If you’re lucky, your win percentage for your coaching career could hover around .750 — but that isn’t reality for most coaches. Even the best coaches face an underwhelming season where the team didn’t meet the expectations for that year.
This kinda season burns a hole in your chest, and if you aren’t careful, can lead to a flared temper with your athletes and coaching burnout (thankfully we asked 100+ coaches how they handle coaching burnout). Ultimately, you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable ‘down year’ and how you can keep yourself and your team motivated even when the loses start piling up.
To give you a headstart, we asked 75+ coaches, ranging from youth sports all the way to the highest levels of D1 athletics, this question: What is the best way to keep your team motivated during a ‘down’ season? Here are some of the best responses.
What’s The Best Way to Keep Your Team Motivated During a ‘Down’ Season?
“It’s important to keep several goals that you can control and do on a regular basis. This can be simple or complex — just something that can keep athletes in the moment rather than focusing on the past or future.
Always have athletes do these three things each week:
- Do one thing for someone else. No expectations for anything in return.
- Do one thing for you. No expectations of pleasing anybody else.
- Reach out to someone you haven’t talked to in awhile. Someone needs it.
These can change for you and your athletes, but this is what has worked well for us.”
–Matt Barnthouse, Basketball Coach and Former D1 Staff Member at Ole Miss Men’s Basketball
“Keep pushing to get better each week and make the game enjoyable for the athletes. Throw in trick plays that get them excited and mix stuff up at practice.
We were struggling near the end of the season, so we did a coaches vs athletes 7 on 7. The kids had a blast and loved every minute of it. It allowed the team to bond and coaches to bond and made the game fun for them.”
–Chris Pettus, QB Coach & Offensive Coordinator at Patton HS (NC)
“My mentality is to create a positive environment where athletes are happy to be. I set realistic and performance-related goals at the beginning of the season that are reviewed every few months. I haven’t had a season yet where we fell massively short of our pre-set goals, but I still focus on the positives and highlight improvements instead of weaknesses.
I keep my athletes motivated by constantly challenging them to improve in different areas of the game. I show care towards them on and off the pitch and make sure they always feel included and listened to. Once a month, I try to address the social corner of the game (i.e. have a session built around teamwork and competition rather than technical or tactical work). Creating good and consistent habits also ensures a higher level of engagement (e.g. warm ups and cool downs done a certain way).
I keep myself motivated by focusing on my vision and the areas I can control. For example, training and session design is almost fully under my control, so I can always make improvements in this area (as opposed to match days, for example). I listen to coaching-related podcasts and watch documentaries or training session videos on a regular basis, taking notes and thinking of ways to implement new ideas.”
–Marton Suranyi, Head Soccer Coach at South East Athletic (England)
“We set mini-goals and celebrate those when accomplished. We never judge how we played by the outcome of the game. We can play great basketball by our standards and lose a game. We can also play horrible basketball and win the game. It’s about setting standards that are right for your team.”
–Brian Hutton, Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Georgian Grizzlies (Canada)
“Down seasons are gonna happen — we just came off of one. The key to maintaining progress in a down year is emphasizing individual goals for athletes, and long term goals for yourself AND your coaching staff. Running a program is about success over a period of time — year to year that will vary.
All serious athletes have individual goals that aren’t totally affected by team results. Make sure your athletes know that their own performance will impact their own futures, so they must work!
Always emphasize that culture is a constant project. Don’t discourage yourself or your staff by falling short in one season. Continue finding positives and smaller objectives to prepare yourselves for the future, and do everything you can to ensure that those down seasons happen less frequently or not at all!”
–Jonah Dubinski, Head Football Coach at Battle HS (MO)
“After a down season, take time to get away. Find a hobby or spend time with your family away from the sport. There is no specified time, but I use 2-3 weeks. You need this AND your athletes need this. I always feel depressed when the season is over because I know several kids’ journeys have ended and not with the results we wanted. I think after this time away, it’s great to start learning again and working on new wrinkles for next year’s team.”
–David Smiley, Head Girls Basketball Coach at Caprock HS (TX)
“Since the beginning, I’ve always preached development over wins. If you focus on the development and details, the wins will take care of themselves.
I also focus on what positive we can take from each week regardless of a trophy or medal. I also tell my parents to learn to measure their child’s success on something other than winning a game on a random Saturday.”
–Stephen Gunn, Head Basketball Coach at ODE Basketball (OK)
“As competitive as I am, it’s important to remember my ‘why’. Every athlete should be reminded of “why they play for this team”. Most athletes are out there because they’re playing with their friends. When we’re underperforming, it’s important to explain to the team that their character and athlete development is based on the journey, not the end result.
When you do lose, it’s easy to reinforce the idea of why they play and to connect the season to their overall resilience in life. As a younger coach, I thought there must be something I could do to fix the problem. It had to be the formation, athlete selection, tactics, or something I could control. I’ve learned now to step back, listen, and reflect. Listen to my athletes at training and games. How is their demeanor? Listen to my assistant coaches and hear their opinions. Even listen to myself. Don’t over-complicate your thoughts — go with your gut feeling. By sitting back and reflecting, you get new approaches to challenges and put things in perspective that helps combat that “must win” mindset that can become really toxic.”
–Doug Flesch, Head Boys Soccer Coach at Cooper HS (KY)
“I keep the kids’ energy and motivation up throughout a bad season by incorporating real life, everyday situations. In life, there is always some type of adversity. You either learn how to adapt and pass the test or get eaten and forgotten.
Have your athletes understand that losses don’t necessarily mean you failed. Take it as a lesson and grow from it so when you’re faced with it again, you know how to handle the situation better.”
–Chris Thomas, Assistant Head Football Coach & Offensive Coordinator at Laney HS (GA)
“Create team bonding activities. Set up a weekend retreat to take your minds off of the ‘down’ season. We regroup, set short-term goals, and focus on the bigger picture.”
–Nikki King, Varsity Girls Basketball Coach at Ridge Community HS (FL)
“We had this kinda season last year. Started 1-10, but ended up in the conference tourney and 1 game away from the championship. We focused on daily improvement and designed practices to emphasize the areas we needed to improve in.
We also set daily, achievable goals — which is vitally important for this generation. My motivation is driven by trying to get the most out of each team I coach.”
–James Grandey, Head Baseball Coach & Deputy Director of Athletics at Bluffton University (OH)
“I personally use the mnemonic P. A.S.T — Personal Days Off, Assess Identified Situations, Schedule Family Events, and Talk w/ Coaches and Mentors.”
–Darrick Mullins, Head Basketball Coach at Pitt Community College (NC)
“We had a down season this year and it was a struggle to keep athletes motivated. However, we continued to make each game experience unique and one of a kind for our players and community.
Down year or not, we know that kids can partake in much easier activities, so we want to make Friday night’s eventful! Fireworks, loud music, an in-game DJ, lots of uniforms, and anything we can do to make high school football the best experience we can for our athletes.”
–Zach Wagner, Head Football Coach at Mclean County HS (KY)
“I keep myself motivated by remembering that I’m building men, not baseball players. Maybe the season didn’t go great, but did they learn from hardship and success? Did we win the right way? Did we lose the right way? How were our final grades? Did they have fun?”
–Andrew Sylvester, Head Baseball Coach at Maryville Christian HS (TN)
“I try not to let the bad linger too long. That goes for myself as well. After a poor season, I always second guess myself. Am I doing all I can for our athletes? Am I the right guy for this job? Should I change my program?
You have to celebrate some of the positive things you accomplished over the past season. Mention where your unfinished business lies and what you need to do to get back on top of the mountain. Having player captains be the juice in weight room sessions helps tremendously too.
–Kevin Smith, Head Football Coach at Belton-Honea Path HS (SC)
“Down years don’t mean you can’t succeed. We focus on the things we’re doing well and put emphasis on getting our guys into positions and situations that they will have success (or the best opportunity). Find ways to expose talents instead of pitfalls, and target some specific skills to get better (on or off the field).”
–Zack Hamilton, Volleyball and Baseball Coach at Southeast Polk HS (IA)
“Keep a positive culture in dry times. Leaning into hope is critical for keeping athletes and your staff engaged. Consistently work on positive mental approaches, because when things get grim, you need to be able to look disappointing results in the face and stay motivated. Lastly, carry yourself with confidence — act like a winner even on your bad days.”
–Casey Turgeon, Varsity Assistant Coach at Benjamin Franklin HS
“As a coach, I go out every day like we have a perfect season. If the players see that I’m down, they’ll get down too. Players feed off their coach. If we’re 0-10, I come out with the same enthusiasm as I would if we were 10-0.
All it takes is one game to flip the narrative, and you never know when that game will be. We teach our girls to be students of the game. We go over busted plays and ways to adjust from mishaps of the game. I also like to remind them that we have to be weak before we’re strong, therefore we have to look at our weakness as a building block.
My players keep me motivated. I see myself in them and know I never wanted to see my coach “defeated” so I make it a priority to keep myself positive.”
–Harli Crow Walding, Head Softball Coach at Denham Springs HS (LA)
“During the down season, ensure the goals being set game-to-game are achievable. Execution is on the players, and the results are on the coach. During the off-season, we clearly know what we need to work on. It could be the weight room, shooting, or work ethic. You can’t fix it all, so focus on the critical few items that provide the most return to the players.”
–Perry Parendo, Basketball Development Coach (MN)
“It’s a tough balancing act between knowing when to push harder to meet expectations and when to step back and refocus. It comes down to knowing your players and their personalities. Each team is different.
That’s why it’s important to set team goals and expectations prior to the season so that you have a sense of being in this together. For myself, I count on positive reinforcement and encouragement from my head coach and the rest of the staff, as well as our players.”
–Dale Paschall, Assistant Ladies Basketball Coach at Terry Sanford HS (NC)
“I change up the workouts so that things are staying fresh and focus is required on the task ahead. We also use competition drills where the losers have to run hills to keep us competing internally. To keep myself motivated, I talk with other successful programs who won state championships and send kids to school and just remind myself that’s the goal.”
–Ernest Washington, Assistant Head Football Coach at Snyder HS (NJ)
“Keep the main thing as the main thing. We never lose sight of why we’re here. Our focus is making sure our guys are prepared for life just as much as they are prepared for a game. The motivation should be about the team and what we came together to accomplish. Our mission statement is always at the forefront of everything that we do.”
–James C. Williams, Head Basketball Coach at Voorhees University (GA)
“Humor… gotta have it! It cuts the tension and helps to minimize the stress in the locker room and meeting rooms. Yes, we’re all competitive, there’s no denying that. But at the end of the day, these are kids and playing the game of football is fun! Keep it that way… regardless of the win-loss record.”
–Charles Johnson, Defensive Coordinator at Rosehill Christian School (TX)
“You have to take it game by game. Our focus this week is solely on being better than we were last week. While it’s good to have big picture long term strategic goals, you need short term tactical goals to help you get to those long term goals. We focus on those short term goals. This helps to show progress and keep us motivated.
As a head coach, you have to set the tone for your team. Sell them on your vision. Get them to see themselves the way that you see them. There’s going to be adversity and days when things don’t go your way. Stay the course and keep believing in the vision and your team. They will pick up on it and continue to fight and believe. Be a steady and consistent leader. When you’re the head coach, there is no room for doubt or hesitation. If you want them to believe then you have to believe!”
–Carleton Cotner, Head Football Coach at Urbana HS (OH)
“Focus on small victories anywhere you can. Praising these small victories during a down time shows the players that you’re still battling in the midst of this trouble. For myself, I focus on the things we’re doing well, which is hard for any coach during this time. If you can’t do this, you create a lot of stress that is bad for your personal health and team.
One major thing that I do is leave it in the office. My family isn’t playing or coaching and they don’t need it. As soon as I get home, I get with my kids and do something they want to do that isn’t related to what I coach.
The players have to know you love them for more than what they can do for you on the field. The players know if you are genuine and can spot a fake, and if you truly do love them this is never an issue.”
–Justin Newman, Defensive Coordinator at G.W. Carver HS (GA)
“How can we get 1% better everyday? During the season, I’ll change what we’re doing for the lift if needed. For example, if we have a holiday during the lift week, have a themed lift. This gets them to get a different stimulus from what we normally do and they can have fun.
I keep myself motivated by keeping a head strong mentality that things will turn around, good things will happen, and being the positive person they need. If your athletes believe in you, they’ll feel the same and the page will turn.”
–Chris Thompson, Assistant Strength Coach at Delaware State University (DE)
“Focus on the process. One day at a time, do what you do. Winning isn’t a goal, it’s the mindset.”
–Greg Schwarz, Head Football Coach at New Fairfield HS (CT)
See What 50+ Other Coaches Had to Say
We couldn’t fit every coach’s advice in the article, but we stored every answer here so that you can draw from the other incredible coaches.
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