How to Better Praise Young Athletes

Avoid “Production Line Praise” When Coaching Young Athletes

When coaching young athletes we should be generous with praise, to the point of being relentlessly positive.

But I come across many coaches who say “good” or “well done” after every single thing that every one of their athletes does, regardless of effort or outcome. I am not immune to this. I sometimes catch myself coaching in this way, particularly when working with a large group.

At first glance, this may appear to be good coaching – a coach who is constantly encouraging their athletes. It is, however, like “praise on a production line”. It can become predictable and monotonous.

When I witness this, I sometimes wonder if the coach is truly taking notice and processing what is going on in front of them. Are their thoughts is elsewhere? Or are they are fearful of hurting the athletes’ feelings by providing corrective feedback? When I am guilty of “production line praise” I know that I am not paying enough attention to the quality of my feedback or that I am trying to rush.

As mentioned, I am a big supporter of lots of positive feedback for young athletes, but not to the point when it becomes ineffective and uninspiring. Broad, non-specific, unimaginative feedback for the sake of saying something is not constructive coaching.

Five tips to help you effectively praise young athletes are:

1. Be honest

Be as truthful as possible with your praise of young athletes. If you think that an athlete needs corrective feedback – give it to them. Don’t be afraid of hurting their feelings. You are doing them a disservice if you avoid correcting them.

Deliver your message in a sensitive, encouraging way. Try combining praise and corrective feedback. Try finding something positive to say first – there will usually be something, even if it is simply their effort.

After giving them the corrective feedback , end on a positive note. You could even reinforce your initial positive comment. If there truly is nothing positive (e.g. the athlete makes a really poor attempt through a lack of effort) don’t make something up. Be genuine. Respond to the situation in front of you.

2. Be specific

If you use praise like “Good!” or “Well done!”, specify why you are delivering that feedback. What was good? What was well done? For example:

“Good! You kept your arms bent as you ran that time.”

“Well done! I liked your effort during that last sprint. I could tell that you were trying hard”.

To repeat a good performance or improve on a performance, athletes need to know what was good about it or what they need to improve. Make sure that your feedback is useful.

3. Be unpredictable

Vary the amount, type and timing of the praise to avoid becoming predictable. Don’t overuse praise. It loses it effect.

Predictable feedback becomes ineffective and will “go in one ear and out the other”. Be conscious that you are not constantly repeating yourself. Avoid sounding like you are reading a script. This has happened to me before. The kids pick up on it and will sometimes know what you are going to say before you have said it.

For something different, try asking the athletes what they thought about their performance. This makes them active in the learning process and keeps them “on their toes”.

4. Make use of silence

It is okay to stay silent. You don’t have to say something every single time an athlete makes a move. You don’t have to be talking to be coaching. Only say something if you actually have something to say. Many coaches are afraid that if they are not seen to make a comment, that are not doing their job as a coach. Good coaching often involves watching, listening, processing and contemplating. Don’t rush to make comment. Try pausing first. Or try watching 2 or 3 times before you step in and say something. Make sure that you are really seeing what you think you are seeing.

5. Connect with the athletes

Try to connect with each athlete individually by providing feedback that is particular and unique to them. Work on looking for something that you can say that tells them that you were really taking notice of them.

Become aware of how you deliver your feedback

Start to become aware of how you are delivering feedback to young athletes. I would love to hear from you what you notice when you do this and if you make any changes. Let me know by leaving a comment/reply or by using the contact details below.

Further reading


Can Praise Be Harmful to Young Athletes?

How to Serve Up a Feedback Sandwich to Young Athletes

If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.

20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, Anchor or via email.

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