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Less-Effective Technique: Using Personal Terms To Encourage an Athlete
Less-Effective Technique: Using Personal Terms To Encourage an Athlete

Coaching: Make Your Criticism Sports-Specific

Dick Moss, Editor, PE

If your team constantly folds under pressure, perhaps  your athletes' self-worth is too tied up in their athletic success. If you feel this might be the case, you may wish to examine how you express both criticism and praise to them.

Don't Use Personal  Feedback Terms 
When coaches provide feedback about an athlete's performance, we often make the mistake of using personal rather than sports-related terms.

For example, we might say, “Can't you do anything right?” Or, with positive feedback: “You were awesome!”  Unfortunately, these terms give the impression that our opinion of the athlete as a person is based on how well they perform athletically.

A Better Tactic is to Use Sport-Specific Terms When Providing Feedback
A Better Tactic is to Use Sport-Specific Terms When Providing Feedback
Non-verbal cues can give the same impression: yanking a player off the court every time they make a mistake; avoiding a player after a poor play; smirking; shaking the head.

Can't We Be Critical?
This doesn't mean we must avoid constructively criticizing or praising our athletes—we should just do it in a way that's sports-specific, not personal. And we must be sure our athletes understand that our feedback relates to sport only and that we still care about them as a whole person—even though this may be difficult when we ourselves are disappointed.

For example,

  • “That wasn't a perfect pass, Fred. Do you know why?” spoken with a hand on the shoulder, might replace, “I can't believe you were so stupid, sit on the bench.”
  •  Or, “Great race, Martha, very strong kick!” might replace “You were incredible.”

Such statements don't damage an athlete's self-acceptance or give the impression that your perception of their worth is based only on their athletic success. They allow an athlete to say to themselves, “I made a bad shot, but I'm still a good person.”

How This Will Help Your Team
This praise/criticism strategy will help your athletes evolve as people. It will also help your team. Athletes whose entire self-worth is tied up in their sports performance are often afraid to take chances and tend to fold in pressure situations.

1. Damon Burton, Thomas Raedeke,”Sport Psychology for Coaches,” Human Kinetics, 2008.
2. Barbara T. Waite (U. of Iowa), “Nurturing the self for performance enhancement.” Mental Training and Performance Enhancement: A Guide for Volleyball Coaches and Players, Edited by Brett D. Mills, Eddie Bowers Publishing, Inc., 1995.

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