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Apr 01

The Coddling of Athletes’ Minds – Praising Effort Not Performance

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The current US College and University admission scandal for the benefit of “coddled Tinseltown celebrity” daughters is just one example of assuring success based on parental status, income, wealth, and “pampered” access. Dr. Everett Piper, author of Not a Day Care poses the question “what has happened to the American spirit?” We’ve gone from “give me liberty or give me death” to “give me a trophy or I’ll throw a tantrum.” Another example: At a New Jersey High School, a mother complained when her daughter was “cut” after cheerleading tryouts. Instead of telling her “tough luck”, the athletic director placated the mom and changed the team’s policy, allowing any “wannabe” cheerleader to join the squad. Children and adults everywhere are learning the destructive lesson that you don’t have to be the best anymore. Just showing up is enough!

According to leading sport sociologists, sport psychologists, and educational experts, society is doing children and youth no favours with false expectations because this “mollycoddling” comes at an emotional and developmental cost. Praising them for their natural ability can be destructive. Once they start to think that skills and talents they either have or don’t have, what happens when they experience failure? They’ll probably be devastated and they’ll think they’re not so great after all!

When I hear coaches and/or parents at competition sites or games using these “empty” phrases “good job” followed by the High-five Right – High-five Left hand slap ritual I tend to cringe! Continuous praise to make children “feel better” in order to avoid loss of self-esteem when they fail in a given performance is preposterous! Self-esteem is developed through a hierarchical process: skill competence, skill confidence, skill efficiency, self-esteem, self-efficacy (Albert Bandura and his social learning theory: “pillars of self-efficacy”, and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization).

What exactly does “good job” mean? What specifically was/is a good job? First of all, let’s be specific! What was/is so good about the performance or skill execution? I prefer to say: I really liked the way you passed the ball, the speed of the arm action, the accuracy of the pass to get the ball to your teammate…OR… I really like the way you attacked the wall on the Front Crawl Turn, the speed in the rotation, and the breakout stroke! Now, that is specific and valuable feedback!

Thus, what is the reason that we cannot communicate in a positive but analytical manner? Well, we have ensued to raise the ‘E’-generation (E = Entitlement), a generation of “snowflakes” that always needs to be accepted, feel good and be praised – no matter what – they actually think they deserve praise – whether it is really due or not! Otherwise, we have a tantrum or a “meltdown”. Everybody has to get a chance to play or compete and therefore deserves a ribbon or award! So, we “coddle” young athletes. Nevertheless, there are those, who are actually better, and excel, and deserve to be recognized. Columnist Bethany Mandel calls this participation trophy phenomenon the “rewarding failure in North America”, which has become an epidemic. Jessica Lahey, author of best-selling “The Gift of Failure,” states:

“Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they know when we lower our expectations for them. When we give praise, awards or a slot on the team unearned . . . they no longer trust adults to be honest and unbiased arbiters of quality. Lying to kids about the quality of their work or downgrading our expectations so as not to make kids feel bad will only result in their no longer trusting our judgment. We’re not doing anyone any favours by opening the floodgate to lower set criteria or standards. Those given an easy way in end up having lower feelings of self-worth, because they know they didn’t earn their spot, and have to face those who did every day. It’s humiliation – not charity.”

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success provides a key clarification about effort in the context of growth mindset with the belief “that everyone can grow and develop, and effort is one way to improve and develop.” In the early stages of her research, she talks about the importance of praising effort, but makes it clear that praising effort when it’s not due or praising effort when it’s entirely ineffective is essentially the same thing as telling your children, “I don’t expect you to get anywhere” no matter how much effort you put in. In many ways, praising effort when it’s not deserved doesn’t make it clear that you do believe in your children’s development.

The Power of Believing that You Can Improve

Dweck divides people into two types based on their own theory about their ability: those who operate “in a fixed mindset, believe their basic qualities such as intelligence or talent are simply ‘fixed’ traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort.” In other words, some believe their success is based on innate ability. The other group believes their success is based on hard work, learning, training and persistence. They are said to possess a “growth or an incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Dweck shows that success in school, sports, work, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavour can be dramatically influenced by the way we approach our goals. People with the “fixed mindset” are far less likely to flourish than those with a “growth mindset”. Her book Mindset reveals how great parents, teachers, managers, and athletes can use the “growth mindset” to foster outstanding accomplishment.

The traditional societal cliché still exists in society that sport “builds character!” No! It reinforces character under good leadership and coaching in my humble opinion as a coach – and the “coddling – feel good” exercise really does more harm in preparing our athletes for life. According to Dweck, “you’ll reach new heights if you learn to embrace the occasional tumble.”

References:

Anderson, J. (2016). The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://qz.com/587811/stanford-professor-who-pioneered-praising-effort-sees-false-praise-everywhere/

Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Essays in Social Psychology series. New York: Psychology Press.

Dweck, C.S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C.S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), pp. 29-34. October. Full article available http://www.ascd.org

Dweck, C.S. (2015). A summary of the two mindsets and the power of believing that you can improve. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from: https://fs.blog/2015/03/carol-dweck-mindset/

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind. New York: Penguin Press.

Gross-Loh, C. (2016). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize: Helping children confront challenges requires a more nuanced understanding of the ‘growth mindset’. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/

Krakovsky, M. (2007). The Effort Effect. Stanford, CA: Stanford Magazine. March/April. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://stanfordmag.org/contents/the-effort-effect

Lahey, J. (2016). The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York: Harper/Collins.

Mandel, B. (2018, June 4). Participation Trophy: Rewarding failure is an American epidemic. Fox News Insider. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://insider.foxnews.com/2018/06/04/new-york-post-columnist-rewarding-failure-has-become-american-epidemic

Piper, E. (2017). Not a day Care: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth. Washington, DC: Regnery Faith/Division of Salem Media Group.

Schloder, M.E. (2017, July 1). Is praise destroying your child’s performance? With Permission from John O’Sullivan, CEO “Changing the Game Project.” Refer to: https://coachingbest.com/praise-and-your-childs-performance/

Social Psychology Online (2016, July 5). The psychology of success. Praising people for effort vs. ability. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://socialpsychonline.com/2016/07/

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