Can Praise Be Harmful to Young Athletes?

How Praise Might Negatively Affect Kids

In his book 9 Ways to a Resilient Child, Dr Justin Coulson, PhD tells of an experiment that he conducted to test how praise might affect a person’s mindset.

During the experiment, participants were asked to complete a set of really easy puzzles, followed by a set of very difficult puzzles. They were then given the choice of which type of puzzle they would like to next attempt.

Coulson found that when people received praise for their intelligence at solving the easy puzzles (e.g.”Wow, you’re really smart.”) they were more likely to opt for an easy puzzle over a harder puzzle when given the choice.

Those who were given neutral feedback with no praise (e.g. “You got 10 out of 10.”) consistently opted for harder puzzles.

Praise may lead people to look for the “soft option”.

Coulson adds: “Those who were praised scored significantly worse the second time they did their puzzles, regardless of which ones they chose.” It was as though being told “‘Wow, you’re really smart’ placed a load of pressure on them that sabotaged their capacity to perform.”

Says Coulson: “Participants who were not praised but who instead received neutral feedback typically embraced the opportunity to take on the extra challenge of the harder puzzles when given that option.”

He goes on to discuss that when it comes to kids, decades of study have found some surprisingly detrimental effects of praise. These effects include kids feeling judged, manipulated and pressured by praise. He uses the term “praise junkies” to describe children who do something simply to get praise rather than for the activity itself.

Wow. I have always endeavoured to be a positive coach who praises extensively.

Reading Coulson’s work made me reflect on and re-assess my approach to praise as both a coach and a parent. By praising, are we unwittingly influencing young athletes to take easy options and avoid challenges? Could certain types of praise or too much praise work in the opposite way to which we intend?

It dawned on me that I may be often seeing problems caused by praise in kids’ sport.

One particular instance I remember is chatting with a teenage athlete who had recently won a major race and been lauded far and wide. She had not been able to repeat the same form again and seemed desperately unhappy. She told me that people now expected too much of her. I could see how the weight of expectation was affecting her. Had the extensive “praise” she received been part of the problem?

Praise may lead to feelings of expectation and pressure.

Have you ever seen the “talented” kid who feigns an injury or pretends that they were not trying when they don’t perform as well as expected? Or the one who avoids other tough competitors? Has excessive, inflated and inappropriate praise for their “talent” negatively affected them? It is fascinating to consider.

I always encourage parents and coaches not to “go over the top” with their praise following a good performance by a young athlete. It is important to “keep a lid” on such things. I have always been wary of hearing young athletes labelled “the next big thing”. The dangers of this are obvious and reinforced by what Coulson is telling us.

Avoid going “over the top” with praise.

Coulson acknowledges that praise is a tough form of feedback to get right. He suggests other forms of feedback may be better. This includes describing what you see (e.g. “I love watching the way you competed today.”) rather than making extravagant statements about a child’s ability  (e.g. “You are such a great athlete!” or “You’re a star!”).

I also like his suggestion of inviting a child to praise themselves, which is something I favour doing. For example, if a young athlete performs well, rather than say: “Wow, you are such a great athlete!” ask them “How did you think you went today?” or “That must have been exciting. How did you achieve that result?” This allows the young athlete to tell you how excited they are, focus on how they achieved the result and reinforce what will help them succeed again.

Look for other more effective ways to provide feedback.

It is confronting to think that your praise could possibly be hindering a young athlete rather than helping them.

As a result, I have changed my approach to praise. I am more considered and careful in applying it.

I encourage you as a coach, parent or teacher to reflect on how you use praise, the type of praise you use and whether it is achieving the intended results.

Let me know your thoughts!

Do you agree? Have you seen any detrimental affects of praise? How do you approach praise? I would love to hear from you. Let me know by leaving a reply/comment or by using the contact details below.

Further reading


How to Better Praise 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.

Darren 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, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.

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