When it comes to parenting a young athlete, it's easy to focus on results: a pizza party when your child's team wins the playoffs, a special treat when he or she scores the game-winning goal. But for well-rounded, lifelong athletes, a focus on recognizing effort rather than results can yield more long-term benefits.
Praising results can have negative consequences: Studies have shown that kids who are praised for being 'smart' versus working hard, for example, are more likely to cheat on tests, and praising children for positive qualities versus praising their efforts can lead to lower self-esteem.
Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work and Focus on the Good Stuff, writes and speaks on how we can use positive psychology to appreciate our children's efforts versus their victories, and here, he shares a few tips for how to reframe your praise to promote healthier, happier athletes.
"We need to encourage healthy, positive attitudes and practices," says Robbins. "When you're at that young age, you're looking for what the right things are to do, and we need to help create that internal compass." That means making an athlete feel fulfilled knowing that he or she worked hard, versus them winning the game. The trophy shouldn't be the end goal for the athlete or for you as a coach or parent.
"The distinction I make is between recognition, which is about performance, and appreciation, which is about people," says Robbins. Instead of focusing on the result—like scoring the winning goal—appreciation means focusing on the extra skills practice that an athlete did to perfect her shooting technique.
As a dad of two, Robbins faces differentiating between the two on a regular basis. "For a school project, for example, I don't focus on the grade, I tell her that I'm impressed with how hard she worked on the project and the effort that she put in. That's a life skill, a grade isn't."
... But Don't Ignore the Results
"There's an outcome: we want to win, score goals, get points, strike someone out," admits Robbins. And we shouldn't avoid talking about it, because whether we're having the conversation out loud or not, a young athlete will have feelings on his win or loss. Be honest about how the game went.
"We keep score and that's not bad. We want to understand that winning is different than losing—a three-pointer is different than an airball," he adds. "But what we know from positive psychology when people feel valued and appreciated as human beings, when kids on the team know that the coach cares about them and wants them to do well, that creates psychological safety."
Studies have shown that 'warmth' versus overly inflated praise is more beneficial for a child's self-esteem, so don't lie to your young athlete about how he or she played. Instead, focus on making the athlete feel cared about, versus sugar-coating the truth.
"You can have an intense coach who yells, and that coach can still understand positive psychology," says Robbins. "The toughest coach I had yelled, but I knew he cared about me, so he could yell, and you still felt cared about."
When it comes to communication, don't ignore the digital space. "If you're coaching teenagers, assume that they're seeing everything that you're posting on social media—they'll see if you complain about them," Robbins adds. "Ask, 'Would I say this out loud to a group of people?' If not, don't share it."
Care First, Criticize Later
"If you focus on the effort and the human being, when it's time to give some critical feedback, the athlete—even at 10 years old—will be much more open to feedback because you've put enough into their emotional bank account," Robbins explains.
"We have to let an athlete know that we value and care about them and have their backs. If we can do that, we might be able to effectively coach them and actually work to improve performance. You have to earn that respect by showing that you're in it for the athlete—not just the win."
If you're having trouble figuring out what to say after a game, start with something simple. "Try, 'I loved watching you play,'" says Robbins. "It's a true statement even when the outcome isn't what your kid was hoping for. You can't control the outcome, but you can control your attitude and your effort."