Gameplan Rugby Issue 1 Feb 2006

They don’t care how much you know til they know how much you care - nurturing self-esteem in your players.

I am writing this in the New Year and doing a bit of reflection on the lessons I have learnt this year. Being a resource coach means that I get around the country a considerable amount and come in contact with a large number of players and coaches. The great joy of this is that I get to meet a large number of people – some of whom I am meeting for the first time. But many of whom I have worked with previously and with whom I am maintaining professional relationships and in many cases friendships.

I also come into contact with many players that I have worked with as a sport psychologist or have coached. I’m sure you’re the same as me in that you get an inner glow every time you come across an athlete that you have been involved with that remembers you fondly or says s/he still remembers what you taught him or her about something technical, tactical or mental. Probably like you, I am suspicious of coaches who claim too much influence over their charges and when occasionally you hear coaches self-praising and implying that they have “made” this player or that, we think to ourselves “Mate, a bit of humility wouldn’t go astray here. It may well be that the player has succeeded in spite of you rather than because of you”. We probably don’t say it, unless we are feeling decidedly crabby, but we will likely think it. Fortunately there are very few coaches of this type around the place.

There is little doubt that teachers and coaches are two of the most prominent “significant others” in the lives of young people. As a coach, you are in a position to do a huge amount of good for the young people with whom you work. A number of you will have got involved purely because had you not done so, your son or daughter would not have had a coach. That’s how I got involved in coaching kids’ rugby and the reality is that many of our kids’ coaches are parents who put their “shoulders to the wheel” to make sure that somebody is looking after the team in which their child is playing. But it doesn’t really matter how or why you get involved, once you are involved you are in a position of influence with regard to your players.
What is self-esteem? One definition I found is “What our unconscious believes to be true about how worthy, lovable, valuable and capable we are”. It is the most precious gift that any parent, any teacher or any coach can give to those under their care. Self-esteem is very dependent on the experiences we have as we are growing up - the childhood years are particularly formative. It could be said that one’s eyes and ears record the messages they receive from others, especially those most important to them. Because one’s unconscious tends to accepts all words and emotions as facts no matter how firmly based on reality they may be, one’s self-esteem is being continuously influenced by what is encountered in the mirror of verbal and non-verbal messages given by others.

Research into the nature of self-esteem produces three factors that have a strong relationship with self-esteem. Each of the factors/components outlined below is separate but interconnected. Understanding these three factors will help you understand how you can positively impact the self-esteem of your players.

INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL: This factor is defined by one’s sense of internal causality and orientation toward personal responsibility. The more internal our LOC, the more we feel like our destiny is in our own hands. It could be contrasted to seeing life as a series of accidents or “things that happen to us.” Ideally all of our children would believe that they are creatures of free will and that they have a large amount of influence over how their lives will turn out.

BELONGING AND BEING ACCEPTED: This factor reflects how much someone feels wanted and to be a valued part of the group or team, and how much the person likes and accepts him/herself as they are. The more one feels accepted and acceptable, the more they are able to express themselves, act authentically and be fully present to others.

A SENSE OF COMPETENCE: This factor relates to one’s self-efficacy or how “good at things” one thinks he or she is. Our unconscious gets continuous information about our relative level of competence. If we interpret our experience as progress and/or success we become more confident and more inclined to take risks in the future. Success breeds success. Mastery breeds a feeling of mastery and confidence. This sense of competence could be contrasted to a defeatist attitude or the need to brag/show off.
Self-concept is the various life aspects by which people think of themselves (academic, relationships, family, sport, music, arts, body image, looks etc). Self-esteem is the judgements that people make about themselves around these and other aspects. For some of you it may be a long time ago and very difficult to remember, but children think differently to adults. They tend to believe that adults are all-seeing and all-knowing and they pay heed to everything that adults say to them, especially when it comes to making judgements about them. If children are treated badly by adults, if they are not encouraged, rather criticised, they will come to believe that they deserve such treatment. Tragically, children who are physically abused believe that, because adults are right and do not do things without reason, they must have done something to have brought this behaviour upon them. Thus they learn that they are useless, and worse, worthless.

I am not writing all of this not because I believe that there are any rugby coaches in New Zealand who have bad intentions towards their players, but merely to point out the nature of young people’s self-esteem and to remind coaches of a point which I have previously made in one of my articles. That is that we should all take note of the Hippocratic Oath regarding the self-esteem of our players and that is “first do no harm”. After you have considered and made sure that nothing you are doing is harming the self-esteem of your players then it is time to think about how you can go about doing some real good. Let’s look at the three interrelated aspects.

First, let’s look at their “locus of control”. This is about people believing that they are creatures of free will and that the decisions they make can and will influence their lives. How can you affect this as a coach? Well, by making sure that you encourage your players to be accountable and responsible for what they do on and off the field. You can teach them that life and rugby is all about “controlling the controllables”. Teach them that there are some things they cannot control (the minds of the selector), some things they fully control and some things over which they have influence but not full control. If we taken the example of players worrying about getting selected, you need to teach them that they cannot control the minds of the selectors, but they can certainly influence them. How? By training and playing with intensity, focus and intensity; by showing a great attitude, and by showing self-reliance and leadership. If they do all this (all of which is 100% controllable) then they give themselves every chance of having a positive influence on the minds of the selectors. Educate them also that it is a waste of time for them to worry about things outside their control, like referees or teammates.

The second aspect is the need for acceptance and feeling a sense of belonging. Clearly, as coach, you are the person primarily responsible for the culture of your team. As coach, you need to show unconditional positive regard for your players and make them feel welcome and valued in the team environment. When I say unconditional positive regard, I don’t mean that you should tell them that they are fantastic the whole time. If they do things which are nonaligned with team values or with high individual values, you need to let them know. But when you do, let them know that their behaviour that is out of line, that it’s their behaviour that is unacceptable. Don’t be personal with your corrective comments. Make sure that you separate the person from the behaviour. This can be especially difficult with players who lack talent, or who have difficult attitudes. Nevertheless you need to do what you can to show these players that they are accepted and that there is a place for them in the team. The number one need of all people is to feel accepted. Conversely the number-one fear is rejection. Always remember this.

The third aspect I talked about was self efficacy, or a sense of competence. All of us, no matter what age we are, like to feel that we are competent at what we do. If we are not particularly talented, this makes things more challenging. If you are coaching at a high-level, you will not have difficulty of coaching players with very little ability, but for those coaching kids it will be an issue that you come across probably on a tri-weekly basis. The following diagrammes illustrate cycles of self-belief and self-esteem.


It is clearly apparent how the cycles work – both the positive and negative ones. It’s important to help players have realistic positive expectations about what they may aim to achieve and it is also essential that players feel that they are making a contribution – however humble. Players who are “riding the pine” must be made to feel that when they do come on they have an opportunity to make a difference and to lift the team – they must feel they are appreciated. The values you espouse in your team will also make a difference here. Player who play with teammates who encourage and support them are likely to feel accepted and valued even if they know they’re not the best players in the world.

Above all as a coach you should recognise that you are a significant other is the lives of the players with whom you are entrusted. Remember especially if you are coaching young players you have the power to be a real force for good in nurturing their self-esteem. If you can do that you are playing a vital part in how they end up as human beings and the way in which they live their lives. Good luck with it and keep up the good work. May 2006 be a year where all your and your players goals come true.