Coaching Tips from the Recreation Therapist

Facilitating Positive Team Growth

Therapeutic Recreation and coaching aren’t all that different. Both use their skills and knowledge to bring out the best in the participants. When their players are doing their best, the team dynamic becomes supportive and cohesive. A strong team brings opportunities for success. A high school or professional coach’s idea of success may be more focused on winning. The Recreation Therapy Coach’s success, however, is creating a positive experience where the participants thrive and improve their need areas.

Below you will find coaching tips to help create a therapeutic experience. These are geared towards a variety of sports. It is important to realize the work you do off the field will only enhance the experience on game day.  

Before the Game


Teach the Fundamentals

As a Recreation Therapy Coach (RTC), you may not be an expert of every sport. Many RTCs coach a variety of sports throughout the year. The key is to learn and teach the fundamentals to your athletes. A quick search on the internet or stop at your local library will offer great information on rules, drills, and teaching basics. By focusing on the fundamentals, you create a solid foundation for your team. You will need to adapt these fundamentals to your client’s physical, mental, or emotional needs. Find drills that are fun and engaging for your group. Treat the drills as mini-games and not something that needs to be repeated until perfect.  Point out the team’s improvements to boost self-confidence.  

Pregame Talk and Rituals

Setting the tone for any competition starts before the action begins. Stressing sportsmanship, trying one’s best, and supporting other teammates is essential to a positive experience. Creating a culture of mutual respect for everyone–teammates, opponents, officials, and other coaches–starts with the coach. A positive, supportive coach will reinforce the pregame talk.

When addressing your team before the game, fit the talk to your clients. Stress goals for the team based on their needs and abilities. Let your team give examples of good sportsmanship. Stress that winning may be ideal, but not something that always happens. If the team tries its hardest, supports one another, and learns from the experience, that in itself is a win.

Develop a couple rituals during the pregame to boost team morale. Warming up and stretching as a team is critical to prevent injury and encourage cohesiveness. Challenge your team to create a special chant or cheer before competing. If possible, let your team pick songs to get excited.

Finally, as a Recreation Therapy Coach, know your team’s medical needs. Make sure the adaptive equipment is used properly. Check the field or court for any hazards. Do a quick assessment of your players’ mental and emotional status.

During the Game


Be the Role Model.

Your team picks up on your behavior. If the officiating agitates you, they will mirror that behavior. If you are naturally competitive, and your team is falling apart out there, it may be frustrating to watch. Negativity thrives when the team isn’t doing well. The powerful speech you gave before the game will be instantly forgotten if you lose your cool. Your team sees you as a leader and if you stay positive and supportive, it will help them do the same.

Never, Ever Bring Your Ego Into This

There is absolutely no place for ego in Recreation Therapy coaching. Your job is to teach, enable, and serve the participants. The team’s performance is not a reflection on you as a person. If your opponents don’t have the same skill set, don’t press for a demoralizing victory. Imagine the bus ride home when your team suffers an embarrassing loss, do you really want that for the other team? Remember, this is Therapeutic Recreation.

Be Observant

You are managing much more than your team. You are in charge of the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of every participant. Know your clients well. Be prepared for any potential medical issues. See the signs of a meltdown or behavior before it occurs. Take an extra timeout even if you have none available. Nobody is going to give you grief if you averted a crisis situation or medical emergency.  

Make Every Participant Valuable

You didn’t draft these players to win the world championship. These participants are here to find value and healing in recreation. Know your participants and all they have to offer. Realize when there is an opportunity on the field for them to thrive or reach a goal. Setting a client up for success goes a long way in building self-confidence and a positive attitude towards the particular sport. Those goals should be in the back of every RTC’s mind.

After the Game


Debrief, Debrief, and (dare I say it again) Debrief

Everything that just happened in the competition has the potential to be a teachable moment. This is where you earn your keep as a Recreation Therapy Coach. Start with pointing out the positives. Let the participants brainstorm some of the team’s mistakes. Ask for general examples. Cut out the finger pointing and blaming before it starts. Don’t dwell on the game’s outcome, but on performance and learning experiences.

Allow the participants to talk about any difficulties or how they felt during the game. This doesn’t have to be a long session, but airing out any issues on the field may prevent blowouts later.  Ask open-ended questions and encourage everyone to be a part of the discussion. Debriefing is crucial to grounding your player’s emotions after a hard-fought game.

Take a Some Time to Self-Assess

Meet with any other staff and coaches to check in. Ask them if they saw any issues you might have missed. Talk about the participants’ progress to build a culture of caring about the people, not the record. Take a few quiet moments to reflect on things you did well and needed improvement. Be as objective as possible.


The roles of a Recreation Therapy Coach vary depending on the population served. As a coach, you are the cornerstone of the team’s success. What determines success is based on your participants and their needs.
What are some helpful ideas you learned while coaching your participants?

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