Effective Coaching Praise

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Grand Rounds on praise. While the Rounds were intended for physician education on anticipatory guidance for families, there were some interesting themes that I scribbled down to remember when I wear my coach hat.

Essentially, there are two ways to praise someone: person praise or process praise. An example of the former would be “You are so talented at the 5k!” The latter would be “You worked so hard at that race today.” Both can make an athlete feel good, but the latter has been shown to cause positive adaptations while the former can actually lead to negative outcomes. Research has demonstrated that a person who is accustomed to person praise struggles to persist after failure because they’ve previously attributed (and been told) that their success is ingrained and determined by talent. Someone who has experienced process praise will actually try harder after experiencing failure because they see performance as determined by effort.

Even more incredible are the long term adaptations. A person who gets significant person praise will not only struggle after failure, but they will choose only to do easy tasks to essentially guarantee success. A person with significant process praise will take on even harder tasks after failure, focused on the end goal rather than repetitive but stagnant success. Who reading this hasn’t shirked from a hard workout in favor of one they KNEW they could do?!

I see this every year on my team: extremely talented runners are beaten handily by runners with less talent who work hard. Of course, a little positive self esteem or belief in one’s ability isn’t a bad thing, but it’s the athletes who connect the dots of hard work and great performances that really learn to compete. Running is a relatively easy place to incorporate process praise; most of our season is a process anyway and a bad individual race is truly just a step on the way towards the State Meet.

Perhaps Coolidge knew this long before the body of research caught up when he stated that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

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