I recently read good advice on the do’s and don’ts of praising children in the Dayton Daily News. Dr. Greg Ramey, the executive director of Dayton Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources, offers six tips to be mindful of when praising children. Youth sports coaches would be wise to keep these in mind as well. Although I think there is value in all 6 recommendations, I want to focus on the first one: “Praise effort, not just achievement”.
I just finished reading Child Psychology and Development for Dummies and the authors say several times in the book “the focus of praise needs to be on the effort that the child expends, not on the actual results obtained”. Dr. Ramey says to avoid praising athletic ability or the outcome, but rather to acknowledge how hard the young athlete worked. This is fundamental to the Hustle & Attitude philosophy as the outcome – winning or losing – is not the focus. Coaches do this when the focus shifts from winning and losing to encouraging the athletes to hustle all the time and maintain the right attitudes.
I can hear the this is the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ nonsense all over again. When are they going to learn that life is about getting things done…not just effort!?!? First of all, I don’t necessarily think that it is nonsense. But, specifically to praising athletes; both the authors of Child Psychology and Development for Dummies and Dr. Ramey point out that positive self-esteem is important for the development of healthy children. They all also caution that praise should be specific, honest, and not overdone. During my years coaching, we had Offensive and Defensive MVP and Hustle & Attitude awards. I tracked who got each award, but not because I was making sure every player got the award once. In particular, I used the ‘Hustle & Attitude’ award as a way to recognize the athlete that best demonstrated those characteristics during the game. In this way, we were recognizing both performance and effort. Further, Dr. Ramey cautions against getting kids psychologically addicted to constant praise. Maintain a balance in praising the young athlete’s effort when they deserve it and remember, they’re kids; there’s plenty of time for them to learn that it’s a cold cruel world out there.
I appreciate Dr. Ramey’s advice. Coaches can play a vital role – along with teachers and other adults – in developing young people. We want our children to have a healthy sense of self and grow up to be confident adults. Appropriately praising young athletes is a part of the overall philosophy where youth sports can positively contribute to this goal.