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NFCA Instructional Corner: Mental Game (Posted November 15, 2002)

By Dr. Robert Westling, Head Coach

Lindenwood University

The self-esteem movement, which was flourishing just a few years ago, is in a rapid state of decline. Although most coaches believed that boosting athletes' self-esteem would boost their game performance and achievement, this did not happen. This failure does not mean we should stop being concerned with what athletes think about themselves and just concentrate on improving their performance. Every time we praise a player, we give them feedback and convey messages that affect that player's opinion of herself, her motivation and her achievement. Players should feel good about themselves, but how, exactly, should coaches go about doing this?

Praise is a powerful tool and if used correctly, it helps players understand the value of effort and how to deal with setbacks. But if praise is not handled properly, it can become just as powerful a negative force, a kind of drug that, rather than strengthening players, makes them passive and overly-dependent on the opinion of others. Giving players easy tasks and praising their success tells players that you think they are dumb. Imagine being lavishly praised for something you think is pretty "Mickey Mouse." Players in our test responded to this by replying that they thought the coach didn’t feel they were capable of more and were trying to make them feel good about their limited ability.

In our study of the fastpitch coaches we surveyed, 88 percent said they needed to praise their players' ability in order to assure them they were good players. Eight studies were conducted with over 500 players to examine the effects of praise on fastpitch softball players. Each study involved the performance of several fastpitch skills, progressing from easy (if there is such a thing as an easy softball skill) to very difficult. After each task, we praised one-third of the players for their natural athletic ability. They were told, "Wow, you performed that drill correctly. You really did well on that drill. You must be a natural at this." The next one-third were told they did well on the drill, but were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard to get that good at that drill." The final one-third were praised for their performance of the drill, with no feedback or comment on why they were successful.

As a follow-up to the original drills, we gave players a choice of different skills to work on next. They could choose between a challenging drill from which they could learn a lot (but at which they might not succeed) or an easier drill (on which they were sure to do well and look good).

Seventy-eight percent of the group we had praised for their natural athletic ability chose the easier drills that would allow them to keep on looking athletic and skilled. Ninety-one percent of the group we praised for their effort chose the challenging drills. The remaining group was split down the middle, so we will not concentrate on them. The study was extensive and probably too long to be contained in this edition. But to summarize, we found some interesting results.

1. Throughout the eight studies, the group praised for their natural athletic ability consistently chose easier, less challenging tasks so that they could look good. The second group, which was praised for their effort, overwhelmingly chose to be challenged, even if it meant failure.

2. The first group, when interviewed by an anonymous peer, greatly exaggerated their performance. Very few of the students in the other groups exaggerated their performance in the interviews. This suggests that when we praise athletes for their natural athletic ability alone, failure becomes more personal and therefore, more of a disgrace. As a result, players become less able to face and, therefore, deal with their setbacks.

3. We found that following their experiences with the different kinds of praise, the players believed different things about their softball ability. Players who had received praise for their natural athletic ability told us they thought that the ability to be a good softball player was something innate -- a capacity that you just had or didn't have, nothing you were going to improve on. Players who had been praised for their effort told us they thought of their ability to play softball in terms of their skills, knowledge and motivation -- things over which they had some control and with hard work could enhance.

4. Finally, the players in the first group said they more than likely would not attempt a skill in a game that would embarrass them or make them not look good. The players in the second group said they would relish the opportunity to attempt a difficult skill during a game because it might help their team win and make them better players.

We went into this study with the notion that telling female softball players they are so naturally gifted motivates high-achieving players. Our research, however, suggested otherwise.

Try not to get players so invested in these labels that they care more about keeping the label than about challenging themselves and getting better. Instead of empowering these players, our praise is likely rendering them passive and dependent on something they believe they cannot control. In effect, it hooks them into a system in which setbacks signify incompetence and effort is recognized as a sign of weakness rather than a key to success.

When praising an athlete, concentrate your enthusiasm on her effort, strategies and team-first attitude, rather than on attributes she is likely to view as innate and beyond her control.

The following are ideas of areas where you can direct your praise:
*Rave about the player's effort.
*Praise her concentration and focus.
*Praise the effectiveness of a new technique or strategy she developed.
*Get "giddy" about new and interesting team-building ideas she came up with.
*When your player imparts wisdom, new strategies or appropriate exhortations to teammates, be all over that.
*Ask her questions which show an intelligent appreciation of her effort and the hard work she put into it.

Okay, coach, what about the times a player really impresses us by doing something, quickly, easily -- and perfectly. Isn't it appropriate to show our admiration for the player's ability? My honest opinion is that we should not. We should not be giving a player the impression that we place a high value on doing perfect work on tasks that are easy for her. A better approach would be to apologize for wasting her time with something that was way too easy, and move her to something that is more challenging.

When a player makes progress in or becomes proficient at the more challenging task, that's when our admiration -- for her efforts -- should come bursting through.