Sports are celebrated for their ability to bond families and teams. But those rock-solid relationships are only formed when there is gratitude and respect for the people around you.

Being thankful isn’t exactly a new idea. But the latest research shows that gratitude can have a profound impact on our everyday lives. As many coaches at all levels of sport know, athletes and teams can also benefit from practicing gratitude. 

Teri McKeever, head swim coach at the University of California and formerly the U.S. Olympic team, believes gratitude completely transforms the energy of her athletes. Before some practices, McKeever makes time for gratitude by giving each swimmer pen and paper. After writing 10 things they are grateful for, the group shares their lists aloud.

“[The athletes] like it because after they’ve had a hard day [they get to] take a moment and think about what [they’re] grateful for, and also hear teammates express that,” McKeever said in a speech at the 2015 Greater Good Gratitude Summit. “Those practices are always more productive, cohesive, and enjoyable for all of us.”

Find the Good

Focusing on even the smallest positives that create gratitude, in and out of sports, helps build the invaluable relationships that are critical to a successful team and a positive sport environment.

Coaches can also create an atmosphere of gratitude through simple techniques:

  • Trying hard to find the good in every situation: “I know coming off the bench isn’t fun, but it meant that your teammate also got to be a part of the team’s success and you got the rest you needed to play harder later in the game.”
  • Noticing the little things: “I really appreciate how Sarah always helps collect the balls after serving practice.”

According to B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist and behaviorist, people learn best through operant conditioning, a method of learning that consists of rewards and punishments for behavior.

Hearing positive reinforcement and statements of gratitude, even if the praise is not about them directly, can have a big impact on how young athletes act on the court, with their teammates, and toward the world.

How Gratitude Can Change Sports

Appreciation of everyone’s role at a match can also help create a more positive environment for the athletes and all those involved.

Instead of criticizing the teenage referee, be thankful they are using their Saturday to help athletes have a safe and disciplined sport experience.

Instead of disagreeing with the coach’s decisions, try being thankful for how much time they give to the team outside of their other responsibilities. Recognize that coaching is a position of continual learning, and there are only so many minutes to go around for players.

And instead of seeing opponents as adversaries, view them as training partners who will help you improve. Even if it’s a blowout, be grateful for the experience that can teach your child that in sport—and life—we all face setbacks, and the only thing you can do is accept the outcome, learn from it, and move on.

About TrueSport
TrueSport® is a grassroots movement born and powered by the experience and values of USADA–the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The TrueSport® mission is simple and bold: to change the culture of youth sport by providing powerful educational tools to equip young athletes with the resources to build the life skills and core values for lasting success on and off the field. Interested in learning more? Head over to for more information and free educational resources on how you can join the TrueSport movement.