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Jarome Iginla at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010

Offseason Coaching Manual 2: Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

05/01/2015, 5:00am PDT
By Kelvin Cech

Tell 'em what they can do, not what they can't.



Power is the source of everything. From the fuel required to move our cars and bodies to the energy source of all the electronic gadgets with which we’re surrounded, power is the life-force of anything that moves.

When it comes to hockey, a coach’s power is obvious. 

  • the power to keep kids moving at practice
  • the power to teach something to a player
  • the power to inspire

As coaches, we hold a very strong form of power over the players for whom we’re responsible. It’s up to use to use that power responsibly if we want our players to improve, enjoy the game and learn a little bit about life in the real world while they’re at it.

There are two distinct methods of delivering power as it pertains to coaching: building on positives and cracking down on negatives. Both have their place, but it’s up to the coach to recognize the difference in each style depending on the situation.

Being the Leader Your Players Need

The Positive: everyone would rather follow someone who’s positive rather than someone who’s negative. Positive reinforcement contributes energy rather than taking it away. Being around positive people and listening to positive mentors gives hockey players confidence to perform.

The Negative: sometimes the only way to teach is to single out a negative element and talk about why it’s negative. Keep in mind that this doesn’t need to be done in a negative way, but in a way that addresses an issue or weakness so the player knows what to avoid in the future. 

Adopting a Style

The Positive: building on leadership, every coach will work best in a style they’re comfortable with. That’s not to say that a coach shouldn’t be constantly learning how to better him or herself, however. In fact, the positive coach will focus on positive elements within their own style and build on them. 

The Negative: Coaches with an inherently negative style have more difficulty adapting to the changing landscape of the game, and like we said above, their shelf-life is shorter. Players eventually tune out the messages they don’t want to hear, and negativity is a message players don’t want to hear, even when it’s spot on.

Teaching New Skills

The Positive: focussing on what a player does well and encouraging more of the same is the best way to bring those elements to the forefront more often. If a player has a good wrist shot, reminding them of this and asking for more will help both player and coach come to common ground and win more games when it counts. 

The Negative: while it’s true a hockey coach can weed out bad habits by commenting exclusively on good habits, there’s nothing wrong with informing players of the negative things they do either. The problem with focussing on the negative aspects of a player’s game only arise if the negative comment isn’t followed by a positive suggestion of further action. 

Correcting Mistakes

The Positive: building on teaching new skills, it can be difficult to correct mistakes by ignoring them and only commenting on positive elements, but it is possible. The more a player hears a positive message about good habits, the more they’ll be inclined to repeat them.

The Negative: if a player does something wrong, the player wants to know what it was. Communication is key when focussing on mistakes. Clearly explaining the mistake and why it was detrimental might be tough to hear for a player at first, but again, negative reinforcement should always be followed by positive instruction for the future.

Coaching is an art. If it was as easy as simply telling players what they’re doing wrong then everyone would do it and the Edmonton Oilers would win the Stanley Cup every year. Players these days follow positive energy more easily than negative energy. The coach who comes to the rink with a smile on his face and fire in his eyes is the coach who gets more out of his players on a consistent basis.

The next time you see something in need of correction? Tell your players what they can do instead of what they can't.

photo credit: Men's Gold Medal: Canada vs. USA via photopin (license)

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