USA Softball

Apr 02 ELM Tree of Mastery

Aug. 06, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

Positive Coaching Alliance and Responsible Sports often refer to the “ELM Tree of Mastery,” where ELM stands for Effort, Learning and Mistakes. Players progress toward mastery of their sport as long as they exert maximum Effort, continually Learn and bounce back from their inevitable Mistakes.

Of course, it is easier said than done for players and coaches to live by this philosophy. We all want to point to positive results, but often they are slow to arrive. So how do we maintain the level of effort required – even in the face of poor results – until a player succeeds?

One key is to reward unsuccessful effort. That strikes many as counterintuitive. But it is essential to keeping the player persistent. What else would keep players pushing toward improvement despite the physical, mental and emotional challenges of repeated failed efforts?

When you as a Responsible Coach see players trying hard, yet failing to make the play, you can reinforce their effort by noticing out loud how hard they were trying: “Danny, it still didn’t end up the way we wanted, but I saw how intent you were on technique. Your feet were planted just right. I know the results will come over time.”

“Over time” is a key concept. Just as players require repetition to learn how to execute, coaches must consistently repeat positive reinforcement. That way, the player fully believes the coach values effort more than results and the player feels free to adopt the same values. Along the way, it may help to establish intermediate goals so that player and coach sense some level of progress and success.

An important notion in these intermediate goals is the “Just-Right Challenge” as covered in Deborah Stipek’s book, Motivated Minds. A group of children was given a pre-test on their skill level with respect to 13 different puzzles. Left alone with the puzzles and asked to choose one, all the children picked a puzzle just one level higher than their capability. Applied to sports, a series of “Just-Right Challenges”can help players put in place, step-by-step, the skills needed to achieve the desired results.

Another way to reinforce effort is through a targeted, symbolic reward. After a practice or game you can honor players for making the desired efforts. For example, you might give the “dirty shirt award”to the player showing the most hustle.

It’s important that this award has no great value beyond symbolizing the player’s effort. That keeps the player focused on the value of the effort itself, as opposed to the award’s monetary value. Even if the player never achieves the desired result you pursued together, he or she will have the lasting life lesson of the value of effort and a tangible reminder of the coach who imparted that life lesson.

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 Responsible Sports ProgramTM ( by Positive Coaching Alliance (