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Praise vs. Encouragement

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As a parent, coach, or trainer, the language we use to “support” our athletes can prove to be of great benefit or great detriment. But, how do you know what things to say to support your athlete? To answer this question, let’s examine a typical statement used to compliment a young player:

                                                                            “Good girl, you scored three goals!”

At first glance, this comment may appear to be both positive and supportive but there’s a big problem with complimenting athletes in this way. Even though our intentions may be good, this statement is considered a negative form of “praise.” Praise typically focuses on the person and, if continually used, it will prove damaging over time. Here’s what I mean. After repeatedly hearing the statement above, the young girl receiving this feedback is likely to ask herself, “Am I still a good girl if I don’t score goals?” Once standards and benchmarks become tied to her character, she’ll form unhealthy self-beliefs such as “I must always be the best” or, in this case, “I must always score goals.” And, from earlier newsletters, we know how ineffective and damaging these “winning-at-all-costs” messages can be.

Does this mean that praise is a bad thing? No, not at all. Praise is only detrimental when it’s linked to a result. If, out of the blue, you were to say, “You’re such a good girl,” without attaching this comment to an event, outcome, or occurrence, then it would have a positive impact because the comment acknowledges the girl’s character without tying it to any conditions.

Encouragement, on the other hand, emphasizes behaviour. “Great job! You played really well,” or “You worked hard out there,” are encouraging remarks that focus on the process, not the outcome. Even if an athlete didn’t play well, he or she could still be encouraged if you were to simply ask, “How did you feel out there today?” And then offer feedback and focus on strengths whenever it was appropriate to do so. With this approach in mind, we show athletes the respect they deserve allowing them to build healthy self-beliefs such as “I am doing my very best” or “I am confident.”  

In short, praise focuses on the person, while encouragement focuses on the behaviour. if praise acknowledges the “runner,” encouragement would acknowledge the “race.” The distinction between the two cannot be overstated. It could mean the difference between an athlete who crumbles under pressure, or an athlete who is able to fully realize his or her potential.

The decision is yours.