the athletic arena. When coaches encourage their athletes to set individual and team goals, they become owners of those goals and feel a sense of responsibility to achieve them. This can even be applied to short-term daily objectives (mini-goals) that athletes expect to accomplish before they finish practice. This is especially true when working toward mastering pieces of their skill set. At first, this might take a little direction from the coach; however, it is something that (once taught) can be left up to the athletes.

How do you know when athletes are starting to take personal responsibility for their success? They take the initiative to improve their skill set on their own; they ask for extra things they can do; and they simply don’t want to leave the gym or field, showing a willingness to stay and finish daily objectives that were not completed successfully.

Teaching Fundamentals

It is vital that there be a strong training focus on fundamentals (both skill and movement fundamentals) of the game, no matter what the sport or level of play. This is a concept that should take precedence over any strategy of the game until athletes have mastered them. And even once mastered, they still should hold a strong place in an athlete’s daily training so as to maintain a solid base of support for continued growth and improvement.

This is an often-neglected component that too many coaches dismiss to focus more on strategies or plays to win the next game. It is a mistake that leaves holes in an athlete’s foundation, and these are the kinds of holes that allow bad habits to develop, limiting the ultimate potential that an athlete or team can achieve. It’s much better to include a concentration on fundamentals, which develop athletes over the long term.

Competitive Guidance

Athletes and competition go hand in hand. It is this fact that behooves us to utilize the competitive spirit in athletes as a means to reach higher levels of execution and performance. The more a coach can set up practice sessions where athletes are competing with each other, and/or for something, the better and more intense their efforts will be.

Whether it is with numbers of properly executed skill-improvement drills, team-oriented scrimmages, decreasing one’s sprint or drill times or increasing one’s numbers during conditioning, any of these can be set up where athletes are competing for something. Find ways to give some type of incentive for athletes who best their scores or win these mini-competitions, and watch what happens. You will not be disappointed, and neither will they.

True Caring

After teaching for 32-plus years and coaching during many of those years, I see one thing that stands out above all others when it comes to students and student athletes. And this includes working with them, both on the athletic field and in the classroom.

So what is this one thing that stands above all others? It is an aspect that former students and athletes readily reveal when asked why they consider someone the best coach or teacher they ever had. It is the fact that the athlete and/or student felt that their coach or teacher actually cared about them as a person.

Oh, sure, they want a coach who is able to inspire and motivate them, who knows the ins and outs of the game and who can actually make them better. But more than anything, they want someone who truly cares about them beyond the athletic arena. They want someone who is genuinely concerned about, and interested in, who they are as a person. The more a coach can demonstrate to his or her athletes that they are not just chess pieces in a game, the more that coach will get out of them. Athletes who have coaches like this will go to the ends of the earth for them.

Not meant to be a comprehensive list, these four practices, when centered at the core of one’s coaching philosophy, can markedly increase your young athletes’ ability to reach their potential. The positive training environment they help to create is immeasurable.

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