Seeing Athletes as Individuals

Seeing Athletes as Individuals

By Positive Coaching Alliance in collaboration with USA Gymnastics

Positive Coaching Alliance defines culture as “the way we do things here,” and it’s important to define what it means to be a part of the “we.” Defining the “we” in culture and developing an inclusive environment starts with getting to know our athletes individually; with their unique stories, unique strengths and unique differences. Creating an environment that is physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe for ALL athletes is one of the most important responsibilities of a coach.

This environment also supports best possible performance. You must understand that each child is different and it’s not the child’s responsibility to adjust to the coach’s needs, but the coach’s responsibility to adjust to the child’s needs. A team will be made up of unique individuals; this includes a combination of different personalities, learning styles, cultural backgrounds, experience, gender dynamics, etc. As a coach, you will not get the same action and reaction from each child, so it’s important to get to know each gymnast individually. Identifying which styles are preferred by your gymnasts is vital for understanding them, establishing rapport and communicating effectively. Goals and strategies are highly influenced by personal preferences and tendencies of individuals, and a coach must take the time to understand each. Here are some ways to embrace individuality in coaching:

See athletes as people, first, before you look at them as athletes. It’s important to understand athletes have a lot going on outside of sports that may affect how they are performing on the mat. A coach who takes interest in a child’s life outside of sports shows the child that the coach truly cares about them, and gymnasts are much more likely to trust a coach who cares about them. This trust allows the team to perform smoother and be more successful.

Spend individual time, attention and support with each athlete. It’s important to make a conscious effort to speak with your athletes individually–and not just about their gymnastic skills. Ask them about their day, their likes/dislikes, their interests outside of gymnastics, their family, their pets, etc. Get to know each athlete beyond their gymnastic skills in order to build rapport and let them know you care.

Avoid comparisons. Constantly comparing athletes to each other is very destructive to individuality. Reminding your child that he or she is better or worse than his friend, or asking him or her why he can’t be more like their teammate or sibling, is always destructive. Even if these thoughts run through your head, resist the temptation to voice them. Comparisons of this sort will make him feel bad about himself, and are highly unlikely to result in positive change. In high-performance environments, we tend to compare ourselves with others often, but healthy competition is fun if we help athletes focus on being their best selves. Success comes at different times and in different ways for everyone, so we have to help them redefine what success looks like for them individually and collectively.

Be open to multiple ways, processes and strategies to achieve a set goal. There are so many ways to have success, and as coaches, we need to be open to different strategies for our gymnasts, and help them find what works specifically for them. Being married to a single train of thought is a disservice to the gymnasts who might need something else. And that something else might just mean different words to say the same thing. Or that something else might be completely contradictory to the way you’ve always done things. Embracing each gymnast’s individuality involves being open to multiple ways of achieving the same thing.

Embrace uniqueness and differences. Help children OWN everything that makes them special– their gifts, strengths, differences, story, etc. This helps them find their role on the team and embrace it. This comes with letting them explore new challenges, and discover their personal goals and needs. Everyone can have their own individual role on the team, and we as coaches can encourage and foster both their physical and intellectual growth. Letting them know that they each are an integral part of the whole team and when they focus on being themselves and not on what others are doing or what others are great at, then they’re doing their part to represent the entire team as a whole. Rather than trying to get everyone to fit in the same box, give them space to embrace their unique differences and individuality.

Children desire to play sports for so many great reasons and we, as coaches and as parents, tend to overlook or forget that what kids really want is to matter to something bigger than themselves. They actually desire that more than they want a win, a trophy, or a title. For competition to be the healthy developmental tool that it has the potential to be for our children, we as adults need to remember to embrace individuality and different processes towards success. It is not the child’s responsibility to adjust their personality to meet a coach’s style, but more of the coach’s responsibility to get to know each child’s personality and individual needs.

Additional resources:

USA Gymnastics is a proud partner of Positive Coaching Alliance- a national non-profit organization on a mission to serve as a catalyst for a positive youth sports culture in all communities across the U.S. To learn more about PCA, visit