Jul 01

Is Praise Destroying Your Child’s Performance? (John O’Sullivan)

Share This Post!

I used John O’Sullivan’s article “Is Your Praise Destroying Your Child’s Performance” for the June Tip of the Month and the Newsletter. The article is somewhat modified and I have included my own thoughts on this issue.

John O’Sullivan started the Changing the Game Project in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player and coach on the youth, high school, college, and professional level.  He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids and Is it Wise to Specialize?


The word ‘praise’ is derived from the Latin word ‘pretiare’ and is defined as:







Sport sociologists and psychologists have linked so-called ‘Helicopter’ and/or ‘Tractor’ parents – those who ‘hover’ over their children’s actions and involvement, and those who tend to ‘clear everything out of their children’s way – with modern parental child-rearing attitudes drifting into Children and youth sports! (Schloder) Now, every child ‘must play’ and is ‘equally rewarded.’ There are no losers – everyone is a winner – everyone receives praise no matter the performance outcome! In addition, parents and coaches resort to ‘empty phrases’ such as ‘nice job!’ What exactly does that mean? I refrain from using this expression because it is vague, meaningless, and often times the young athlete knows that this is just empty praise! I explain to the young athlete what was good, where he/she performed well, or what needs improvement.  If the swim, the run, the pass was good, I state that fact. This is positive feedback – not an empty ramble (Schloder).

O’Sullivan states that parents often ask, “how do I praise my child, and when is it too much or too little?” Many fear that if they do not excessively praise their children, their children feel ‘unloved and uncared’ for. The result is over-praise, and the kids see right through it. I have seen many athletes tell their mom and dad, “you’re just saying that because you’re my parents,”…and they’re right. Learning to praise appropriately, is an important part of developing a child’s confidence and raising a high performer.

Five Key Elements of Praising Your Athlete[s]

  • Praising effort works because it gives credence to the ‘baby’ steps, the difficulty, and the determination that constitute the learning process.
  • It gives credence to both failure and success.
  • Focusing on the effort instead of the outcome keeps coaches and parents present with the children in their struggle, holding their hand and even carrying them at times.
  • It makes us a partner in the process and allows our athletes to give their attention to the journey and not the destination.
  • It also allows parents and coaches to recognize everything our young athletes are accomplishing along that journey.
  • Praising effort prevents us from being so focused on the prize that we forget to give credence to what got our athlete there.
  • Foremost, high performers are all about the process, and the process is all about effort.

This is something I have to constantly remind myself to do (O’Sullivan, speaking). I have a habit of saying to players ‘you are playing really well” instead of focusing on their effort and application as the cause of their good results.

  • Your praise should come in the form of encouragement for your child and should be specific, clear, and focused on the process.
  • “Good job today” is nice, but it’s not action, effort, or goal-specific (see Schloder above)
  • On the other hand, “You’ve really been training hard, and today you put it all together in that race. You could not have done that last year” encourages the child for his/her effort, perseverance, progress, and competence.
  • It gives him/her ownership and control over the result and demonstrates that you have been paying attention to the effort throughout the year.
  • It activates your child on multiple levels and sets the stage for further improvement, additional goal setting, and continued improvement.
  • Avoid over-praising your child. We have all met the ‘over-praiser’, the parent who acts as if every stick figure is a Picasso, and every recital performance is Oscar worthy. These parents are afraid that their child’s self-esteem will suffer if they are not encouraged and praised for every outcome, however, this is not true.
  • Over-praising your child can be a negative on two fronts. First, children can become apathetic to praise, since they hear it all the time. You will run out of superlatives and be unable to discern real achievement from the everyday norm.
  • Second, kids are smart, and they soon catch on if everything they do is “fantastic” or “brilliant” or “awesome.” It’s not, and your kids eventually know a good performance from a bad one.
  • They will grow cynical to your words if everything is incredible.
  • Avoid “over-praising” your child by comparing him/her to others. I have seen (O’Sullivan) many parents trying to make their own children feel better by tearing down other athletes.
  • This not only can cause a fixed mindset, but it is very destructive of team dynamics.
  • There are better ways to encourage your child than to constantly remind him/her “you are the best player on your team.” Maybe so, and if so, he/she probably knows it already.
  • He/she does not need you to put down teammates or opponents. This is also not process-specific because in the ‘grand scheme of things’ the process is all about ‘things’ one can control. Teammates and opponents do not fit that category.
  • Being the best athlete on a team of average performers does not say much, while being the twelfth man on an Olympic Basketball Dream Team, on the other hand, is quite an accomplishment.

I have to admit this is one of my areas as a coach that I have worked very hard to improve upon, sarcastic praise (O’Sullivan, speaking). In fact, I remember a team a few years back who gave me a season-ending gift: a T-shirt with all my sarcastic sayings on it!  My favourite was “Get in the box, it’s the big white thing!”

  • You have to be very careful about sarcastic praise, such as “You really tore it up out there today” after your son goes 3 for 20 from the field in a basketball game.
  • “You know, there is a wall at the end of the pool to turn not to hang on.” (Schloder about a swim parent)
  • Some players respond to sarcastic comments made at opportune times, but such comments are not appropriate before, during, or after an event or game.
  • All sarcasm has a hint of truth, and young athletes are so emotional that it is very difficult to know if it will go over well.
  • While I have seen some coaches get away with it, I cannot think of a single instance where sarcasm came across well from a parent to their child. It is best to find other ways to encourage and motivate your athletes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>