Friday, 14 June 2013

Rethinking the value of praise...

Is 'good job' really doing the work we think it is...
I recently read an article called '5 reasons to stop saying good job' by Alfie Kohn (originally published in Parents magazine in May 2000).  It got me thinking about what a common staple 'good job' is in the vernacular of the typical coach working with young cross country skiers.  There are many good reasons that 'good job' seems to do the work of encouraging young skiers to do the work of learning to be a good cross country skier.  Everyone needs some encouragement - and isn't 'good job' some recognition of the effort it takes to learn something new?  After reading Kohn's article (you can google it and find it quite easily), I'm not so sure.  Here is a summary of the article and my interpretation of the content.
Simple praise creates dependence of the young skier on the coach.  Instead of kids developing their own sense of accomplishment, they end up relying on the coach/adult to provide them with the reinforcement.  'Good job' can work in the short term because alot of children have a huge need for the approval of the adults who spend time with them.  Further, simple praise can end up being a way to have children comply with the wishes of the adult - Kohn calls this 'sugar coated control'.  What we really should be doing is asking kids how they feel they've done instead of telling them.  It is so easy to fall into the cycle of simple praise as a coach of young athletes as it makes kids feel good (at least in the moment) and increases their interest in complying with your instructions and expectations.  You put enough energy into this type of praise and you get some immediate return on investment with kids.  The question that we should ask ourselves is - what's it doing to the kid?
'Good job' can create praise junkies - kids who need the ongoing stimulation and reinforcement that comes from you as a coach.  In a sport like cross country skiing, young skiers need to develop independent thinking skills.  Included in this skill set is the ability to do some self assessment - 'how did that go?' and 'what went well?' and 'what didn't go so well?' are all things young skiers need to develop some independence on if they are going to stick with being a ski racer.  Cross country racing requires us to have and use the skills of positive self talk and emotional/mental focus.  Does 'good job' end up creating kids who rely on the evaluation of their coach? instead of learning to form their own judgements?  Kohn would say that 'good job' doesn't reassure kids at all, instead, it makes kids feel less secure in themselves.  How much dependence do we want to create as coaches with the adolescent and young racers we work with?  Something to think about for sure.
As coaches, we should recognize the important role we play in the lives of the young athletes we work with.  The typical early adolescent athlete is so ready to listen and do whatever a coach expects of them.  There exists a trusting and nurturing relationship between a coach and children this age.  In addition parents trust us with the most precious thing in their lives - their kids.  Many parents expect that we will do the right thing to help them grow into independent, healthy, positive young people.  Kohn says that when we 'good job' a young person, we really are passing a judgement on them and that no one really likes being judged.  Maybe that is why we find that 'good job' has limited shelf life - works well in the beginning, but after awhile, doesn't pack the same punch.  Really, does 'good job' tell a child how to feel? Should we as coaches instead be encouraging young athletes to take delight themselves in their effort and accomplishment.
Kohn points out in the article that research shows that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest.  We need to ask ourselves does praise motivate kids, or does it motivate kids to get more praise?   Sometimes what seems to happen is that kids are motivated to get more praise, but it seems that this is often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.  Are we overpraising kids?  a good question to ask yourself as a coach.
Reducing achievement is the final point the Kohn makes in the article.  Praise it seems, can undermine the independence, pleasure, interest, and commitment that young athletes feel towards skiing.  Can it also interfere with how good a job they actually do in performing the skills they are being praised for doing?  Can their movitation decrease if they are over praised?  Good coaches have their own answers to these questions.  Ask a highly successful athlete who their most influential coaches were, and they likely might tell you that it was a person who didn't give them alot of praise.  Does it matter if the child is 6 years of age, or 9 years of age, or 12 years of age?  well, ya, it probably makes a huge difference in terms of the type and amount of praise given.  Kohn would probably say that praise creates some pressure to 'keep up the good work' and this ultimately reduces creativity and effort as the young learner starts thinking instead about how to keep the praise coming from the coach.
A big question we need to ask is 'are we praising a child because we need to say it, or because the young athlete needs to hear it?'  Is it our need more than theirs?  Are we offering praise, acknowledgement, and approval for jumping through a hoop we have set before a young skier? A good question to ask yourself.  Maybe its time we started thinking about what the alternatives are to 'good job' and other forms of simple praise.  Perhaps there is something more constructive and valuable that a young skier needs to hear from us regularly.  Maybe there is something else that would help kids to explore and develop the needed skills and good values that come along with being a successful athlete.
In 'Five reasons to stop saying 'good job', Kohn says that what we should be doing is offering to young skiers (learners) unconditional support, and love with no strings attached.  This Kohn says is the opposite of praise.  We need to be thinking as coaches about what we do and how we do it when it comes how we interact with the early adolescent skiers we work with.  As coaches, we can think about asking kids how that went, and validating that what they say is true to them, instead of convincing them otherwise.  Somedays it really does suck to be in a learning place - what we can be doing as coaches during this tough time is show some compassion, understanding, and validation.  We can help kids to frame their experience because really, young people have alot going for them, but one thing they often lack is perspective.   We can offer perspective you the young skiers we work with.  We can help to build a culture in our clubs that helps kids to become independent thinkers who can recognize their own good effort.  We can create positive spaces by creating expectations and reinforcing the personal growth of the young people with. 
This is a good conversation and one I am sure we all thought about at some point.  I encourage you continue the conversation in your own clubs or with me when I see you next.  Happy trails dude!