Responsible Coaches take a Mastery Approach

By Liberty Mutual Insurance | Feb. 04, 2013, 11:27 a.m. (ET)
Brought to you by the Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports program.

Excellence, it has been said, is a habit.

And learning is a lifelong process.

Truly mastering anything takes time. Patience. Practice. But in the end, it's always worth the effort and energy expended.

The Mastery Approach: AKA The ELM Mastery Approach

All too often in our society, we tend to put scoreboard results ahead of everything else. Responsible Coaches, however, take a different approach.

Responsible Coaches care about the scoreboard - a lot - but they care even more deeply about instilling a Mastery Approach in their young athletes. A Mastery Approach that will help them win not just now, but throughout their lives.

But just what is a Mastery Approach? And how can Responsible Coaches learn, remember and share this approach?

It's quite easy, actually. It consists of just three sharp keys. And a simple way to remember the three keys to the Mastery Approach is to remember the acronym ELM - short for Effort, Learning and Mistakes.

1. Effort: Always give 100%.
2. Learning: Improve constantly as you gain more knowledge.
3. Mistakes are OK: Mistakes are how we learn.

Why The ELM Mastery Approach?

Research conducted by the experts at Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) shows that when coaches focus solely on the scoreboard, young athletes' anxiety levels increase. Athletes then spend more of their precious emotional energy worrying about whether or not they'll lose. The higher anxiety in turn causes them to perform more tentatively and timidly, which results in them making more mistakes.

Anxiety ultimately undercuts self-confidence, which affects performance and takes all the pure joy out of youth sports. Why does the focus on the scoreboard increase anxiety? Because athletes can never truly, fully control the outcome on the scoreboard. And athletes become anxious and tight over things that are important to them that they can't control. It's a vicious circle. And it sure isn't a Winner's Circle.

No matter how talented, experienced or tough your team and its athletes are, the reality is that the end result on the scoreboard depends a great deal on the quality of the opponent - which is far beyond the control of the athlete or his or her team. Good, old-fashioned luck (as well as bad luck) also pops up in various moments throughout any athletic competition.

Sports psychology research shows that teams and athletes who consistently take the ELM Mastery Approach (giving 100% effort, constantly learning and bouncing back from mistakes) win more contests. By moving your team's focus off their scoreboard results and on to their effort and learning process, you'll have happier, more self-assured athletes. And that always translates into successful, winning results. Not to mention smoother road trips.

Introducing ELM To Your Team

OK. So now you understand what the ELM Mastery Approach is all about. And why it's so vital when it comes to building a successful, healthy young athlete and team.

But as a Responsible Coach, just how do you get everyone buying into this approach? It's easy, really. Before you kick off each season, let your young athletes know that:

1. You'll always be proud of them as long as they give 100% effort (regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard).
2. You want each one of them to consistently strive to learn and improve. This involves them only comparing their own performance to their own past performance (i.e. are they better than they were two weeks ago?).
3. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the game. If they are giving 100% and trying new things (as they strive to improve), mistakes are bound to occur, and your best players are those who find ways to quickly bounce back from mistakes.
4. Teams that focus on giving their full effort, constantly learning and improving, and bouncing back from mistakes actually win more than teams who consistently focus on the scoreboard.
5. You want a team that focuses on the ELM Tree of Mastery (Effort, Learning and Mistakes) because players who do this well are less anxious on the mat and have a greater sense of confidence

Coaching For Mastery Tools

Just as it's important to let your young athletes know that there's only so much they can control during the course of competition, it's vital to let assure that there is much they CAN control. The following are some tools that can help your kids focus on what they CAN control:

1. Effort Goals: Effort goals are more under your athletes' control (provided they are working hard) than outcome goals. Set effort goals in addition to outcome goals. In this way, over time, if players achieve the effort goals, they will move toward achieving desired outcome goals as well.
2. Targeted Symbolic Rewards: After each match, recognize one or more players who worked very hard or who competed an "unsung activity" that you want to see more of. Make sure the reward is symbolic (not money or something that is of value in and of itself). Some coaches give out "dirty shirt award" to the player who tried the hardest throughout the match.
3. Team Mistake Ritual: Fear of making mistakes can negatively impact performance. The way in which coaches deal with players' mistakes may be the single most important thing they can do. Adopt a physical team ritual for players to use to get past a mistake, so they can focus on the next play. A good time to use this in wrestling is just after a player is pinned. Talk to your athletes about what ritual they want to use. Some players like "no sweat", signified by running their fingers across their brow, while others like "brush it off", signified by pretending to dust off their uniform after the match. Some teams make a fist and then open it to "let the mistake go". Rituals remind players that mistakes are inevitable, and the most important thing is how players react right after their mistakes.

Parents and coaches alike can also sign up for Fundamentals: The Responsible Sports eNewsletter at Each month, we'll deliver the latest news from Responsible Sports right to your email inbox. You'll receive relevant and informative feature articles, news from our partners, updates on the Community Grants and Responsible Coaching Awards, key dates and much more.

And you all are welcome to join us on our dedicated and interactive Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports Facebook page at Share your examples of the ELM Mastery Approach in action and interact easily with others who are committed to the Responsible Sports way.

Good luck this season from your friends at Liberty Mutual Insurance and Responsible Sports!