Using Proactive Affirmation Helps Players, Creates Team Synergy

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By Kirk Talley, Head Football Coach, University of Northwestern – St. Paul, St. Paul, Minn.

In the football coaching profession we continually hear from coaches who speak of two specific traits – attitude and effort (work ethic) – when describing the how’s and why’s of their teams’ success.

As a collegiate head coach for more than 20 years, there is no doubt in my mind that these characteristics are crucial attributes in regard to on-field success. They are the intangibles that most every coach leans on, whether struggling or winning championships, for their program to be the best it can be.

Why do coaches rely on invoking attitude and effort? Primarily, it is because these attributes are time-honored, effective and have been reliable over the years. As coaches, we preach these characteristics because every one of our athletes can have a great attitude and/or work ethic. It doesn’t require an athlete to be a four-star recruit to hone those two “skills.”

Greater Levels of Passion, Enthusiasm

Most coaches encourage their top athletes to work harder than anyone else and try to instill a great attitude among them. In fact, we remind our players they can never be too fast, too quick, too strong or too agile to play football.

That same mindset applies to attitude, as well. An athlete can never have “too good” of an attitude.

And, might I dare say, one cannot work too hard, either, though there can diminishing returns if one does not use wisdom while working.

We all, however, have one quality that we can call for and that all athletes (and coaches) have the inner ability to develop: encouragement.

Encouragement (affirmation) sparks life within people. Life begets energy, and energy can bring about whole new levels of enthusiasm and passion. If you truly want to gain an edge as a coach, enthusiasm and passion are the qualities and traits you can realistically work to develop within your athletes.

Affirming not only breathes life into a person, it can breathe life into a whole team or program. It may energize an individual, allowing them to give that extra bit of an edge to work harder, or it may also help that player to spark a new attitude within a teammate. Either way, it can be viewed as constructive attributes that will make your team better in the long run.

That’s the great thing about using affirmation – players lift one another up and the group as a whole profits on the field.

Developing Team Synergy

I recently spoke to a couple of coaches at a current, as well as historically, successful NCAA Division III program. I asked what makes them, them?

The first element one of the coaches mentioned was that their players encouraged one another. He said that even players at the same position encourage one another on a regular basis, day-in and day-out.

This encouragement, he says – even in competitive situations such as players who are battling for playing time at the same position – creates synergy, which in turn, builds up overall team synergy. This all happens, according to the coaches, regardless of the status of an individual player.

The coach said that the contagious effect of encouragement made it one of the top three foundational aspects for their particular football program. So encouragement (aka, proactive affirmation), is a top attribute for this former national champion’s success (and current conference champion).

Affirmations Work

So what’s the lesson in all of this? Perhaps the next time that one of your players is having a bad day, you can make a concerted effort to toss some sunshine his way. Or maybe the next time a particular unit is having a tough go against an opponent, you can affirm them, and at the same time, make the necessary corrections.


It’s critical that you, as a coach, find practical, yet effective ways for your players to encourage one another – like those cited in the above examples.

Whatever approach you use to encourage, and affirm your players, allow it to develop and make it a coaching-staff priority. Doing so will greatly impact your program for the greater good.

Proactive Affirmations

Having a hard time thinking up ways to encourage players that doesn’t sound corny or cliché? It’s not that difficult and you don’t have to recite a speech or try to reinvent the wheel. Encouragement can be a simple statement – yet it may mean the world to a particular player when said at the right time.

Below are some examples of simple, yet effective affirmations that, when said sincerely and powerfully, I’ve found to be successful over the years.

INSERT PLAYER NAME, you’re good at INSERT SKILL OR TRAIT.

“We’re going to get this done!”

“You’re going to get this done!”

“We’re at our best in tough situations.”

“You’re better than that, INSERT PLAYER NAME.”

“Keep working at it, you can do it.”

“We are great at overcoming.”

“Come on, we can do this!”

INSERT PLAYER NAME, I believe in you.”

“We’ll get it done next time.”

“You’ll get it done next time.”

Kirk Talley has been the head football coach at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul for 15 seasons. He was selected as Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) “Coach-of-the-Year” in 2001, 2005, 2008, and 2012. With an overall record with the Eagles of 95-47 (.669) and a 68-16 (.809) in-conference mark, Talley ranks first all-time in career winning percentage and career victories at the school.

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