How To Reach Athletes Who Are Not Coachable

One of the first evaluations made of an athlete is whether or not he or she is coachable. Many coaches will select a less talented player who is coachable over a more talented player who isn’t coachable. What is it that prevents an athlete from being coachable in the first place?

A fragile mindset

Like many coaches, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of coaching seemingly un-coachable athletes. It is a frustrating experience. One tennis player stands out in my mind. He was talented, but he was a bit of a head case. Watching his matches was often like riding a roller coaster. His emotions rose and fell with each point won or error made.

As his mental coach, I asked a lot of questions and observed his reactions in practice and in competition. It became evident that his outward confidence was mostly bravado. He clung to the identity of being a good tennis player. Yet, it was as if each point either confirmed or denied the validity of this claim. A mistake proved he was inadequate. A winner validated what he so desperately wanted to be true: I’m a good player.

A fixed mindset

Based on the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindsets: A New Psychology of Success, I’d characterize the above athlete as having a fixed mindset. He believed that his tennis abilities were set. He had to make do with the hand he’d been dealt. Every instance proved or disproved whether or not those abilities were good enough.

Athletes in a fixed mindset don’t value effort, believe hard work is less valuable than talent and become intimidated by the success of others. To be clear, this doesn’t mean they can’t be successful players. So long as their abilities match the demands placed on them, they’ll often do very well.

However, when they face real challenges, their fixed mindsets cause them to cover up insecurities. They are likely to back out, self-sabatague or give less than their best effort to provide a convenient excuse when they don’t come out on top.

In a fixed mindset, an athlete’s motivation comes from upholding the image that he or she is skilled. Anything or anyone who is perceived as questioning that image is viewed as a threat. Threats infringe on their egos. Thus, athletes in a fixed mindset act defensive.

Why it’s tough to coach a fixed mindset

If a player believes his or her sport specific ability can’t change, then it makes sense why he or she would:

1. not value hard work
2. ignore valuable feedback
3. be intimidated by other’s successes


Consequently, players in a fixed mindset never reach their potentials.

If they don’t think they can improve, then why work hard and be receptive to a coach’s feedback? It is easy to see how a coach (or parent) could get frustrated by an athlete in a fixed mindset.

So, is that it? Is there nothing a coach can do to help an athlete in a fixed mindset become more coachable? In fact, there are at least two things you can do.

Foster a Growth Mindset in Your Athletes

By highlighting two specific aspects of a player’s performance, you can help foster a growth mindset – one in which players are highly coachable.

1. Highlight Effort
Players in a fixed mindset don’t value effort because they don’t believe it pays off. As a coach, highlighting exactly when and how effort has paid off for that player chisels away at the wrongful beliefs holding them back.

An example might sound like, “Look at all the time you’ve put in at the free throw line in practice. Based on your free throw percentage moving up to 85%, I’d say that hard work is paying off.”

2. Highlight Development
Remember that players in a fixed mindset don’t really believe they can get significantly better with practice. This may cause them to slack off in practice or refrain from putting forth their fullest effort. Highlighting the ways an athlete has improved in his or her skill, strategy, leadership or in-game situations demonstrates that, in fact, they are improving.

An example might sound like, “Great job reading the different defensive looks that team threw at you. Throughout the season your decision making at the line has really improved.”

Free Download

To help you influence your athletes toward a growth mindset, I developed this free action guide with 10 things coaches can start doing today.

As a coach, you’ve seen players in a fixed mindset countless times before. They rely on talent and don’t like to get outside their comfort zones. But this mindset stifles their true potentials.

By highlighting their effort and development, you can encourage them to challenge their beliefs. Before long the evidence will be undeniable that indeed hard work does pay off and they can improve. Now, that’s coachable.

Question: What frustrates you most about a player who isn’t coachable? Leave your comment in the section below this post. 


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.