Coaching Adolescent Student Athletes

Published October 2011 • September 2016


After Stephen Curry’s sophomore year of high school, his father Dell realized that he needed to rebuild his shot to succeed at the next level. Stephen Curry was an undersized point guard who shot a high percentage but released the ball at the waist, lacking sufficient arc to get the ball over taller defenders. Over the course of a summer, the family completely rebuilt Stephen’s shot. For the first while, Stephen could not shoot outside of the paint. At summer camps, campers sarcastically asked why he even bothered to play attend (Fleming, 2015).

Feeling deep self-doubt and facing harsh criticism, Curry could have given up. To convince Stephen of the long-term benefits of bringing the ball above his head as a confidence swooned, Dell was supportive first and foremost. Dell had a close relationship with his son so there already was extensive trust between the two before he began making significant changes to Stephen’s shot. As parents, Dell and his wife Sonya believed in providing their children with the resources to succeed without imposing additional pressure (Sherwood Strauss, 2015). Listening, encouraging and giving time and space when required enabled Stephen to survive his “summer of tears” (Fleming, 2015).

The Adolescent Mind Set

Teenaged student-athletes are a work in progress. Their confidence, decision-making and sense of self evolve continuously. Young players have immense potential but coaches must better understand them in order to realize it. It takes patience, but coaches and teachers must react less. Focus on what is happening to teenagers and why (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, p. 117).

Teenagers may seem egocentric, incorrectly understanding themselves to be at the centre of everyone else’s attention. Throughout adolescence, many youth believe that an imaginary audience watches their every move. The presence of this audience impacts performance, even during a closed basketball practice. Young athletes follow their unique personal fable, believing that an illusion of invulnerability will shield them from misfortune, and are prone to impulsive behaviour (Ryan & Kuczkowski, 1994, p. 233).

As teenagers enter middle and late adolescence, they become very inwardly focused. This egocentric self-concept leads to a distortion of their perceptions. On a team, this can be very disruptive, leading to selfish play, a desire for individual glory at the expense of team success and unrealistic expectations (Enright, Shulda, & Lapsley, 1980, p. 102).

Common Issues on Youth Teams

Coaches should be mindful of some of these common adolescent issues that may arise:

  • Peer Comparison: Teenagers are constantly evaluating themselves in relation to others – such as friends and teammates – with a biased perspective.
  • Judgmental Behaviour: Emotions are heightened, there increased focus on outcome and a tendency to criticize self and others.
  • Seeking Attention: One can never look good enough, confusion about identity and worried about embarrassment.
  • Performing to Raise Status or Win Friendship: Teenagers fear loss of status and leadership inhibited by social structure within the group.
  • Believing that Self-Worth Is Determined by Performance: Self-concept tied to factors outside one’s control and there is a tendency to show off.
  • Foreclosure: “going with the flow,” ignoring an issue so as not to cause a dispute and participating in sport to satisfy another, such as a peer or parent.

Symptoms, such as poor teamwork or a lack of motivation may be triggered by one of these underlying causes. Coaches must first build relationships with players in order to reach them and help them change. Mike Krzyzewski and his family host a different Duke team member for dinner each week. Coach K believes that he must treat every student-athlete as a unique person so they can achieve their full potential (Zauderer, 2006, p. 23).

The Role of Sports

Adolescents who participate in sports in benefit physically, academically, socially and psychologically. They do better at school, form better peer relationships and experience greater self-confidence. Student-athletes experience lower rates of mental health problems, such as depression, high-risk behaviours and substance abuse. The teenagers also learn about time management, goal setting and other life lessons (Merkel, 2013, pp. 152-157). During his Hall of Fame induction speech, Allen Iverson thanked basked and coach John Thompson “for saving his life” and giving him a chance to escape poverty and a difficult environment (Payne, 2016).

The Role of Coaches

Coaches hold significant influence over the players within the program and lead a sub-culture within the school or the community. This is a great responsibility given the age of the team members but is also an opportunity to teach valuable life lessons (Bell, 1997, p. 517). Being on a team is a special opportunity; All coaches and players deserve the best each other can provide. The majority of parents and athletes rate coaches as positive influences (Merkel, 2013, p. 151).

Helping the Community: Some go above and beyond their responsibilities. At Eastern Commerce C.I. in Toronto, staff members and coaches mentored dozens of great student-athletes on the court and during study hall. Players remember the interaction off the court as much as the practices and games.

Building Work Ethic

Self-confidence empowers athletes to accomplish extraordinary feats but it can also lead to failures if they do not complete the work necessary for success. Flip Saunders felt that the primary difference between Kevin Garnett – who was able to thrive in the N.B.A. without attending college – and those who did not do as well was that Garnett did not feel that he was owed anything (Abrams, 2016, p. 236). Garnett listed to coaches, gave his all during practices and training sessions and kept detailed notes about the opponents.

Individualized Instruction

The Minnesota coaching staff fashioned a detailed personal plan to introduce Garnett gradually to professional basketball. At Garnett’s first workout, Kevin McHale provided only very simple specific feedback. Bill Blair limited his minutes but explained why so that Garnett would not be frustrated with his role. Garnett wanted to bolster his statistics but did not resent the coaches who were guiding him. Even when there were setbacks, everyone understood that it was imperative to focus on the process (Abrams, 2016, pp. 37-40).

For John Wooden, individualized instruction was the cornerstone of his teaching and coaching philosophy. He instructed Bill Walton differently from his backup Swen Nater because each player had unique needs for skill development. He coached his first championship team in 1964 – which lacked a true superstar – differently from the teams featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because the teams were each suited to contrasting styles of play (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 11).

In order to perfect this method, Wooden continually monitored players against Key Performance Indicators and standards. He experimented with distinctive strategies and noted what worked well so he could repeat it. After practice, Wooden would make numerous observations about how the players responded (Coyle, 2009, pp. 167-170).


Peer mentoring within the team or between a senior and junior team promotes self-esteem using social learning. John Wooden created a culture where senior players would echo his message for new recruits at U.C.L.A. practice (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 69). When expert athletes are given explicit direction to help others, they increase their understanding of the concepts (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, p. 115). Everyone pushes themselves as the mentors learn about leadership while teaching skills to their peers (Bell, 1997, p. 520).

As a young player, Kendrick Perkins idolized Garnett, sharing similar abilities and easily mimicking his intensity. When Garnett was traded to the Celtics in 2007, Perkins was able to change some of his work habits, such as arriving earlier for practice, eating properly and developing his post game (Fisher, 2016).

Dedicated Practice

Stephen Curry’s overcame his diminutive stature, incorrect shooting form and ankle injuries with dedicated practice. From his days as a high school player shooting on the court next to his garage to a two-time Most Valuable Player who draws a crowd for pregame warm-ups, Curry works out with intent and zeal (Sherwood Strauss, 2015).

Thoughtful repetitions build myelin, a substance which insulates connections between neurons and improves performance. Neural connections are reinforced with myelin throughout youth (Coyle, 2009, pp. 36-46). When someone is deeply motivated and guided by practice coaching, they can practice at game intensity and quality.

Practices should be structured so that the skills are within each athlete’s zone of proximal development (the drills should be challenging, but not impossible at that point in the season). Coaches must provide feedback and players must also self-evaluate in order to learn from each repetition. If any component is missing, the practice will not be as beneficial.

Building a Team

The egocentric self-concept and inward focus leads to a distortion of one’s perceptions at the expense of others. Throughout adolescence, this egocentrism will be gradually replaced by an acceptance that they are part of something bigger: society (Enright, Shulda, & Lapsley, 1980, p. 114). As the teenage years begin, non-social activities may be more enjoyable but by late adolescence, social activities become more enjoyable.

Adolescents experience a period of physical maturity and social immaturity. When introducing group activities to teenagers, a coach cannot assume that they automatically know how to play as a team. Their basketball careers have been very individual to this point so additional time must be devoted during the preseason to teach co-operative skills (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, p. 147).

For example, giving feedback is a tricky skill for teenagers to master. Feedback between players should be non-judgmental and specific but coaches may need to intervene to correct critical verbal cues, aloof body language and confrontation tone of voice. Handling the social issues about giving honest feedback to another person is as important as instructing how to give the feedback (Bell, 1997, p. 517).

After he brought Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal together in Los Angeles, Jerry West would meet with them to try and resolve their conflict. West tried to involve the pair in something greater: the Lakers’ team culture. Instead of rivals for the scoring title and sponsorships, they would be legends in the organization’s mythology. Although ultimately unsuccessful in the long run, West’s advice produced three championships in the short term (West, 2011, p. 173).

Channelling Emotions: When emotions are stirred, instruct athletes how to direct that energy on the court. Rather than criticizing youth for reacting, urge them to make a defensive play, run the floor in transition or attack the basket. West spent a significant amount of time helping Bryant harness his drive and put his ego aside on the court. Bryant could be a dynamic force on the court but he became even better when he shared with his teammates (West, 2011, p. 173).

Building Grit

Grit – passion in an activity and the perseverance to overcome adversity – increases as people age. People tend to learn from their lessons, experience new circumstances and find a greater purpose (Duckworth, 2016, pp. 84-91). Chances to forge grit abound in sport. After each shot, the team must get the rebound, after each turnover, the team must get back, after each loss, the team must play again.

Provide Agency: Give players with a sense of control when they are facing a challenge. Change the perspective so it is not an insurmountable obstacle but a call to action. John Calipari asked members of the New Jersey Nets where they would like to receive the ball during critical after timeout and out of bounds plays. Not only did Calipari eliminate excuses but he also empowered each player and raised confidence (Calipari, 2014, p. 53).

Mindfulness Training: During difficult times, focus on the present moment, instead of the past or future. Adolescents are prone to “what-if?” or “what now?” statements which can be distracting. Going to the free throw line, players can employ breathing exercises to centre themselves, visualize the shot going in and repeat positive affirmations. Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon and Andrew Wiggins are among young N.B.A. players using mindfulness to prepare. The young athletes are using an app (“Lucid”) to organize their mental training on the road (Kutz, 2016).

Boosting Self-Esteem

Intrinsic motivation is the fire within that drives a person to reach their goals. Promoting self-esteem is one of the main responsibilities of a youth coach. Self-esteem is a powerful coping skill for adolescent athletes. When teenagers believe in themselves, they can separate themselves from the group, raising confidence and reducing anxiety. Developing self-esteem is an integral step to become an independent adult and establish intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Kuczkowski, 1994, p. 235).

Perceived competence is a belief in one’s talent in a particular area. Based on external and subjective standards, it is subject to change depending on each performance. Self-esteem is a belief that one has worth as a person. Based on internal and objective standards, self-esteem should not change much over time. Those are separate concepts: one can believe they are a good person but understand their handles may need work.

Self-esteem is required for accurate self-assessment; otherwise one is tempted to cheat themselves. The athlete must understand that although their recent performance needs improvement, they are capable of reaching that next goal. When adolescents respect themselves and value their opinions, they can reflect upon their performance and come to realizations that lead to corrections (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, p. 107).

Overcoming Adversity

When Kobe Bryant shot four air balls in the fourth quarter and overtime in an elimination game against Utah during his rookie year, he refused to let the failures define him. During the game, coach Del Harris left Bryant on the court because he was one of the few Lakers playing hard (among the missed shots, he also drove into the lane and made tough baskets that kept his team in the game). Bryant, supported by Jerry West and the Los Angeles organization, did not focus on the misses but continued practicing and shooting so that he would feel confident to take crucial shots in future games (Medina, 2016).

A growth mindset, a belief that intelligence is malleable, serves teenagers well during the transitions that they experience moving into high school. Student-athletes are more likely to improve in the classroom, set higher goals for themselves and motivate themselves to work hard. Athletic abilities and character traits are similarly malleable. Beliefs about their intelligence and abilities crystalize during adolescents (Blackwell, Trzeniewski, & Dweck, 2007, p. 258).

Coaches must give feedback regarding on the process (the quality of the offensive spacing and movement) instead of the outcome (whether the shot went it). Teaching about the growth mindset will boost player confidence on the court and in the classroom. Incorporate real-life stories of peers and role models. Lastly, no game situation is helpless and despite lopsided scores, focus on what the players can do (take high percentage shots) and not issues outside of their control (a superior opponent, a tough crowd or questionable officiating).


When a teenager joins a high school sports team, they may possess a number of bad habits. This could be the result of a lack of experience, ineffectual coaching at the younger age levels or poor role models. It is critical that coaches teach adolescents how to self-evaluate their performance so they can benefit from the dedicated practice required for improvement.

If players are not self-aware, they will search for answers (Bell, 1997, p. 519). In practice, accommodate a variety of learning styles by demonstrating the drill and allowing players to feel how skill should be performed. Use video to highlight key points that must be addressed. After games, evaluate each performance but deal with emotional effects of competition first before breaking down details.

Small-Sided Games

To increase learning, coaches should chunk up their lessons and repeat good habits (Coyle, 2009, pp. 74-94). For basketball coaches, this could include a whole-part-whole structure where the coach illustrates the key principles of the practice, implements breakdown drills and brings everyone together for competitive situations to apply what was learned. Staple drills can be repeated but loaded dynamically to challenge players. Small-sided games offer plenty of touches so players can feel what it is like to execute the skill in a game situation.

3-on-3 Basketball: Elite coaches want players who can shoot, handle the ball and make good decisions. The more dedicated repetitions that an athlete can complete, they more they will succeed. 3-on-3 games provide many more touches and shots for all players and therefore more chances to learn. This small-side game simulates real competitions, creates a dynamic environment to practice skills and forces athletes to solve problems.

If young athletes can play freely, they will learn what works and what does not. Coaches can create a situation (such as a pin down screen) to shape the action, focus the athlete’s attention (read the defender when using the screen) and enhance the drill by adding refinements (wing players must shoot, drive or enter into post in half a second). Coaches are teaching through play, not demonstrations. Limit interventions to succinct explanations or questions to promote guided discovery (Oliver, 2016).

There are more touches so athletes develop their kinesthetic awareness and pay attention to details that they must concentrate on during the action. There is better spacing so the ball can find the open man. More time is spent engaged in high intensity physical activity so heart rate rises relative to a traditional basketball practice (Garcia, García, Cañadas, & Ibáñez, 2014, p. 28). Players become lost in the competition and are not distracted by others who may be watching (peers, spectators).

Building Confidence

Coach the emotional side of the player before focusing on the technical elements. When students feel competent about their skills and abilities, they are move likely to participate in physical activity (Koka & Hein, 2006, p. 330). Athletes with high perceived competence in a sport experience higher self-esteem in other areas of their life (Ebbeck & Stuart, 1996, p. 376).

Address self-esteem before improving skill or technique. Sometimes, serving as a reassuring voice in a huddle is more impactful than an astute strategic adjustment. Team members must have a positive expectancy of themselves and the sport. Confidence in sport can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that continues off the court (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, p. 168). If teenagers feel unsuccessful, they may drop out of sport.

Adolescents need to understand that adults care for and respect them. Charting basic stats in practices and games over time will display the good work team members have achieved. Also, encouraging motivational (“I can make this”) and instructional self-talk (“follow-through towards target”) improve performance in dribbling, passing and shooting (Chroni, Perkos, & Theodorakis, 2007, p. 27).

Craft a Role

Substitutes may not feel connected to the team and this creates a psychological barrier that limits their performance. Physically, this manifests itself in slight aerobic detraining and careless play, for example fouling excessively or making poor decisions (Sampaio, Ibáñez, Lorenzo, & Gómez, 2006, p. 491). Clearly communicating roles to every team member and acknowledging the contributions of all team members makes everyone feel part of the team.

Player Development: Toronto Raptors Assistant Coach Jama Mahlalela makes the players at the end of the bench comfortable and devotes time to provide them with additional help. He also charts screening and defensive metrics and cuts films highlighting the best and worst part of the bench players’ limited performance. Mahlalela mixes reassurance and explanations, devising an action plan to enable the player to grow their role (Koreen, 2016). For Bruno Caboclo, feedback from the coaching staff focuses on his jump shot, movement skills and life skills.

Adolescents tend compare themselves to others so construct a role that enables players to make contributions to the team. Avoid the temptation to push student-athletes with a “no-limits” approach. Coaches should show confidence in players to achieve a evaluate potential to determine a realistic goal that they have determined together.

When Isiah Thomas considered drafting Garnett, he contemplated limiting his travel schedule so his mind and body could adjust (Abrams, 2016, pp. 31-32). For a high school player, their role may be spot-up shooter or defensive stopper until they develop a complete game. When that player succeeds in the role, the coach and other players should acknowledge their efforts and progress.

Non-Judgmental Feedback

Feedback that is perceived to be informative – containing objective comments about performance and specific areas for improvement – is strongly connected to intrinsic motivation. General positive feedback is also important but athletes must understand how they are progressing and what they must do to improve to benefit from a growth mindset. Youth who feel physically competent will participate in sports more over the long-term. John Wooden’s short individualized instruction promoted mylenation at a critical time (Coyle, 2009, p. 170).

Everyone can help the team win by lifting their field goal percentage, foul rate, defensive rebounding and free throw shooting, irrespective of their role on the team (Sampaio, Ibáñez, Lorenzo, & Gómez, 2006, p. 490). Coaches should help all players with specific non-judgmental feedback in these areas. Feedback should not be limited to basketball ability but other elements such as work ethic and decision-making.

Teenagers may be tempted to look down and blame themselves if they make a mistake. Coaches should promote constructive self-talk such as “hold your follow through,” “move your feet” and “make contact.” Rather than looking back, players should make adjustments for the next play.

Player Input

Allow athletes to strive independence the school and team structure (Varatanoa, 2007, p. 50). Southhampton Football Club runs an educational programme alongside their regular training regiment. For example, youth team members will make decisions on certain training and rest and recovery matters. The team offers opportunities to develop social skills off the pitch so players become more functional people (Syed, 2016).

If a teenager feels that their opinion matters, they will communicate more assuredly. Coaches influence and guide goals, but do not dictate them. Help team members choose values and live by them rather than imposing arbitrary benchmarks. In co-operation with coaches, student-athletes help define team standards during team and individual meetings. Players organize off the court training, balancing their level of commitment and informing the coach to adjust the weight room schedule accordingly.


Teenagers are training so effectively that they are develop amazing physical skills but they often lack mental training skills. When LeBron James first entered the N.B.A., the Cleveland Cavaliers were tempted to use him as an athletic point forward who handled the ball on every possession. However, he stopped the ball and slowed the Cavs’ desired tempo. Paul Silas devoted significant time teaching James about decision-making on the court and tried to put the rookie and other athletes on the team in sets where they could make quick reads (McCallum, 2015).

Success in sport continues in the classroom. Teenagers who respect themselves are happier, less stressed and not as prone to blame, guilt and other negative behaviour. Despite all of their success, athletes such as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James would credit their coaches and mentors for inspiring them to become better people, not just players.

List of Resources

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