Establishing Athlete Behavior Standards

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The start of a new season is an exciting time for coaches and athletes alike. However, this initial burst of enthusiasm and commitment inevitably will soon be tested as athletes cope with training and competition demands while also trying to balance other life responsibilities. Over a long season even the most disciplined competitor will be tempted to stray off course and sometimes make poor decisions or behave inappropriately.

The approach of a new season is the prime time for coaches to review and update their team standards. The most effective coaches prefer ‘standards’ over ‘rules’ because they understand that every athlete, and every situation, is unique. Athlete behavior should be evaluated against flexible team standards, not rigid ‘one size fits all’ rules. For example, legendary college coach John Wooden used to preach that equal treatment is not equitable treatment, a sentiment also shared by the most successful high schools.

Furthermore, whereas rules are typically written for identifying how negative behaviors will be punished, standards are used to promote desirable behaviors. The standards represent ‘how we operate’ as members of a team. Team standards should be set high, clearly describe expected conduct, and be distributed in writing to all program stakeholders (athletes, coaches, administrators, parents, etc.).

A simple and effective way to communicate standards is to create an athlete code of conduct. Coaches should explain the code of the conduct in a team meeting and ensure that a copy is prominently displayed to serve as a constant reminder of expected behavior. These are the behaviors that will help the team train and compete with integrity while also putting them in the best position to succeed. Sample code of conduct statements include:

• I will treat all athletes, coaches, officials, parents and spectators with dignity and respect
• I will arrive on time for all team functions
• I will encourage and assist my teammates in becoming better athletes and people

The system created by 3-time defending college football championship coach Urban Meyer provides a current and compelling example for team standards. Coach Meyer uses a three-tiered (Blue-Red-Gold) incentive-based system for promoting desirable athlete behavior standards. The system is described in detail, along with commentary from coach Meyer, in an article to be published in September 2015 in the International Sport Coaching Journal.

The Blue-Red-Gold system works like this. All athletes enter the team at the Blue level, which is the lowest status and has the fewest earned privileges (because the player, regardless of their character or potential, has yet to demonstrate the behavior standards with the team). For example, Blue level athletes have eight hours of mandatory academic tutoring each week and are not allowed any unexcused absences from classes.

In order to graduate to Red level status, athletes must show a record of good academic performance and adherence to team behavior standards. By earning Red level status, athletes are granted more freedom and trust, and have fewer conditions imposed upon them. Those athletes who most consistently demonstrate the behavior standards are rewarded with the Gold level designation. In coach Meyer’s words, these are the athletes who have shown they deserve to be treated like ‘grown men’.

Coaches meet weekly to review and nominate athletes for movement up and down levels. When an athlete is promoted to a higher level, they are formally recognized for the achievement in front of the entire team, much like a graduation.

Much like many other aspects of coaching, there is no one ‘right’ set of standards for athlete behavior that coaches can ‘cut and paste’ into their programs. Most definitely coaches should review the standards developed by other coaches, particularly those who have had success coaching in the same context as them.

As a general rule of thumb, team standards should (a) focus on promoting a range of desirable behaviors, as opposed to a set of rules for punishing undesirable behavior and (b) be reviewed and updated each season based on consultation with athletes, members of the coaching staff and coaching peers.


Gavazzi, S. (in press). Turning boys into men: The incentive-based system in Urban Meyer’s plan to win. International Sport Coaching Journal.

Martens, R. (2012). Successful coaching (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Miller, G. A., Lutz, R., & Fredenburg, K. (2012). Outstanding high school coaches: Philosophies, views, and practices. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 83(2), 24-29.

Willenbrock, P. (2015). Developing a coach evaluation rubric. Interscholastic Athletic Administration, 41(4), 16-19.

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