5 Ways Coaches Create a Confidence-Building Culture for Their Athletes

Does team culture happen by design or default?

It’s a question that every youth sports coach needs to wrestle with at some point.

The short answer is that it HAPPENS—regardless of whether you work to shape it, or just allow it to form itself.

Depending on what that culture looks like, your athletes could be set up with the BEST circumstances to develop their confidence—or NOT.

While it’s true that every athlete comes onto a team with a personal level of confidence—or belief in their ability to perform a skill—as the coach YOU get to be intentional about where confidence goes from there.

Here are 5 Team Culture Characteristics

Each one is on a continuum that either builds up or tears down, personal confidence.

1. Do You Promote Exclusion or Inclusion?

Just because a child is part of a team doesn’t mean he feels included. In fact, most kids—all the way through the teen years—are susceptible to NOT feeling valued AND included.

Coaches can’t take for granted that each athlete understands their individual worth on the team. But you CAN take steps to create an inclusive “vibe” that is felt by everyone.

Pay attention to these areas of daily interactions, to boost self-confidence and maintain an inclusive approach:

  • Be intentional about SPECIFIC, daily compliments for everyone. For example, “Johnny, your stroke was so strong and precise at the end of that 50m.”
  • Make sure that you spread out the “fun” work to everyone. Repetitive tasks can make an individual feel disposable. A scrimmage at the end of practice where everyone gets to switch up positions is one way to accomplish this.
  • Regularly verbalize team efforts, especially when success happens thanks to the work of 2 or more together. For example, “Sara your great assist allowed Maddy to score that goal.”
2. Do You Reward Talent or Effort?

There’s no greater feeling than finally “getting something” you’ve struggled with.  Accomplishment is always sweeter when it comes at the end of an honest effort.

Unfortunately, in a competitive setting, effort can take a backseat to natural talent. This creates a problem for both those who struggle on the talent end, and for those who don’t.

Let me explain.

An athlete that is rarely rewarded because he isn’t the most obvious talent will inevitably lack confidence and eventually stop putting forth an effort.

On the flip-side, a talented competitor that is not encouraged for her hard work but rather for her innate gift, might not push herself out of comfort zones to improve.

Coaches that are purposeful to recognize effort, reap the benefits of long-term improvement in their athletes and nurture confidence along the way.

Keep these things in mind when rewarding effort:

  • Don’t be quick to “rescue” a child that is struggling in executing a skill. Let them have the opportunity to push through and enjoy the victory that comes with effort
  • After each practice “call out” the hardest worker(s) of the day
  • Encourage your team captains and parents to always applaud hard work
3. Do You Support Grandstanding or Teamwork?

Who hasn’t cheered and chuckled when a triumphant athlete does a victory dance or engages the fans in a boastful chant?

But when grandstanding seems to become a pattern for an athlete, it can undermine all your coaching efforts aimed at creating an environment of teamwork.

Showboating not only distracts a team from the task at hand, but it also can erode at the confidence you’ve built in other team members.

You don’t have to squash all displays of excitement but keep these things in mind:

  • Communicate to the whole team, before an event, what it looks like to celebrate in a respectful way—not only for other team members but in front of opponents as well
  • Pull aside any athlete that tends to show-off regularly and enlist his help to work on building a “team-first” atmosphere
  • Always verbally applaud teamwork in action
4. Do You Focus On What’s Wrong or What’s Right?

By the time you find yourself in a coaching position you probably know if you are a “glass half empty or glass half full” person.

Focusing on the positive (half-full) and seeing athletes through the lens of what they are doing right, creates a strong foundation for building confidence in your kids.

If you seem to put the spotlight on what’s wrong, you could be developing anxious and insecure players. Studies show that our brains process negative emotions more thoroughly. So even if you feel like you are giving a positive comment for every negative one, your athlete is still going to focus on the negative feedback.

If you struggle to focus on what is right with your team or individual players try to be intentional with these ideas:

  • Celebrate the small stuff. Although you might have big goals, encourage your team by recognizing and praising SMALL improvements in effort, skill-learning, and team support
  • Enlist the help of positive team members to lead or captain the team
  • Set a positive tone each week by having the team stand in a circle and name a positive attribute about the player to their right
5. Do You Reinforce What’s Popular or What You Believe In?

The old adage, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” is an excellent reminder to identify and reinforce the core values of a sports program.

Don’t know what your core values are? 

It’s important to take the time to think through the character traits that will lead to a healthy team culture. Then make sure your athletes know what they are—over and over again.

Here are some valuable mantras—in the 3 areas of work, attitude, and competition—that could be part of your core values:

  • Work—Consistent daily effort, going the extra mile, everyone does their share, a team that works together wins together
  • Attitude—Come willing to give it your all, we choose to focus on the positive, it’s not over till it’s over, kindness is always the right response
  • Competition—Our opponents bring out our best, we are good sportsmen, we love a challenge, never give up 
A Culture That Builds Confidence

Your team culture DOES make a difference in each athlete’s growth. Build confident competitors by choosing to:

  1. Promote an inclusive attitude
  2. Reward effort every day
  3. Support teamwork
  4. Focus on what is going right
  5. Reinforce the team’s core values

Was this helpful? Did you need any reminders? If you have a story that supports these approaches, we would love to hear it. Share in the comments and perhaps encourage another coach looking to build confident athletes.

Sport Family Coach at

Founder of Growing Champions for Life, David helps sports parents and coaches incorporate positivity and persistence into their communication with the young athletes who count on their encouragement and guidance. An eight-time national water skiing champion, five-time national record holder in water ski jumping, former World Championship U.S. Water Ski Team coach, and proud professional sports parent, he understands first-hand the challenges and rewards of competition. His extensive experience as a corporate leadership coach for Nextel, Sprint, Allstate, Balfour Beatty, The Villages and other companies provides David with unique insight into the skills needed to excel in sports, business and life. He brings an athlete's discipline, a coach's inspiration, and a parent's practical experience to his mission to grow not just champion young athletes, but holistically well-rounded individuals equipped for lifelong excellence.

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