Edition 33 (June 2015)

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Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance. 

Why Praise is Overrated

In the majority of performance situations, praise is overrated. It may sound harsh, but a quick ‘well done’ or an offhanded comment relating to an athlete’s natural ability may be doing more harm than good. Both scientific findings and experience with the mental side of performance for athletes, performers, coaches and parents, leads us to suggest that praise has a tendency of underrating the importance of effort and overestimating the importance of natural ability and results, both of which can be detrimental to performance.

Praise can come in many forms (verbal recognition, awards and/or responsibility) and can vary in its depth. It is important to distinguish the difference between praise (a positive reaction to a desired behaviour) and feedback (an opinion given with the intention of modifying behaviour to elicit long term change). Although they are often very similar, the latter tends to be more effective when it comes to fostering improvement in performance and/or athletic development.

At Condor Performance we endeavour to use praise in the form of positive feedback relating to those domains of performance our clients can clearly exert control over, or change. This is done in order to foster feelings of self-belief (confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation and behaviour) and to handle feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

Research has shown that when we praise athletes for their ability, they have a tendency to either become complacent, or more cautious. For an athlete, receiving the same signal regardless of what they do, can reduce the power of the signal and inevitably lead to complacency. On the other hand, praise can become a source of ‘pressure’, and an athlete or performer may avoid future challenges, due to a fear of doing anything that might make them ‘fail’ and lose high appraisal.

In particular, studies have shown that the way in which you praise children has a strong and defining influence on their development. Studies have found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Additionally, following failure at a task, the same children persisted less, attributed their failure to a lack of innate ability (which they tended to believe is uncontrollable) and performed poorly in future achievement tests. Such findings have been replicated in an abundance of research, with the main conclusion being that praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure or mistakes with stupidity or inadequate abilities.

Based on these scientific findings and others relating to performance based situations, we propose that you avoid praising your athletes and performers about areas over which they have no control of or only a certain degree of influence over (for example their genetics, and their results). This includes any innate and unalterable ability such as athletic gift, intelligence and natural physical capability. We recommend directing praise to areas over which they do have control – for example effort, skill development, attitude, responsibility, commitment, discipline and focus.

Furthermore, as sport and performance psychologists we focus on mastering skills, helping our athletes with ongoing improvement in their chosen disciplines and learning not to evaluate performance using competitors as a reference point. Social comparison praise tends to only be motivating as long as the same result is achieved time and time again, with a continuation of finishing first or beating others. Alternatively, praise is more useful when it is specific and descriptive, conveying realistic, attainable standards, for example basing it around achieving optimal concentration levels, engaging in planned strategy, or dedication to training regimes.

If you are a coach, team mate, parent or manager, start to think about the intention of your praise. Is it to start productive conversation, spark reflection and insight, and foster improvement? If so, avoid praising for results or ability – and start praising for effort. If you need some guidance, you know where to find us.

Author: Condor Performance

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