Handling Kids Through Three Simple Approaches

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Have you ever known someone who seemed to be a “Born Coach”? There is a good chance they understood that, to varying degrees, all players have three “me’s” inside them. They are:

- Praise Me
- Push Me
- Play Me

Praise Me

All players prefer to be praised rather than pushed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is better. There are two sayings about praise, which seem to be contradictory, but which explain the delicate balance coaches must maintain to get the right effect. One phrase is:

“Praise, like diamonds, owes its value to scarcity.” The other saying is:
“Some people hand out compliments like they had to go into their pockets and pay for them.”

The first indicates that one needs to keep praise to a minimum so that when it is bestowed, it is meaningful. The other implies that praise is free and easy to give, so why not do it more often?

Which is the best course of action? Usually it lies somewhere in the middle, and varies from player to player.

Push Me

Praise alone does not bring out the best in an athlete. A good coach pushes his players to improve and fulfill their potentials. And though most agree you’ll get more out of youngsters using a positive approach, too many coaches believe pushing necessitates yelling at kids or constantly telling them they did something wrong.

Play Me

The most gifted players often don’t need to be pushed or praised. They show up, and once they cross the white lines, their competitive natures take over and supercede anything you can say or do as a coach. And, regardless of a player's talent level, there are some times that it’s best to do or say nothing, and just let your players play.

Throughout each game and practice, you are repeatedly challenged with deciding which approach to take with each player. Here is an example of the decision-making process at work in a typical scenario.

A player nearly makes a play, but is unsuccessful. What should you say? It depends on the player and the situation:
1. Have you seen him make this play routinely? It may be best to push him: “You know you can make that play, Kyle.”
2. Is he a player of limited ability who made an extraordinary effort just getting to the ball? It may be best to praise him: “Great hustle, Phillip! Way to get to that ball!”
3. Is he a hard-working player who knows he should have made the play, and is probably beating himself up right now? Just let him play: “Hey no problem. We’ll get the next one.”
4. What have the last few interactions been with this player? Has he been praised, pushed, or just played recently? It may be time for a different approach now.
The same thought process applies when players succeed. A player who is successful more often might need less praise than one who struggles. One of your more talented players may receive nothing more than a, “Nice job,” while players with less ability get high-fives for the same performance. Sometimes letting a kid play is subtly pushing him, because he will work hard to do something extraordinary to earn the praise he sees you bestowing on others.

All players need to be, at times, pushed, praised and played. What makes every one different is the percentage of each they require. You’ll encounter some kids who are 95% “Play Me”. No maintenance, no trouble, just put them out on the field and they'll quietly go about their business and give it their all. They're grateful for praise, but don't expect it, and you never need to push them. In fact, sometimes pushing these players has the opposite of the intended effect.

There will be others who have immense talent, but who still need constant praise. If you ever try to push them, they’ll pout and feel sorry for themselves. These individuals are the most difficult to manage because you’ll have to walk a fine line between getting them to perform for praise, and pampering them. You must be careful not to let them, because of their talent, live by a different set of rules than the rest of the players. Yet at the same time, if you don’t give them more than their fair share of pats on the back, their effort may suffer. And that’s not good for the team.

And some athletes must be pushed and pushed to maximize their potentials. Sometimes these players are a little lazy and need the constant reminder that the only way to improve is through work. Others might have trouble staying focused and must be kept in line. And still other predominantly, "Push Me" players respond to this approach because they like being pushed to the limit and understand that your motivation is to make them better. This latter type of athlete is hard to come by, but may be the most enjoyable of all to coach.

The magic of coaching is in learning the make-up of each of your players and determining when to praise, when to push, and when to just let them play. Some of this coaching acumen develops with time and experience, but typically, if you trust your instincts, you’ll make the right call. And one final tip: When in doubt, just let them play.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at

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